Category: Lectionary

From Glory to Glory by Way of Death – Lectionary Reflection for Passion/Palm Sunday (Philippians 2)

Philippians 2:5-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

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                The Sunday before Easter presents the church with two choices when it comes to the lectionary. Should we go with the Palms or the Passion? As there is no established second reading for Palm Sunday, the choice has been made for us by the creators of the lectionary. That’s because I’m currently working through the second reading in this cycle. Therefore, the reading comes from the Passion Sunday selections. In this particular year, this seems to be an especially appropriate decision in any case. Since the world is facing a pandemic that has led to the cancelation of worship services across the globe, which will result in few if any palm processions (and the same goes for in-person Easter services this year).

The appointed Gospel reading comes from Matthew 27:11-54, which takes us from Jesus’ appearance before Pilate through the crucifixion to the Centurion’s declaration “Truly this was God’s Son!” (As a side note, I can’t read this without hearing John Wayne intone those words in The Greatest Story Ever Told – a 1960s Jesus movie starring Max Von Sydow as Jesus). Here in Philippians 2, we hear a word about the incarnation of the one who was in the form of God but did not exploit his equality with God but chose to empty himself of his pre-existent heavenly state, become human, and face death on a cross, all of which leads to his exaltation to the position of ruler of the cosmos. Paul offers this Jesus to us as an example, so that we might find unity as the body of Christ by becoming servants to one another and thus being of one mind. If we read between the lines, the Philippian church, which Paul founded, was experiencing a time of conflict.  Thus, Paul tells them to take on the mind of Christ, as revealed in this ancient hymn that Paul has appropriated for this purpose. The hymn reminds us that Jesus endured humiliation for our benefit and was vindicated by God as a result. The one who was crucified was then exalted by God so that he might move from humility to glory.

                When Paul wrote his letter to the Philippian Church, he was sitting in a jail cell (Phil. 1:12-17). Where he was being detained is unknown to us. Paul doesn’t identify the location though he does mention the Praetorian guard. That would suggest a cell in Rome. It’s a clue but not proof. That he is in prison, suggests confinement at best and perhaps a degree of suffering as well. That is his situation. The letter suggests that the congregation was facing its own sets of difficulties. While Paul was the founding pastor of this congregation, he could only reach out to them virtually, offering guidance by way of a letter.

 Regarding the internal concerns, he asks that they exhibit unity. He asks them to make his joy complete by having the same mind, love, and unity. He asks that they not do anything out of selfishness or conceit. Instead, he asks that they have the same mind as Jesus (Phil. 2:1-5). That request leads to what many scholars (and I tend to agree) consider an early Christian hymn that takes note of Jesus’ pre-existence with God (his divine status), his self-emptying (humility) that leads to the cross, and finally, his exaltation by God, thus vindicating Jesus by establishing him as ruler of the cosmos. Thus, to fully embody God’s realm, one should embrace the way of Jesus, which has the promise of exaltation.

                The hymn takes note of three distinct phases of the Christ event. We begin with an affirmation of Christ’s pre-existence. The hymn states unequivocally that “though he was in the form of God . . . but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil. 2:6-7). This isn’t quite the same wording as John’s prologue (John 1:1-18), but it’s close. The second phase is Christ’s self-emptying of himself of divinity so that he might become human and face death on a cross. Finally, the second half of the hymn celebrates God’s vindication of Jesus by exalting him to the position of ruler of the cosmos [Ronald J. Allen, Connections, Kindle loc 4177-4192].

                For those of us who affirm the divinity of Christ, this is one of the most direct statements (along with John 1) in support of that position. Pre-existence doesn’t prove divinity, but it suggests that in Paul’s estimation that Jesus has a status that is ultimately different from us, even if he experienced life as being fully human. Karl Barth writes that “this equality of Christ with God is, so to speak, the fixed, ultimate background from which his road sets out to which he returns” [Epistle to the Philippians, p. 61]. This is the starting point for a movement from heaven to earth and back, so to speak. But the point here is not his equality with God, but what he does with it that is the point. That leads to the emptying of himself of his stature as the Father’s equal so that he might become a human and ultimately face death on a cross. Thus, his humanity fully covers his divinity, and this was of his own doing, his own choosing, and yet it was an act of obedience. This is the point of Passion Sunday, the willingness to go to the cross, to experience death, and not just any death, but the most humiliating of deaths. He descended to the depths in his self-emptying and bore upon himself the brokenness of the old age.

                This is not the final word in the story. The second part of the hymn (verse 2) reveals that God vindicated Jesus by exalting him to the position of ruler of the cosmos. This exaltation is revealed in the name given to him, which stands above every name, so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” As I read this, I can’t help but think about the context in which it is revealed. Caesar is the exalted one, to whom every knee would bow, and whose name would be confessed as Lord. In this confession, Paul (or the hymn writer) reveals that Jesus, the one whom Rome crucified, had been exalted above Caesar. Thus, Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord. While Caesar might rule an empire, Jesus ruled the cosmos and that to the glory of God.

  

                Paul opens up this reading by asking that we be like Christ, who emptied himself of his glory so as to taste life as we live it, even to the point of death, as a result, God vindicated him by raising him to a position of glory. If this is true for Jesus, as those who are his people, might we participate in what is his by nature? As we ponder this question, I leave you with this word from one of Gregory of Nazianzus’ Festal Orations:

Let us become like Christ, since Christ also became like us; let us become gods because of him, since he also because of us became human. He assumed what is worse that he might give what is better. He became poor that we through his poverty might become rich. He took the form of a slave, that we might regain freedom. He descended that we might be lifted up, he was tempted that we might be victorious, he was dishonored to glorify us, he died to save us, he ascended to draw to himself us who lay below in the Fall of sin. Let us give everything, offer everything, to the one who gave himself as a ransom and an exchange for us. But one can give nothing comparable to oneself, understanding the mystery and becoming because of him everything that he became because of us. [Gregory of Nazianzus, Festal Orations, p. 59].

                As we begin a Holy Week like no other I’ve experienced in life, may we take up the mantle of Jesus, and find in him a path of obedience that leads to salvation.
                  
