Category: revised common lectionary

No More Dividing Walls – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 8B (Ephesians 2)

Ephesians 2:11-22 New Revised Standard Version

 

11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

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                It’s been decades now since Ronald Reagan stood at the wall in West Berlin and declared: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Well, Mr. Gorbachev didn’t actually tear down the wall, but in 1989, while the world watched (I watched) residents of East and West Berlin mounted the wall and began to tear it down, uniting the divided city. Before too long, the wall of separation that divided East and West Germany came down as well, allowing the two parts of the country to come back together. It was an amazing sight that for a moment gave the illusion that a new age in world history had begun. Unfortunately, many dividing walls remain in place across the globe, including in many of our communities. There is a wall running through Palestine dividing Israel from the Palestinian territories. There is the wall that runs across the southern border of the United States that has become a focus of attention in the United States. These are literal walls, but there are other walls that are spiritual/cultural/ethic that continue to divide persons and communities from one another.

                The lectionary takes us back to the Ephesian letter for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost. In this letter, the author, whom we will again refer to as Paul even though the authorship of the letter remains contested, speaks to a concern present in the early church. That concern is the ongoing tension existing between Jewish and Gentile believers. If, as many scholars believe, this letter was written in Paul’s name after his death, we are reading a letter written as  Gentiles had begun to be the dominant group within the church. It would appear that the wall of separation that we witness in the Galatian letter was still present within the church. The letter is, it would appear, written to Gentile believers because Paul reminds them that once they were strangers and aliens (xenoi) and therefore far off from God’s people. That is, they are part of the household of God that is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ as the cornerstone. Therefore, while the Gentiles were once a people without hope because they were without God, now they are no longer Gentiles but they have become citizens in the Israel of God. Now that they have embraced the message of Jesus there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile for all make up the one people of God in Christ.  Therefore, now Jew and Gentile were one people in Christ.

                In fact, in Christ, God has created a new humanity, reconciling both Jew and Gentile to God through the cross, “putting to death that hostility through it” so that there might be peace (vss. 15-16). That dividing wall has been broken down, just like the Berlin Wall. In the process of doing this, we’re told that Christ has abolished the law, with its commandments and ordinances. Most likely, the author has in mind the ordinance of circumcision not God’s moral commands, like the commandment against murder. What is abolished is the requirement to fulfill certain observances that had once divided Jew and Gentile from each other and had created hostility between the two. Note that in verse 11, Paul acknowledges that the Gentiles had once been known as the “uncircumcised” by the “circumcised.” Thus, for the citizens of God’s realm, circumcision had been the marker, the documentation, of their citizenship (at least for males). The hostility that had existed between those inside the household of God and those outside based on circumcision as proper documentation of citizenship would have to go if the church was going to move forward with both Jewish and Gentile members.

                The dividing wall was demolished through the cross. Sammy Alfaro puts it this way:

In the one act of the cross, those who were far off and those who were near were reconciled unto God. No special shortcut treatment for the chosen nation and no back-of-the-line stiff-arm status for Gentiles. Hearkening to the Trinitarian blessings of God in the first chapter of the letter, access to God takes on Trinitarian form: the Son provides the means and the Spirit the avenue for reconciliation with the Father (v. 18) [Connections, p. 172].

To be in Christ is to become part of the Temple of God, the place where God meets God’s people. The means of access to God has been opened up to all through Christ. While there was, in the Jerusalem Temple, a “Court of the Gentiles,” access to the Holy of Holies had been denied to them. Now, even that was open to Gentiles through Christ, who is the fulfillment of the Law.

                So, what do we make of this word to the church? Do any walls of hostility still exist within the church? By church, I don’t simply mean local congregations or even denominations, I mean the church at large. The answer, of course, is yes, walls still exist. Some are doctrinal, others are ethnic. Some churches fully welcome LGBTQ persons, affirming their personhood so that there are no barriers to their participation. They are, in Christ, fully citizens of the realm. There are other churches that either won’t allow LGBTQ folk in the church or at the very least limit how they are present (“don’t ask, don’t tell”). Some churches ordain women and churches that don’t allow women to speak in the church (at least not when men are present). I think you get the picture. We may say we are one in Christ, but we remain divided. Thus, this word to the church given centuries before must continually be revisited. What walls must come down today? How is the Spirit at work breaking down these walls?

For more on this passage see my book: Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide, Energion Publications, p. 23-33].

Chosen for Blessings – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 7B (Ephesians 1)

 

Waiting for the Blessing —  Pymonenko, Mykola

 

Ephesians 1:3-14 – New Revised Standard Edition

 

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

 

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                Every professional team sport has a draft in which teams chose athletes to stock the team. If the team has the first pick in the draft, the choices are limited only by the number of athletes available. It’s a coveted position to be in, though the pick comes with a caveat. The team with the first pick normally is the one with the worst record in the league. That is, they are a bad team. The hope is that by giving the worst team in the league the first pick, they can begin improving themselves (as long as they choose wisely).

                The opening chapter of the Ephesian letter takes up the question of being chosen by God to be part of God’s team. In a sense, everyone is a first-round pick. At least that’s one way of reading the passage before us. Just a note, the passage is also featured in the lectionary for the Second Sunday after Christmas. Liturgically, the context is somewhat different. Instead of a Christmas message, we find ourselves situated on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Year B). The reading is the first of several that will take us through the letter until we reach chapter six.

                When it comes to conversations about the Ephesian letter, the identity of the author always comes up. There is no consensus, with some scholars accepting the traditional view that Paul is the author. After all, the letter opens by identifying the author as the Apostle Paul (Eph. 1:1). Others argue that based on the theology, the style of writing, and other markers, it must be the product of a later author. I address some of this in my Participatory Study Guide on Ephesians, though I don’t take a position on the question of identity. For our purposes, I’m not sure it matters whether it is Paul or someone writing in Paul’s name (according to ancient practice this doesn’t make it a fake letter if Paul didn’t write it). What seems clear is that the author is a Jewish Christian/Christian Jew, and the audience is predominantly Gentile. Note that Paul uses the word “we” in verse 12 and “you” in verse 13. The we who were the first to set their hope in Christ would have been Jewish believers in Jesus. Nevertheless, as verse 13 spells out, “you” (Gentiles) are also included in this act of adoption since they had heard the word of truth and believed in Christ and had received the seal of their salvation, the Holy Spirit. If we keep all of this in mind, then we can for the sake of simplicity call the author Paul.

