Category: Lectionary

Proper Confidence – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 18A (Philippians 3)

4b If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 3:4b-14 New Revised Standard Version

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                When we read this passage, it is good to remember that Paul is in prison and that he’s already comfortable with the possibility of his death. “To live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21 KJV). Nevertheless, he believes that it is right for him to go on living for the sake of the beloved community. So, status means nothing to him, or so it seems. To further ground that sentiment, Paul has made it clear that the way of Christ requires humility, for Christ, though in the form of God, thought it not necessary to hold on to that status, but instead took human form and died on the cross (Phil. 2:6-8). Nevertheless, no matter what happens to him, he holds on to the promise of resurrection, which is expressed in the hymn of praise to Christ, whom God exalted (Phil. 2:9-11). Whether alive or dead, what matters most is the gospel. In fact, Paul has made it clear that his current predicament (imprisonment) has helped spread the gospel (Phil. 1:12). Therefore, Paul has asked his readers to live lives worthy of the Gospel (Phil. 1:27).

Having made it clear that living for Jesus in a way that manifests the gospel is his greatest concern, Paul now moves on to the goal of life, and that would be the “heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14). I titled this reflection “Proper Confidence,” because Paul makes it clear where he puts his confidence.  Right at the beginning of the letter, Paul declares: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). Here Paul follows his exposition of the hymn to Christ in Philippians 2 but revealing the status he is willing to let go of to be a follower of Jesus. He puts no confidence in the flesh, or markers on the flesh, including circumcision (and he has been circumcised). He has the right to put his confidence in the flesh. After all, he can claim to have been circumcised on the eighth day, is a member of the nation of Israel, and more specifically the tribe of Benjamin. He’s a Hebrews of Hebrews. When it comes to the law, he’s a Pharisee. When it comes to zeal, he was a persecutor of the church. Not only is he a Pharisee when it comes to the law, but regarding the law he’s blameless. I take that to mean that he follows it closely.  But, apparently, none of that matters to him now because he has found rest for his soul (to borrow a bit from Augustine) in Christ his Lord. In fact, that is all that matters to him, for in Christ Paul has found the culmination of the covenant promises that go back through Moses to Abraham.  

                In chapter 2, Paul broaches the concept of kenosis (emptying). Now, it appears that just as Jesus emptied himself of his divine prerogatives, Paul is doing the same concerning his own status as a Hebrew among Hebrews in the cause of Christ. Though he’s ready to give up these symbols of his status as a Jew, that doesn’t mean he’s rejecting his origins or the covenant promises that are embedded in Judaism. Rather, he no longer puts his confidence in these identity markers. Thus, he lives by faith not by law, for his confidence is placed in Christ and not in his religious affiliations.

                When we read a passage like this, it ought to cause us to examine our search for status. Paul has given up all the status markers that he had inherited and earned. What are mine—My education? My ordination? My gender? My race?  My American citizenship? Here’s the thing, society accredits to me a certain status because I am a White male. That is true as well of my American citizenship. Then there’s my education and ordination. Letting go of these markers of status is not easy. Some of these markers are the accident of birth—my race and gender. Other markers are earned (education and ordination). However, if I understand Paul’s message here, none of that matters. I needn’t feel bad about my identity. I don’t have to reject or diminish my identity. However, in the end, what matters is Christ. He defines who I am as a human being.

That being said, I must add the caveat, because gender and my Whiteness do accrue to me certain benefits. I can try to let go of them, but because they are so rooted in systems, I will still be accorded benefits that persons are not White or male will not be automatically accorded. In other words, I don’t have to worry about being pulled over by the police simply because of race. So, to put it bluntly, while I can put my hope in the heavenly call of God, here on earth, I must acknowledge that all lives will not matter until Black lives matter.

That leads us back to Paul’s proper confidence, which he places in Christ, who is the hope of his own resurrection. He can let go of his privileges because he knows that he is alive in Christ. So, the hope of the resurrection defines his identity. But wait a minute, notice the way Paul phrases his declaration. He uses athletic imagery. He’s pressing forward, like a runner (I’d suggest a long-distance runner rather than a sprinter) in pursuit of the prize. The fact is, to be a good athlete one must make sacrifices. One has to train, and that means giving up certain things. Paul also understands that one cannot rest until the race is over. Thus, as John Chrysostom suggests:

Thus too we should act, we should forget our successes, and throw them behind us. For the runner reckons not up how many circuits he hath finished, but how many are left. We too should reckon up, not how far we are advanced in virtue, but how much remains for us. For what doth that which is finished profit us, when that which is deficient is not added?”

 [John Chrysostom, “Homily XII,” NPNF]  

Image attribution: Resurrection of Christ, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56588 [retrieved September 27, 2020]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:0000_Mosaics_of_Resurrection_of_Christ.JPG – Eugenio Hansen, OFS.

Walking Humbly with Jesus – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 17A (Philippians 2)

Philippians 2:1-13  New Revised Standard Version

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 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.

12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

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                As we open chapter two of Paul’s letter the Philippians, what find is a continuation of a thread that begins in verse twenty-seven of chapter one, in which Paul tells his readers to live their lives in a manner worthy of the Gospel. He asked them to stand firm in one spirit and strive together in one mind for the gospel (Phil. 1:27). Now, he takes this word of guidance a step further by offering Jesus as our example of what it means to live a life worthy of the Gospel. In pointing our attention toward Jesus, he calls on the congregation to live humbly. He asks them not to consider themselves better than others. In fact, they should do nothing from selfish conceit. If they follow this word of guidance, they’ll make Paul’s joy complete. By following the example of Jesus they’ll be of the same mind, have the same love, and be in full accord. It is a call to unity in the Spirit of Christ that requires walking humbly with Jesus. This is expressed by looking after the interests of others, rather one’s own.

While we don’t see the same kind of conflict present in this letter as some of the others, there are hints that the community might not always be on the same page. Perhaps it’s due to persecution or some other matter. Later in the letter, Paul refers to Euodia and Syntyche, who are being urged to be of one mind. Paul asks his companion (perhaps the bearer of the letter) to help these women whom Paul acknowledges as having struggled alongside him for the gospel (Phil. 4:2-3). While Paul does give an explicit explanation, the original readers understand. What we do know is that Paul offers Jesus as the model for the Christian life, and that model is one of humility and even self-sacrifice.  