                 

 

Living in the Spirit – A Lectionary Reflection for Lent 5A (Romans 8)

Romans 8:6-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

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                As I write this reflection, the world is caught up in a deadly pandemic that threatens to take the lives of perhaps millions of people. It is a moment when fear is rampant, and for good reason. Most faith communities have suspended in-person services and are looking at a wide assortment of alternatives so that they can keep in touch with each other. (Even if faith communities might have exemptions from some of these regulations, it is unwise to flout them!) In this moment in time, how do we speak of flesh and Spirit, death and life? This is especially true for those of us who are called to preach. How do we address Paul’s message about flesh and Spirit, death and life when death and the prospects of death seem to be very real?

                According to Paul, setting the mind on the flesh is death, while setting the mind on the Spirit is life. By flesh, I don’t believe Paul means the body (he’s not a gnostic). Instead, as C.K. Barrett notes, flesh “in this context means a mind from which God is excluded” [Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 158].  When Paul speaks of setting the mind on the flesh, it would probably be best to think in terms of a mindset. In this case, to have a fleshly mindset is to live a life that is focused on pleasing one’s self at the expense of living for God. Might we call this spiritual narcissism? As Sarah Heaner Lancaster suggests this is a question of allegiance. Thus, “there is no neutrality. One either lives for God or not, and by not living for God one displays loyalty to another dominion.” [Lancaster, Romans, p. 134]. In doing so, we settle for lesser things, which ultimately leads to death. Right now, I think we might consider this a warning against taking unwise actions that could lead to our deaths or the deaths of others because we don’t think the warnings about Covid-19 apply to us.

                As we ponder the message of the passage and Paul’s emphasis on the Spirit, it is important to remember that he has a very strong pneumatology. He envisions the church living by the Spirit, making use of the gifts of the Spirit (charismata) in such a way that the body of Christ is built up. We’ve not reached that point in the letter, but in chapter 12, Paul speaks of spiritual gifts and their use in the community: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function,  so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us” (Rom. 12:4-6a). Thus, if we are to live by the Spirit, then we will bring into the community the gifts given to us by the Spirit. We do this not to necessarily benefit ourselves, but so that the body of Christ can be built up until we reach the fulness of Christ (Eph. 4:11-13). This is what it means to live in the Spirit—follow the way of love (1 Cor. 13).

Paul is known to offer dualisms in his presentations of the gospel, as do other New Testament writers (especially John). When we consider this contrast between flesh and Spirit, death and life, we might think in terms of the old and new age, a contrast that is true to Paul’s theology. As he writes in 2 Corinthians 5, the old age has passed away, and the new age has broken through into the world. Like what we have here in Romans 8, Paul’s message in 2 Corinthians 5, has an eschatological orientation. Paul is clearly envisioning a major transition point in history that is centered in the cross and resurrection.

                While the lectionary reading begins in verse 6 of Romans 8, we should keep in mind the opening words of the chapter, which opens with the declaration that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Rom. 8:1-2). It is this promise of forgiveness that sets the tone for this word concerning the relationship between flesh and spirit. The Spirit sets us free from the grasp of the flesh.  The path forward has been set, but the choice is ours as to how we engage with it.

                The focus here is, of course, living in the Spirit. To be in Christ is to live in the Spirit. It is to live in a state of transformation marked by the resurrection. The body may be dead, but the Spirit lives. Perhaps this is where we should focus. After all the Resurrection of Jesus is an eschatological event that inaugurates the new age of the Spirit. We may still live an embodied life, but our destiny is defined by the Spirit and not by the flesh. The promise here is that Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead lives in us.

                The reality is that death will come to our mortal bodies. That is a given. But there is the promise of the resurrection. We’re not yet at Easter, and right now, as I write, in-person Easter celebrations remain in doubt. Nevertheless, the promise of resurrection is there, giving us hope even in times of distress.

 

Living in the Light – A Lectionary Reflection for Lent 4A (Ephesians 5)

Ephesians 5:8-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13 but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore, it says,
“Sleeper, awake!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

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                As we continue our Lenten journey our world is being turned upside down by a major viral pandemic. Schools, libraries, restaurants, and congregations are shutting down. Store shelves are empty of everything from bread to toilet paper. People are starting to hunker down because they don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Fear is rampant. Even for people of faith, times like this can be daunting. We can hold on to the promise that there is no fear in love, but when dark cloud hovers over us, blocking out the sunlight, hope may seem fleeting. You might even say that things are looking somewhat apocalyptic.

 

                Into this moment of darkness, we hear this word from Ephesians 5. It reflects a certain dualism separating darkness from light. In this case, it’s not just that we might live in darkness, but we are darkness. On the other hand, it’s possible that we not only live in the light, but we are light. Yes, “once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light” (Eph. 5:8a).

 

                When I read this passage, I can’t help but view it through a Star Wars lens. I am, after all, a Star Wars fan, going back to my college days when I took in the very first episode (Episode IV). For those who know the Star Wars story, the Force is an energy field that has a dark side and a light side. The dark side is quite powerful and therefore it’s enticing. The dark side of the Force feeds off of fear and anger, which are emotions easily ignited, especially when we feel threatened. I doubt George Lucas was reading Ephesians 5 when he developed the Star Wars saga, but it seems to fit. While Darth Vader (otherwise known as Anakin Skywalker) was once a brave and powerful Jedi Knight, he was seduced by the dark side of the force and became darkness itself. It made him very powerful, but it transformed him into something quite evil. The word we hear in Ephesians 5 is that we were once possessed by darkness, but that’s no longer true. As happened in Episode VI, The Return of the Jedi, Vader had a conversion of sorts and returned to the light.

 

                What we have here in this passage is a conversion text. It speaks of a radical transformation, much like that experienced by Vader. In this experience of transformation from darkness to light, the old self is exchanged for the new. While the question of authorship of Ephesians remains open (see my study guide on the Book of Ephesians for more on that question), there are similarities to this message and what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5. There Paul speaks of becoming a new creation so that the old is now gone, and a new creation comes into existence. The message here is that because of this conversion from darkness to light, one should live accordingly. If we’re to live in the light, this means stepping away from the old life and embracing a new way of living. The word here is: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Eph. 5:11).

This call to separate oneself from the works of darkness, but rather expose them, is a call to action. Stand up for justice, for what is good and right. But also remember that darkness is powerful. We might want to heed this word of warning from Reinhold Niebuhr: “It must be understood that the children of light are foolish not merely because they underestimate the power of self-interest among the children of darkness. They underestimate this power among themselves.” [Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition].

