Category: revised common lectionary

Embodying Divine Wisdom – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 17B (James 3-4)

James 3:13-4:8 New Revised Standard Version

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says,

“God opposes the proud,
    but gives grace to the humble.”

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

(Verses omitted by lectionary are in italics)

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                The Letter of James is widely considered to be an expression of Jewish wisdom literature (there is a similarity in style to the deuterocanonical Wisdom of Solomon). Of course, this is a Christianized form, but it is rooted in the larger Jewish wisdom tradition. As such, James focuses on how we live out the life of faith. He asks the question, “who is wise and understanding among you?” (vs. 13). Then he offers his word of advice, if you are wise then live accordingly. You might say that James is concerned about orthopraxis. Now, according to James, there is more than one kind of wisdom. Different forms of wisdom relate to their point of origin. That is a primary concern in this passage. There is a divine form of wisdom and one that is earthly and unspiritual. The call here then is to embrace the wisdom from above which is marked by works of gentleness rather than being inspired by envy and selfish ambition.

                One thing we learn from James is that he understands the world in which we live. He knows that it is filled with challenges and temptations that can lead us away from what God would have us do and be. So, here in our reading for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost James contrasts these two forms of wisdom, one divine and the other earthly. What we read here is an extension of what we read for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, where we hear James ask: “Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can saltwater yield fresh” (Jms. 3:12). This helps us understand James’ view of “works” in the Christian life. Works are, for him, the ethical life. This life is rooted in faith/wisdom. So, the form of faith/wisdom we embrace will determine the direction of our lives. The choice, apparently, is ours.

                According to James, the way of divine wisdom includes these qualities: purity, peaceableness, gentleness, a willingness to yield, is full of mercy and good works, no partiality (that is a topic of chapter 2), and no hypocrisy. You can see some overlap with Paul’s fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). For those who embrace this wisdom, which is expressed by peace, they will see a harvest of righteousness.

                So far all is good, but peace might not be the dominant experience in James’ churches. As we open chapter 4, James asks the reader about the conflicts present amongst them. We already know from chapter 2 that the congregations were dealing with issues of partiality for the wealthy and against the poor. Then in chapter 3, he addresses the dangerous use of the tongue. Now, having raised the question of the two forms of wisdom, one divine and the other earthly, he asks the reader where all of these conflicts come from. Now, for James, this is a rhetorical question. He already knows the answer. It is the “earthly” wisdom marked by envy and selfish ambition that leads them astray. These “qualities” lead to cravings that are at war within them. In making that comment, James seems to recognize that the members of these congregations are wrestling with these two forms of wisdom, with the earthly wisdom seemingly winning out. Thus, because they don’t get what they desire, they commit murder. When I read this I begin to wonder about the state of the early church. What is going on here? I understand a bit of envy and gossip and maybe partiality, but murder?  At a minimum, their desire for things they cannot have leads to conflict and dissension within the ranks. Then James takes an interesting turn. He tells them that they do not have because they do not ask. What does James have in mind here? Is this a reference to prayer? Or simply a reminder that if we ask for something our spiritual siblings might be willing to share? Or could both be in play? Ultimately, they do not receive what they ask for because they ask wrongly, determined to spend on pleasure. Do you get the sense that this community is enticed by a hedonistic culture to join in its ways? Instead of following the ways of Jesus, do they follow the ways of some other god?

                The lectionary invites us to skip over verses 4-6, which picks up the image of God being jealous of the affections of the people, or so it seems. We might not like this image, but if taken in context is it not understandable. That is, God cares enough to want to be in a monogamous relationship with the people of God. What James does here is draw on the concept of the marriage covenant, and in doing so he suggests that if God is faithful to the covenant, then should not the other part, whom he calls adulterers. James draws a firm line between God and the world. To be a friend with the world is to be at enmity with God. That is, if you want to be a friend of the world then you are an enemy of God. This sounds rather drastic. After all, doesn’t God love the world (Jn. 3:16)? So, what does God want from us?  Should we, like the Amish, separate ourselves from the world? I don’t know many Christians who take that step. I haven’t. I live a pretty normal life in the world. Yes, I’m a Christian and seek to follow the ways of Jesus but I haven’t gone off into the desert to live as a hermit. Nevertheless, James draws on this image of God, the jealous husband to call the people back to living according to divine wisdom. This involves, so James tells us, by submitting ourselves to God, for as Scripture says: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Prov.3:34). Perhaps it’s the image of God being jealous, but these verses are omitted by the lectionary creators, but maybe we need to take note of them.

