Category: Lent

High Priestly Duties – A Lectionary Reflection for Lent 5B (Hebrews 5)

Hebrews 5:5-10 New Revised Standard Version

So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,

“You are my Son,
today I have begotten you”;

as he says also in another place,

“You are a priest forever,
according to the order of Melchizedek.”

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, 10 having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

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                In 1 Peter 2, we’re told that to be in Christ is to be part of a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9). That revelation led to the doctrine, especially prominent among Protestants, of the “priesthood of all believers.” The document that guides the ordering of ministry in my denomination—The Theological Foundations for the Ordering of Ministry in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)—speaks directly to this understanding of priesthood: “In Christ the individual becomes a member of ‘a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of God’s own possession’ (1Peter 2:9). Thus it has been common to speak of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ —the persons who live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ in the church and in the world. This language highlights the sacramentality of the work of the laity through whose witness and service the grace of God is made manifest.” If we are all part of this royal priesthood, who is the high priest? In the Book of Hebrews, we are told that Jesus is the high priest. Of course, there is a caveat here, and we’ll need to address it. That caveat has to do with the qualifications for being a priest and whether Jesus actually qualifies.

                In ancient Israel, the priesthood was limited to the tribe of Levi, while the high priests were to be lineal descendants of Aaron. As for Jesus, he was neither a Levite nor a descendant of Aaron. So, how might he be our high priest? According to the genealogies in Matthew and Luke Jesus was a descendant of David, which made him a member of the tribe of Judah. That seeming barrier does stop the author of Hebrews from creating a workaround so that Jesus might qualify. While Jesus might not be a descendant of Aaron, Hebrews simply calls Jesus a priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

                Before we get to this mysterious Order of Melchizedek, we would be wise to begin with the question of Jesus’ appointment to the office of high priest. Then we can turn to Melchizedek and the implications of this passage for our Lenten journey.  The reading from Hebrews 5:5-10 is part of a larger section of the letter that begins in verse 14 of chapter 4. In the opening lines of the section, the author of Hebrews (Hebrews is anonymous) writes that “since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.” We’re also told that this high priest can sympathize with our weaknesses. He was “tested as we are” and yet he did not sin. Therefore, we can “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16).  

                Having learned about this high priest who was tested and yet without sin, when we come to verses 5-6 of chapter 5, we are told that when appointed to this position, Jesus did not glorify himself but was appointed to the position by God. Thus, the author draws upon the Psalms to describe the qualifications of this high priest. First, God says of this high priest, “you are my Son, today I have begotten you” (Ps. 2:7). So, the main qualification here is that Jesus is the Son of God. Then, we learn that Jesus is “a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek” (Ps. 110:4).  

                The author of Hebrews makes it clear that one does not appoint oneself to the position of high priest. In the verse prior to our passage, we read that “one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was (Heb. 5:4). As noted above, Jesus did not descend from the priestly line, so Hebrews links him to the mysterious Melchizedek, who appears in Genesis as the priest-king of Salem who receives tithes from Abraham and blesses him (Gen. 14:17-20). This figure suddenly appears and then disappears from the story. But, the author of Hebrews discovers in this mysterious figure the means to unlock Jesus’ high priestly calling. He might not have an Aaronic pedigree, but he has something else, something rooted in mystery. Interestingly, it’s only in Hebrews that Jesus is connected to Melchizedek. But the identification of the too is intriguing.   

                Having been appointed to this position as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek by God, in large part because of his status as Son of God, Jesus takes up his priestly duties. During his earthly life, Jesus “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death.” Here is a reference to Jesus’ priestly duties taken up, it would appear, while on the cross. He was heard because of his submission to the one who appointed him to this role. He was heard because of his submission. Though he held the status as Son of God, in words reminiscent of what Paul said of Jesus in Philippians 2—he “learned obedience through what he suffered.” It was in this suffering that he was perfected and became the source of our salvation. Nothing is said here about being a substitute sacrificed for our sins. The point simply is that his pathway to this priesthood of Melchizedek included the suffering of the cross.  

                Back in Hebrews 4, the author reveals that Jesus is not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses. He too has been tested and yet did not sin (Heb 4:15-17). That testing includes suffering. Jesus can understand our struggles, our sufferings, because he also suffered. This is the foundation of his priesthood. You might say that he graduated from the school of hard knocks. This is true even though he was the Son of God. That status did not prevent him from experiencing human realities, therefore, we can put our trust in him. In this, we find good news.

The Rich Mercy of God – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 4B (Ephesians 2)

Ephesians 2:1-10 New Revised Standard Version

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

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                As the Lenten journey continues, we are continually invited to engage in self-examination. That can be challenging. If we look too deeply, we might find things buried inside that we’d rather not see the light of day. We all have those secret things that we wrestle with, and that we work hard at keeping them at bay, so they don’t define our lives. Here in the Ephesian letter, we read a word likely spoken to Gentiles, whom the author of the letter suggests had been children of wrath. That is, they once lived in bondage to a spiritual power that kept them separated from their Creator. But there is good news here. God’s mercy reigns. There will be liberation from the bondage. Once they were children of wrath, but that is no longer true, so now they can embrace the good works God has prepared from them.