                Just a caveat here. It’s possible to take this too far and not consider one’s own welfare. We need to set boundaries so that we don’t get abused by others. Now, Paul might not agree with that caveat, but we’ve learned the need for a bit of balance lest we burn out or get run over. That being said, we can hear Paul’s word concerning a way of life that imitates Jesus, a word that he inhabits in his imprisonment due to his work on behalf of Jesus.

                Standing at the center of the passage is a hymn, or what looks like a hymn, since most translations lay it out in hymnic form. It’s possible Paul wrote it, but it’s more likely that it’s a well-known hymn in the circles of Paul’s churches. It’s a bit like me quoting from a hymn like “Amazing Grace,” which the congregation will know and love and be able to understand its meaning.

The initial vision presented by the hymn is kenotic. It envisions Jesus being in some form divine, and seemingly pre-existent (this would fit with John’s prologue—John 1:1-14). Nevertheless, despite his original form, he doesn’t exploit this equality with God. Instead, he humbles himself, taking on the form of a human, even that of a slave. That is, Paul envisions Jesus taking the lowest form in society, and from that form revealing God’s vision of salvation. There would be exaltation, but first, there must be the act of taking on human form and identifying with the lowliest members of society. This act of identification with humanity is understood to be an act of obedience that would take him to the cross.

I refer here to the theological word “kenosis” because it is pregnant with meaning. It speaks of emptying oneself of one’s prerogatives, glory, and even divine status. It gives room for divine-human interaction, and in this case for our salvation. Karl Barth suggests that in this act of emptying of himself of his divine glory, Jesus “puts himself in a position where only he himself knows himself in the way that the Father knows him.” Any act of revelation will come from the Father. [Epistle to the Philippians, 63]. The message here to the Philippians is this: If Jesus was in a position of equality with God the Father, and he let go of it so that he might experience human life even to the point of suffering death on a cross, then shouldn’t they be willing to follow suit?

           Of course, this is not the end of the story. What occurs in the first verse of the hymn, the humiliation of Jesus, is reversed in the second verse of the hymn (vs. 9-11), wherein God exalts Jesus by raising him from the dead and seating him at the right hand of God. As he ascends to this exalted status, every knee bends before him and every tongue confesses that he is lord. All of this is to the glory of God, from whom he descended and then ascended. Jesus is exalted, but he doesn’t exalt himself. The same true for us.

           While this passage doesn’t provide us a fully developed trinitarian vision, since such a vision can’t be found in the New Testament, you can see the foundations of such a vision here. While, unlike in John’s prologue, there isn’t a reference to the logos here, the hymn may presuppose some form of preexistence, that later theologians could build upon. But Paul isn’t so much interested in laying out a theological argument on the divine nature of Jesus as he is attempting to provide a foundation for living the Christian life in a way that reflects the person of Jesus who was willing to sacrifice all for others, a sacrifice that led to his exaltation through the resurrection. In other words, leave the work of exaltation to God!          If we take Jesus, who though having equality God, thought it not necessary to hold onto, but emptied himself of that glory, taking on human life, then surely we can follow his example in our lives. As we do, we can work out our salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that it’s God who is at work in us, enabling us to “work for his good pleasure.”

Living the Gospel – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 16A (Philippians 1)

Philippians 1:20-30 New Revised Standard Version

20 It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 25 Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, 26 so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.

27 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, 28 and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. 29 For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— 30 since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

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                Paul’s Philippian letter was written from prison. We don’t know when and where this imprisonment is taking place, whether early or later in his ministry. Whatever is the case, this letter is written to a community that Paul founded and for which he has great affection. Unlike the Galatian and Corinthian churches, this one doesn’t appear to be conflicted, though it may be experiencing some form of persecution. We turn to Paul’s letter to the Philippians after the lectionary has taken us through a large swath of Paul’s letter to the Romans, a community that unlike the Philippian congregation Paul had no prior connection. As for Philippians, this is the first of four readings from Philippians.

We see the depth of Paul’s connection to the Philippian church in the opening section of the letter, where Paul offers a word of thanksgiving. He writes: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil. 1:3-5). Philippians is often referred to as an epistle of joy. Even though Paul is in prison, he is joyful, in part, because of this community.

                This city that hosts this congregation is found in Macedonia. It’s named after Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, and sits near the northern coast of the Aegean. It is here that Paul met Lydia, who hosted his first church plant in the city (Acts 16:11-15). From whence Paul is writing is unknown, only that he’s in prison. Whatever the case the when and where really doesn’t impact our reading, Paul faced several imprisonments.

                When we come to our reading, we find Paul confessing that whether he lives or dies is in the hands of God. He’s comfortable with his fate, either way, his goal is to proclaim the message of Jesus with boldness in life and death. As he writes to them, if he lives, well, he has lots of work to do. If he dies, he’ll be with the Lord. He doesn’t know which he prefers. He desires to depart and be with God, while that might be better for him, it is better for the church in Philippi that he stays alive. Now that might sound a bit arrogant as if he’s indispensable. It may sound like that, but that’s not the intent. He simply wants them to know that he’s there for them. But, as we see in the opening of the letter, he cares about these people. There is a deep connection between them, and he wishes to encourage them, no matter his situation. His hope then, is that he continues to live so he can be with them once more and share in the joy of their friendship. Then when they reconnect, he can share in their “boasting in Christ Jesus” due to the progress of their faith (vs. 24-25).

                Having expressed his undying commitment to their welfare, he then builds upon that by encouraging them to live their lives in a way that is worthy of the gospel. Therefore, whether he’s able to rejoin them or not, he can hear the word that they remain “firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents” (vs. 27-28a). In this statement, it’s clear that this community is experiencing some form of opposition, even persecution. Paul can’t protect them, but he can stand with them.