                The reading closes out with verses 7 and 8a. Here we are asked to submit ourselves to God. I’m reminded here that the word Muslim refers to one who submits to God. So, James is inviting us to be Muslims, ones who submit to God. If we do this then we can resist the devil who will flee from us, if we submit to God and therefore stand firm. Yes, if we draw near to God (another way of saying submitting ourselves God) then God will draw near to us. As I read this, I sense that in James’ mind, God gives us room to choose our own, without coercion. We can submit to God and draw near, or we can keep God at a distance. The choice is ours. If we do not choose the ways of God, there will be consequences, as we see here in James’ letter. Now, if you like, you can stop here or continue with verse 8, which says something about washing our hands. In a time of COVID, it might be worth mentioning the value of cleansing hands as a sign of a pure heart. Ultimately, what James would have us do is embody Divine wisdom in the way we live our lives.

Dangerous Words – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 16B (James 3)

James 3:1-12 New Revised Standard Version

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

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                The tongue is a dangerous organ. If we’re not careful our tongues can do a lot of damage. By that, I mean, the words we speak. Growing up I learned the adage that “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” I will confess that it never gave me much comfort. Of course, if I’m honest I could give as well as take in this matter. As I look back across my life, I’m horrified by things I’ve said, whether jokes or just mean statements. To my embarrassment, it is often my family who have borne the brunt of my statements. I wish I could say I no longer say things that hurt, but that would be dishonest. Unfortunately, we seem to be living in an age when in reaction to calls for sensitivity people seem to feel empowered to say whatever, whenever, they want. If it hurts, all the better. The saddest thing is that many Christians feel empowered to engage in such efforts. Apparently, they have never read the Letter of James (or they have taken to heart Luther’s dictum that it is an epistle of straw).

                James clues us in on the target of his message—the teachers. He tells them those who teach will be judged with greater strictness. Mistakes will happen, but mistakes made when speaking can have unfortunate consequences. It would seem that James is not too confident that teachers and preachers can keep their speech appropriate. But, if they can bridle the tongue they can keep the whole body in check. The tongue might be small, but it is mighty. We’ve seen this play out through history. The pen might be mightier than the sword, but demagogues have always taken the cake when it comes to such things. Eloquence can be used for good or for ill. We think of great orators who have called forth the people to do great things. Think of Franklin Roosevelt whose messages whether in person or on the radio gave a nation confidence that it could conquer the depression and its enemies overseas. But Hitler was quite the speaker as well and look what happened with him.

                So, the tongue is small, but like the rudder of a large ship, it can steer the body and the community where it desires. So be careful with what you say. In the second half of verse 5, which in the NRSV opens a new paragraph, James speaks of a forest fire set by a small fire. Growing up in the west, where forest fires were common, the message of Smokey the Bear was simple:  Only you can prevent forest fires. A campfire might look as if it’s out, but a small ember can, with a bit of breeze stir and if something flammable is near can quickly grow. The same with a cigarette butt thrown out of a car window into a bit of dry grass. Most of the fires I grew up with were challenging but rarely got too far out of hand. But things have changed with drought and increased heat, the forests are dry and brittle and can easily catch fire and spread. I no longer live out west, but I understand the dangers. That, says James, is the power of the tongue. This fire, says James, has been set by hell itself.

