Category: Ordinary Time

A Night to Remember: Eighthteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

A Night to Remember: Eighthteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

October 4, 2020

Read: Exodus 12:1-13; 13:1-8

Reflection

As the book of Exodus starts, we find things are not so good for the descendants of Joseph and his brothers. The book opens us by telling us that a new pharaoh rules the land and he “did not know Joseph.” Between the time of Joseph and the current period, the Hebrews grew in size from a handful of people to a vast group within Egypt. The new Pharaoh did not have the same generous attitude as the first Pharaoh. He feared the Hebrews because of their large numbers. In order to keep the Hebrews from being a threat due to their vast numbers, he set them to work doing hard labor on his building projects. A people who were once guests were now slaves.

Enter Moses. He was saved from a terror campaign initiated by the Pharaoh which killed every Hebrew male child. Ironically, Moses grows up in the Pharaoh’s household taken care of by Pharaoh’s daughter. God calls Moses to lead his people out of Egypt.

Pharaoh refuses to let the people leave and it become a match between Pharaoh and God. A series of plagues strike the Egyptians until after a final plague kills all the firstborn Egyptians, Pharaoh lets the Hebrews go. But then Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he sends the army after the Hebrews.

This is where the story beings for us. 1

A Dinner to Remember

Chapter 12 begins with instructions.  God is telling the people of Israel to eat on the run because God was going to force Pharaoh’s hand.  As Pharaoh sought to destroy the Israelites by killing the young boys, a spirit would come for the firstborn of Egypt.  The people of Israel were to put the blood of a lamb on the doorposts of their homes so that the spirit would “pass over” their house.

The preparation of the meal was incredibly specific.  They eat bitter herbs as a reminder of their suffering. They use flatbread or bread without yeast because they had to eat in a hurry.  The lamb was not to be eat raw or boiled.  Why did it matter if the meat was boiled?  Because the waters of Egypt were the places where the Hebrew male infants were drowned at the Pharaoh’s command.  The water brought death and this lamb could not come in contact with a reminder of the evil inflicted upon them.

But God also told the people that this night was a new beginning. God wanted the people to remember this time and share it to future generations. In fact, it was reordering time.  This day would be considered the first day of a new calendar.  What God was doing was in a way a new creation.  History would start at this moment.  We all have moments that are defining moments in our lives: births, weddings, deaths, but we usually don’t throw away our calendar and start anew.  But what God was doing was so important, so life-altering that it had to be remembered in a different way.

The placing of the blood of the lamb on the doorpost is a reminder to Christians of the death of Christ.  The blood allowed the angel of death to pass over and spare the first born Hebrews.  Christ’s blood in a way also protects us from sin and death.

Passover is an important holiday for Jews as they remember when God brought them out of Egypt and slavery.  Christians have a similar meal where we remember when Christ died in our stead to liberate us.  The Lord’s Supper or Communion it should be noted was first practiced by Jesus during Passover. 

The call to remember is a way of taking a past action and making it part of our present.  For Jews, Passover is taking what happened long ago and making it a part of their present.  Jews don’t say “We remember this night how God led those people long ago out of Egypt and through the Red Sea.”  Instead they say to each other, “We remember this night how God led us out of Egypt and through the Red Sea.”  Past and present are joined together.

In Passover, Christians can see a  parallel to the death of Christ on the cross.  Passover is a reminder of the salvation of the Hebrews. But that salvation came at a cost.  So it is with our salvation.  We are free in Christ, but only because of the death of Jesus.

This post was originally a Story of God Bible Study for October 2, 2016.





 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

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

*************

                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.

Sibling Rivalry: Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Sibling Rivalry: Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 27, 2020

Read: Genesis 37:3-8, 17b-22, 26-34; 50:15- 21

Reflection

Beginning with chapter 37 until the end of the book of Genesis, the story focuses mainly on one person, Joseph.  The great-grandson of Abraham, you might have heard the story of Joseph as a kid, and over the last few years, you might have even seen a production of the Broadway play, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Our story opens with Jacob and his sons.  Joseph is one of the “babies” of the family and tends to chores close to home instead of shepherding the flock with his older brothers.