                Before we get to the heart of the matter, I need to address the question of authorship. While traditionally authorship has been assigned to Paul. After all, the letter begins with a greeting from the Apostle (Eph. 1:1). Nevertheless, many scholars have questioned that claim, believing that the letter comes from a later time. As for the identity of the author, I tend not to take sides. When I wrote my study guide on Ephesians, I left the question of authorship open. There are good arguments on both sides, but I’m not sure that authorship is going to make too much of a difference to our interpretation of this passage. However, in the pursuit of brevity, I’m going to use Paul’s name in this meditation. As I do so, I hold this ascription very lightly!

                What I discern here in Ephesians 2 is a reminder that there is a spiritual realm that influences/affects our lives. According to Paul (remember for our purposes I’m using the traditional author) there are powers, both good and evil present in the universe. We would be wise to keep that in mind as we attend to our Lenten journey. Concerning this spiritual realm, Richard Beck has done a marvelous job in explaining how things work in his book Reviving Old Scratch. Just to be clear, “Old Scratch” is another name for the devil. He writes: “I’d love to have a Christianity full of rainbows and daisies, full of love and inclusion. But there are forces working against love and inclusion in the world, and some of those forces are at work in my own heart and mind. We call those forces hate and exclusion, to say nothing about everything else that is tearing the world to shreds, pushing the loving and gracious rule of God out of the world” [Reviving Old Scratch, p. 10]. So, have you noticed those forces at work of late? I have and sometimes they’ve been at work in me.

                Might this be what Paul has in mind when speaking of the ruler of the power of the air? The Enlightenment mindset sought to eliminate the spiritual/supernatural realm. Science or at least reason was expected to explain everything (I’m not anti-science here, just to be clear). In this modern view of things, there was no room for the devil. While there might not be a “personal” devil out there, I do believe there are malignant spiritual forces that entrap us and keep us in bondage. Lent gives us the opportunity to pause and check to see if any of these forces have taken hold of our lives. If so, we can give thanks for God’s mercy that can recalibrate our lives, so we live in tune with God’s vision for creation. Although these spiritual forces continually seek to push God out of the picture, God isn’t going anywhere.

                The good news that comes to us from the Ephesian letter is that God is “rich in mercy.” In fact, God loved us even when we were caught up in this web of wrath and because of that, God has been providing us a way out of the morass through faith in Christ. As we consider how Jesus does this, we might want to keep in mind that the Gospel writers regularly picture Jesus engaging in exorcisms. It was one of the ways in which he healed people. He did so as an expression of God’s mercy and grace. So, it is by this grace that we are saved, we are healed.  We receive the healing by faith, but it is the work of God that provides the healing/salvation. In doing this, God raises us up with Christ so that we might be seated with him in the heavenly places.

                In this passage, the emphasis is on grace. We can’t work our way into the heavenly places? We don’t earn the right to sit with Jesus. That’s a gift of grace. However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing for us to do. In fact, God has prepared works for us to do. These works also come as gifts of grace. So, who we are now is not the same as who we were before the divine encounter with Jesus, and so we live accordingly. Once we were dead in our sins, now we are alive in Christ! That is because, due to the rich mercy of God, the prince of the power of the air no longer holds sway in our lives! That is good truly news.   

The Foolishness of the Cross – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 3B (1 Corinthians 1)

 

The Crucifixion — Taddeo di Bartolo (Art Institute of Chicago)

 

1 Corinthians 1:18-31 New Revised Standard Version

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. 19 For it is written, 

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
    and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

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Ah, holy Jesus, how has thou offended, 

that mortal judgment that on thee descended?

By foes derided, by the world rejected, O most afflicted! 

—Johannn Heerman (Chalice Hymnal, 210).

                The scandal of the Gospel is that it is centered in a message about a crucified  messiah. What is it about a figure who suffered a humiliating death on one of the cruelest forms of execution ever devised that would attract anyone? Truly it would be foolishness to embrace such a one as Jesus of Nazareth, who met his death on a Roman cross outside a city in a backwater part of the Roman Empire.

                The cross continues to be a scandal. For some within the Christian community, the way in which Jesus is often portrayed as a means of satisfying the demands for blood on the part of a wrathful God causes angst.  This is because some forms of atonement theory can look a lot like divine child abuse. Thus, for some, it seems as if it would be better if we eschew the message of Good Friday and simply skip from Palm Sunday to Easter, from one triumph to another. Of course, there are others who worry that a religious leader who dies on a cross might look like a loser. Who wants to be associated with a loser. Maybe we can photoshop out the cross and simply focus on a Jesus sitting on a throne.  Nevertheless, Paul makes it clear to critics, both Jewish and Greek, ancient and modern, that he is going to “proclaim Christ crucified.” Just so you know, Paul’s not afraid of being associated with someone the world might consider a loser.