                James isn’t finished illustrating his point regarding the power of the tongue. It is like a rudder that directs a ship. It is like a spark that lights a forest fire. Finally, James draws on the image of a domesticated animal. According to James any animal, bird, or reptile can be tamed, but the same is not true of the tongue. This brings us full circle to the opening illustration of a horse that is kept in check with a bridle in its mouth. In that opening illustration, James suggested that the people of God need to bridle their tongues so that their bodies can be brought under control. Here, in this final image, we are reminded that animals can be tamed/domesticated, so why not the tongue?

                As for the tongue, not only is it seemingly untamable, but it is also “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Remember that it is also like a fire set by hell. This seems to be parallel that image. Now for a more definitive word about the tongue. It can be used to bless God. Yes, we can use it in the church to sing songs of praise and offer prayers to God. However, it can also be used to curse those who are made in the image of God. How true is this! How often do we go from church, having sung God’s praises, and then afterward cursed our neighbor or even a family member?

                Part of the message here concerns self-control. It is a message that would seem to be appropriate for our age. Especially in an age of social media where we can “speak our minds” without having to face the persons we are speaking of; this becomes even more imperative. We have seen all manner of hate speech, bullying, and misinformation being spread with few if any consequences. This is often dangerous. I’m thinking here of the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Through various channels, we’ve heard vaccines misrepresented, even as unproven and often dangerous remedies are bandied about. For those who get their news and information from social media, this can prove deadly to themselves and to others. When it comes to hateful speech, we might want to ask ourselves if we would say the same thing to a persons’ face. As James puts it, from the same mouth can come blessings and curses, but this should not be so. Indeed!

                What is said here reiterates what we heard James share in chapter 1: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless” (Jms. 1:26). It is true that none of us is perfect, and we will find ourselves cursing those whom God has created in God’s likeness, but unless we wish to indulge in a worthless religion, James’ word of wisdom is to bridle the tongue. That is, engage in a bit of self-control. That especially goes for those called to teach. So, remember James the question James asks of his readers (us): “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? (vs. 11). The answer is, of course, no. Just to make sure we get the point, does a fig tree produce olives, or does a grapevine produce figs? The answer is, of course, no to both! So, watch what you say! Words do hurt and they destroy. As the Book of Proverbs reminds us: “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but the prudent are restrained in speech” (Prov. 10:19).

Jesus Doesn’t Play Favorites – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 15B (James 2:1-17)

Diego Rivera Mural, Detroit Institute of Art

James 2:1-17 New Revised Standard Version

                2 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

                        8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

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

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                If we’re honest, we all play favorites. There are some people we really don’t enjoy being around and others we really want to be with. I remember when church growth theory was all the rage, with its message of homogeneity. In other words, churches grow when we target specific groups of people because “birds of a feather flock together.” There is truth to this observation. But, apparently, that’s not the way it works with Jesus, who does play favorites. Though, he does seem to prefer bringing Peter, James, and John with him when he goes off by himself. At least that’s what I’ve noticed when reading the Gospels. Nevertheless, according to James, Jesus doesn’t want us to show favoritism.

                Here in James 2, Jesus begins with a word about favoritism and then our reading ends with a word about faith being dead if it’s not accompanied by works. Once again, we see why Luther preferred Paul to James. Paul indeed focuses on grace and faith rather than works, but I’m not sure Paul would disagree with what James writes in this letter. After all, Paul takes the Corinthians to task for their classist behavior.  But, we’re not focused here on Paul. Instead, we need to listen to what James has to say about wealth, partiality, murder and adultery, and more (the lectionary creators put verses 11-13, where we read the word about murder and adultery, in parentheses. So if you don’t like those verses you can skip over them). Behavior, in James’ estimation, is the best expression of one’s faith in Jesus.