 

                Niebuhr’s warning about the power of self-interest is apropos at this moment. We should not underestimate its power over our lives as we face the challenges of the moment. At this moment the challenge comes in the form of a world-wide Coronavirus pandemic. How do we care for ourselves, but not put others in danger? We’ve watched as people hoard goods and prices for necessary goods skyrocket. When it comes to health care, who will be considered expendable if the resources need to be rationed? Too often we think about things in abstract terms, but this is reality. What is light and what is darkness? How does self-interest work its way into the conversation?

 As we ponder this question of moving from darkness into light, hearing the call to live as children of light, exposing the deeds of darkness, what is our responsibility? How do we speak truth without exploiting fear? We know it will occur politically. This is, after all, a political season. But, what about faith? It’s easy to exploit fear for religious gain. People are looking for hope amid news that only brings despair. How do we offer hope without manipulating these fears? Times like this can bring out both the worst and the best in us.

Since this is the season of Lent, when confession of sin becomes a significant part of our experience, even in communities (like my own) that generally eschew prayers of confession, we have the opportunity to allow light to be shined into our lives. The darkness that is present will be exposed. Turning back to Star Wars, when Vader became once again Anakin, his son, Luke, said of him, “I knew there was still goodness in you.” There is a view of things that suggests that we are totally depraved, and without any hope outside the grace of God. I wonder, could it be that the image of God, in which we are created, might be clouded over by darkness, but never completely erased? This reading from Ephesians doesn’t answer that question, but I wonder. Might there still be a fragment of light present that can be set free in Christ, so that we might act as light, ever mindful that even as Children of Light there is still the possibility of falling back into darkness?

            The reading closes with this declaration that might be part of an early Christian hymn:

                “Sleeper, awake!
                                Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

May the light that is Christ sine on us, and through us, so that life might be fully embraced. Yes:

                Come, heav’nly brightness, light divine,
and deep within our hearts now shine;
                There light a flame undying!  (O Morning Star, Chalice Hymnal, 105, vs. 2)
               

Image attribution: Hartman, Craig W.. Cathedral of Christ the Light, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54202 [retrieved March 16, 2020]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sicarr/3251258111/.

No Solid Food For You – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 5A (1 Corinthians 3)

1 Corinthians 3:1-9  New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? 

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

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                When a child is born, they are given milk at first (whether a mother’s milk or formula). Later, pureed foods are added. Finally, when their systems are ready, and teeth have arrived they will be introduced to solid food. You can’t introduce solid food until a child has the ability to chew. What is true for a human child is true for us as spiritual children. You don’t hand a volume of Barth’s Church Dogmatics or Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is to a new believer. You might want to give them something more easily digested. As we see in this third chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul has concluded that the Corinthians aren’t quite ready to move on to solid food. They’re still infants needing to be fed a more appropriate diet. Paul comes to this conclusion as he deals with the vexing problem of divisions within the congregation. The quarreling and jealousy that is present in the congregation is evidence that they remain infants in Christ. They’re not ready to receive the deeper truths Paul would like to share with them. They don’t have any spiritual teeth with which to chew this food.

                In this chapter, the nature of the divisions introduced in chapter one seems to become clearer in chapter three. We know that there is a party spirit present in the congregation. Paul had mentioned in chapter 1 that some were claiming to follow Apollos, others Cephas, some Paul, and some simply identified with Jesus. Or perhaps the division is a bit narrower. Perhaps it centers on partisans for Paul and partisans for Apollos. Whatever the nature of this division, Paul refers to it as an expression of the flesh. When Paul refers to the flesh here, he doesn’t have the body in mind. His is a very embodied theology, so what he has in mind here is a sinful predisposition that has its grip on this congregation. To say that the congregation is divided over their loyalty to Paul or Apollos, doesn’t mean that either man intended for this to happen. Nevertheless, the Corinthians, being spiritual infants who are not ready for solid food, have fallen into this trap that is so common in our world. Just look at the way politics often works, especially right now.  

 

 Regarding the person known as Apollos, the only place besides 1 Corinthians that he’s mentioned in any detail is the Book of Acts (he is mentioned in Titus 3:13, where he appears to have been in Crete and may have served as a courier for the letter to Titus). According to the Book of Acts, Apollos arrived in Corinth around the time that Paul was leaving the city. He had come from Ephesus, which was where Paul was heading. In Ephesus, he had met Priscilla and Aquila, who instructed him more fully in “the Way.” It is said there that he had some knowledge of Jesus but had experienced only the Baptism of John. It would seem that Priscilla and Aquila gave him his graduate education in the Christian faith possibly baptized him before he left for Greece, where he ended up in Corinth (Acts 18:24-19:1). We’re told he was well-educated, probably in the art of rhetoric. Thus, he was an effective teacher of the faith. When he arrived in Corinth, it seems that Apollos, being an effective speaker and having the appropriate instruction, became part of the leadership in the Corinthian church. Perhaps there were those who embraced him at the expense of Paul, the founder of the church in Corinth.

I’m wondering, though I can’t prove it, whether Apollos had attempted to introduce the congregation to “solid food” before they were ready. Sometimes, immediately after finishing seminary, new pastors, flush with knowledge want to share what they know with their congregation. Some in the congregation might have been ready for it but were impressed by his erudition. Could it be that they were excited about receiving “deeper knowledge” than what Paul had shared with them?

If we read between the lines, it seems that Apollos was a much more impressive figure than Paul. If he was a rhetorician, he knew how to communicate effectively. He probably sounded a lot like the teachers that populated the town square. His message might have been different from theirs, but he might have shared their eloquence. So, it’s no wonder that he developed a following in Corinth. However, not everyone was as impressed. There were those who preferred Paul’s message. After all, he was the founding pastor. He had laid the groundwork. When Paul heard all this he wanted to straighten things out. He wanted to make it clear that this wasn’t about Apollos or him. Both had their place, but ultimately this was about God. Or, as Paul puts it here, switching metaphors from babies to agriculture, he had planted the seeds that Apollos watered, but ultimately God is the one who brings the growth.

What happened in Corinth is not a unique occurrence. History is filled with examples of division, quarreling, and jealousy. As a preacher, I’ve experienced I’ve known jealousy! So, I know what Paul is talking about.

The causes of division are many. They could be rooted in theological differences, but quite often what looks like a theological issue is really a personal one. Sometimes the messenger’s personality gets in the way of an effective conversation. It’s been suggested that the Nestorian controversy was rooted as much in Nestorius’ gruff personality as it was his theological views. We know that Cyril of Alexandria was a brilliant theologian, but he got himself caught up in some rather distasteful and violent affairs that shook the Alexandrian church during his tenure. The Donatist controversy wasn’t so much about theology as it was cultural differences. My own denomination is part of a larger movement that had as one of its reasons for existing the pursuit of Christian unity, and yet we’ve divided several times. Some elements of this division might be theological, but not all of them. As in Corinth, it probably involves a lot of fleshiness.