                Perhaps this is an apt word for the church in these times. Here in the United States, we’re not experiencing overt opposition from the community, unless you don’t like restrictions placed on churches due to the coronavirus (my state hasn’t imposed any restrictions, but many of us have applied them to ourselves). Indeed, some in the community might not appreciate our positions on issues? My congregation has chosen to be “open and affirming,” and has made inclusion a key component of our identity. Occasionally someone will live a message on the phone or Facebook page letting us know that we are not following the Bible. However, no one has prevented us from sharing our message. In other parts of the world, of course, the church does face persecution, and to be a Christian might even risk death.

                I appreciate the word that Mike Graves offers here regarding Paul’s dilemma regarding whether to live or die, Paul makes it clear that no matter where he resides, he ultimately lives in Christ.  The recipients of this letter may reside in Philippi, but they also live in Christ. While it might look like Paul longs for the next life, according to Mike, Paul “is not preoccupied with the next world to the neglect of this one; rather, he lets his firm belief in the next world fuel his living in this one. His hope for the Philippians is that they will do the same” [Feasting on the Wordp. 91]. While there is an apocalyptic dimension to Paul’s message, he is not “so heavenly minded,” that he’s “of no earthly good.”

Paul may long to be in the presence of God, but in the meantime, he focuses on life in this world, encouraging his readers to live their lives in a way that is worthy of the Gospel. This may include suffering for their faith. This has been Paul’s lot in life, and in Paul’s mind, it goes with the territory. Again, we might not suffer for our faith, but Paul would encourage us to take the necessary risks to speak to the concerns of the day even if that approach leads to opposition, imprisonment, and even death. It is good to remember that, according to the Book of Acts, Paul and Silas were arrested and imprisoned after they healed a slave girl of her bondage to a demon, even though that bondage made her master great sums of money, and so following the lead of the Book of Acts, Paul’s readers would know how Paul experienced imprisonment (Acts 16:16-24).

                Here in this reading, by embracing the possibility that death is in front of him, Paul can boldly live his faith. He has a proper confidence, not in himself, but in Christ Jesus, whom he serves. Thus, he can declare that “Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death” (vs. 20b). In this, there is joy.

Putting On Jesus Christ – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 14A (Romans 13)

 
Romans 13:8-14 New Revised Standard Version
 

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

 

11 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

 

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                We encounter this reading from Romans 13 amid difficult times, when politics, pandemic, and racial unrest have mixed. The verses just before our reading, verses not included in this lectionary cycle, encourage the readers to subject themselves to the political authorities because they have been instituted by God. Once upon a time, this passage was the foundation of the theory of divine right monarchy. In the seventeenth century, an alternative view of this emerged that was connected to figures such as John Locke that declared that the voice of the people was the voice of God. We still struggle to make sense of those verses. That passage ends with Paul telling the Romans to pay their taxes and give honor and respect to those to whom it is due. I’ve cut my scholarly teeth on advocates of divine right monarchy, but my political allegiance leans toward the “Vox Populi, Vox Dei” position. But that’s really not the focus of our reading for Labor Day Weekend, for Paul turns the tables a bit and tell us to “owe no one anything, except to love one another.” If we do this, then we fulfill the law—not the law of the land, but the law of God, which transcends the law of the land. To fulfill the law of love is to fulfill all law.

 

                Paul makes the point, which I’ve long held, that if we fulfill the command to love our neighbors, then we fulfill the second table of the Law. If you love your neighbor you won’t commit adultery, commit murder, steal, covet, or as Paul says, break any other of the commands. That’s because “love does no wrong to a neighbor.” I wonder, how does this declaration fit with what went before? Paul seems to want the people who form the church to live in such a way that their behavior serves as a witness to Christ. Paul isn’t naïve. He understands the world in which he lives. He knows that the ways of Rome aren’t the ways of God’s realm. He also understands that the Jesus Movement is a small community, and so it has to navigate these realities as best they can. What they can do, however, is give evidence of the law of love. This, by itself, is subversive. Rome understands power, and its definition involves brute force.

 

                From the command to love, Paul moves into an eschatological mode, urging the readers to wake up to the moment of salvation, which is near at hand. We must remember that Paul has an apocalyptic perspective, believing that the realm of God will break in quickly, which would mean that the days of Rome’s hegemony were numbered. They were living through the darkness that is night, but the day is about to dawn. The contrast between light and darkness, night and day are prominent images in the New Testament. We see this especially in the Johannine literature, but also in Paul’s letters. In the ancient world, when a candle might be the only source of light, except on a moonlit night, people feared the darkness. Things went bump in the night, so you waited for dawn to break. In Paul’s mind it wasn’t fear of demons in the night, but rather his anticipation that day is about to dawn. So, it’s time to wake up and get ready for the coming of the Lord.

 

In our day of racial polarization, the images of light and darkness have taken on a problematic dimension. Light has been equated with whiteness, and thus light/white is understood to be good. This is unfortunate because the imagery has great power if we can remove the racialized elements. For Paul the dawn is near, and with it comes salvation in Christ. Paul encourages the readers to live honorably as in the day, and put aside the markings of the nightscape, such as reveling and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy. These are the activities of the night when good people should be at home in bed.

 

So, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Paul often speaks of the “flesh,” by which he isn’t thinking of the body itself, but the ways of the world that stand opposed to the things of God. Remember that in chapter 12, Paul urges believers to offer their bodies to God as a living sacrifice. He tells them not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds (Rom. 12:1-2). So, when he speaks of “making no provision for the flesh” he’s thinking in terms of conforming to the patterns of this present age. As proof positive, all that his readers needed to do was look around to see what was happening in the city of Rome. Yes, obey the authorities, but don’t follow the adage that “when in Rome do as the Romans do!” Instead “let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good” (Rom. 12:9). That is, put on Christ, by that Paul means giving allegiance to Christ. If we read this in light of the opening verses of chapter 13, Paul has placed the Roman authorities in their proper place, as subservient to the realm of God.

 

It is wise to heed these words at this moment in time when it is easy for us to get wrapped up in the political realm as if our political parties are ultimate. They have their place, but they are not Christ. To replace Jesus with the flag is idolatry.