                At first sight, this is a word about egalitarianism that targets the wealthy, whom James warns the church against favoring over the poor. However, James not only warns against favoring the wealthy, who could be benefactors to the life of the church (what church wouldn’t like to have a few wealthy donors to endow the budget), but he also speaks of God’s decision to favor the poor. Much like the Magnificat, in which God brings down the rich and powerful and lifts up the poor and lowly (Lk. 1:46-55), James affirms God’s “preferential option for the poor.” What James does here in chapter 2 is contrast the way the rich and poor are often treated by society (including the church). It is to their shame as the church if they welcome with open arms the person with gold rings and fine clothes and then ignore the one who is poor and wearing dirty clothes.  The persons James has in mind here are probably field hands and other workers who come to church after work, tired, hungry, and yes dirty. Whether slave or free, they likely weren’t paid well. Thus, they make up the working poor who are taken advantage of by the wealthy whom the church leaders may have wanted to honor by letting them take the seat of honor, while the poor are pushed to the side where they must either stand or sit on the floor. So, by showing partiality and making distinctions in this way, they become judges with evil thoughts. What should a preacher do with a passage like this? [A note here, in 2021 (when this reflection first appears), the text is due to be read on Labor Day, making this an interesting conversation for that day.] 

                One takeaway is that James provides the foundation for claiming God’s “preferential option for the poor.” In making his point here concerning the poor, James reflects the message of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus declares: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt.5:3). God takes the side of the underdog, the one who is marginalized. The wealthy, well, they know how to take care of themselves. As for the poor, they are oppressed by the rich. In fact, James suggests that readers of this letter  are themselves the subject of abuse on the part of the rich who drag them into court. So, in honoring the rich and powerful who oppress they give honor to those who blaspheme the God who welcomes the poor. Thus, maybe Jesus does play favorites!

                James brings the Law into the conversation, and that is the Royal Law, that one should love one’s neighbor as oneself (Lev. 19:18). If you show partiality—toward the rich—then you transgress that law. This is on the same level as adultery and murder. So, the passage concludes with a reminder that faith without works is dead. It does nothing to say to a brother or sister who is naked and lacks daily food to “go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill.”  Such faith is dead. It has no value. As Robert Wall points out, for James “the mere profession of orthodox faith does not save anyone if it is not demonstrated by works of mercy” [Connections,  p. 292]. Those who wish the preacher would stick to the “Gospel” and not engage in politics, probably won’t appreciate this word from James. Nevertheless, what sounds a lot like what some call the “Social Gospel,” if we take James seriously should we not say that this is the Gospel? That is, unless the Gospel is simply a matter of getting to heaven when we die, then surely the Gospel has something to say about how we live together in this world, in the here and now. That includes recognizing that Jesus doesn’t play favorites, except in lifting up those who are poor and marginalized, while bringing down those who are high and mighty!

Pure Religion – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 14B (James 1)

James 1:17-27 New Revised Standard Version

17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

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                The word purity has become problematic. This is due in large part to the “purity” culture present in some parts of the Christian community. That culture is focused largely on keeping young women “pure” so they can become good wives (virgins). That’s not what James has in mind when writes in his letter to the“Twelve Tribes of the Dispersion” about “pure and undefiled religion.” What James is interested in is relationships that reflect God’s wisdom. We see this concern present throughout the letter.

                Having worked our way through the Ephesian letter, we will spend the next five weeks with James. Not everyone has appreciated James’ words of wisdom. Consider that Martin Luther called it an “epistle of straw” because, in his mind, it didn’t preach Christ. Luther preferred Paul’s emphasis on grace to James’ message that “faith without works” being dead (Jms. 2:17). I’m not sure that Paul and James were as far apart in their thinking as we usually presume, but his message that is rooted in the Wisdom tradition seems appropriate to our times. In fact, if we followed his lead, we might find an antidote to much that ails us in this twenty-first century.

                So who is this letter writer who calls himself “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ?” That’s a question that needs some attention since this is the first of five reflections on lectionary readings from James. So, I will begin with an introduction to the letter. As I noted, the author introduces himself simply as “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Jms.1:1). He addresses the letter to the “twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” Although this would appear to suggest that James is writing to Jews, we don’t know who James is targeting. Jewish Christians would have been a receptive audience since James is drawing on Wisdom traditions. It’s impossible to precisely identify the author, though Tradition suggests that the author is James, the Lord’s brother, who was a primary leader of the church in Jerusalem. The author doesn’t make that claim, but it seems like a good possibility If this is true, then the letter is rather early because Josephus records that James was martyred in 62 CE. The only other viable option is someone writing in the name of James, which would allow for a later date of authorship. There are arguments on both sides, but for our purposes, I will stick with Tradition. As for the destination, that’s unclear as well. What is clear is that this is an example of wisdom literature with a special focus on ethics. We might call James’ focus one of “orthopraxis” over “orthodoxy.”