It’s worth remembering that the Corinthian church probably wasn’t much more than five years old. It was populated largely by converts. Even Apollos hadn’t been at this very long. So, it probably shouldn’t surprise us that this congregation might be experiencing growing pains. Can the same be said for the church today? After all, we’ve been at it for nearly two thousand years. Yet, the flesh is still with us. We are still captive to the ways of the world. Division is common. Fear is common, and it can lead, as it seems to be doing today, to circling the wagons. There are attempts to protect privileges that are rooted not in the teachings of Jesus, but human sinfulness.

The question is, are we ready for some solid food?  In other words, are ready to take up our calling to be God’s servants who work together in God’s field (or building)? Or do we still require spiritual formula?

Picture attribution: Blommers, B. J. (Bernardus Johannes), 1845-1914. A Peasant Meal, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=51140 [retrieved February 9, 2020]. Original source: http://www.mfa.org/.

 

Unity in the Power of the Cross – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 3A (1 Corinthians 1:10-18)

1 Corinthians 1:10-18 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

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                When Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthian Church, he called them saints (1 Cor. 1:2). That might have been a more aspirational than descriptive statement, as we quickly discover when coming to the Second Reading for the Third Sunday after Epiphany. This reading follows the previous week’s reading which didn’t hint at problems, but it’s clear from this passage that this was a divided people. It seems that Paul, who had helped found the Corinthian congregation, had received word from a number of sources, including Chloe’s people, that the Corinthian saints were quarreling. Factions had developed, and they seem to have been dividing up according to allegiances. Some claimed to be followers of Paul, and some Cephas (Peter), and others Apollos. Then there might have been another group, who stand out for their claim to follow Christ.

I especially like that last grouping, the one that claimed to follow Christ. You see, I’m part of a denominational tradition that prides itself on its non-sectarian name. We’re “Disciples of Christ” and one of our Movement’s favorite slogans is “We’re not the only Christians, but we’re Christians only.” Yes, we’re Disciples of Christ and we wear that title proudly. So, take that Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Baptists. Why don’t you get with the program? For some reason, I don’t think Paul would appreciate this attempt to portray our movement as holier than others because we claim to follow Jesus and not a later leader or form of church government. After all, as Paul asks, “Has Christ been divided?” Paul’s point is that the church shouldn’t be divided. It doesn’t matter how you define yourselves, be of one mind and purpose. In other words, remember your calling.  

 

                Paul’s call for the Corinthians to be of one mind and one purpose, with no divisions among them, appeals to me. Things ecumenical stir my passions. That may be due in part to my own denominationally diverse background, but I have longed to the followers of Jesus united. At the same time, as a historian, I know that unity that is coerced, often by governmental decree, doesn’t honor the one whom Christians claim to follow. In many ways, Christian unity is more aspirational than practical, especially as the “church” has expanded across the globe. Besides, it’s difficult to let go of beliefs and practices that have been embraced over time. Sometimes it’s just the way we organize ourselves that stands in the way of unity.

Nevertheless, unity might be difficult to achieve, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on it. But unity needs to find its path in ways that honor our diversity in doctrine, practices, and governance. Since Paul mentions baptism here, we might think of our differences with regard to baptism. There isn’t just one way that Christians baptize. We’ve been arguing about it for centuries. I have embraced a particular form of baptism as my own, but I understand why others have embraced a different view. In Paul’s context, it may have been a question not of form or even doctrine, but the person who baptized a particular person. Paul responds to this problem, by downplaying his own participation in the baptism of members of the Corinthian Church. He goes so far as suggesting that his calling involved preaching the Gospel not baptizing people. Now that claim might get him in trouble in certain circles of my tradition. It might even get you fired from your post as a theology professor. since some in the broader tradition of which I’m a member believe that baptism is essential for salvation (and by baptism, I mean immersion for the remission of sins on the basis of an informed confession of faith). Baptism is, in my mind, an important element of the Christian faith, but fighting over it does nothing to further the message of God’s realm.

Rather than focus on who baptizes whom, Paul wants to focus on the cross of Jesus, which is itself rather scandalous. Paul says that it is foolishness to those who are perishing, but for those who are being saved, it is the power of God. We might struggle with Paul’s statement regarding salvation, but his point is clear, the gospel is revealed in the cross, which to Jew and Gentile was scandalous. In our day much of the scandal of the cross has dissipated. We wear the cross as jewelry, with no thought to its original use. In other words, what was once scandalous has been domesticated.

          The arguments that were dividing the Corinthian community had to do with power and influence. That’s why Paul put his focus on the cross in all its foolishness. There in the cross, one would find the power of God, and not in the eloquence of a preacher. Paul felt called to preach the gospel, but he was concerned about those who put an emphasis on eloquence. It’s possible that some in Corinth didn’t think much of his preaching, but that didn’t really matter to him. He might not be the best preacher in the realm, but he knew what his calling was. It’s probably useful to remember that in his day there were those who studied rhetoric so they could be professional speakers. To be eloquent, was to have power. As for Paul, whether he was a good preacher or not, his focus was on the cross, lest it lose its power. He didn’t want to get in the way of the gospel, which is rooted in the cross of Christ. It’s a temptation that is as prevalent today as it was in the first century. There is a desire within all of us to be admired, but when that desire gets in the way of the gospel then it’s a problem. It’s not that preachers ought not to give attention to their craft, they just need to keep things in perspective. As a preacher, I try to do my best to offer something worth hearing, but in the end, it shouldn’t be about me (or any preacher, even the most eloquent of preachers).

            Now those who claimed to be of Christ rather than Paul, Apollos, or Cephas, were on the right track, but perhaps for the wrong reason. We should be about Christ in the church, but if we use that claim as a way of holding ourselves over others then we’ve defeated the purpose of our identification with Jesus. So, even though the cross seems to be a foolish place to center ourselves, that’s where Paul puts the focus. Not his eloquence. Not his prowess as a baptizer. No, it’s the cross of Jesus that matters.  Whatever unity was to be had in the Christian community would come in terms of the cross, which may seem like a rather foolish idea—Why would one want to find unity in a method of execution that emphasized humiliation? —but it is the way of Jesus (and Paul).        