               It’s appropriate to situate this word about the cross in an imperial context. The Romans valued power. They ruled a vast empire on the basis of their military might. They built roads that made commerce efficient, but just like our modern interstates, these roads had a military purpose. In fact, it was the Roman legions who built the roads so they could move quickly across the empire. The religions of the empire tended to emphasize power as well. The mystery religions promised their adherents access to power that was intoxicating. So, it’s not surprising that these young Christians in Corinth would have expected something similar from their religious tradition. Some of them might have been embarrassed by Paul’s preaching a gospel that placed the cross at the center.

                We encounter this word from Paul as we journey through Lent, a season that invites us to let go of things that impede our relationship with Jesus. It invites us to consider how the cross of Jesus defines our faith. Perhaps it’s the desire for power that we need to let go of so that we might share in a different kind of power. This is the kind of power that emerges from humility. It’s a very different message from the one proclaimed by imperial Rome. Is it not different from the message we hear in our culture? Who wants to be a loser or aligned with a loser?

                Here is how Paul defined the way of the cross. He informed his readers that God wasn’t interested in hanging out with the rich and powerful of this world. Instead, God had chosen the “low and despised in the world” to identify with. This is the message revealed in Jesus’s death on a cross. What we see in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is evidence of class-based division. Most likely a large portion of this Christian community was poor. Many might have been slaves. There were, of course, wealthier members, who seemed intent on having power over the poor and the despised. Paul responds to this division by reminding the people that Jesus had died on a cross, despised by those who were in power and those who prized power.

                Paul emphasized God’s identification with the ones the world considered to be expendable and losers, recognizing that for many it appeared that Rome’s power reigned supreme. Was not Jesus’ death an expression of weakness? If so, is this not foolishness? Now, Paul understood that there was more to the story than simply Jesus’ death. Paul knew that his proclamation of this message of the cross included the resurrection. It might appear that Rome won, but did it really? That is a question we need to wrestle with in our day. What does it mean to win?

                Ever since Constantine decided to make Christianity a recognized religion, we’ve tended to rethink the message of the cross. For Constantine, it was a symbol of conquest. He would not be the last to conquer in the name of the cross. What was once a symbol of weakness has been transformed into a symbol of political and military power. Many Christians today have found the promise of gaining power over others, of using the premise of religious liberty to discriminate, rather intoxicating. In fact, it appears that quite a number of Christians have given their allegiance to a figure who promised them power in exchange for loyalty. They have given themselves over to his vision of dominance over others. Lest we think ourselves immune from the intoxicating allure of political power, we might want to heed Paul’s words here. We might want to remember that we are called to live in a relationship with one whose death on a cross was deemed foolish.

                It might help us gain perspective on our place in the world if we remember that this message Paul delivers to the Corinthians is rooted in an eschatological vision of reality. Rome represented the old age, while Jesus represents the new age. We have a choice. We can stay with Rome, which promises victory. Or we can embrace Jesus, who also offers a vision of victory, but of a very different kind. Yes, it might appear that Rome has won, but if dive below the surface of our reality, we will discover that the crucified Jesus is risen and has set in motion a new way of living before God. That is a message worth considering during this Lenten season.    

Reckoned as Righteous – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 2B (Romans 4)

Romans 4:13-25  New
Revised Standard Version

13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18 Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20 No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 23 Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

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                How might a person be reckoned as righteous? Is it by faith or by keeping the law? Is it even possible to keep the law so as to be judged righteous before God? And what does being so reckoned lead to? According to Paul, it may have something to do with the inheritance given to Abraham and his descendants. What would that be? According to Paul, that inheritance given to Abraham and his heirs is the world (Rom. 4:13). To suggest that it is through the law, again according to Paul, would make faith null and void. Therefore, the inheritance must be an act of grace received through faith. That sounds like a message Martin Luther would embrace! The idea that we are justified by faith has been a central part of the Christian confession, but like everything in life, things are more complicated than what might be revealed in a simple slogan like sola fide, sola gratia (faith alone, grace alone).

                Here in Romans 4, Paul focuses our attention on Abraham our Ancestor, who believed God and therefore was reckoned or counted as righteous (Rom. 4:1-3; Gen. 15:6). The premise of chapter 4 is that Abraham’s relationship with God rested in God’s
grace and did not depend on his adherence to the law. If by law, one means Torah, then he would not have had that available to him, as it was revealed at Sinai. What Paul is getting at here is that Abraham’s relationship with God, a relationship that declared him righteous, which made him the recipient of God’s promise, rests on God’s grace, which Abraham received by faith. It is through faith that he and his descendants shall receive the inheritance (vs. 13). The promise that is spoken of here is summarized in a word given to Abraham by the Angel of the Lord: “I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and the as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice” (Gen. 22:17-18). Interestingly enough, in Genesis 22, the blessing is pronounced after Abraham showed his willingness to offer Isaac, the chosen one, as a sacrifice in response to God’s request.   