                Our reading begins in verse 17 with an acknowledgment that “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above.” God is the source of every perfect gift because God is not fickle or capricious. Of the “Father of Lights,” James tells us that there “is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jms. 1:17). That doesn’t necessarily mean that God is “immutable” or “impassible,” to use two Greek philosophical terms that have found a home within Christianity. God can and does respond, adapting to situations, giving us options. Besides, the universe isn’t static, so how could God be static? Nevertheless, according to James God is faithful. That’s a message deeply rooted in the covenant that defines God’s relationship with Israel, a covenant that James surely has in mind as he writes
this word.

                Having been given birth by the word of truth, the readers (we are secondary readers) are the first fruits of this new work of God. As such, James gives words of guidance as we live into this word of truth. First of all, “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Later in the letter, James will speak to the destructive power of the tongue, but for now, the word is to listen first, then speak if necessary. Don’t be quick in your anger. Don’t overreact and scream and yell. After all, anger is doesn’t produce divine righteousness. Therefore, get rid of the “stuff” that soils your life, that is all forms of wickedness and sordidness. If this was written to Gentiles, as Paul’s letters were, James might be focused on their former “pagan” lifestyle. But, assuming the audience is made up of Jewish Christians, it is a recognition that we are all liable to such disabilities! Instead, of allowing such wickedness to define your life, welcome “with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”

                James envisions God planting the word that saves us in our hearts, even as a farmer or gardener plants a seed in the ground so that it might take root and produce good fruit. We can compare this word with that of Jeremiah who speaks of the new covenant in which the law is written on the heart rather than stone (Jer.31:33). James goes on to speak of the law of liberty, so he likely has Jeremiah in mind.

                This message concerning the implantation of the word is followed by an imperative. “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (Jms. 1:22). This is no “once saved, always saved” vision of the Christian life in which one is now free to do as one pleases because they’re on the team without any chance of being cut. When the word is implanted in us, it is expected that it will bear fruit in our lives. James understands faith to be active, not passive. It doesn’t mean that God doesn’t initiate the process. After all, the word is implanted, but that should lead somewhere.

                Those who hear but don’t do, are like people who look in a mirror and walk away forgetting who they are. Those who look at the perfect law, which is the mirror, and persevere, don’t forget and as a result, they are blessed. Remember that this is a law that liberates. This does sound a bit different from what Paul had to say, but remember the audiences are different. In Galatians, the issue is circumcision as a prerequisite for membership in the community. Here the issue is behavior that reflects well the word of God implanted in us.

                In verse 26, James returns to the use of the tongue. Having already told us to be quick to listen and slow to speak, James tells the reader that if they think they’re religious but don’t bridle their tongues they deceive themselves. Indeed, their “religion is worthless.” As I read this, I look at myself and the way I speak, especially I speak out of anger. Living as we do in an “anti-PC” age when so many in our culture feel they are entitled to say whatever they please, whenever they please, James has a point here. That’s especially true when the people who feel entitled to say what they please also claim to be people of faith.

                Having laid bare this negative issue that has plagued the church from the beginning, James turns to a positive. This is what pure and undefiled religion should look like. It takes care of widows and orphans in their distress, as well as keeping oneself unstained from the world.

                I’ll first take up the word about widows and orphans. We know from history that early Christians were known for their care of widows and orphans. They would take in abandoned children who were left to die. As I write this, thousands of Afghan citizens are seeking asylum as the Taliban takes over. At the same time, I hear voices that supposedly defend “Christian values” in the United States calling them terrorists who should be abandoned. It doesn’t make sense to me. This isn’t pure and undefiled religion.