 

Lacking No Spiritual Gifts – A Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 2A (1 Corinthians 1)

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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                Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian Church is one of the best reminders that there never was a Christian Golden Age that we might seek to restore. In this letter we encounter a church that is, to put it mildly, dysfunctional. Here in 1 Corinthians, we find a church that is divided and conflicted. There is evidence of sexual indiscretions, marriage problems, concerns about social inequality, and much more. If you are looking for a model church this is not it, and yet despite the many problems facing the congregation, it is also a congregation that is truly gifted. So, there are things we can learn from them that can enhance life in the modern church—just not the conflicts.

                This reading from 1 Corinthians doesn’t reveal the problems present in the congregation. Paul addresses them as a community that is sanctified in Christ Jesus. In fact, he calls them saints. In fact, Paul gives thanks to God for them, and he does so always. He might be frustrated with them at times, but he seems to have great affection for this community, which he helped launch. He will address the problems that are presenting themselves as the letter proceeds, but he doesn’t start out by taking them behind the woodshed. While the appellation of saints might be more aspirational than descriptive, this is the way he wishes to them. They may have their problems, but they still are part of the body of Christ.

                Because I am deeply interested in matters relating to spiritual gifts (see my book Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening), Paul’s statement in verse 7, where he gives thanks that they’re not lacking in any spiritual gift (charismata), stood out to me. Of course, it is here in 1 Corinthians that Paul devotes the greatest amount of space to spiritual gifts, but here he gives us a hint of what is to come. He commends them for their giftedness, and he couches this statement in eschatological language. He notes that they don’t lack any spiritual gift as they “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 

 

                This word about the revealing of Jesus fits well into the context of Epiphany. At this point in the liturgical year, we are supposed to be looking for those signs that God is present, those moments of divine revealing. The Spirit is the one who does the revealing, and who empowers the church to bear witness to that revealing, as we await the day when Jesus returns. The expectation is that when this day arrives we will be found blameless.    

 

                Unlike with Paul’s greeting to the Roman Church, in this case, Paul is quite familiar with the community to which he writes. This is a congregation (likely a collection of house churches) that he founded. These are his people, his congregation. As we discover as we read further, Paul uses this letter to answer queries from members of the congregation. His responses are meant to get them back on track. One would assume that when he left, he had some confidence that they were ready to go out on their own. Perhaps that confidence was unwarranted. The reading ends in verse 9, but verses 10 through 17, suggest that there is significant division in the church. This is not what Paul desires. He appeals for unity. He asks that they would be “united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Cor. 1:10).  

 

Among the points of division in the congregation is the matter of these spiritual gifts, which the congregation is not lacking. They have gifts aplenty, but not a come sense of purpose as to their use. When we get to chapters 12 and 14, we discover that this is a congregation that prizes spiritual things and spiritual experiences. They understand these spiritualities in very individualistic ways. They appear to have ranked the gifts and desire to possess the most spectacular of the gifts. The one that seems to be prized the most is this ability to speak in tongues. Instead of seeking gifts that enhance one’s own stature, Paul encourages them to pursue gifts that build up the church (1 Cor. 14:12).

                As I noted earlier, Paul sets this conversation in a context of expectation. There is a high level of concern in this community as to the return of Christ. The conversation in chapter seven about marriage is evidence of this, as is the discussion of the resurrection in chapter fifteen. It might be that this eschatological fervor created a sense of anxiety that led to some of the problems present in the congregation. This spiritual anxiety might help explain why they seemed to embrace a rather individualistic spirituality. Paul addresses that anxiety, while also pointing them toward gifts that will benefit the community. Thus, while the body of Christ has many members, no one member stands on her or his own. Therefore, there should be no divisions. After all, there is no lack of gifts in the congregation. They simply need to be affirmed. The good news is that “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

 

A Call to Worship – A Lectionary Reflection for Christmas 2A (Ephesians 1)

 
 
 

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

 
A CALL TO WORSHIP
 

Although the identity of the author, as well as the destination of this letter, remains clouded in mystery, the letter itself has a strong liturgical sense to it. That is, it serves as a call to worship the God who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing and who will ultimately gather up everything into God’s being. That is, in Christ God will be “all in all.” Whether the conversation in this letter is doctrinal or practical in nature, ultimately the letter serves as a call to worship.

 

                The author begins by offering a blessing to the God we know in Jesus Christ, the one who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing. In fact, verses 3-14 comprise one long sentence (in the Greek), celebrating the blessings God has poured out upon Christ’s body, the church. Then, in the concluding verses of the chapter, the author offers a prayer of thanksgiving for the recipients of the letter, commending them to God for their faithfulness, and asking that they might truly experience the presence of the one who has been made head of the body, the one whom God has resurrected and exalted above all powers and authorities.

CHOSEN/DESTINED
 

The reader is told that God “chose us in Christ” to be holy and blameless, and God has “destined us for adoption” through Christ. The use of these two terms can be disconcerting for many Christians, especially those who come from traditions that stress human free will. How can we be free if God “chose us” before the foundation of the world and “destined us” for adoption? It is possible that our discomfort may stem from our own individualistic reading of the text. It is easy to read the text as if it is speaking to individual believers, speaking to and about our personal destinies, which appear to have already been written, and thus we have no choice in what happens in our lives. Such a reading has led theologians including Augustine and John Calvin to conclude that in God’s infinite wisdom, some who deserve condemnation will be damned and others will be redeemed, what is known as “double predestination.”

There is another way to look at this discussion of chosenness and destiny Instead of reading this in terms of one’s individual destiny, it might be better to read this in a corporate sense. It is, therefore, God’s decision/choice that humanity as a whole would experience holiness and adoption as God’s children through Christ. That is, God hasn’t chosen some from among us to experience salvation, but that God has chosen to bring redemption to humanity through Christ.

If the text should be read in a corporate rather than an individualistic manner, it can also be read eschatologically. A close reading of this chapter will show that the focus is on God’s final end for the universe. The author is looking out into the future to the time when all things belong to God. Therefore, this word isn’t meant to be read as a limitation on our choices, but it stands as a word of hope. It reminds us that no matter what happens God’s purpose for the universe will be fulfilled. Note that the focus of the passage is not limited to humanity, for the letter affirms that in Christ there will be a “restoration of all things,” which means that God has a broader vision than simply rescuing humanity. Instead, God is seeking to bring to wholeness all that is broken and alienated and fragmented. In this way, it is a word of hope and assurance—reminding us that God is good, faithful, and committed to redeeming, that is restoring to God’s purpose, the created order through Christ, who will reign over all authorities.