                “Paul” begins by affirming the many spiritual blessings God has poured out upon God’s people, doing this in Christ.  Having declared that God is the giver of spiritual blessings in and through Christ, Paul speaks of God choosing “us” before creation to be holy and blameless, predestining us according to God’s plan. If we understand the author to be of Jewish descent and most of the audience is Gentile Christians, then the “us” includes both Jewish and Gentile Christians, creating the bridge that the author wishes to build between the two communities.

                Now, words like choose and predestine found here tend to be problematic for some audiences. Indeed, it is a problem for me. So, what does it mean for God to have chosen “us” from before God began to create? How does that affect our own ability to choose? For those of us who embrace an “open and relational” view of God, which assumes that the future is open how might God predestine us for adoption as God’s child? Don’t we have a choice in the matter? As we ponder these questions, we can return to the opening line of the passage, which calls on us to offer blessings to God who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing.

                It is, in my opinion, best if we do not read these words about predestination in an individualistic manner. It’s not that God has predestined each of us individually for salvation (or damnation for that matter), rather God has chosen Jesus to be the agent of reconciliation. Thus, Jesus provides the means by which we are adopted as children of God. According to our reading, this involves the blood of Christ. Paul doesn’t go into graphic detail here. He doesn’t refer to the cross, only that in some way the blood of Jesus is the means by which we receive forgiveness of sins and receive God’s grace. Whatever the means, this act of grace is costly and should not be taken for granted.

                As the passage continues, Paul takes up the matter of our inheritance as one’s adopted as children of God. When it comes to adoption, the New International Version uses the word “sonship,” which is rather gender-specific but would reflect the way inheritances were understood in the ancient world, as an inheritance generally went to a son and not to a daughter. Thus, the choice made by the NRSV translators is likely a better one for a modern Christian audience. Now, when it comes to the heirs of God in Christ, note that the author speaks of all things being gathered up, both in heaven and on earth. Thus, in Christ we receive an inheritance. This reference to all things being gathered up is intriguing because it is suggestive while not being definitive that God has an eye toward universal reconciliation/redemption (vs. 10). While this word includes heaven, it also speaks of God’s care for the creation.

                This is a passage rich in meaning. It raises difficult questions that might not be resolvable in a sermon, but what it does say is that God is concerned about the creation, so much so that God has chosen a way of redeeming that which is broken. This comes as an act of grace in Christ and through the Holy Spirit (there is a Trinitarian feel in this passage). What it does, however, is invite gratitude to God on our part for the decision to choose us in Christ to be the recipient of God’s blessings. This need not require of us a belief that God determines all things. It does suggest that God has chosen to act on our behalf to bless us in Christ. In that way God is sovereign—not as a tyrant or despot but as one who acts graciously on our behalf, inviting us to become part of the family of God. That is not something we earn but which we receive as a divine gift in Christ our savior.   

For more on this passage see my book on Ephesians in Energion Publication’s Participatory Study Guide series.      

Image attribution: Pymonenko, Mykola. Waiting for the Blessing, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55788 [retrieved July 4, 2021]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PimonenkoNK_PashalZautrRYB.jpg.

Mystical Experiences, A Thorn in the Flesh, & Boasting – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 6B (2 Corinthians 12)

2 Corinthians 12:2-10 New Revised Standard Version

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

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                Mystical experiences can be powerful, even life-changing, but it’s best not to boast about them. Thorns in the flesh on the other hand could be a reason to boast, though even this might be problematic. We see both kinds of experiences discussed in the reading for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost. It is a word about boasting, mystical experiences, and thorns in the flesh, and in verse 1, which the lectionary omits, Paul acknowledges that he has to boast even if it’s not expedient to do so. However, the false apostles, who had come into the community and disrupted their lives with their boasts, need to be answered (2Cor. 11:12-13). Although Paul planted the church in Corinth, some of the people in the church had embraced these false apostles who had variously accused him of being weak, untrained in his speech, and more (2 Cor. 10:10; 11:6). The question is, about what should he boast? A mystical experience? A thorn in the flesh? The former might impress some in the congregation, but would the latter?

                Now he could choose to boast about mystical experiences, which he speaks of here in 2 Corinthians 12. Though he suggests that the mystical experiences he will speak of belong to someone else. However, he is more than willing to boast in what he calls his thorn in the flesh. When it comes to the mystical experience, I’ve always wondered whether Paul was speaking of himself, but didn’t want to go there. Karl Barth makes the same assumption that it was Paul who had this mystical experience, but he writes that “this is the distinctive thing with the description of this ecstasy—he puts a space between himself and this man. And it is only at this remove that he will take part in the glory which this man—himself—has by virtue of these high things” [Barth, CD, 1:2, p. 332]. So, instead of owning up to being the one with the mystical experience, Paul chose to emphasize his thorn in the flesh. As to its nature, Paul doesn’t say, but it’s clear he had sought relief to no avail.   

                In this reflection, I want to look at both the mystical experience and the thorn in the flesh. The former is intriguing. What does Paul mean by a third heaven or paradise? At the same time, his thorn in the flesh is intriguing. One thing we know from this letter is that Paul feels the need to defend his ministry. Whatever the thorn was, it might be one of the reasons why the Corinthians have been dismissing his ministry. He looks weak and in Greco-Roman culture, weakness was not something to boast about. If he wanted to a successful religious leader then he needed to be a “manly man!”

                We begin by exploring this mystical experience that a person had some fourteen years before. If this letter is written around 55 CE, then we’re talking somewhere around 40-41 CE, before a congregation had been planted in Corinth. Paul writes that he doesn’t know if this was an in-body or out-of-body experience, but whatever the case he knew of a man who was caught up into the “third heaven.” He then adds that the man was caught up into Paradise, thus equating the two. The message here parallels other apocalyptic claims to visions that were present in Jewish/rabbinic thought (see 1 Enoch). Whether Paul believed there were only three heavens or levels of heaven isn’t known as there is evidence of belief in more than three heavens. Whatever the case, Paul seems to believe  that there are at least three levels, and following 2 Enoch 8, Paradise is the equivalent of the third heaven. There, the man heard words that could not be repeated. These were divine secrets that could not be shared with those on earth. While he might boast on behalf of the man who had the visions/mystical experience, he is only going to boast in his weaknesses.