                After speaking of widows and orphans James calls on the readers to keep themselves unstained from the world. This sounds about “comeoutism,” which is a pattern in some quarters of the Christian world. Keep to yourself as a community so you don’t get contaminated by the broader culture. Perhaps a better way for us to read this passage is to think in terms of how our culture forms us. What values does our culture seek to implant in us that stand opposed to the “law of liberty”? After all, Paul recognized that even all things are lawful, not all things are beneficial (1 Cor. 10:23).

                For many in our world today the word “religion” has negative connotations. People prefer to be “spiritual” rather than “religious.” That’s because religion is understood in institutional terms, and institutional religion has a lot of problems. In fact, for many, Christianity as a religion, is defined by hypocrisy. So, who wants to be religious?

               When James uses the word religion, he has something different in mind. For him, true religion calls for guarding the tongue, caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan. As for keeping oneself separate from the world, it would be wise not to get caught up in the schemes of this world that are destructive to creation and people. As Martha
Moore-Keish writes: “To be a ‘word-doer’ is simply to love those whom the world has treated as unlovable. It is to look for the ones who are the most crushed by systems of power and oppression (widows and orphans in James’s day) and care for them. Rather than following the cyclical and power-hungry ways of the world, to be word-doers who embody ‘pure religion’ is to place ourselves as beacons of light in the darkness, even as God has shone light into the weary darkness of the world.” [James: Belief, pp. 77-78]. That is true religion!

Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 13B (Ephesians 6:10-20)

Ephesians 6:10-20 New Revised Standard Version

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth  around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 19 Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

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                Two hymns stand out from my early years growing up in the Episcopal Church. The reading from Ephesians 6 brings them to memory. They may or may not be recognizable to everyone because they don’t appear in most Mainline Protestant hymnals published over the past few decades. These hymns are “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” and “Onward Christian Soldiers.” These hymns pick up aspects of the biblical message, including the one we find here in Ephesians 6.  And as the second verse of “Onward Christian Soldiers” declares:

At the sign of triumph, Satan’s host doth flee;
On, then, Christian soldiers, On to victory.
Hell’s foundations quiver, At the shout of praise;
Brothers, lift your voices, Loud your anthems raise.
Onward, Christian soldiers! 
Marching as to war, 
Looking unto Jesus, who is gone before. 

These hymns have disappeared from most of our hymnals as Mainline Protestants have rightfully tried to step away from the militaristic dimensions of our former commitment to the expansion of Christendom. But you can see why they might resonate with a church that saw itself as the vanguard of God’s saving work in the world.

                As our exploration of the Ephesian letter, which has been featured in the post-Pentecost season, comes to an end, we encounter this call to put on the whole armor of God. The author of the letter (we’ll once again call him Paul for the sake of tradition) envisions the church in a battle with the devil. If you’re in a battle you will need protection and weapons so you can stand against the “wiles of the devil.” For early Christians who lived as a religious minority within an often hostile culture, this call to arms seems appropriate. The same is true for Christians living today in places where survival as Christians is always under threat. For middle-class Mainline Protestants living in suburban North America or Europe, such a message might seem out of place. But is there a message here that speaks to our situation without embracing the militarism that seems to be tied up in the metaphor? As my Muslim friends remind me, jihad can be conceived as a form of spiritual struggle rather than holy war.  Might we understand the passage here in the same way?