                Regarding the Law, in this chapter, Paul seems rather negative. But, I wonder whether Paul should be seen as rejecting the Law. It seems to me that Paul wants to broaden the possibilities by which one is included in the covenant community. He’s concerned that the requirement to be circumcised would be a stumbling block to Gentiles (Rom 4:9-10). In Paul’s mind, Abraham was declared righteous before he was circumcised. Circumcision was not a requirement for this declaration, but it did seal the relationship, much like baptism seals the commitment Christians make to follow Jesus. Now, it’s true that Paul did say that the law brings wrath and if there is no law there is no violation, but isn’t that a technicality? It’s like saying, if we don’t get tested for COVID-19 then we don’t have COVID. 

                If we look closely at Paul’s message, we’ll see that if received by faith, the promise is extended both to those who are adherents of the Law (Jews) and those who are not (Gentiles) (Rom. 4:16). Perhaps that is the key for Paul. He is emphasizing a broader view of what it means to be a descendant of Abraham. As Paul reminds us, Abraham is not only the father of Israel but is the father of many nations. Therefore, while Israel is included in the inheritance, others are as well. That is true for both those who are adherents of the Law and those who are not. As Karl Barth writes:

Since the heirs are what they are not through the law by of faith, not as a consequence of moral and historical status but according to grace, it follows as a matter of course that participation in that company cannot be confined to those who have been made children of Abraham according to the law, cannot be limited to the historical Israel, or to those who accept a particular and definite and historical tradition and doctrine, or to those who are members of some particular ‘movement.’ Such limitation in the number heirs makes the inheritance itself more than insecure (iv. 14, 15). As the recipient of the promise, Abraham stands outside every historical and particular company of men; similarly his true seed, being the race of believers, likewise stand outside. [Barth, Epistle to the Romans, pp. 138-139].  

I might be taking this a bit farther than Barth might, but it does seem to make sense that if inclusion in the family is by grace, then we might see this as broadening out beyond believers in Jesus. It is worth pondering for a moment that Muslims understand themselves to be heirs of Abraham through Ishmael. So, what does it mean for Abraham to be the father of many nations?

                I sense that Paul might take a narrower view of who is included among the heirs than I just suggested, but it’s worth pondering. For Paul, Abraham is understood to be the ancestor of those who believe and walk in faith. For Paul that involves who
“believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (Rom 4:24-25).  Thus, in Paul’s mind, circumcision isn’t a requirement when it comes to being judged righteous (justification). Only faith is necessary. It is worth noting here that the lectionary reading from Genesis 17, stipulated for this Sunday, excludes the verses that refer to circumcision as the seal of the covenant. While the lectionary creators set aside reference to circumcision, it’s there in Genesis 17 (Gen. 17:9-14). Paul is aware of this and acknowledges it (Rom 4:11). Of course, all of this takes place before the Law is instituted at Sinai, but circumcision was instituted long before Sinai.

                Paul draws on the promise of God made to Abraham and Sarah as a foundation for the inclusion of Gentiles in the family of God. He suggests, again just before our reading, that Abraham is the “ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them” (vs. 11). While Paul doesn’t seem to have a problem with the Law as it applies to Jews, he does not see the Law as the appropriate means through which Gentiles will be included in the blessing promised to Abraham. After all, Abraham received God’s call by faith, believing that though he and Sarah didn’t have children of their own, somehow God would take care of that problem. In other words, they trusted God’s promise.

                Now, if you follow the story of Abraham, you know that Abraham did try on occasion to take matters into his own hands. Nevertheless, Paul wants to claim that the promise made to Abraham was an act of grace. Therefore, those who are considered heirs with Abraham, are recipients of the same grace. That means that Gentiles enter the covenant community that is rooted in the promise made to Abraham through faith in Jesus.

                If we read Paul here through the lens of the covenant that God made with Abraham and Sarah, which is a covenant of blessing (Gen. 12, 17), then it seems right that we should embrace our place in the family with humility. After all, it is not by biological descent that we Gentiles trace our heritage back to Abraham. Rather it is through an adoption that Jesus engineered on our behalf. For that, we give thanks that by God’s grace we’ve been added to the family that inherits the earth.

The Way of Salvation – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 1B (1 Peter 3)

Coventry Cathedral Baptistry

1 Peter 3:13-22 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

13 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14 But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15 but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

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                As we begin the Lenten journey, the Second Reading, which generally takes us to one of the  Epistles, invites us to consider the words found in 1 Peter 3. Although this letter is attributed to the Apostle Peter, we don’t know the identity of the author. However, in the course of this reflection, I will simply speak of the author as Peter.

                I’ve titled the reflection “The Way of Salvation” because that seems to be the focus here. Peter is concerned that his audience, which is experiencing suffering, could fall away. He acknowledges their suffering in the verses that are excluded from the passage designated by the Revised Common Lectionary (verses 13-17) but reminds them that they are not alone in their suffering. Remember that Jesus himself suffered, the righteous for the unrighteous (vs. 18). So, stay the course and emulate Jesus. This is the way of salvation. However, know that you do not walk the path alone. Jesus has already been there!