 

Image Attribution: Jesus Mural of Faith, Hope, Love, and Peace, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56412 [retrieved August 29, 2020]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/36847973@N00/3342340183.

 

Time to Be Arrested — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 13A (Matthew 16)

Reflection reposted from August 26, 2014
Matthew 16:21-28— New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

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Peter had just made the Good Confession.  He had declared Jesus to be the Messiah and the Son of the Living God.  In essence, he was saying:  “You’re the one we’ve been waiting for.”  You’re it; you’re our last hope.  I’ve heard something like that before.  I had just been called to serve as the pastor of a small, struggling congregation (not the one I currently serve).  I was told by one of the members– you’re our last hope.  I should have seen it coming – five years later we were still struggling (though we had as much money in the bank, if not more, than when I arrived) and a group in the church decided it was time to change pastors.  Since we were essentially in the same place as we were when I started there, perhaps there was still time to find another savior for the church.  Alas, that congregation is much smaller today than when I left, but it’s still alive.  Congregations are like that – they can hang on for years, clinging to life, while pastors come and go. As for Jesus’ contemporaries, they too had seen plenty of messiahs come and go.  These figures made promises, gathered followers, and subsequently ended up dead or dispersed, while their vision of hope perished with them. 

When Peter heard Jesus expand on how he envisioned the realm of God and his role in it, Peter was less than happy.  Suffering death didn’t seem like the best way to accomplish the goal of establishing God’s realm on earth.  Surely that’s not what God had in mind for him. Whatever Jesus meant by being raised the third day, sacrificing his life in Jerusalem at the hands of the political and religious elites surely wasn’t part of the plan. 

It’s important to remember in our day that in an earlier age political and religious entities were essentially one and the same.  As much as we might lament the Constantinian embrace, it was probably inevitable that a growing church would become a partner with the state.  Church and state would support each other for the good of the nation.  Monarchs were sacred figures, if not divine.  So, even if Jesus’ kingdom might not be of this world (John 18:36), whatever Jesus had to say about the kingdom of God had political implications.  Caiaphas understood that to be true and so did Pilate.  If God is king, and Jesus is the Son, then that leaves Caesar in a difficult place.

Think for a moment about the meaning of Jesus’ pronouncements against the Temple.  When Jesus spoke against it he wasn’t complaining about the way in which the priests were organizing the worship services.  He was challenging the religiopolitical system of the day.  When he decided to go to Jerusalem, he wasn’t thinking that he would make a better offering than the usual sacrifices.  In going to Jerusalem and preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom, he was challenging the system that included both political and religious components.  The job of the priests, in the eyes of the Roman overlords, was keeping the peace.  Since the time of Constantine, the church has often kept the eyes of the people on the blessings of heaven, so they might forget that they have been exploited by those in power.

Now Peter wasn’t really happy with Jesus’ assessment of the future. If Jesus was the Messiah, and Peter was his right-hand man (he was the rock after all), then Peter did have hopes for a place of importance in the coming realm ().  This assessment must have been even more troubling when Jesus suggested that the same fate would befall his followers.  If you want to be my followers, then pick up the cross.  And if you pick up the cross, you’re probably going to end up on it.  To hinder it, apparently, is satanic.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes that Peter’s words of rebuke to Jesus show that “from its very beginning the church has taken offense at the suffering Christ.  It does not want that kind of Lord, and as Christ’s church it does not want to be forced to accept the law of suffering from its Lord.”  Not only that but “this is a way for Satan to enter the church. Satan is trying to pull the church away from the cross of its Lord” [ Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4), 85].   We who are on the “progressive” side of the Christian spectrum may have trouble with the idea of Satan, but Bonhoeffer’s warning is important to hear.  There is always the temptation of complacency and self-satisfaction.  We can draw within ourselves, comfortable that we’re in good with Jesus even if the world continues to suffer.

What then is the nature of discipleship?  How costly is it? These questions came to mind the other day when I was attending a presentation on community organizing for religious folks – especially clergy  (note – meeting too place in August 2014).  Our presenter, the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, was talking about civil disobedience.  The question was posed — what am I willing to be arrested for?  You see, I’ve been actively involved in community organizing efforts for years.   In this work, I’ve engaged the political forces, but I’ve played it pretty safe.  I’ve not engaged in real civil disobedience.  I’ve not joined Jesus in turning over the tables in the Temples or the Capitol buildings.  I’ve gone to Lansing for rallies, and our organization has sent folks to Lansing to pray in the Capitol rotunda, but no one has gotten arrested (that I know of).   I have friends who have been arrested, but so far I’ve avoided that fate!  But, what am I willing to be arrested for?

As we contemplate that question, we have this word from Jesus who tells the disciples that if they want to save their lives, they have to lose them.  But, there is no value in gaining the world while forfeiting one’s life.  The issue here, it seems, is about the choices we make.  Are we willing to follow Jesus wherever he leads, even if that pathway leads to a cross?  Perhaps we have answered the question by domesticating it.  Jesus dies on the cross.  I’m forgiven.  All is good.  Now I can get on with my life!  As for Jesus, he’s already made his choice.  The question is – how will Peter choose?  The story continues, with the promise of the kingdom always present.  Some of those standing in the midst of Jesus “will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (vs. 28).  When was that?  Could it be the resurrection?  If so, are we living in the midst of the kingdom?  Perhaps not in its fullness, but possibly it is making itself felt already.

Transformed, Gifted, and Called to Service – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 12A (Romans 12)

Romans 12:1-8 New Revised Standard Version
 
12 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. 
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 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: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
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                My friends, if you are followers of Jesus, present your bodies to God as living sacrifices, which is your spiritual worship. Be transformed as well by the renewal of your minds, so you can discern what is good, acceptable, and perfect. This call to offer our bodies and allow for our minds to be renewed includes the word “therefore.” In using this word, Paul seems to be telling us that what is to come is rooted in what he had written previously about God’s grace and righteousness. What is to come is rooted in Paul’s word of assurance to Gentile Christians that in Christ they get to share in the blessings that come with adoption into the family of God. So, now offer yourself to God. Make yourself useful. Think properly of yourself, because in God’s realm there’s no room for narcissism. So, think correctly of yourself and don’t be conformed to the things of this world, for you are numbered among those who have been transformed by the renewing of your minds.