                As for this passage, the author makes use of an image that would be immediately recognizable by any reader living in the Roman Empire.  With the call to put on the whole armor of God issued, we need to take an inventory of that armor that will be used not in physical warfare but spiritual warfare. Paul begins with the belt of truth. The belt might seem irrelevant, but it holds everything together. From there we move to the breastplate of righteousness. That piece of armor is much more prominent as it is the key piece of protective body armor. From there we go to the shoes (military grade), shield, helmet, and finally the sword. Now Paul gives each of these armaments a spiritual definition. Thus, the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness are foundational elements for the definition of the Christian identity. Christians by definition should be committed to truth and righteousness (justice. From there we move to the shoes, which enable the legionnaire to march across the empire imposing Rome’s vision of good news/peace. For early Christians, this image is a reminder that theirs is a missionary movement. They have good news to share as well, and they likely will be traversing the Roman roads, which requires sturdy shoes. So, be ready when the call comes. Recognizing that not everyone will receive their message with open arms, but might shoot flaming arrows, a good shield is required. Of course, every soldier needs a helmet, and here the helmet represents salvation, the ultimate protection. With all of this protective equipment, the soldier for Christ is ready to go on the offensive with the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. That is, the proclamation of the good news of Jesus. Paul seems to recognize that this evangelistic work of proclaiming the peace of God could be dangerous. So, it’s good to be prepared for opposition.

                Paul’s use of this imagery is rooted in his cosmic vision. For him, to proclaim the good news of Jesus is to engage in spiritual warfare. He might be using imagery taken from the Roman legions that were ubiquitous across the empire, especially in more restive provinces, but he’s not envisioning forced conversions. While this is a spiritual battle for the hearts and minds of the people, the enemy is Satan who has taken control of the world situation. This battle to deliver the people from Satan’s control is not a battle against flesh and blood. It is instead a spiritual battle. Unfortunately, it’s easy to move from spiritual to actual battle. This is especially true when non-Christian religions and traditions with the gods of the other traditions being conceived as demons. Thus, Christianity is good, the other religions are evil. Therefore, they must be destroyed (together with their adherents). We’ve seen this take place down through the centuries. As Miguel de la Torre and Albert Hernández write: “Over the next two thousand years, this exclusive understanding, coupled with the historical process of conquest and colonization, will lead to much suffering, misery, and death between Christians and the people of other faiths and cultures” [The Quest for the Historical Satan, p. 79]. So, whatever we say about this passage, we must be careful not to use it to justify oppression, conquest, and more.

                I should say something here about the mythological imagery here (I should note that I’ve been reading a bit of Rudolph Bultmann lately). Paul’s vision reflects a particular worldview that we moderns may have set aside, but the language of myth is designed to communicate deeper truths. For Bultmann, this imagery needed to be set aside through the process of “demythologization,” so that it could be more accessible to moderns. I’m not so sure we can completely remove the mythological elements from the conversation, because there is a growing feeling that there is more to the universe than meets the eye. So, maybe the language here is filled with mythological elements, but at the same time, it reflects cosmic realities that lay behind the evils present in this world. One way to look at this passage and conceive of our work as Christians is to recognize the reality that structural evil exists and that these structures take on a life of their own that envelope us. So, the work of God involves resistance to those cosmic forces that seek to enslave us.

                This is a war of resistance, but the question is the nature of our response. Paul doesn’t mention love here, but it probably should be brought into the conversation. Richard Beck has written an insightful book titled Reviving Old Scratch. Old Scratch is a nickname for Satan that Beck encountered as he taught a bible study in a maximum-security prison. He writes that what he learned at the prison was that “there are forces in the world satanically opposed to love. So, if love is going to invade and establish a beachhead in our lives, we’re going to have to fight for it. That is what I mean by spiritual warfare.” It is a path that took Jesus to the cross [Reviving Old Scratch, p. 97]. In the book, Beck reminds us that social justice is itself a form of spiritual warfare, and therefore needs to be engaged in with spiritual weapons lest we make people the enemy rather than Old Scratch.

                The work of spiritual warfare as outlined here includes the proclamation of the good news of God’s peace (as opposed to the Roman peace) and prayer. The closing paragraph of our passage calls on the readers to “pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.” This requires alertness and perseverance as they pray for the saints of God, including Paul and his companions. In fact, Paul (or whoever the author is) asks that they pray for him specifically asking that he might have boldness as he proclaims the “mystery of the gospel.” Why? Because he is an “ambassador in chains.” Tradition suggests that Paul is writing to the Ephesians from prison, perhaps in Rome. Yes, even in prison he continues his work of proclamation. Therefore, he asks for boldness. Yes, knowing that the churches are praying for him gives him boldness. The question then for us as modern Christians who likely aren’t sitting in prison is what does boldness look like?