                I decided to include the excluded opening verses of the paragraph (13-17) because they provide the reason for Peter’s words about Jesus. Peter reminds them that though they suffer, they have a reward waiting for them. Before we get to Jesus, we need to address the suffering incurred by his followers. A passage like this could do some harm if it leads to the conclusion that suffering is either a divine punishment or the promise of a heavenly reward leads deadens us to suffering. That is, it becomes the opiate of the people that is used to oppress people in the name of heaven.   

                While suffering is part of life, and we may grow through our experiences of suffering, not all suffering is the same. This was brought home to me by James Henry Harris, whose book Black Suffering: Silent Pain, Hidden Hope, is a reminder that “all Black suffering relates back to evil—an evil grounded in American chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws and practices, and the residuals of perpetual hate” [Harris, p.20]. As one who is white and male, I need to acknowledge that I have not experienced systemic suffering as described by Rev. Harris and that at times I’ve benefited from it. Such suffering we must do what we can to rectify such situations.

                In the context of this letter, the suffering experienced is related to one’s participation in the community gathered around the name of Jesus. The message has a strong eschatological dimension to it, as it speaks of a heavenly reward. In other words, if you persevere through this time of suffering you will experience heaven’s joys. So, don’t be afraid as the pagans are afraid. Whatever fear you may have, let it be reverence for God. When your faith is challenged, as appears to be the case, don’t be intimidated. Instead, be confident as you graciously answer that challenge. Be confident in your profession of faith and sanctify Christ in your hearts.

                Even as Peter encourages the people to stand fast in their faith in the midst of their suffering (and the nature of that suffering isn’t fully revealed), Peter tells the people to be prepared to make a defense of their faith. What Peter has in mind here isn’t the same thing as what we find in modern apologetics. Nor is it Schleiermacher’s speeches to the cultured despisers. This seems to be more of a life and death situation. He encourages them to give an account of their faith by sharing that hope that is within them. Reveal why one follows Jesus when suffering is a possibility, and do so with gentleness and reverence, keeping a clear conscience. Then when you are maligned, those who seek to abuse you will be put to shame.

                Having addressed this situation, we turn to the suffering experienced by Jesus. His suffering is a result of human sin, so he has suffered as one who is righteous for those who are unrighteous, so as to bring them to God. While he was put to death in the flesh, he was made alive in the Spirit. There is in this passage an atonement theory. The theory that seems to fit best here is Christus Victor. That is, Christ saves us in that through his death and resurrection, Jesus triumphed over evil—once and for all.  It’s not that he is a substitute sacrifice. Instead, Jesus overcomes the power of sin and death through his own death and resurrection. Another way of looking at this word is offered by Wendy Farley in her book Beguiled by Beauty. Though she doesn’t address this passage, I think she speaks to something similar when she writes that “Jesus entered history to witness to its turmoil, poverty, and
imperial violence. In Jesus, we see the story of humanity itself. The Beloved enters history and suffers with us so that we will not be deserted or alone in whatever befalls us. In the passion of Christ, we are promised an ever-faithful companion in suffering and shown a glimpse of something beyond the seeming victories of suffering” [Beguiled by Beauty, pp. 124-125]. 

                Peter isn’t finished, however, he has something to say about Jesus preaching to the “spirits in prison.” The question is, what does Peter mean? While Peter isn’t clear here, the spirits spoken of here could have been the angels who rebelled—the watchers of 1 Enoch. It could also be read in connection with the message about those who didn’t believe Noah who was saved through the water of judgment. By the early second century, this idea had developed into the doctrine of the “harrowing of hell.”
That is, on Holy Saturday, Jesus descended into hell, preached to the spirits there, and converted them thereby releasing them from death’s control. There is even reference to this in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where C.S. Lewis speaks of Aslan “ransacking the witch’s fortress,” seeking out all whom she had turned to stone after the Stone Table is broken with his resurrection.

                Peter connects this reference to Jesus’ preaching to spirits in prison with those for whom God waited patiently in the time of Noah. He notes that in the building of the Ark, eight persons were saved through water. He makes this reference to Noah analogous to baptism, which he says now saves us. How does baptism save us? To Peter, this is not a removal of dirt from the body, but an appeal to God for a good conscience. The appeal for a good conscience takes place in the context of the resurrection of Jesus, who is now in heaven, seated at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him. This imagery of Noah and the ark as a symbol of baptism, reminds us, as Ron Allen suggests that “the power of God is so awesome that God transforms the flood water into the means of salvation. From this perspective, 1 Peter’s attitude toward baptism is similar to that of the Reformers: Baptism is a sign from God to assure the congregation of God’s continuing providence, even amid the suffering that comes from faithfulness” [Feasting on the Word, p. 42]. Thus, we move from a reminder that though we suffer Jesus
suffers with us, to a word about baptism, so that we will know that through it all, God is with us in Christ. That is a good way to start the Lenten journey.