ADOPTION AND INHERITANCE
 

                There is an incipient Trinitarian structure to this passage. According to the author, we have been called upon to bless the God and Father of Jesus Christ, in whom we receive our adoption as God’s children and in whom we receive our inheritance, which is an adoption that is sealed with the Holy Spirit. With this Trinitarian structure in mind, we gain understanding of our place in God’s economy. We are introduced to Jesus in the role of the elder brother, the one who by rights receives the inheritance of the Father. Not only is Christ the elder brother, and therefore the rightful heir to the inheritance of the Father, but Christ has brought us into the family through adoption. Although we are adopted into the family, that doesn’t mean we have a share in the inheritance. It is at the discretion of the elder brother whether or not any other members of the family receive a portion of the inheritance. In this case, our elder brother, the one to whom the inheritance has been given, has chosen to share the inheritance with all members of the family of God, even those who come into the family by adoption.

The appropriate response to such a decision on the part of Christ can be found in the earlier Pauline letter to the Roman church. Led by the Spirit of God, the children of God are empowered to cry out to God “Abba! Father!” We may do this because, the Holy Spirit of God is bearing witness to the fact that we are now not only children of God, but “joint hears with Christ” of the things of God (Rom. 8:12-17).

IN CHRIST
 

                It is important to note the use of the phrases “in Christ” and “in Jesus Christ” throughout this text. It is a constant refrain, reminding us that God’s blessings, which include adoption and the inheritance, come to us “in Christ.” It is in the one whom God has raised far above all powers and authorities, that we receive the blessings. It is also a reminder to the recipients, who most likely are Gentile believers, that their place in God’s realm results from God’s work of redemption, which brings forgiveness, through the death of Christ.

SEALING/DOWN PAYMENT
 

Whether or not water baptism is present in the mind of the author, the use of both words/phrases is important to note. If the promised inheritance comes to us in Christ, this decision of God is sealed in us through the denouement of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13). It is the presence of the Spirit in one’s life that reminds a person that he or she has been given the opportunity to share in the inheritance.

Note:  This reflection is drawn from chapter two of my book:  Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide, (Energion Publications, 2010), pp. 14-17. The book is designed to be used by small groups or in personal study, and includes study questions and exercises.    

 

Introductions – Lectionary Reflection for Advent 4A (Romans 1)

 

1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3 the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6 including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

7 To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

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          It’s always good to introduce yourself to new communities, especially if you’re a missionary heading to a community that already has a church. The community you’re going to might want to know what you want from them. The community you plan to visit might have heard of you, but it’s always good to introduce yourself instead of relying on the word of others. Knowing what we know about Paul, it’s quite possible that his reputation in the Roman congregations might have been mixed. Many think of Paul’s Letter to Romans as being his magnum opus. It is also quite theological, probably because he wants to make his positions on matters of concern clear. Maybe he’s heard there are questions about his theology.

We hear this opening passage of Paul’s Roman letter on the Fourth Sunday of Advent. It’s good to remember that this is only an introductory word, with much more to come. What we have before us is Paul’s introduction of himself and of his mission, as well as a word of grace and peace to the community that is rooted in God the Father and Jesus the Lord. What he does here is to remind people not only who he is, but who he represents. He identifies himself with Jesus Christ, whom he serves as an apostle, having been entrusted with bringing to the Gentiles the Gospel that had been promised through the prophets in the form of Scripture and then through the Son. This Son descended from David according to the flesh but was declared to be the Son of God through the Resurrection. Paul has staked his life and ministry in bearing witness as an apostle to Jesus the Christ, who is both a descendant of David and Son of God. Of course, if we read further, he has more to say on these matters. But this is a good place to start.

                Again, we hear this word from Paul on the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Christmas is close at hand. The excitement is building. We’re ready for the big day. Our patience with Advent might be growing thin. We do get to light the Love candle but isn’t it time to get on with the show? Well, the readings for the fourth Sunday, both here in Romans and in Matthew 1, give us a foretaste of Christmas. In the reading from Matthew 1, it is revealed that the birth of Jesus the Messiah went something like this—Mary was engaged to Joseph when she discovered she was pregnant with a child from the Holy Spirit (Matthew doesn’t give us details here). Joseph has some concerns, but an angel appears to reassure him that this is all from God. In fact, this child will save his people from their sins and is to be called Emmanuel, as promised by the prophet (Is. 7:14). The meaning of this name Emmanuel is “God is with us” (Mt. 1:18-25). The Gospel reading is very Christmassy, but what about Romans 1? What does it have to say about either Advent (do you see anything about the coming of the Lord?) or the birth of Jesus, except for the cryptic word about descent from David? Yet, while Paul doesn’t offer details he does speak of Jesus as the Son of God, much like the angel describes in Matthew 1. There is something about Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, that reveals the presence of God.  

 

                So, what is the Word that we are to hear at this moment in time? When I decided on this passage as the foundation for my sermon for the week back in August, the word that stood out to me is the final sentence of the passage. There in verse 6, Paul speaks of those who are “called to belong to Jesus Christ.” I plan on asking the question: “To whom do you belong?” That is an important question, especially at this moment in time when we who are Christians face the reality that there are those who claim to be followers of Jesus, but who have some rather disturbing views on many issues of our day. That is a pathway worth exploring, but since I plan to do that in my sermon, I will explore some of the other elements here in this introductory statement.

The theological elements are intriguing. Being a trinitarian, I’m always on the lookout for passages of Scripture that at least hint at revealing something that is trinitarian in nature.  There isn’t a full trinitarian formula here, but there are elements that are suggestive. In fact, the focus here is Christological. We hear something about humanity but also possible divinity. Thinking theologically about this word of introduction, I find the connection between Jesus’ descent from David according to the flesh and the declaration that he is Son of God through the resurrection intriguing. It appeals to my trinitarian instincts, though it can be read as a form of adoptionist Christology. There is not a word here about the pre-existent Logos (Jn 1:1-14). There isn’t even a word about Jesus’ baptism being the moment of recognition as in Mark. Instead, it’s the resurrection that reveals Jesus to be the Son of God.