                He might not boast of mystical experiences, but he is willing to boast about his weaknesses. Again, that makes little sense in a Greco-Roman context. I sense that the false apostles have been sharing their grand visions as a way of proving their legitimacy. But, while he likely could do so (Damascus Road), he chooses not to go that route. He instead boasts in the fact that he had been given a thorn in the flesh that God had chosen not to deal with. As C.K. Barrett notes, “Paul does not wish too high an opinion of him to become current; it would obscure the fact that it is to his Gospel, and not himself that men should attend, and that he is a more effective witness to Christ crucified if he endures suffering and disgrace” [Barrett, Second Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 313]. Thus, Paul makes it clear that if he is to bear witness to the crucified Christ he can’t glory in mystical experiences, which, as we know from the first letter, the Corinthians valued.

                So he turns to the thorn in the flesh, which he calls a “messenger of Satan.” Interestingly, he suggests that this thorn was sent upon him so that he might not become too elated by his visions, which leads to the suggestion that the above mystical experiences were his own. Now, this angel of Satan is actually sent by God, reminding us that in Paul’s mind, God is sovereign. Whatever happens, happens because God desires it. That doesn’t sit well with my theology that is rooted in an acknowledgment that God acts out of love and that God is not the author of suffering, but for a moment let’s simply let Paul talk. So, Barrett writes: “God allowed Paul astounding revelations of heavenly truth, which could not be communicated, but he did not intend that these should go to the apostles head” [Barrett, Second Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 314].

                The question then concerns the nature of this thorn. It has often been assumed that it is a physical ailment of some type, such as blindness, but that is not a necessary conclusion. Barrett suggests that a speech impediment might be possible as it would have given a bad first impression (Gal. 4:13-15—though here Paul speaks of his eyes) [Barrett, p. 315].  Whatever it was Paul sought relief on three occasions but wasn’t granted it. The answer to this prayer was simply: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Therefore, he has chosen to boast in this expression of weakness so that Christ’s power might be more evident in his life. So, he remains content with “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). Might these be what Paul had asked to be delivered from, but from which he was told that God’s grace is sufficient. Thus, having heard this, he was content to be buffeted by Satan if that served the purpose of the Gospel.

                The passage presents us with a series of questions. In a culture that prizes success, does the message Paul presents resonate today? Might we be better off testifying to our conversations with God instead of being content with suffering? Having spent my ministry life as pastor of small churches, I have at times felt as if my ministries were considered less valuable than that of the big churches. What do you say at a clergy gathering when colleagues glory in large numbers of baptisms or stewardship drives that bring in huge sums? The message here seems to be simply, “my grace is sufficient.” That is not to say that those ministries lack value, but only that we should not measure the value of a ministry on human standards of success. Since this passage is designated for a Sunday near Independence Day (in 2021, July 4th falls on a Sunday), how might it be heard at this moment? It is easy to glory in the nation’s history, but right now that might not be wise. At the same time for some in our context, a word about being content with suffering might be inappropriate. At the end of the day, the question then concerns what is the nature of grace in our context? How might it create strength in us, even when we may feel weak? There is a time and a place for mystical experiences, but it is the grace of God that emerges even in our weakness that engenders true strength. May we entrust ourselves to the grace of God.    

No Obstacles to Salvation Here – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 4B (2 Corinthians 6)

Paul – Rembrandt

2 Corinthians 6:1-13 New Revised Standard Version

As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,

“At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
    and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”

See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

11 We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. 12 There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. 13 In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.

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                Today is the day of salvation that means entering into a partnership with God, who, as we saw in 2 Corinthians 5 has reconciled us to Godself in Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation. So don’t wait, receive the grace of God. Don’t let it go to waste by receiving it in vain. After all, Paul quotes from Isaiah 49:8, which affirms the promise that on the day of salvation God has helped us. That promise, of course, is rooted in God’s covenant promise to Israel, to restore the exiles to their homeland. As Scot McKnight notes, Paul uses “Israel-remnant-servant imagery” to reveal “a loving, faithful covenant God” who is working to bring the exiles home. With that as the foundation, “Paul sees his own mission to the Corinthians as (hopefully) accomplishing the same salvific purpose of God as he announces redemption in Christ! This appeal to Isaiah 49 is a pastorally creative and apocalyptic reading of the Bible backwards” [Connections, p. 100]. Therefore, today is the appropriate day of salvation, so take hold of it.

                As noted in earlier postings, Paul’s letters to the Corinthians have strong apocalyptic elements. There is an urgency to his message. Don’t waste time on unimportant things. As for the Corinthians, they’re restless. They want to move on from Paul’s oversight, which they seem to think is rather paternalistic. Writing this post as the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be winding down, you can feel some sympathy with the Corinthians. We just want to get on with our lives. Freedom is our watchword. The same is true here. There are elements of human life that don’t seem to change much. Context changes, but the emotional elements don’t seem to change that much. So, we can identify. Of course, Paul is not without his emotional involvement. We say that clearly on display in the way he responds to their resistance to his message.

                We see Paul’s emotions on display in the way he speaks of his involvement with them in verse 3. He insists that he and his companions had not put any obstacles in the way of anyone’s relationship with God. He claims that the Corinthians cannot find fault with his efforts on their behalf. In other words, they are people of integrity. In our day, it seems as if everyone’s integrity is in question. Perhaps it’s the 24 hour a day news cycle and social media that fuels this. It could be that too many scandals have been uncovered, including in the religious realm. It’s not that this didn’t happen in days of yore, it’s just that it’s more difficult to keep things under wraps. Once the cat is out of the bag you’re
not putting it back in.

                As we read through this passage it becomes clear that some question Paul’s integrity. After all, he claims that they have treated him as if he is an imposter (2 Cor. 6:8). It is for this reason that Paul finds it necessary to defend his ministry (and that of his companions). So, we read in verses 4-10 a lengthy description of his trials and tribulations as well as a strongly worded statement concerning his integrity. You can sense here that Paul’s emotions are on full display. He’s being vulnerable before them. So, he reminds them that he has endured many tribulations on their behalf ranging from imprisonment to shipwrecks. He’s spent many a sleepless night and experienced hunger, just so he could proclaim the gospel to them. He and his companions have also tried to live pure and holy lives, speaking the truth and expressing love for them (integrity!). Yet, as I noted above, they are treated as if they are imposters. Nevertheless, while
they may have nothing (of material value) they possess everything.

                I expect that many clergy identify with Paul. They’ve given their all and feel as if it is all for naught. I’ve seen and heard the stories on clergy Facebook pages. All of this has been intensified during COVID as some members have pushed to reopen before it was deemed safe and pressure was put on these clergy to go against what they believed was best (I’m thankful that the congregation I serve didn’t put that kind of pressure on me). Perhaps these words from Paul can at least give solace and maybe even encouragement to speak out. It’s biblical, after all!