Now, it’s quite common for a child to ask their parents if they love them or their sister/brother more.  The parent will say that they love each child equally.  You won’t find that story in today’s text.  Jacob played favorites with his children, and Joseph was his number one son.  Because he was the number one son, he got a special garment- a “long robe with sleeves,” the Bible says. It was a very fancy coat, one that set someone apart from manual labor.  In popular culture, the coat is described as one of  “many colors.”  In reality, some translations note the coat was an ornamental coat and others talk about a multi-colored coat.  Either way, it was a really nice coat that signified Joseph was special- which is something that really bothered his brothers. The text never said if Joseph knew that he was the favorite, but one could guess that he did and made sure his brothers did too. None of this endeared Joseph to his brothers.  They couldn’t stand him.  Now in most families, it quite normal to have some sibling rivalries.  But as we saw with Cain and Abel, when brother feud in the Bible, it can sometimes get a little out of hand.

We learn that Joseph has a special talent: deciphering dreams.  His parlor trick will come in handy later in our story, but right now all it does is annoy his brothers as we see in this snippet: 5 Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6He said to them, ‘Listen to this dream that I dreamed.7There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.’ 8His brothers said to him, ‘Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?’ So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.Genesis 37:5-8 (NRSV)

For his brothers, this was the last straw.  It was time to do something.  It was time to get Joseph out of the way.  Permanently.

Joseph’s brothers were looking forward to getting rid (ie: kill) of this dreamer who was an annoying pest.  His brothers were ready to kill him, but Ruben stopped his brothers from committing fratricide.  Instead, Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt, and Jacob is told that his precious son, his favorite son,  is dead. Between chapters 37 and 50, we follow Joseph’s journey into Egypt.  He gets to work in the house of a government official, and later falsely accused of raping the official’s wife, who wanted to sleep with him. Joseph winds up in prison, but it released when people learn he can interpret dreams.  He is called by the Pharoah to interpret his dream and he is able to discern a famine is coming and the nation must prepare.  Egypt is saved from a devastating famine and in turn, helps other nations that are affected by a drought.  Joseph is made what would basically be the Prime Minister of the nation. Joseph’s brothers return to the scene again as they travel to Egypt to get food during the famine.  In the end, Joseph is reunited with his brothers and his father. His family is welcome to come and live with Joseph in Egypt.

Genesis 50 opens up with Jacob dying. But Joseph’s brothers were afraid of him and for good reason. Now that Jacob is dead, will Joseph make life hard for them?  They come to Joseph and tell him that before Jacob died he told them that Joseph must forgive his brothers.  His brothers really hadn’t changed- they were motivated by self-interest.  Jacob never said this.  Instead of asking for forgiveness for how they treated Joseph, they instead invoke their dead father telling Joseph that he had to forgive his brothers because it was what dear old dad wanted.

In spite of their lying, Joseph forgives his brothers responding that God was able to use an evil experience and make it into something good. There is an important lesson to be learned here about suffering and the work of God.Joseph could see how God was working within his suffering and so he could see that something good came of the years of captivity and estrangement. However, it is bad taste for someone other than the sufferer to impose a meaning on them. What we see in chapter 50 is how God’s will works even in the midst of evil.

It was wrong for the brothers to seek to kill Joseph and then decide to see him into slavery.But God used this situation to help save the Egyptians from famine.We can’t and shouldn’t say that such evils are God’s will, we can see how God’s justice can work through human sin, just as it did later on in Scripture in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.





 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

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.

***********

                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.”

Maybe Baby: Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Maybe Baby: Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 20, 2020

Read: Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7

 

Reflection

In the fall of 2001, I was a chaplain at a nursing home in Minneapolis.  I made rounds, visiting people and I stopped  by a room where a number of people were gathered.  On the bed, was man who seemed asleep.  His wife explained he had a brain tumor.  From what I knew it didn’t look good; he didn’t have long in this world.  But the wife told me with hope that he would get better.  They were hoping he would be able to go a facility to rehabilitate. She wanted me to lead a prayer.  I was nervous, because I didn’t want to pray a prayer that would give them false hope.  I didn’t think that God was going to magically heal this man’s tumor.  And in some way I was right, a little later I heard that the man was going to hospice.