 

Coventry Cathedral – Baptistery, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54899 [retrieved February 14, 2021]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevecadman/2652744641/.

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/.

The Blessings of Abraham’s Faith – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 2A (Romans 4)

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

4 What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. 5 But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. 

13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. 

16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

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                 The Revised Common Lectionary started off the Lenten season with a reading from Romans 5:12-19. The focus there was on the contrast between the first Adam, through whom sin and then death entered the world, and the last Adam, Jesus, through whom life was restored. With that word laid before us, we gather for the second week of Lent. This week the Lectionary’s Second Reading asks us to step back to the fourth chapter of Romans. Here Paul speaks not of Adam, nor even of Jesus, but of Abraham, our ancestor in the faith. The message here is that justification comes not through law, which did not exist at the moment of Abraham’s call, but rather through grace. In other words, writing to a new Christian community Paul skips over Moses and goes directly to Abraham, our father in the faith.

                Abraham was the ancestor, according to the flesh, of the Jewish people through Isaac and his descendants. It is to this community of descendants that the Law would eventually be given. This was according to the promise of God, that Abraham would be the ancestor to many nations. Truth be told, Abraham’s family tree spread out not only through Isaac but also through Ishmael (son of Abraham and Hagar). Isaac had two sons. Jacob, known also as Israel, would be the ancestor of the Jewish people, but his brother Esau would be the ancestor of Edom. So, when we hear the promise that through his descendants the nations would be blessed, we might ask which descendants we’re talking about.

                Abraham is an interesting figure, and I think we probably need to go beyond Paul’s descriptions to truly get a sense of his place in the story. Paul wants us to see Abraham as our spiritual ancestor, even if we don’t descend from his lineage according to the flesh. According to Paul, the way this happens is through grace. Paul’s reading of Scripture, more specifically Genesis 15:6 (LXX), tells us that “Abraham believed God and this was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Thus, no works are involved, just belief or trust. However, as CEB Cranfield notes, Rabbinic readings, as well as Philo, read this quite differently [Cranfield, Romans, 1:229]. For them, more than Abraham’s belief or trust in God; it also involved specific actions (Works). These works included circumcision, something Paul didn’t want to impose on Gentile believers. Nevertheless, Paul took on a verse that might prove otherwise and suggested that he had the correct interpretation.  Interestingly, the Common English Bible version of Genesis 15:6, which draws not from the Septuagint but the Masoretic text would seem to go against Paul’s reading: “Abram trusted the Lord, and the Lord recognized Abram’s high moral character” (Gen 15:6 CEB). So, who has the correct interpretation? Paul or the Rabbis?

                As we continue our journey into Lent, how might we engage this account of Abraham being our spiritual ancestor? It’s clear that Paul is seeking to expand the definition of what it means to be a descendant of Abraham, extending the definition of being a child of Abraham to those who are not circumcised (even though Abraham circumcised the males in his household as a sign of his faithfulness to the covenant). In Paul’s mind, if Abraham’s call and the promise that goes with it predates the giving of the Law, then something other than adherence to the Law would define one’s position in the family tree. After all, Abraham couldn’t have been justified on the basis of the Law of Moses, which had not been revealed. So, as Sarah Heaner Lancaster notes, Abraham “obeyed God, but he did not do so by following the written prescriptions that were to come. In this, too, he is like the Gentiles about which Paul is concerned, who obey by following something unwritten rather than something written. Abraham was in right standing with God because he was faithful in his trust of God, so his faithfulness justified him” [Lancaster, Romans, p. 77]. If this is true for Abraham, might it also be true for Gentile believers who come to God through Christ, but not through the Law? Later, Paul will reveal that Gentile believers have been grafted into the vine that is Abraham’s descendants, but only through faith not by works (Rom 11:17-21).

                The first reading for the week, from Genesis 12:1-4a contains the promise that Paul takes hold of in verse 17 of Romans 4. In that original divine call, Abraham receives the promise that will lead him to pack up the family and head off to a new land, walking simply by faith. This, according to Paul, is the act of faith to which we are to take hold of, and which brings Gentiles into the fold. But remember, this faith goes both ways. God puts faith in Abraham, even as Abraham puts faith in God’s promises.

                All this said, is Paul an antinomian? That is, does he believe that there is no such thing as right or wrong? Does he mean that ethics don’t matter? I don’t think so. But I do believe Paul wants us to keep things in their proper order. Do we start with works or merit or do we start with grace? Might it be that good works are the product of a life of faith? If the latter is true, then we might read James as a not so subtle reminder that sometimes readers of Paul got him wrong. Remember that Paul did say that while all things are lawful, not all things are profitable. (1 Cor. 6:12; 1 Cor. 10:23).

                The Good News for us here is that we are children of Abraham, and to Abraham and his descendants has been given the covenant that involves being a blessing to the nations. While God seems intent on providing an heir to Abraham through his marriage to Sarah (Gen. 17), we should not forget that Abraham had another son, his firstborn, with Hagar. God promised to make a nation of him as well (Gen.21:9-21). So, might we take this as a word to us to be in relationship, as Christians, with all of Abraham’s descendants, whether they be Jewish, Muslim, or Christian? Might we then extend that even further to all of God’s children, whether descending from Abraham by the flesh or the Spirit?