As I often do in moments like this when it comes to Romans, I turn to Karl Barth for help. In his commentary on Romans, he takes note of the two declarations. One regarding his descent from David and the other his revelation as Son of God through the resurrection. Barth speaks of two planes intersecting—the known and the unknown—in Jesus of Nazareth, who is descended from David according to the flesh. “The name Jesus defines an historical occurrence and marks the point where the unknown world cuts the known word.” He speaks of the years 1-30, as an “era of revelation and disclosure; the era which, as is shown by the reference to David, sets forth the new and strange and divine definition of all time” (The Epistle to the Romans, p. 29). In Jesus, as I read Barth’s reading of Paul, the divine intersects with the earthly. But there is more to this story. This is a disclosure that can happen at any point in time. What makes this point in time important is that Jesus “has been declared to be the Son of God.” Here lies, Barth writes, the “true significance of Jesus,” that he is the Christ, the Messiah, the end of history. He goes on to suggest that “as Christ, Jesus is the plane which lies beyond our comprehension. The plane which is known to us, He intersects vertically, from above” (pp. 29-30). Barth recognizes that this declaration is beyond history. It is something we receive by faith. But it is the declaration that Jesus is Son of God that makes all of this worth considering.

We can read this passage as suggesting that Jesus became Son of God in the resurrection. That is, the resurrection transformed him from human (descending according to the flesh) into something beyond human. On the other hand, we could read this as others have down through the ages as signaling that Christ’s full identity is revealed in the resurrection. That is the way I read it. When we consider the identity of Jesus as the Christ, it is good to remember that Paul says little about the life and teachings of Jesus. He is focused on the cross and resurrection. He doesn’t say much, if anything, about the birth, except to remind us here of Jesus’ descent from David according to the flesh. This is a witness to Jesus’ humanity, but not much else is said. Therefore, it’s not surprising then that the Creeds give such little attention to the life and ministry of Jesus. We might want more, and the Gospels give us more, but this is all that Paul is ready to reveal.  

                The question for us, as we bring the Advent season to a close and prepare for those last few steps toward Christmas concerns the identity of the one who is coming into our midst. The answer is that he is the Son of God. As we encounter him, we encounter God’s presence (as we read in Matthew 1).  

                 

 

Just Be Patient – Lectionary Reflection for Advent 3A (James 5)

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field in Rain
James 5:7-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! 10 As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

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                This word about patience comes at an interesting time in the year. The season of Advent is meant to be a contemplative time. That means we should slow down and prepare ourselves to welcome the coming Lord. John the Baptist prepared the way for the Lord, making the pathways straight, by proclaiming the coming reign of God by inviting all who would list to repent and change their hearts It was a ministry that Matthew saw foretold in the words of Second Isaiah (Mt. 3:1-3; Is. 40:3). In this Advent season, we hear the call to repent and live into God’s realm that is coming into existence. The place we will find this realm revealed is in the person of Jesus. As Matthew records, the Holy Family is told that the child who will be born in Bethlehem is to be called Emmanuel (God with Us) (Mt. 1:23).

                Each Sunday of Advent we hear a call to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord by embracing a particular core value. First is the call to embrace hope and then there is the call for peace. On the third Sunday, a day when we hear this reading from James 5, we are called to embrace the joy of the Lord. While we hear these invitations to prepare for the coming of the Lord, the broader culture has invited us to a party. While Christmas (often in its commercialized forms) dominates, it’s not the only holiday party going on. That’s why it’s appropriate to greet each other with a Happy Holidays. Whether religious or secular these events can overshadow the call to prepare for something other than the beginning of a new year (and the end of a decade).  

 

So, in this busy season how do we embrace the virtue of patience? When people are rushing around making last-minute preparations for parties or travel, as well as doing all that Christmas shopping, how do we take seriously James’ call to be patient? Maybe in January, when things settle down, then we can consider the idea of being patient. Then we can consider the patience exhibited by the farmer who waits for the rains to come and water the crops.

               The Letter of James is often understood to be an expression of the larger Wisdom tradition. It has the marks of that tradition, in addition to a distinctly Jewish feel. That makes sense as it is often attributed to James, the Lord’s Brother. And, in the absence of a better claimant, I’m comfortable with that appellation. If it is from the pen of that particular James who, according to the Book of Acts, was a leading figure in the church in Jerusalem, it would be a rather early letter. The context of chapter 5 suggests that the recipients may have been experiencing some form of suffering. That might have come as a result of the Jewish Wars that took place between 60 and 70 CE, which scattered the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine. Among those Jews who were sent into the Diaspora would have been Jewish Christians. That appears to be the audience of this letter. While this letter has the marks of Jewish wisdom literature, this particular passage also has an eschatological, even apocalyptic feel. That is because it is offering counsel to the people as they look forward to the coming of the Lord.

Whoever is the intended audience, they are in this passage being counseled to be patient. What this coming of the Lord involves is not certain. It might include the expectation or the hope of a victory over the Romans. Whatever the hope is, the greater hope is placed in the coming of the Lord and preparing for it. That preparation includes endurance, as seen in the word present in verse 11, pointing to the story of Job.

                The eschatological element present here does point toward a day of judgment, with perhaps the coming Lord being that judge. Thus, with the day of judgment on the horizon, James warns the community to live as ones who can face that day without worry. This is a call to live faithfully as the people of God. Leading up to this word of wisdom, James has spoken of judgment on the rich who oppress the poor (Jms.5:1-6). He has also warned against the dangers of the tongue which can destroy (Jms. 3:1-12). Inappropriate use of the tongue also could lead to judgment. In the midst of this particular reading from James 5, we hear a warning against grumbling against others in the community. In other words, be careful with what you say.

James is concerned about actions that can divide and destroy a community that is facing many challenges. In response to those who, perhaps claiming support from Paul, say that faith alone is sufficient, James has declared that faith without works is dead.

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:14-17)

There are times when it would be appropriate to emphasize grace and faith as the foundation of our relationship with God in Christ. God’s love is unconditional, but there are also times when it’s clear that we can take this grace received by faith for granted. James wants us to understand that our relationship with God in Christ should bear fruit. If it doesn’t, then somethings wrong.

                So, when it comes to the counsel of patience here, we shouldn’t think here in terms of a passive waiting for something to happen. Consider this analogy of the farmer. It may be true that the success of the harvest is dependent on the rains (in a land that is by nature dry), but that doesn’t mean the farmer is sitting back doing nothing. No, the farmer is always at work preparing things so that when the rain comes everything is ready to go. The same is true for the prophets, whom James mentions. They are more examples of endurance in the midst of suffering than “patience,” if patience means simply waiting around for things to happen. Of course, in James’ mind, their patience is related to the delay in the coming day of the Lord. They were faithful in their proclamation even if they did not see the fullness of their message revealed. For James, the messages of the prophets pointed to Jesus and his embodiment of God’s realm.