                As I read the passage, I wonder if the key to understanding this passage can be found in verse thirteen, where Paul calls them children. He feels as if he must speak to them as if they are children, and for Paul, that is not a compliment. He speaks to them as if they are immature and in need of proper guidance (and that may be true if the letters reveal the truth about what was happening in Corinth). Not only are they children, but in his mind, they are his children. After all, he founded this church and he feels a certain responsibility for their welfare. That is true even though he must speak to them through letters. Thus, this is a pastoral letter.  As for the Corinthians, they believe they are mature and no longer in need of Paul’s paternalistic guidance.  They want their freedom to do as they please, because they know what is good for them, despite what Paul might think. I wonder if Paul’s litany of trials and tribulations fell on deaf ears and closed hearts. He would like them to show some gratitude and they show disdain.

                So, what do we make of this? How might it preach? In fact, if you’re a preacher do you use this to impress upon the congregation how much you’ve given up for them? Probably not. I don’t think it would go over well. It might appear as if you have a martyr’s complex (and that never looks good). So, you might just as well read the passage and let it speak as it will and those with ears to hear will hear.

                Ultimately what Paul does here in chapter 6 is deepen the call to embrace Jesus’ offer of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5). He has likely challenged their cultural expectations. He’s pushing them to move beyond their social context and embrace the values of God’s realm. Paul offered a message of humility and meekness to a culture that embraced power and riches. He seemed to be saying, it’s okay to be perceived as weak (unmanly).  As Dan Dick writes: “To offer blessing to the poor and extend woe to the rich defies common sense and is about as countercultural a message as one can preach. Honoring gentleness and meekness over power, humility, and contentment over fame, and simplicity and poverty over wealth seem ridiculous in cultures structured around achievement, popularity, and success, but this is the foundation upon which our Christian faith is built” [Connections, p. 103].  If I’m honest, I too would like a bit of fame
and power. I have more than some. It’s built into my social context as a white male. But, I’m also a small church pastor (well, I am retiring at the end of the month and I did have a nice farewell party. So, I have nothing to complain about). It’s to compare our situations and feel as if we’re being slighted. Paul understands. He might be feeling that himself. Yet, he also seems to understand that he is the recipient of grace and God’s act of reconciliation. With that, Paul can tell the Corinthians to stop resisting the work of God. Embrace God’s reconciling grace and join in the work of God in the world. God is looking for partners in this endeavor. So, open your hearts to God for to day is the day of salvation!   

Image Attribution – Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1606-1669. Apostle Paul, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55240 [retrieved June 11, 2021]. Original source: http://www.nga.gov/fcgi-bin/tinfo_f?object=1198.

Becoming the New Creation – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 3B (2 Corinthians 5)

2 Corinthians 5:6-17 New Revised Standard Version

6 So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil. 
[11 Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. 12 We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. 13 For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.] 14 For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15 And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

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                Paul’s declaration that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” has proven to be foundational for my faith. Although that declaration is couched in apocalyptic language, it is a comforting and encouraging word. That is because it offers a message of new beginnings. To put it in Johannine terms, it offers the promise of being “born again.” According to Paul, the old life has passed away, so it no longer has a hold on me. I know I’m not alone in reading this passage in that way. Of course, Paul did have apocalyptic expectations that did not come to fruition in his lifetime. As we see here, he assumed it would not be long before the world stood before the judgment seat of Christ (vs. 10). While the earth continues its journey around the sun and Jesus has to return to inaugurate that new creation, can we not take from this message a promise that the past does not control our present or our future.

                Before we get too far in this conversation, I need to take note of the fact that the lectionary excludes verses 11-13 from our reading from 2 Corinthians 5. These excluded verses remind us that Paul is feeling the need to defend his ministry, even to the point of accepting the charge that he and his cohort are not of sound mind. While making that “admission” he clarifies by saying that if he’s not sane, it is because of his service to God. Yes, it’s God’s fault! Perhaps, the reason he has been criticized is that he hasn’t been engaged in competitive boasting. In other words, he’s not operating in ways the culture expects. That leads some to feel as if he’s weak. But, to Paul’s mind, they’ve missed the point that he’s been making. Boasting is not the way of Jesus.

                Now, one can easily jump from verse 10 to verse 14 without missing a beat. Nevertheless, the missing verses do provide a context for understanding Paul’s message of reconciliation. Ultimately, the core message of the passage is that when we are in Christ we become a new creation. That old life of ours has been replaced by the new creation.

                Focusing for a moment on verse 10, we read Paul’s words about standing before the judgment seat of God. That sounds ominous, and yet it would seem to be a necessary step in the process of being transformed from the old life to the new. When we stand before God our deeds are weighed and the appropriate “recompense” is given out. For Paul, if we are in Christ standing before God’s throne should not be a scary proposition. He has confidence because he walks by faith. When it comes to his situation in life, it doesn’t matter whether he is standing in the physical presence of Jesus or not, he knows what the future holds for him. So, he’s too concerned about his own bodily life, whether he’s here or there. It doesn’t matter to him. That’s because he understands himself to be living already in the realm of God.  But it appears he’s ready to leave behind this life and enter the new creation in all its fulness. He’s ready for the day of the Lord to come. The confidence comes from knowing/believing that this is his future. In the meantime, as Paul notes in verse 11, he and his cohort will continue to try to convince others of the truth he has embraced in Christ.

                The confidence Paul has is rooted in the cross, believing that Jesus died for all and then raised for them as well so that those who now live might live no longer for themselves. Thus, as C.K. Barrett writes: “Because Christ, being the person he was, died and was raised, there exists the universal possibility (he died on behalf of all; all died) of a new kind of human existence, no longer centred upon self but centred upon Christ” [Barrett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 169]. This describes Paul’s own sense of purpose. As a follower of Jesus, he has been reconciled through the cross and the resurrection, so he is committed to the ministry of reconciliation in Christ. This is his calling, and he believes it should be our calling as well.

                Verse 16 is intriguing because Paul speaks of having once known Jesus according to the flesh, but no longer does he view Jesus in that way. Is he speaking of having known Jesus when he was walking the earth or is he speaking in more theological terms? That is, will he no longer look at Jesus from a purely human perspective, but instead will affirm the divinity of Jesus? Whatever Paul means here, he no longer looks at Jesus the same way as before. Here we might remember that Paul the persecutor became Paul the reconciler.