               
                 

 

Nature or Nurture? A Lectionary Reflection for Lent 1A (Romans 5)

Hans Holbein the Younger – Adam and Eve (Kunst Museum, Basel)
  
Romans 5:12-19 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— 13 sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. 14 Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.
15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. 16 And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. 17 If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

18 Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. 19 For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

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                Did you follow that? I know that Paul can get a bit tongue-tied as he makes his points. Nevertheless, this is one of the most consequential passages in the New Testament, as it has served as a key foundation to the doctrine of original sin. The question that emerges from the passage is not whether sin exists, but whether human sin stems from a genetic predisposition or from one’s social context. In other words, is it nature or nurture? Augustine would say nature. John Locke would have said nurture (Tabula Rasa—Blank Slate). Whether it’s nature or nurture, what seems clear from reading Romans 5 is that Sin and Death entered the picture through one person’s actions, and that person is Adam. While sin has come into the world via Adam, the solution to the problem comes through grace provided through another man, the man Jesus Christ.

In Romans 5 Sin is accompanied by Death. Both appear to be spiritual forces that have disrupted God’s creation. They have taken on a life of their own. The question we have continually asked is how Sin and Death have come to have dominion over human life. According to Paul, Death spread because of human Sin. This word concerning sin and death stands as the opening message from Paul to us during the season of Lent. Lent is a penitential season, set up to enable us to take stock of our lives and make any necessary changes to our lives. Thus, this is a good season for us to make a confession of sin. But confession of sin is only the beginning, not the end of the process. We needn’t take up any harsh practices such as self-flagellation, but we might make some lasting changes to our lives. The good news is that should we undertake this path, there is grace available to us in Christ.

                Many years ago, during my seminary years, I wrote a paper for my Systematic Theology class on the topic of original sin. In that paper, I made my case for why the doctrine should be rejected, while the doctrine of universal sin should be adopted. One of the central biblical texts I addressed was this one. While St. Augustine has been credited with creating the doctrine, it has much earlier roots, perhaps here in Romans 5. Augustine did offer a description of the means of transmission that has come to dominate in the Christian West, it’s not the only view. The Eastern Churches have taken a more modest view, but then they read the original in Greek, not Latin, the latter of which seems to have led Augustine and others to think in genetic terms (though that’s a bit of an anachronism as Augustine didn’t know about genetics, which is why he linked it to concupiscence). For Augustine, original sin is a genetic predisposition. We sin because we inherit that predilection from Adam. In the Enchiridion he writes that after Adam sinned he was exiled and “bound also his progeny, which y his sin he had damaged within himself as though at its root, by the penalty of death and condemnation.” His offspring born of him and his wife were condemned with him, for they had been “born through the concupiscence of the flesh which was their punishment” [On Christian Belief, p. 289]. In other words, we are tainted with original sin passed on through the sexual relationship. You understand then why celibacy became a path to godliness! Therefore, our only hope is the grace of God that comes to us through Christ. I will confess that I haven’t found that reading convincing, but it has been the dominant interpretation in Western Christianity since at least Augustine.

If we don’t follow Augustine, might we still speak of an “original” sin? Or better, might we speak of universal sin? Instead of embracing a genetic predisposition, might we speak of the universal presence of sin a consequence of living in a sinful environment? Take racism for instance. Are we genetically predisposed, or is this a learned behavior? My view is that it is a learned behavior that is sin. In other words, we might speak of systemic sin.

As top whether it is nature or nurture, Paul doesn’t say. He’s not so interested in the how as the what. He recognizes that this is a universal problem that requires a solution that can come to us only through the grace of God. This grace comes to us through Christ. According to Paul even as Sin and Death made their presence known through the actions of Adam and all who shared in them, the answer to be found in Christ, and all who receive his grace.

This reading from Romans 5 acknowledges the universality of sin, and Adam’s involvement in its spread (notice that Eve is not mentioned by Paul). What is often missing from the conversation is the possibility that salvation is spread to all. If, as I believe we should see Adam as a type, and Jesus has the countertype, might we see this as the foundation for the possibility that all will be restored in Christ? “For as in Adam all die, even in so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22 KJV).

Whether we understand this to be a nature or nurture issue, the reality is that we live an immoral society. There are sins that must be confessed. Too often we focus on minor sins, rather than the big ones, like racism or sexism. Perhaps this is because we rather not face the realities of our participation in that which is sin. But, if grace is to do its work in our society, then confession will be good for the soul and for the world.    

               

 

Settling in the Promised Land – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 4C (Joshua 5)

Underground Railroad Monument – Windsor Ontario
 

The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And so that place is called Gilgal to this day.