                The way I read the call to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, is that Paul is reminding us that God wants our bodies as well as our minds. There might even be a bit of a warning, reminding these followers of Jesus that they might face persecution and even martyrdom as a result of their decision to follow Jesus. So, what does mean for us, living in the 21st century? How do we offer our bodies to God in a way that is an act of spiritual worship? Whatever the case, for Paul there is no distinction between the body and the Spirit, even as he reminds them and us not to be conformed to this world. As we consider Paul’s message here, it is wise to remember that he not only speaks to individuals, which is the common way for moderns to read texts like this but also to communities. Thus, as Sarah Heaner Lancaster notes, the word Paul offers here applies to the whole community, which “needs to discern and to enact together the will of God” [Lancaster, Romans, p. 206].

                In considering Sarah Lancaster’s word here about the community discerning together the will of God, I’m reminded of the title of David Gushee’s important book about the inclusion of members of the LGBTQ community in our congregations. He deliberately chose the title Changing Our Mind to reflect the corporate nature of this transformative moment.  So, he writes that the reason why he uses the singular “mind” rather than the plural “minds,” “because I believe the question that matters is whether the collective mind of the Church universal can and ought to change. The issue is not whether some Christians as individuals change their minds, but whether the Church universal will or should change its mind collectively. And that takes disciplined reflection together, in community, with all hands on deck making their best contribution” [Gushee, David P. Changing Our Mind: Definitive 3rd Edition of the Landmark Call for Inclusion of LGBTQ Christians with Response to Critics,  Read the Spirit Books, (Kindle Locations 473-476)].

                If Paul is writing not just to individuals, but also to communities as a whole, we can consider together what it means to belong in a community that Paul defines in terms of a body (as he does in 1 Corinthians 12 as well). In this community, there is no room for the ego because God assigns us to our duties through gifts. Know this, that in the body not every member has the same function. To say that doesn’t mean that some functions are more important than others. It simply means that we all have different gifts that enable us to fulfill our roles in the community.

                Paul’s discussion of gifts is much briefer here than in 1 Corinthians 12, but it is sufficient for its purpose. Paul reminds us that in the community we all need each other. As a pastor, I should know this. As the author of a book on spiritual gifts, I should be even more self-aware. However, I too cannot only seem myself as indispensable but act as if everything depends on me. To embrace this message of spiritual gifts is to think “with sober judgment.”

                What is true of congregations, and our place in them, but could this be extended to the church as a whole? Might we look at our diversity in terms of worship and governance and even theology as expressions of how the body is gifted and called? Therefore, we needn’t compete with each other. As one who has embraced an ecumenical vision, this is a welcome idea, for as Rochelle Stackhouse suggests “To apply the words of Paul throughout this passage to each of us n our roles in the body of Christ brings us to a sobering reflection on the dysfunctional body that may impede the enactment of God’s will in the world today. Reflecting on ecumenism within Paul’s framework of body metaphor brings hope and possibility to what too often seems an enterprise fraught with struggle.” [Feasting on the Word, 378].

                Returning to our relationships within a congregation, we can also take from this a reminder that in Paul’s mind to be a follower of Jesus is not a solo activity. We’re supposed to do this thing called Christianity together. I know it’s not easy. Congregations are made up of imperfect human beings. If we look around at the gathered community, to use a different metaphor, from a Christmas TV show, the church may be similar to the “Island of Misfit Toys.” And yet, in God’s grace and wisdom, this unique collection of individuals is incorporated into the one body of Christ, which is empowered by the Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 12, in a lengthier conversation about spiritual gifts, Paul reminds the community that “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). Gifts of the Spirit are not intended for individual use. They have their place in the community, which is called to bring good news to the world.

                So, let’s use the gifts that God has given to the church: if “prophecy, in proportion to faith;  ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching;  the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness” (Rom 12:6-8). If we include the references in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4, we can expand the list. And in my estimation, and as I’ve tried to demonstrate in my book Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, even this expanded list doesn’t cover all the possibilities. All of this begins in God’s grace, but for it to fully express itself, we will need to offer ourselves up to God as a living sacrifice. To conclude, to gain a fuller understanding of these gifts and their role (our roles) in the body, I will recommend reading Unfettered Spirit.

               

 

God’s Irrevocable Covenant – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 11A (Romans 11)

Marc Chagall, White Crucifixion — Art Institute of Chicago


Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 New Revised Standard Version

11 I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.  

29 for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30 Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. 32 For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