                As we reach the end of the passage, we come to the verse that has spoken to me so powerfully over the years. The message of Paul is simple: “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” You can see the apocalyptic dimensions of this passage. Paul, like John the Revelator, envisioned a passing away of the old earth and the revelation of the new earth. He might not be as colorful in his language, but the message is essentially the same. What is will be replaced with what will be. The question is, what we should we do now? For Paul and for Jesus, who is also an apocalyptic prophet, we should live now as if we are already living in the new creation. Paul goes on from here to speak of a calling. Having been made new in Christ, we are called to take up the ministry of reconciliation (vs. 18). In fact, the lectionary creators likely cut things off a bit too soon. The calling to engage in the ministry of reconciliation that is rooted in the fact that we are now a new creation forms part of God’s larger work of reconciling the world to God’s self (vs. 19). Therefore, as Paul writes in verse 20, God has called us to be ambassadors through whom God is making an appeal. It’s not enough to affirm our status as a new creation if we don’t take the next step and embrace our calling to be ambassadors of reconciliation so that the work of new creation/recreation can go forward.  

                This calling, to live as if the new creation has already begun to take hold in this world. The transformation is underway. But, to see this occur requires faith. That is why,  as Paul writes in verse 7, we must walk by faith and not by sight. When we look around at the world in which we live, it might seem as if there is no evidence that the new creation is present in this old world of ours. It seems as if there is a mass shooting every day. Conspiracy theories are rampant, threatening the democratic foundations of the United States and other nations. Racism is rampant, taking a variety of forms. Too often Christians are deeply embedded in much of these problems. Nevertheless, Paul asks us to look at things from a different vantage point. That is, he invites us to look at the world through the lens of Christ’s promise of reconciliation. If we do this, then we can join in the effort to bring true reconciliation to the world, and with it, the new creation.

Swanson, John August. Celebration, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56538 [retrieved June 5, 2021]. Original source: http://www.JohnAugustSwanson.com – copyright 1997 by John August Swanson.

Joint Heirs with Jesus – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost Sunday, Year B (Romans 8)

Romans 8:12-17 New Revised Standard Version

12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13 for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

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                We are children of God if we are led by the Spirit of God. Of course, our status as children of God is due to natural descent. We are not by nature divine. However, according to Paul, we are children of God by adoption. This adoption by God involves the indwelling of the Spirit. If we are adopted by God through the indwelling of the Spirit, that makes us Jesus’ siblings. And, apparently, this makes us joint-heirs with Jesus. It’s good to remember that in the ancient world the inheritance went to the first-born son. Everyone else was on their own unless the first-born decided to share. In this case, Jesus appears to have made that choice. We get to share in his largesse, which is an act of grace. That is Paul’s message to the Roman church.

                The reading designated for Trinity Sunday takes us back to Romans 8, which provided the Second Reading for Pentecost Sunday. In the reading for the previous week (Romans 8:22-27), Paul writes that the Spirit of God intercedes on our behalf when we don’t have the words to offer in prayer. When we lack the words to speak to God, the Spirit can interpret our groans and our sighs, making known our concerns and requests. That ministry of the Spirit occurs because the Spirit of God indwells us. Not only does the Spirit interpret our sighs and groans, but the Spirit also, as we learn in today’s reading, enables us to call out “Abba, Father.”  In this, we share a position in the family of God with our elder brother, Jesus the Christ.

                We hear this word about our status as children of God on Trinity Sunday. At first glance, this is not a distinctively trinitarian passage. Yes, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are present, but the formula is a bit ad hoc. The nature of the relationship between the three persons is not explicitly stated. To get there we have to read the passage through a trinitarian lens. Being that I am by theological orientation trinitarian, I can do this, but it might not be obvious to everyone. If we can imagine the text through this lens, then what we see here is a word about relationships first within the nature of God and then between God and God’s people. As Clayton Schmidt writes, “the main thrust of this text is not so much to explicate Trinitarian theology as to draw Paul’s readers into the family of God.” [Feasting on the Word, p. 41]. So, if we read this through a trinitarian lens then the message here is that through adoption we are drawn into union with God, who is our parent by adoption through the Spirit, which makes us siblings of Jesus.

                Perhaps the message here is really about belonging. We all want to belong to some form of family or community. Paul understands this, perhaps more intimately than we truly know, and so he speaks of a new kind of family, one that is thicker than blood. It is by adoption that we are drawn into this new family, but as God’s adopted children we can call out to God, just as Jesus did, speaking to God as “Abba! Father!”  Ultimately, we can do this through the Spirit who calls out to God on our behalf (Rom. 8:22-27).

                So, what does it mean to be adopted and therefore a joint heir with Jesus? As Kelley Nikondeha, who is herself and an adoptee with an adopted child, points out, how the ancient Greco-Roman world understood adoption differs markedly from how we understand it.

Our contemporary concept of adopting an infant, with the connotations of nurture, care, and compassion, is, in fact, anachronistic. The common understanding of adoption in the Greco-Roman world would have been functional: it was a tool of the elite (especially the emperors) to secure succession, legacy, and inheritance. Adopted sons were pulled into a bigger story and expected to fulfill an imperial purpose. In those times, adoption was about the coalescing and movement of power, not the rescue of orphans. [Adopted, p. 23].

This understanding of adoption is important in that it reminds us that Paul always has in mind the message is the son of God, not Caesar. While Caesar shores up power through adoption, God need not do this. However, Paul understands that by using this terminology he is reinforcing what it means to belong to God’s family. We get to share in that power given to Jesus, not by natural descent but through the choice made by the heir who draws us into the family through the Spirit.

                As Nikondeha points out, in Paul’s understanding of adoption, we’re not merely “imperial functionaries; we are also family members. As family, we recognize one another as siblings and are invited into filial solidarity as adopted ones.” [Adopted,p. 24]. That suggests that Paul is interested not only in our relationship with God but our relationships with each other. We are family. Therefore, we should be in solidarity with one another in a way that transcends DNA. In fact, this relationship that exists through the Spirit’s indwelling stands before the relationship defined by blood/DNA. For those who do not belong to a physical family, for whatever reason, they do belong to the family of God, with Jesus as the older brother who welcomes us all into the circle. So, again, drawing on Nikondeha’s writings on adoption: “As heirs, we participate in extending God’s kingdom of peace. As a family, we recognize others as siblings who ought to be treated as such. As adopted ones, we extend that magnanimous belonging to others” [Adopted, p. 27].  One more word from Nikondeha on adoption: She writes that “adoption imbues belonging with elasticity—we know there is always room for more at the table and more in the family. As we shape our own communities of belonging, we have to run to keep up with the divine largess, since God keeps growing his family with great creativity and an ever-greater reach” [Adoption, p. 28]. Is not that Paul’s message? One’s place in the family doesn’t depend on blood but grace.