10 While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. 11 On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. 12 The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

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                On the day the people of Israel left Egypt for the freedom that would come when they reached the Promised Land, they observed Passover (Exodus 12). It is revealed to Moses, that “you shall observe the festival of unleavened bread, for on this very day I brought your companies out of the land of Egypt: you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a day of perpetual ordinance” (Ex. 12:17). After the many years of wandering in the wilderness, and a passing of the baton of leadership from Moses to Joshua, Israel finally arrives in the Promised Land. Moses led them through the sea, across Sinai, and on to the river. That is where Moses’ season of leadership ended. Moses wouldn’t cross the river, for he represented the old. In his place, Joshua led the people across the Jordan and into a new future. The promise YHWH made to Joshua was: “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go” (Josh. 1: 9). With that command preparations began for the move into the Promised Land.   
 
                The book of Joshua presents us with many problems, with the idea of conquest standing at the very center. Israel might be a wandering people, just like their ancestor Abraham, looking for a place to put down roots, but the land which they were about to enter was already inhabited. It should not surprise us that the inhabitants of the land wouldn’t be thrilled about welcoming this new people into their land. Such has been the feeling down the ages as people migrate from one place to another, often pushing the original inhabitants off their land, even as they a place to settle in and make a home.  Migration often means displacement for those who dwell in the land. It has happened before and continues to happen. Such is the narrative here. The people of Israel fled slavery only to invade the lands inhabited by others. Their invasion seems to be blessed by God, but you can understand that not everyone viewed this invasion in the same way.
Joshua rarely makes an appearance in the Revised Common Lectionary, this reading from Joshua 5, as brief as it is, is one of those appearances. The problematic nature of the Conquest makes Joshua a book easily omitted, and yet here in this passage we see the culmination of the exodus from Egypt. At the same time, we must not forget that this invasion led to displacement and death for those who resided in the land God is said to give to the people of Israel.  Again, we are reminded that Scripture, though Sacred and normative for our faith journey, requires careful discernment so that we might a word from God from its pages.
Keeping in mind the challenges posed by the Book of Joshua, we can attend to this brief excerpt from the story concerning the arrival of the people in a land where they could finally stop wandering and put down roots. I think we can understand why this might be desirable. Consider the refugees of our age. The Palestinian people for one, but they are not alone. Those who have been migrating north from the violence of Central America also come hoping to find a place to put down their roots.
In the verses we read just prior to this passage, we’re reminded that a new generation has arisen, the people who left Egypt forty years earlier having now passed on, along with Moses and Aaron and Miriam. Those who left Egypt had been circumcised before their departure, but according to the text, no circumcisions occurred during the journey. Joshua rectified that situation, marking the people (men) as members of the covenant people through circumcision. With this act, we’re told, the “disgrace of Egypt” was removed. As a result, Joshua named this place where the men of Israel were circumcised was called was Gilgal (Josh 5:2-9). While the reference to the disgrace of Egypt, which has been rolled away by God, is somewhat ambiguous. It is possible that with the crossing of the river into the Promised Land and the act of circumcision, the last vestiges of slavery were removed. Now, having arrived in the Land, they could finally breathe easily. The time of wandering was over. They could settle in and plant themselves.
Egypt was removed, sets the stage for the next act in the story of God’s covenant relationship with Israel. Even as the journey out of Egypt began with the celebration of Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, so the celebration of arrival in the Promised Land involves the celebration of Passover, which was to be kept in perpetuity. So, while encamped at Gilgal, before the conquest of Jericho, the people celebrated Passover (on the fourteenth day of the month). It is said that the day after Passover, “they ate the produce of the land.” Now it doesn’t say that they planted crops and then harvested them. They hadn’t been in the Land long enough to plant crops and grow them, so they must have taken them from their new neighbors. The meal apparently involved unleavened bread and parched grain. Nothing is said of lambs or any other meat. When we think of Passover, we should probably not think in terms of the modern form that some of us have experienced. That form came much later, though it is rooted in ancient practices. With the celebration of Passover, however, the story comes full circle. The people have experienced deliverance and liberation and are free to make a new life in a new land.   
 
There is another important element in this story, which reminds us that the time of wandering has ended. Now that they have crossed the river, they can now begin to provide for themselves. So, God brings an end to the provision of manna, the bread of heaven. As John Wesley puts it:

The manna ceased – Which God now withheld, to shew that Manna was not an ordinary production of nature, but an extraordinary and special gift of God to supply their necessity. And because God would not be prodigal of his favours, by working miracles where ordinary means were sufficient. The morrow – That is, on the seventeenth day.  [Wesley’s Notes].

Now that they were in the Land, a reality marked by the celebration of Passover, the extraordinary gave way to the ordinary.  Such is the way in which we live, with the ordinary being sufficient. With this provision of the ordinary as well as the extraordinary, we can give thanks to God.
                With Fred Pratt Green, we can sing
In the just reward of labor, God’s will is done;
in the help we give our neighbor, God’s will is done;
in our worldwide task of caring for the hungry and despairing,
in the harvests we are sharing, God’s will is done.   
[“For the Fruit of All Creation,” Chalice Hymnal, 714].
Amen