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One of the many stains on Christian history is the ongoing presence of anti-Judaism. I use this term instead of anti-Semitism because this term has racial connotations that are modern in origin. Over the years I’ve become increasingly sensitized to the legacy of anti-Jewish views in the church. We can argue whether this is rooted in the New Testament itself or its interpretation through the ages, the fact is, it continues to be present in our churches, even in scholarly efforts. The readings from Romans 9-11 allow us to reflect on this legacy. That is especially true of this reading from Romans 11, which, in my mind, makes clear that Christianity has not replaced Judaism and that God’s covenant with Judaism continues unabated. Therefore, we must repent of this legacy and seek to do everything we can to change the way we relate to the Jewish community.
In the reading from Romans 9, which we examined earlier, Paul expressed his anguish that his Jewish siblings had not embraced the message of Jesus. Even as he preached the Gospel to Gentiles, he hoped that Jews would join him. That reading can give us the impression that God had dissolved the covenant with Israel, but in today’s reading, we discover that this is a wrong impression. Paul might have wished that all Jews took up the cause of Jesus, as he had, but in the end, he must admit that God has not rejected God’s people Israel. This, Romans 11 is an important witness to God’s commitment to the covenant made first with Abraham and later with Moses.
The lectionary provides us with two excerpts from Romans 11. The first excerpt encompasses the opening verses of the chapter. Paul asks a rhetorical question: “has God rejected his people?” He answers that question in the negative by noting his own relationship to Judaism. God hasn’t rejected him, so God hasn’t rejected Israel. He lays claim to the covenant promise as an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, and more specifically as a member of the tribe of Benjamin. In other words, he has done his genealogical work. He lays claim to this heritage. So, whatever happened on the road to Damascus, Paul didn’t convert from Judaism to Christianity (Christianity didn’t exist yet as a separate entity). He was a Jew both before and after that encounter with Jesus. If Paul was already intent on converting Gentiles to his vision of God, then what changed out there on the road to Damascus was his understanding of the path Gentiles would take in experiencing salvation. While Paul sees himself tasked with preaching to Gentiles, no doubt he was hoping that both Jews and Gentiles would be found in this newly emerging Jesus community. The issue isn’t whether the Torah has value. The question is whether adherence to aspects of Torah, such as circumcision was necessary for Gentile believers.
When we read Paul’s letters, we discover his dilemma. He wanted to reach Gentiles and draw them into the new community. He seems to have understood that circumcision may have impeded full conversion. So, he set it aside, though not everyone in the community agreed. Thus, in his attempts to defend himself he gave the impression that he had rejected Judaism. While there are mixed messages in his letters, Paul makes it clear in this passage that he was not rejecting his Jewish heritage. Perhaps the problem isn’t with Paul but in the way his later interpreters have read him?
As we drop down to the second part of the reading, verses 29-32, the message that Paul brings is that God’s covenant promises are irrevocable. It can’t be any clearer. That’s a message we need to hold tightly to. We should step back one verse, though to get a true sense of what Paul is doing here. In verse 28 he writes:   As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; . . . .” This word comes after Paul has already declared in verse 26 that all Israel will be saved. So, what does Paul mean here? Sarah Heaner Lancaster puts her finger on the issue at hand, pointing out that Israel can be God’s enemy and God’s beloved at the same time, because in “refusing to acknowledge the way God is working in Jesus Christ, Israel does not give honor to God, and so they are ‘enemies’ of God.”  But, because, as we read in verse 29, God’s gifts and calling are irrevocable, “God honors the covenant with the patriarchs. The chosen people have always been and always will be beloved. Although God used their refusal for the sake of the Gentiles, God will not forsake Israel” [Lancaster, Romans, p. 198]. It may seem rather complicated, but God will be faithful to the covenant, even if the rejection of Jesus by a majority of Jews spurred on Paul’s mission, God will stay true to the covenant.
The good news is that Gentiles get to share in the salvation of God. We also (speaking as a Gentile) have been included in the covenant people through Jesus. So, even if we stray or become disobedient, God is merciful and gracious. That might not always sit well with us, any more than it sat well with Paul’s opponents. But that is the way of God who has been revealed to us in and through Jesus.
The lectionary reading ends with verse 32, but as Sarah Heaner Lancaster points out, the verses that follow contain a hymn that celebrates the difference between our ways and God’s ways. Thus, “the grandness of God exceeds anything that we may know, and we are not in a position to understand the mind of God or the ways God achieves God’s purposes. The richness of God is the genuine mystery” [Lancaster, Romans, pp. 199-200]. So, I close with that hymn:

  O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 

34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
35 “Or who has given a gift to him,
to receive a gift in return?” 

36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.  (Rom. 11:33-36).

 

Room for Doubt — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 10A (Matthew 14)

Matthew 14:22-33 —New Revised Standard Version

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So, Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

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Our reading this week from the Gospel of Matthew is one that would have caught the attention of David Hume. Hume was a skeptic. He didn’t trust anything he hadn’t experienced himself or had it on good authority of someone he trusted having a particular experience. He was open to new truths, they just had to be provable. Therefore, he would have had trouble with a story about someone walking on water. He would ask us to consider the likelihood of someone walking on water. Have you either walked on water yourself or seen someone walk on water? No, he didn’t trust the testimony of a two-thousand-year-old book.

So, if you’ve never seen someone walk on water then how can you believe that either Jesus or Peter did so? Now, Hume might agree that in their fear the disciples could have projected an image of Jesus walking on the water, but would that be enough to get Peter, who had never walked on water (assuming that humans don’t walk on water), out of the boat on trying to walk himself? Surely, if he tried, as soon as he put his foot outside the boat he would have sunk. Therefore, Hume would conclude this was all a myth. It might have metaphorical value but not historical value.

 This story is one of the best known in the Gospels. It has permeated our cultural mindset so that when too much is asked of us, we ask why people think we can walk on water. After all, we’re not divine beings (and Hume was skeptical about the existence of divine beings), so why should we be expected to walk on water? Of course, some, less skeptical types, have used the text to beat folks over the head for their lack of faith and unwillingness to “get out of the boat.” Years ago, when I was teaching theology at a bible college in Kansas, this story seemed to be a “favorite” of our chapel speakers. These speakers tended to be youth ministers who appealed to the story to call on the students, (and I suppose, we professors as well) to get out of the boat. Don’t doubt, don’t resist God, but get out of the boat and join me in whatever it is I think is the most important concern at the moment.

                Of the two options above, I’d probably side with Hume. After all, isn’t there a place for a little doubt and even skepticism in the life of faith? So, granting that I’ve never seen anyone walk on water, and thus can’t prove the validity of the story, how might we receive this story? We might start by remembering that in the ancient world the sea was often symbolic of chaos and danger (note the storm that shook even this group full of experienced fishermen). Jesus comes to them as the one who has power over the chaos (walks on the waters) and then calms them. Though fearful at first, once Peter recognizes Jesus, he wants to get out of the boat and join Jesus on the water. It’s true, Peter could be impulsive, but at least for a moment, his faith overcame his fear.

                After Peter got out of the boat, he began to sense the power of the wind whipping around him. At that moment, he forgot he was actually walking on water. With his focus now on the wind, he lost his focus on Jesus and began to sink. How often is this true for us? We begin to focus on the noise around us, get distracted by it, and lose our focus on Jesus.

                Yes, Peter began to have his doubts. I expect given the situation, I would have my doubts. I might act impulsively at first, and then realize I hadn’t thought this thing through. I probably would sink as well.