This call to embrace patience is not an invitation to passivity. If we know anything about James, it’s an active form of patience. That patience has to do with the coming of the Lord. In the Gospel reading from Matthew that is paired with James 5, Jesus tells the disciples: Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Mt 24:42). Such is the message of Advent: Stay awake, be ready, for the rains will come, as will the day of the Lord. On that day there will be judgment, but will that entail? That is the question that we continually ponder. Matthew has a separation of sheep and goats. It’s a powerful image, and it fits with James’ message, but is that the final word?

 

As we consider this call to prepare for the coming of the Lord, I want to leave you with a word from theologian Jürgen Moltmann, and then the opening lines of an Advent hymn that speaks of waiting “patiently” for the coming of the Promised One. So first Moltmann and then the hymn.

 

What we call the Last judgment is nothing other than the universal revelation of Jesus Christ, and the consummation of his redemptive work. No expiatory penal code will be applied in the court of the crucified Christ. No punishments of eternal death will be imposed. The final spread of the divine righteousness that creates justice serves the eternal kingdom of God, not the final restoration of a divine world order that has been infringed. Judgment at the end is not an end at all; it is the beginning. Its goal is the restoration of all things for the building up of God’s eternal kingdom.” [Jürgen Moltmann. The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (Kindle Locations 3617-3621).] 

So let us sing:

All earth is waiting to see the Promised One,
and open furrows await the seed of God.
All the world, bound and struggling, seeks true liberty;
it cries out for justice and searches for the truth. 
                                                                —Albert Taulè
               

Picture attribution:  Gogh, Vincent van, 1820-1888. Wheat Field in Rain, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56228 [retrieved December 8, 2019]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh,_Dutch_-_Rain_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.

All Are Welcome — Lectionary Reflection for Advent 2A (Romans 15)

Lahneck Castle, Germany
Romans 15:4-13 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6 so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
 
7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
 
“Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
    and sing praises to your name”;
 
10 and again he says,
 
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;
 
11 and again,
“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
    and let all the peoples praise him”;
 
12 and again Isaiah says,
“The root of Jesse shall come,
    the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.”
 
13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
****************
 

                What a wonderful message to hear proclaimed during the season of Advent, especially on Peace Sunday: All are welcome in the name of Christ.  Paul’s message to the Church in Rome is that God of steadfastness and encouragement, who is revealed to us in the person of Jesus, continues steadfast in service to the promise to the circumcised, the Jewish people, but we’re reminded that as part of this commitment to the Jewish people is a desire to bring into the covenant family Gentiles.  So, we hear Paul declare: “welcome one another” … “as Christ has welcomed you.”

The audience of this letter likely includes both Jewish and Gentile Christians. They may have been struggling with how to assimilate these two communities into one body of Christ. In using the word assimilate, I am aware that in our day its use often assumes that minority communities will be subsumed into the majority culture. That may have been an issue here as well, but Paul’s message seems to underlie the promise that whether Jew or Gentile, both are fully included in the community of Christ. It’s also important to remember that Paul has yet to visit this congregation, so he is speaking to a community that he didn’t establish. These are not his people, but he wants them to know that the gospel he preaches is one that bridges Jew and Gentile. He speaks of a harmony that is rooted in Christ. To do this he seems to be reminding his Jewish Christian audience of the promise found in the Scriptures concerning the Gentiles. Yes, Paul draws from the word of Isaiah 11:10 to reveal that the root of Jesse will not only rule over the Gentiles but in him, the Gentiles shall find hope. Though this is Peace Sunday, the message we hear on this Second Sunday of Advent is that of hope, which is found in Christ, the “root of Jesse.”  So, let the Gentiles join the people of God in giving praise to God who is revealed in the steadfastness and encouraging presence of Christ. With this word of hope comes a call to live in harmony (peace) with one another (both Jew and Gentile).

                Regarding this call for harmony, Karl Barth offers this word of guidance:

God does not merely instruct us: He GIVES us the incomprehensible, in order that in all our differences and in all our brokenness we may be—like minded; in order that we may, in all the play of our thoughts, look up to the One, and in order that we may, in the disharmony of the community, hear the voice of fellowship: —That with one accord ye may with one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  [Barth,  The Epistle to the Romans, p. 526].

 

     Notice that Barth points out that we are called to be “like-minded” in the context of difference and brokenness. He notes the disharmony that exists. It is a good reminder that we do not live in a utopia, where all are on the same page, for we are not. Disunity is not new, but it seems that we are feeling it in new ways. Perhaps it is due to the increasing diversity of context. We may find this disturbing and disrupting, but maybe, if we look at things through the lens of Christ, we might see a way forward.

           Barth speaks of glorifying God, and Jin Young Choi connects the call to worship (praise God) with welcoming others, suggesting that the two together are “essential components of Advent hope.”

Worshiping God cannot be separated from welcoming others. These are essential components of Advent hope as Christians eagerly wait for the Day of the Lord when all the nations—usually translated as the “Gentiles” in English—will worship God together. Accordingly, this concrete vision of a future inclusive community inspires believers to practice welcome.  [Connections,WJK Press, Kindle Edition. Loc. 1044].

                In an age when walls are being erected—both physical and metaphorical—that are designed to keep the “other” at bay, we hear this message of grace and welcome. It is a reminder that when we gather for worship in this Advent season, we come as hearers and bearers of the good news of welcome to those for whom walls have been erected. In fact, Paul is rather insistent that in Christ dividing walls do fall (Ephesians 2:14).

                The recent observance of the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is a good reminder that walls are not permanent. Some walls, like the Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall, remain as remembrances of past attempts to keep others out, but today they are tourist attractions rather than bulwarks against the other. So, on this Peace Sunday, may we join with Paul and tear down the dividing walls that keep us apart. In doing this, we can affirm with Paul the promises made to the Patriarchs and join with the Gentiles (being that I am a Gentile that does include me) in glorifying God.

                Might we sing the second verse of Mary Anne Parrott’s Advent hymn:

            Come quickly shalom, teach us how to prepare
                         for a gift that compels us with justice to care.
Our spirits are restless till sin and war cease. 
            One candle is lit for the rein of God’s peace.   (Chalice Hymnal, 128)