Was I right to believe that it was foolish to believe this man would be healed?  Should I have told the family that God would heal this man?

In our passage, Abraham welcomes three guests.  It was common in desert cultures to offer strangers hospitality.  Since there were no McDonalds in the desert; it made sense that people would offer travelers something to eat and drink.  Abraham welcomed these guests and went above and beyond in hospitality.  He asked Sarah to make bread with the finest flour.  He told a servant to kill a calf and then offered a refreshing drink.  We learn one of the visitors is the Lord himself.  As they ate their food, God tells Abraham that in the space of a year, he and Sarah would have a child.

Now a few things here:  Abraham was almost 100 and Sarah was 90.  God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation when he was 75.  So, the couple had been told for several decades that Abraham would be the father of a great nation.  Sarah was already way, way past her childbearing years so there seemed to be no possible way that Sarah was going to have a baby.

Sarah was eavesdropping nearby and when she heard all of this, she let out a laugh.  She laughed because she had heard for decades that she would have a child and nothing ever changed.  She was already barren when Abraham first told her of what God told him.  She knew it wasn’t going to happen. She even suggested that Abraham get with her servant Hagar to have a child.  Ishmael was the result of this pairing, but even Sarah wasn’t pleased with that solution. Sarah had received heartache on heartache.  She was old, Ishmael wasn’t working out.  She knew how life worked and she and Abraham had come to accept they would never be parents. Her laugh was a laugh of anger, frustration and hurt. I’m going to have a child?  Now? At my age? Not bloody likely.

Sarah heard for years something would happen and it never did.  She was used to things being what they were and couldn’t believe that things would be different.

If we were in Sarah’s place, would we laugh?  I think if it was me, I probably would.  I would like to believe that I would believe that God could do anything, but like Sarah, I know too much.  I know that people with brain tumors seldom recover.  I know that some couples face miscarriages. I know people die from cancer.  I know that evil exists and that the impossible is just that; impossible. 

Theologian David Watson notes that mainline Protestant theologians in the 20th and early 21st centuries have grappled with the problem of evil.  The horrors of two major global wars and the Holocaust have made us think that divine action is not possible.  

Watson continues saying that the result is that because liberal theologians had this view, it trickled down to the churches.  We had whole communities of faith that no longer believed that God would show up.  Watson puts it plainly:

“For many mainline Protestants, God has essentially become a construct. God gives weight to our ethical claims, credence to our feelings about social justice. God is not, however, an agent who can directly and radically change the course of events in our lives.”

None of this means we should not take evil seriously.  But we shouldn’t let that limit God.  Instead in the midst of this world where there is heartache, we still hope and pray that God will do the impossible in our impossible world.

God answers Sarah’s doubt.  “Is anything to difficult for the Lord?”  Theologian Walter Brueggemann says that this is really a question God is expecting Sarah (and Abraham) to answer.  The story ends with us never knowing what Sarah said in response other than that she didn’t laugh.  I’m guessing she didn’t immediately believe.  God was really asking; do you believe in me or not?  Do you trust me or not? 

In chapter 21, we see a different kind of laughter.  As God said, Abraham and Sarah did have a baby and named him Isaac which meant laughter.  God had the last laugh.  “God has given me laughter. Everyone who hears about it will laugh with me,”  Sarah says with a heart full of joy.  Indeed, how could they not?  This was so fanciful and unbelievable that you had to laugh.  You had to laugh for joy.

Faith in God means believing in the impossible.  It doesn’t mean taking leave of our sense and to start jumping off buildings thinking God will save us.  We believe in the impossible, not the ridiculous.  But we have to believe that our God is real, and powerful and can make a difference in our lives and in our world.  There will still be evil in the world.  There will be heartache.  But because we believe God will do the impossible, we end up having something that in and of itself seems weird: joy.  We begin to see God in the hidden corners of our lives, places where we thought God could never be present.

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

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.

************

                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.

In the Beginning: Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

In the Beginning: Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 13, 2020

Read: Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17; 3:1-8

Reflection

If you grew up hearing Bible stories, you know the first words in the book of Genesis.  Those words, “In the beginning” is the start of the Creation Story. We might think we know the story inside and out. But did you know there are two creation stories with two distinct emphases?