               So, Peter had his doubts, which leads Jesus to ask him why he had so little faith? I think Jesus might have been a little harsh with him, but the question is a good one for us. How much faith is enough? Is a little faith sufficient? If we are saved, that is made whole, through grace, which we receive through faith, how much do we need? Perhaps the good news here is not whether Peter had enough faith, but whether Jesus is willing to embrace us no matter the level of our faith. Remember that Jesus doesn’t leave Peter floundering in the water. He pulls him up and into the boat. If the waves and the winds of this story represent the challenges of our lives, it’s possible that we will step out on faith, flounder, and require a little help from the one who is present with us by the Spirit and calms the waters of life.

                Do we all experience a bit of doubt in life? Do we lose focus? Do we have questions that require answers? Yes to all of these questions, which are important ones. In the end, the question is not whether we doubt, but whether it causes debilitating injury to our souls. When that happens, we need the salvific healing presence of God, which comes to us, Paul says in confessing Jesus as Lord (Romans 10:9).  As for the disciples who stayed in the boat, once Jesus calmed the waters and joined them, they bowed in worship and confess “Truly you are the Son of God.”

                Perhaps we can hear in this story a reminder that despite the possibility of doubt, we can step out in faith. We can take some risks. We may sink, but Jesus is there to catch us. At this moment when the winds of change are whipping around us, a bit of doubt-filled risk-taking might be needed. So, maybe those impetuous youth ministers who liked this story were on to something!

Picture attribution: Tanner, Henry Ossawa, 1859-1937. Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55904 [retrieved August 5, 2020]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Henry_Ossawa_Tanner,_The_Disciples_See_Christ_Walking_on_the_Water,_c._1907.jpg.

 

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

A Hidden Abundance — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 9A (Matthew 14)

A Hidden Abundance — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 9A (Matthew 14)

Lectionary Reflection — reposted from July 29, 2014.

Matthew 14:13-21 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

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There is only one miracle story that is found in all four gospels, and that is the feeding of the 5,000 – plus the women and children.  Whatever happened that day, it caught the imagination of the Gospel writers.  We can debate over whether an actual – factual – miraculous event occurred in which Jesus multiplied a few loaves of bread and a few fish to feed thousands.   To do so likely misses the point of the story.  As Brian McLaren suggests, when it comes to miracle stories, perhaps we should consider a third alternative viewpoint, which stands apart from the traditional yes and no arguments.  Instead “we could ask another question What happens to us when we imagine miracles happening?”  That is, what does this story do to us now?  How does it challenge our assumptions and imaginations?  Thus:

Perhaps, by challenging us to consider impossible possibilities, these stories can stretch our imagination, and in so doing, can empower us to play a catalytic role in co-creating new possibilities for the world tomorrow. [McLaren, We Make the Road by Walkingp. 97].

Keeping in mind Brian McLaren’s suggestion about a story like this playing a catalytic role in creating new possibilities for the world, what might we hear in this passage for today?  Consider for a moment that in Matthew’s gospel, this story follows immediately after Herod has had John the Baptist executed.  Jesus, knowing that his co-conspirator in proclaiming the realm of God has been killed, wants to get away from the crowds, so he can regroup.  Could he be next?  His attempt to get away – to go on vacation – fails.  Jesus’ inability to get away reminds me of what it must be like to be President.  Stuff just follows after the President.  He can’t let down, even for a moment, or someone will criticize him.  Besides, he takes with him a team of advisors.  I’m reminded too of how President Lincoln found it necessary to get away from the White House just so he could think about what was happening in the war effort.  So it is with Jesus.  He needs to find a quiet place, a place in the wilderness.  He even takes a boat so he can evade the crowds.  But his efforts to find a secluded spot falter.  When he sees them, he has compassion for them, and he begins to heal their sick.

As the day began to wind down, the disciples began to get anxious about the crowd.  They had to be hungry, and a hungry crowd can be an unruly one.  Fear is setting in.  So, they encourage Jesus to bring the healing session to a close and send them off to the surrounding villages, so they can find something to eat.  We can understand their concern.  Anyone who is tasked with logistics understands that you have to make sure things don’t get out of hand.

Jesus, as you might imagine, has other ideas.  Although he had refused to turn stone into bread to feed himself, he was willing to provide nourishment for those who had come to him seeking his blessing.  Doing this was, of course risky.  People can get used to such things – as John reminds us (John 6).  They can get the wrong idea, especially if they think you’re the one who will rescue the nation from its current overlords.  At this moment in time, as Matthew tells the story, Jesus isn’t too worried.  Instead, he tells the disciples to feed the crowd.   Yes, he tells them, you feed them.  They’re flabbergasted.  How does Jesus expect them, twelve guys, who can scrounge up just five loaves of bread and a couple of fish between them, to feed this massive crowd?

Jesus won’t be deterred by their groans (don’t you hear the groans between the lines?).  He simply asks them to give an account of what they have.  They say they have nothing, but they do have something.  They have five loaves of bread and two fish.  Jesus tells them to give what they have to him.  He looks up into the heavens, acknowledging God’s presence, gives thanks, blesses it, and then he gives the disciples this food and invites them to distribute it to the crowd.  With that many people, this would take a bit of time.  When they finish, Jesus asks them how it went.  Did they have enough to feed everyone?  Was it like a typical church potluck, where there’s always more food than people?  Amazingly they had more food after the feeding than before.  How that happened, Matthew doesn’t say.

This story invites us to consider the hidden abundance that is in our midst.  I don’t know how Jesus did it.  Was it a miracle?  Or did Jesus set the example for those who had brought food for themselves, never intending to share, but finding it appropriate to share what they had once Jesus started the distribution?  Again, we’re not told how it happened, only that everyone ate, was filled, and there was more food left over than when they began.

What about us?  What about the hidden abundance that is present in our midst?  Do we feel as if there is nothing in the pantry, or is there enough present to be used by God to bless others?   As I think about this story, I’m reminded of the children who have come to our borders from Central America.  They’re fleeing poverty and violence back home.  Some of the children are as young as six.  They’ve traveled hundreds of miles, often sitting on the top or sides of trains.  They’ve risked death to make it to the Promised Land.  Some hope to be reunited with family.  Others simply hope that their journey will lead to a better life.   What would Jesus say to them?   Would he turn them away or would he say to us on this side of the border – you feed them.  You clothe them.  You house them.  We say, but what about the cost.  We can’t afford it.  There are too many problems here at home.  What would Jesus say to us, as we down a second helping of dessert?   There are no easy solutions to the crisis at the border or to the challenges facing our urban centers and rural heartlands.  There is plenty of poverty here at home – but the challenges of the border don’t prevent us from handling these crises.  We’ve been ignoring them long before these children showed up at the border.