                If we are siblings of Jesus, and therefore, heirs of the promises of God, which includes our redemption, then does this not ultimately lead to union with God? In a trinitarian reading of this passage, we can join with Eastern Christians in imagining how the Son became incarnate, bringing together humanity and divinity. To be in Christ, allows us to share in that reality, what Eastern Christians call theosis or deification. As Gregory Palamas shared in a sermon “Heaven is open to them to receive them in due course if, increasing in faith in God and righteousness according to faith, they receive power to become heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ, sharing in His incorruptible life and immortality, inseparably united with Him and enjoying His glory (Rom. 8:17–18).

The Helping Spirit of God – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost Sunday — Romans 8

Romans 8:22-27 New Revised Standard Version

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

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                When
you think of the Holy Spirit, what comes to mind? Do you think about the Spirit who comes as a mighty wind on Pentecost empowering and inspiring a community that had recently lost its leader to carry out a new mission in the world? (Acts 2:1-21).  Do you think of John’s Paraclete, who comes alongside us and serves as our advocate (John 14)? What about the Spirit who helps us in our weakness? Might all of these references serve as descriptors of the Holy Spirit, the one whom Jesus promised to send to empower the church in its ministry of proclamation (in word and deed)? (Acts1:1-11). So, who is the Holy Spirit of God?

                Here in Romans 8, Paul speaks of the Spirit in cosmic terms. The world is groaning as if in labor pains, ready to give birth to something new. That new thing includes our adoption as children of God and the redemption of our bodies, but it’s not just individual followers of Jesus, it’s the cosmos itself that is looking forward to the day of its redemption, that begins with the redemption of the children of God. In other words, Paul speaks of looking forward to the dawn of the new heaven and new earth. It is the Holy Spirit who facilitates all of this. Therefore, those who are in Christ are the first fruits of this new creation.

                Since this is a Pentecost reading the focus is on the Holy Spirit. Paul isn’t looking back to Pentecost Sunday. Instead, he is looking forward to the moment when God’s cosmic purpose will be revealed through the Spirit. While Paul has an eschatological vision in mind, he knows he’s writing to people who are concerned about their present state of suffering. The new creation might be in the process of breaking into this realm, but it’s not fully present. So, suffering remains part of their reality. It remains part of our reality as seen in the ongoing challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. While suffering may be part of our reality, the reading begins in verse 18, with Paul telling the Roman church that he doesn’t consider the present sufferings worth comparing to the glory that is about to be revealed to them. This statement is a reminder that Paul’s theology is eschatologically oriented, so his word of encouragement suggests that the present suffering is temporary, while the glory to come is permanent. That is why our groanings serve as a prelude to our adoption and the redemption of our bodies. All of this is rooted in the work of the Spirit who intercedes on our behalf. In this, there is a similarity to John’s words about the Paraclete, our Advocate.  It should be noted that all of this is something to be hoped for. That which is hoped for is not seen yet. Thus, we still endure suffering until that time when we will experience that adoption as children of God and the redemption of our bodies. The good news, however, is that the Holy Spirit is present with us speaking on our behalf.

                The Holy Spirit, as Paul suggests here comes alongside us to assist us in our times of weakness. He couches this conversation in a word about the nature of prayer. Although the NRSV suggests that Paul’s audience might not know how to pray, his focus isn’t on the method of prayer (how). Rather it is a question of content.  Paul writes that when we do not know what to pray, the Spirit intercedes on our behalf “with sighs too deep for words.” For some in the Christian community, this is understood to refer to glossolalia (speaking in tongues). In other words, this would involve a Spirit-inspired prayer language. More likely this is a matter of the Spirit connecting with our inner thoughts and feelings, our groans. Remember that the intercession of the Spirit in verse 26 follows upon Paul’s discussion of creation’s groanings, as well as our own groanings as we await in the Spirit, as the first fruits of the Spirit, our adoption, which is the redemption of our bodies.

                So when it comes to praying in the Spirit, the intent is that in times of suffering we may not have the right words to say to God. We may not know how to express our concerns and our needs. All we can do is groan, and the Spirit translates those groans into a word to God. George Montague suggests that this idea that the Spirit serves as an intercessor was new because “the ruah of the Lord in the Old Testament was never sufficiently personalized or personified to be a separately operating entity, and certainly not toward God as in the case here.” Prophets interceded (Ex. 32:11; Amos 7:2) as did angels (Tob. 12:12). In addition, here in Romans 8, “the heavenly intercession is attributed equally to Christ (8:34) and to the Spirit (here)” [Montague, The Holy Spirit, p. 211].       

                When we read a passage like this, which speaks of the Spirit, many of us, rightly so in my view, read it through a trinitarian lens. In saying this, I also need to note that I don’t believe Paul had a fully developed trinitarian theology. I believe the foundations are there, but it would take a few centuries before theologians, like Basil of Caesarea, began to pay significant attention to the Holy Spirit. The formula is there early on as seen in Matthew 28, but the definition would take time to develop. Nevertheless, if we read it through a trinitarian lens it’s not as if the Spirit is a separate entity acting on its own. Rather the process of intercession and redemption all takes place within God’s being. A trinitarian reading of the passage also suggests that the transcendent God is present within us through the indwelling of the Spirit. It is as the Spirit is present within us that our groans are translated to God’s understanding of the creation.

                The message here is that as wait for what is hoped for, redemption and adoption, we know that we are not alone. The Spirit of God is with us and within us.  This is part of the Pentecost message. It is this presence that strengthens us for the journey that empowers our witness to the world. So, we pray, Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me. Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me” [Daniel Iverson, Chalice Hymnal, 259]

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For more on the Holy Spirit and life in the Spirit see my Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, (Energion, 2013).

The Gift of Eternal Life—Lectionary Reflection for Easter 7A (1 John 5)

Paradise – Jan Bruegel (1620)

1 John 5:9-13 New Revised Standard Version

If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. 10 Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. 11 And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.

13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.

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                It’s the Seventh Sunday of Easter. That means we’re just a step away from Pentecost Sunday. That means the Ascension of Jesus is in play. If you’re not part of a tradition that gathers on Ascension Day itself, you may be celebrating the ascension on this Seventh Sunday. If so, you might find yourself looking to see what the Ascension reading Ephesians 1:15-23 has to say. However, if you’ve been hanging out with 1 John since the beginning of Eastertide, you might want to stay one more Sunday with John. This reading, which is brief continues the thought from last week’s selection. In the previous reading, we heard a message about being born of God and being children of God. To be born of God involves believing in Jesus, which has both content elements and trust elements. You have to believe Jesus has something to say about God if you’re going to trust your life to Jesus. In my reflection on last week’s reading, I took things beyond the lectionary cutoff at verse 6 to get us to verse 9. This week we pick up with verse 9 and continue with the story.