Think of it this way: Genesis 1 is like a big blockbuster motion picture. Do you remember the opening of Star Wars with the orchestra and that scrolling text? That is what Genesis 1 can feel like.  Genesis 2 tells the story again, but this time it is more intimate, more focused. If Genesis 1 is the big summer movie, then Genesis 2 is like a documentary focusing on the most minute of aspects.  Genesis 1 shows God’s power through the creation of the world. Genesis 2 shows God being more in relationship with creation, especially one particular part of creation: humans. Today we learn about the start of a sometimes beautiful friendship with humanity.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann notes that the creation stories reflect stories about how the world began that were found in Egypt and Mesopotamia (where modern-day Iraq is located). Bureggeman notes that the texts were probably written in the Sixth Century B.C.E. and to the people of Israel. At the time of writing, the Israelites were not in a good shape. Foreign invaders called the Babylonians came and conquered the people. Many were taken away from their homeland and forced to live in Babylon (again, located in what is today Iraq). If you were a Jew who had been taken away from their homeland and were told that your people are weak and even your God is weak, how would you feel? Pretty rotten. The Babylonians were acting like any invader would and trying to tell their new conquest that mighty Babylon was in charge. They told their newest conquests that their god was dead. The God of Israel was dead. Long live the Babylonian gods.

It was in this context that these texts were written. The goal of the text wasn’t scientific, but spiritual. The text reminded the people of Israel that the God they worshipped created the world and was the Lord of all life- even Lord over the mighty Babylonians. The creation stories were a message of hope to the Israelites. Even though it looked like God had abandoned them, the God who created the mountains and the seas, was in control. In God we Trust, indeed.

In Genesis 2:5-7, God creates the form of a human. It is when God breathes into the human that the being has life. The Bible talks a lot about breathing. God breathes into Adam and springs to life. In John 20:22, Jesus breathes on his disciples and says “receive the Holy Spirit.” In Acts 2 on Pentecost, the wind that comes can also be described as a breath. Breathing is important for our physical life, what does it mean for our spiritual life?

Adam is busy naming the animals, but God notices something. “It’s not good that man should be alone,” God says. God knows Adam needs a helper or companion. It is important to note that the first thing that was not good was not the Tree of Knowledge or even eating of the tree; it was the fact that man was alone. God creates this new being called woman for companionship, reminding us we are not made to be alone but created for each other. Just as humans enter into a covenant with God, humans enter into covenants with each other.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Who Am I to Judge? Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 15A (Romans 14)

Who Am I to Judge? Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 15A (Romans 14)

Judgment Day – Aaron Douglas
 
Romans 14:1-12 New Revised Standard Version
 

14 Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. 

Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also, those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. 

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. 

10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11 For it is written, 

“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,

 

    and every tongue shall give praise to God.” 

 

12 So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

 
 
***************
 

                Pope Francis raised a few eyebrows when in an impromptu conversation with the press on board his plane in 2013, he responded to a question about his view of homosexuality in the church, he simply said: “Who am I to judge?” Now, the church’s policies haven’t changed all that much, but the answer opened a conversation about who has the responsibility for judgment. Even though he’s the Pope, he declined to excise judgment in this case. For those of us who come from an open and affirming posture, this was pretty groundbreaking. The thing is, it’s to judge other people. We size each other up according to weight, height, education, race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. When we do so, we often depend on stereotypes. That’s understandable. Stereotypes provide us with categories to judge whether a person is worth getting to know or can be trusted. Unfortunately, too often we both prejudge and misjudge. 

 

                The topic of judgment comes up as Paul brings his letter the Romans to a close. It’s important to remember that this a congregation that Paul not only didn’t found, but it’s one he’s never visited. This letter is intended as an introduction to the community since Paul is hoping to visit this previously established Christian community. He’s heard reports that there are dissension and division within this community of believers. While we can’t date it with certainty, a date around 57 CE would fit. So, we’re still in the early decades of the Christian community. The church is starting to attract Gentile believers, but it still has a significant Jewish component. And apparently, they’re not always on the same page, especially when it comes to issues like eating or honoring particular days.