The story of the feeding of the 5000 falls not just after the death of John, but in Matthew’s version, it comes after Matthew has laid out his collection of parables of the kingdom.  He has shown us through Jesus’ words what the kingdom looks like (Matthew 13).  Now, in a series of miracles we see additional signs of the kingdom.  There is healing, there is feeding, there is power.  How do these stories release our imagination?  How do they dislodge the hidden resources so that they can be brought forth and used for the good of the kingdom?

The way in which Jesus goes about feeding the 5000 should evoke in our hearts and minds the image of the Eucharist.  In the story of the Last Supper, Jesus takes bread, blesses it, and gives it to the disciples.  They are told to continue the practice, eating and drinking, in memory of Jesus.  As we share bread with our neighbors, are we not remembering Jesus?  Does not the act of giving serve as an act of thanksgiving?  Should we not begin to see the sacramental table of the Lord being an open one that takes many forms – including the soup kitchen or welcoming the children knocking at our borders?

Picture attribution — Swanson, John August. Loaves and Fishes, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56553 [retrieved July 28, 2020]. Original source: http://www.JohnAugustSwanson.com – copyright 2003 by John August Swanson.

 

An Elect People — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 9A (Romans 9)

Romans 9:1-5 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

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                This reading from Romans is a bit truncated. It starts with a lament and concludes with a word of thanksgiving, but it feels like something is missing. It feels like there is more to this story than has been revealed in these opening lines of chapter nine. The truth is, there is more to the story. This is the opening paragraph of a conversation about the relationship of the emergent Christianity with its Jewish parentage. It is the kind of reading that lends itself to supersessionism. So, we must tread carefully.

                If we remove verses 1-3, we celebrate Israel’s chosenness. To Israel belongs adoption, glory, covenants, the law, worship, promises patriarchs. Indeed, even the Messiah (the Christ) belongs to Israel, at least according to the flesh. So, blessed be God. If this is true, then why is Paul expressing his great sorrow and anguish? If we follow the story into verse six, we get a sense of why he might be filled with sorrow. Though Israel is the elect of God, not all Israelites belong to Israel. That is, Paul is suggesting that spiritual descent, rather than physical descent is what counts in determining whether one belongs to Israel.  “This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants” (Rom. 9:8). Here is where the trouble begins, at least for interpreters of Paul’s Roman letter.

                We need to read these verses with the larger context of Romans 9-11 in mind. Paul is grieving because his people, Israel, did not fully embrace Jesus as Messiah. At points in these chapters, it may appear that Paul is suggesting that God has abandoned the original covenant. While he gives that impression at points, in the end, he is clear that the covenant is everlasting (Rom. 11:29). Nevertheless, there is a lot of turmoil yet to be experienced.

Truth be told, these are difficult chapters to interpret, which means there is a lot of room for misinterpretation and misapplication, including support for anti-Judaism and antisemitism. It does appear that the rejection of Jesus as messiah has its consequences, which is why Paul is grieving. Nevertheless, in the end, Israel will be saved. We might start with the premise that while Paul heard the call to proclaim the Gospel to the Gentiles, he hadn’t forgotten Israel. So, he wrestles with the question of where Israel fits into this new work of God. He’s already affirmed in chapter 8 that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Certainly, that applies to his fellow Jews (Rom 8:38-39). As Kyle Fedler notes “the key to today’s lectionary text is 9:6, which is really just a restatement of 8:38-39. Indeed, this verse is the key to Romans 9-11: ‘It is not as though the word of God had failed.’” [Feasting on the Word, p. 306]. While the reading ends with verse 5, it is wise to continue reading, to be reminded that while we may be unfaithful, God is always faithful to the covenant. We might want to think in terms here of Paul’s feelings about the reluctance of the majority of Jews to adopt his messianic vision. He believes there are consequences to this rejection of Jesus, though not eternal ones.

                So, what should we make of this reading? It is brief and a bit ambiguous. What message might it have for us? One takeaway that we must avoid is the suggestion that has plagued Jewish-Christian relations for two millennia. That suggestion is that God has rejected the Jews in favor of Christians as the new people of God. God will remain committed to the covenant whether or not the people remain faithful.

                One word we hear in these opening lines is Paul’s sense of solidarity with his people. He wished they would respond as he had, but he doesn’t separate himself from his people. He celebrates the blessings that belong to the Jewish people, including the covenant and the messiah who emerged from within this people to bless the broader world. So, we who are Gentiles can read this as a reminder that the blessings that come to us as followers of Jesus have their origins in the Jewish people, who gave us Jesus the Messiah.

                Might we, following Karl Barth, hear in this a word about the church as being counted as among the elect of God without displacing Israel? Barth suggests in his commentary that in making this statement Paul is reluctantly breaking with the Pharisees. There is a sadness here, but he is part of a new community, the church. But, perhaps the word to us, as the church is that we should not take our place in God’s realm for granted. As Barth puts it: “In so far as ‘God’ is that which we, in the company of all other men, can know and define and worship, the assertion stands. In so far,  however, as God is He that ruleth all things,  there is embedded in the assertion a doubt, nay more, a complaint and an accusation: God does not belong to the Church.” [Barth, Epistle to the Romans, p. 339].

                Perhaps that is the word we should take to heart here, as the Church. God doesn’t belong to us. We don’t possess God. God transcends our grasp. Perhaps that means we don’t get to control access to God. As Grace Ji-Sun Kim puts it: “God remains in control and will accomplish God’s redemptive purposes. The missional life of Christians is expressed by how we live, share, and work for justice with others who are also God’s people” [Preaching God’s TransformingJustice, p. 344]. That, I believe, is a word worth hearing!