                John wants us to know that if we think that human testimony is valuable, then the testimony of God is even greater. According to John, God testifies to his Son. Since there is no higher authority to which one can appeal, then we must receive as complete the message God has provided. If we heed this testimony, that is, if we allow it to penetrate our hearts, then we are born of God and therefore part of God’s family. What a family this is!

                The Gospel reading for the Seventh Sunday in Eastertide takes us to John 17, where Jesus prays for his followers. In this prayer, Jesus acknowledges that God had given him this group of people. Now Jesus wants to give them back to God so God might protect them from the evil one (Jn 17:6-19). While we don’t see a lot of talk about resurrection in these passages, at least not explicitly, they do speak of eternal life. For Christians, eternal life is connected to the resurrection of Jesus. According to John, God has testified about Jesus by offering the gift of eternal life, which is to be found in the Son. That is, “whoever has the Son has life.” There is, of course, a flip side to this message. If you don’t have the Son, that is, you don’t believe/trust in the Son, you don’t have life. The choice is yours, and it’s a life-and-death decision.

                This is a rather brief passage that on the surface doesn’t seem to have a lot of meat to it. There is a call to believe the testimony of God by taking it to heart. In this there is life. Could that involve this life we’re living now? Yes, of course. To trust in Jesus is to follow him. But is there more?

                If someone was to choose this passage to preach, this one might allow the preacher to reflect on the question of eternal life. That’s the way the letter closes—with a word about believing in Jesus so that one might have eternal life. John doesn’t define what that means, so a preacher will have to fill in the gaps. But that’s okay because it opens the conversation which can be filled in with other words and passages that are a bit more definitive. Besides, anything we say about eternal life is tentative. Yet, tentative is better than nothing at all. Not only that, but eternal life is part of God’s testimony to Jesus.

                Sometimes, in more liberal/progressive clergy circles, I hear a sense of disdain for the question of whether there is life after death. Talk about eternal life is said to be a distraction from the work that needs to be done here on earth. Besides, even if there is life after death, what can be said about it that is definitive? It’s not a testable assertion unless you embrace the stories about people coming back to life. But these testimonies are not conclusive, and they differ from person to person. There are passages like the vision of the New Heaven and New Earth in Revelation 21 and 22. In that final vision, the saints of God will eat of the Tree of Life, bringing us back to the Garden. Is this the vision that John has in mind? Or something else?

                While we don’t have definitive answers and there is much to do here on earth to make life livable, the questions remain. Is this all there is? It’s a question that gets raised at funerals and death beds. When people gather at a funeral, they want to hear a word of assurance that their loved one lives on in some way. Although we can’t offer proof, we give the testimony to the resurrection. Yes, it may involve the use of our imagination to envision what might be on the other side. Of course, John speaks here of God’s testimony that is present in our hearts. Is this not sufficient for a follower of Jesus? Once again, John doesn’t define what he means by eternal life. That gives us room to consider the various possibilities.

                So, I wish to conclude the reflection with this word from the late Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann’s book O Death, Where Is Thy Sting?

                The Church is the entrance into the risen life of Christ; it is communion in life eternal, “joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.’’ And it is the expectation of the “day without evening” of the kingdom; not of any “other world,” but of the fulfilment of all things and all life in Christ. In him death itself has become an act of life, for he has filled it with himself, with his love and light. In him “all things are yours; whether . . . the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor 3:21-23). And if I make this new life mine, mine this hunger and thirst for the kingdom, mine this expectation of Christ, mine the certitude that Christ is Life, then my very death will be an act of communion with Life. For neither life nor death can separate us from the love of Christ. I do not know when and how the fulfilment will come. I do not know when all things will be consummated in Christ. I know nothing about the “whens” and “hows.” But I know that in Christ this great Passage, the Pascha of the world has begun, that the light of the “world to come” comes to us in the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit, for Christ is risen and Life reigns.  [Schmemann, Alexander. O Death, Where Is Thy Sting. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.]

To this message of eternal life rooted in the resurrection, I give thanks.

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  Image Attribution: Bruegel, Jan, 1568-1625. Paradise, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54171 [retrieved May 8, 2021]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jan_Brueghel_the_Younger_Paradise.jpg.

Born of God — Lectionary Reflection for Easter 6B (1 John 5)

1 John 5:1-9 New Revised Standard Version

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth. There are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree. If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son.

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                Jesus’ famous conversation with Nicodemus focused on the question of what it means to be born again/born from above (Jn. 3:1-10). Nicodemus had a difficult time getting his head around Jesus’ words because he was taking them literally. In doing that, he missed the point of rebirth. That is, to be in Christ is to become a new creation. Literalism too often gets in the way of hearing the message of Jesus.  Such was the case with Nicodemus. We encounter a similar word here in chapter 5 of 1 John. The author of the letter/sermon, who is known as John, speaks of being born of God, which I take to be the same as we read in John 3 (especially if we read this as being “born from above.” Rebirth here as in John 3 is connected to belief in Jesus as the Christ/Messiah. In other words, there is a lot of overlap between 1 John 5 and John 3.

                The imagery here is familial. John continues to envision the church as a family, in fact, the church is understood to be the children of God. To believe in Jesus as the Christ is to take on a new identity. We become part of a new family. John once again uses the language of love, noting that those who love the Father will love the child. So, if we if love God, we will love God’s children (the church).  We do this by loving God, which involves keeping God’s commandments. John doesn’t specify the nature of the commandments here, but he insists they are not burdensome. I would say that for John belief and obedience to the commands are one and the same. In other words, to believe that Jesus is the Christ is not simply giving assent to a creedal statement. It involves living for Jesus by obeying the commands of God. If we do this, then we will conquer the world. To put it differently, believing and loving, require doing. Lindsey Jodrey picks up on this noting that in Johannine literature, with the one exception of 1 John 4, where the Greek noun pistis is found, belief is understood to be a verb. Jodrey writes that “For John, one does not have faith. Rather, one believes. It is something you do, a muscle that you exercise. John cannot conceive of disembodied, inactive
‘faith’” [Connections, p. 274].  