 

One senses from reading the letter that the community is being divided over matters involving their eating habits and the celebration of certain days. If, as some believe, the Jewish and Gentile members of the community are struggling to find a place of unity, then this makes sense. Now, as to the identity of the weak and the strong, that’s uncertain. It’s quite possible that the weak are the rule followers and the strong are the less scrupulous, but we simply don’t know. There are all kinds of issues at play. Jewish Christians might be concerned about kosher rules and thus choose a more vegetarian diet, while some Gentile Christians might feel less constrained and be more likely to eat meat with abandon. Of course, as the conversation in 1 Corinthians suggests, there is the issue of where the meat comes from. Should one worry if the meat comes from a temple? Some would say yes, and others, no. In any case, as a meat-eater, I ask my vegetarian and vegan friends not to judge me too harshly, and I shall try to do the same in return!

 

Whatever the case, Paul seems to be saying to the community: “who are you to judge?” Leave the judgments in such matters to God. If some eat meat, fine. If some stick with a vegetarian diet, then that’s fine. If some observe certain holy days and others don’t, well that’s okay as well. Of course, this can make for a more complicated community dining experience. In Acts 15, the issue of Table fellowship comes up, in light of the introduction of Gentile believers into the community. The Jerusalem Council gave a word of guidance to these new communities, asking that “they abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled” (Acts 15:29). Perhaps that word of guidance has fallen to the wayside as the church expands.  The concern here is finding a way of living together in peace, recognizing that people will have different understandings of certain things like food and ritual. One may fast regularly (my Muslim friend regularly fasts as an expression of his commitment to God), and others (myself numbered among them) rarely fast.

 

The issue here isn’t tolerance, as if we should agree to disagree. Paul’s concern is centered on the question of unity in Jesus Christ. For Paul, the church is the one body of Christ, so it should exhibit unity of purpose and concern for one another. That doesn’t mean we agree on every issue. But Paul does have in mind a particular temperament. It asks us to delve deeper beneath the rhetoric to the humanity of the person with whom one disagrees. It’s easy to see one’s self as pursuing a righteous cause and believing that the one we disagree with as somehow pursuing something demonic or evil. That doesn’t mean we don’t advocate strongly for our position, but it does mean recognizing the deeper humanity present in the other. Again, a stereotype is easy to make use of, but it can lead us astray. Again, that doesn’t mean we don’t stand for matters of justice. It has to do with the way we view the humanity of others and forget that they too are created in the image of God. Another way of putting this is to approach such actions with humility. As William Greenway puts it:

First and last we argue for the right and struggle for the good, not for the sake of ourselves or our own opinions or identity—or even for the sake of the church, justice, or the good—but because we are moved by love and concern for every particular other, which is to say, because in life and in death we belong to God [Feasting on the Word, p. 66].    

 

Ultimately, according to Paul, in this letter at least, we are to hold ourselves accountable to God, and God alone. After all, each of us will stand before the judgment seat of God.  Indeed, when it comes to life and death, we are reminded by Paul that we do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.” That is because, “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” That is because Christ is Lord of the living and the dead (Rom. 14:7-9). When we think of ourselves as judges of others, our judgments tend to be rooted in self-centeredness, but Paul wants us to understand that we belong to God, in Christ, to “whom every knee will bow” so that “every tongue shall give praise to God” (Rom. 14:11, quoting Isa. 45:23). Thus, we shall be accountable to God, and God alone. Or as Karl Barth puts it:

 

Uncertain are all our questions concerning the salvation of others, whatever form our questions take; feeble are all attempts to assess the value of another’s relation to God, whether the assessment be conservative or radical. All is subject to the judgment of God. Judge Not is therefore the only possibility. And yet, even this possibility is no possibility, no recipe; it provides no standard of conduct. We have no alternative but to range ourselves under the judgment that awaits us, hoping—without any ground for our hope—for the impossible possibility of the mercy of God. [Barth, Epistle to the Romans, p. 515].

 

May we place our hope in the mercy of God and cease our attempts at usurping God’s role as judge.

 

 

 
  Image attribution: Douglas, Aaron. Judgment Day, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56259 [retrieved September 7, 2020]. Original source: Anne C. Richardson.
 

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.

 

********************
 

                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.”

**********            

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.