                The reference to conquering the world reminds us that the early Christians held an apocalyptic worldview. They assumed that they were engaged in cosmic battles. We see this in the Gospels, in Paul’s letters, and in Revelation. It’s present here as well. From an apocalyptic viewpoint, the assumption is that the old world is passing away and a new world is emerging. To believe is to participate in this cosmic battle, though the weapons used here are not physical. They’re spiritual in nature. The good news that John has for us is that in this cosmic battle, God has the upper hand. In fact, that’s why we believe Jesus is the Christ. It is in his death and resurrection that victory has been achieved.

                This becomes clear in verse 6. Victory comes through belief/affirmation that Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is the one who came by water and blood. The Spirit testifies to this truth. So what does John mean by this? To be honest it is not clear. John may have in mind the birth of Jesus (water) and death (blood). There may also be sacramental connections—baptism (water) and eucharist (blood). It’s unlikely that John has a sacramental meaning in mind, so more likely we’re talking of Jesus’ birth and death being the key to victory.  The verse ends with an affirmation of the
witness of the Spirit of Truth.

                The reading from 1 John 5 ends, according to the lectionary, in verse 6. However, verses 7-9 are worth considering, as they add depth to the statement in verse six concerning the witness of the water, blood, and the Spirit. John writes that the water, blood, and Spirit all agree concerning the coming of Jesus. There is a trinitarian feel to the statement, but we shouldn’t push that too far. But, the point here is that they all agree concerning the ministry/person of Jesus, and beyond that God’s testimony is greater than any human testimony (the testimony of the Spirit). As we read this closing argument it appears that John is countering a docetic Christology that denies the messiness of the incarnation (water of birth and blood of his death). That does seem as if it is a major concern for the congregation, as the infiltrators who have disrupted congregational life may have been denying the reality of Jesus’ physical existence, including his death. But, the Spirit of God bears witness to the truth that is revealed in the messiness of water and blood.  

                This gets us back to the opening lines concerning John’s reference to the children of God, those who are born of God. It’s appropriate for us to think here in familial terms, with John taking on a paternal role in his concern for the community’s welfare. This is the family of God and together they experience victory in Jesus. That is a good thing to remember in this individualistic world we live in. While the reasons why a “spiritual but not religious” movement has emerged, one that tends not to be institutionally connected, is understandable, John would have trouble conceiving of such an entity. The individualistic side of this movement is a modern reality, that presumes we’re all free agents, able to
connect with God on our own terms. John envisions instead a family into which we’ve been born. Here John is concerned about the threat of division. Schism was considered a great sin by the ancient church because it tore apart the family. It undermines the principle of love. God is love, and those born of God will love their siblings because that’s what family does. So, together as members of the family of God working together in the power of the Spirit we can conquer the world!

 Note: For more on 1 John, I suggest my book  The Letters of John: A Participatory Guide (Energion Publications, 2019).

Living the Love of God – Lectionary Reflection for Easter 5B (1 John 4)

 

 

 

1 John 4:7-21

 

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. 

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

 

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                If there is one message that has been passed on to us from 1 John it is that “God is Love.” If this is true, then those who say they love God should “love one another.” The first is a confession of faith. The second is the expected result from making that confession. It is the way in which those who say they love God express that love for God. So, if we are to call ourselves children of God then we should be people known by our love for one another. That is the premise on which John bases his word of wisdom to a church that appears to be struggling. What was true of that congregation continues to be true down the centuries. Yes, even today the folks who populate our churches often struggle with connecting the dots. We say we love God, and we like to sing about being known for our love of one another, but if the polls to be believed, we’re not known for loving one another or anyone else for that matter. Instead, we are seen as a gathering of intolerant bigots. So, it appears we have a lot of work to do if we are to embody the message we find here in 1 John 4.

                As for the confession of faith. Yes, I agree with John that God is love. This is a foundational theological principle, and as Augustine reminds us love isn’t God, God is love [On Christian Belief, p. 170]. This is a basic premise of
“open and relational theology.” There is much that goes into that belief system because questions quickly rise about divine power and why bad things happen, especially to good people. One answer to that, which comes out of various forms of open and relational power, is that God is not all-powerful. At least that is true if love is considered uncontrolling and uncoercive. If that is true then God acts through persuasion. Thomas Jay Oord has written quite a bit on that score and should be consulted (see his books The Uncontrolling Love of God and God Can’t). That is, however, not the concern of the moment. More importantly here is the connection between the confession that God is love, which John takes as a given, and the way we live our lives as children of God. 

                This would be the ethical application of the confession that begins by recognizing the true exemplar of God’s love, and that would be Jesus. John writes that “God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 Jn 4:9-10). Note that we are to live through the Son, not just follow him but participate in his life. John also affirms the premise that God’s love for us is seen in the mission given to the Son, who was sent to be “the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Again, John doesn’t define his terms. In fact, John doesn’t mention the cross, only that he was an atoning sacrifice. Or perhaps it’s better to suggest that the love of God is sacrificial in nature. It takes risks. As I wrote in my book on 1 John: God is willing to give up everything so that we might once again experience oneness with God and with one another” [The Letters of John, p. 71]. As Paul Tillich reminds us, love is more than emotion. If it is only emotion, then love is merely sentimental. When understood ontologically, Tillich writes that “love is the moving power of life.”  In fact, “love is the drive toward the unity of the separated. Reunion presupposes separation of that which belongs essentially together” [Tillich, Love,Power, and Justice, pp. 24-25]. Could we think of John’s words about atonement here in terms of moving us in love toward “at-one-ment”?

                So, let us love one another as an expression of our love for God, remembering that it is God who first loves us. In other words, the love we show one another has its origin in God. If love is foundational, because God is love, and those who abide in God abide in love, then we should act accordingly. After all, John says that we’re liars if we say that we love God and don’t love our neighbors. How can we say we love God, whom we cannot see if we don’t love our neighbors whom we can see? It’s a good question. The only possible answer is to agree to love our brothers and sisters as an expression of our love for God. That’s because love ultimately has its origins in God’s love for us. If this all true, then John also teaches us that those who love should not live in fear, because love casts out fear. The reason John connects love and an absence of fear is that fear is an obstruction to love. We can’t love others if we fear them. So, let
us abide in God so that we might not live in fear, but instead live lives that express love. As Tillich reminds us, love brings things together! When we do that, we can truly live the love of God.

 Note: For more on 1 John, I suggest my book  The Letters of John: A Participatory Guide (Energion Publications, 2019).                   

 


Picture attribution: Stratz, Wayne; Almon, Margaret; Halstead, Suzanne. Love, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=58120 [retrieved April 24, 2021]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nutmegdesigns/6209236367