                We live in challenging times. Churches are struggling to survive. In North America and Europe, it’s not a matter of persecution and oppression, but the world is not as receptive to the message. To be honest, Christians have been part of the problem. But there is also something spiritual out there that requires our attention. It requires boldness. But standing firm for what is true and just requires boldness also requires grace and love so that we might be peacemakers, not spiritual warmongers.

                For more background on the passage see my Ephesians: A Participatory StudyGuide, (Energion Publications, 2010), pp. 85-97.

Wise Living – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 12B (Ephesians 5)

Lamp of Wisdom – Waterperry Gardens, Oxfordshire

 

Ephesians 5:15-20 New Revised Standard Version

 

15 Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17 So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 20 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

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            Be imitators of God. That is the message we heard from the previous lectionary reading (Eph. 5:1). As we discovered any attempt to live in this way requires the assistance of the Holy Spirit.  As chapter 5 continues, the author (for simplicity we will call the author Paul) calls on the readers, most of whom were of Gentile background, to live as children of light (Eph. 5:8) rather than as children of darkness. There is a bit of “comeoutism” here, as Paul reminds the readers of their former lives that were marked by all manner of disobedience. So, don’t go back to that life (Eph. 5:3-14). Remember, you are a new creation in Christ, so live accordingly. What we have here is not only an ethical imperative but a call to discipleship. This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

            The reading from Ephesians 5 is brief, but it follows upon what came before concerning their new status as children of life and precedes the household code that presents so many problems to Christians. What does it mean for wives to submit themselves to their husbands? What does it mean for husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church? The lectionary creators have chosen to avoid these verses, which gives preachers a break but doesn’t give us the ability to answer that question (for a discussion of the household codes and the idea of mutual submission see my Ephesians’ study guide, pp 71-81).

            Here in our reading, the focus is on wise living. So, as Paul writes: “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16). You will notice a bit of the apocalyptic here with the reference to the days being evil. For a minority religious community whose beliefs and practices stand apart from the rest of the community, this seems like an apt description of the situation. For Jewish Christians, there is a long tradition to draw upon, but for Gentile Christians, this is all new. To be in Christ is to leave behind everything they understood to be true. So, Paul asks them to live wisely. For Jewish Christians at least, the Wisdom tradition might have given them guidance, whether that be the canonical book of Proverbs or the non-canonical books like Wisdom of Solomon. So, guided by Wisdom (Sophia), they should refrain from all foolishness. Instead, seek to discern the will of God. In other words, wisdom and the will of God are parallel to each other.

            Paul issues a contrast here. Don’t get drunk with wine because that’s debauchery. No Bacchanalia for these believers, who might have participated in the rites of Bacchus/Dionysius before their conversion. For Mainline Protestants, many of our traditions were at one point committed to a temperance message. My own denomination, the Disciples of Christ, can claim as one of its own Cary Nation, who was known for taking her hatchet to saloons to do damage to their trade. In recent years, we’ve thrown that message off, even if we continue to use grape juice in communion. The danger is to go the other direction in reaction. Unfortunately, we are beginning to see the growth of alcoholism among Protestant clergy. While a sermon about refraining from too much alcohol consumption might not go over well in our congregations, the warning to stay clear of drunkenness is likely worth heading as drunkenness is not a good expression of Christian discipleship. In addition, addictions of any kind can be damaging to the health of individuals and communities.

            So, instead of getting drunk with wine, which might have been part of these Christians’ former worship experiences, Paul invites them to be filled with the Spirit. This call to be filled with the Spirit reminds us of the promise we hear in Acts 2, where those who are being saved in Christ will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts2:38). Here in Ephesians, it is the Spirit who inspires and empowers the people of God as they move toward maturity in Christ, gifting the church with persons/gifts that equip the saints for ministry as they move toward maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:11-13). [For more on the subject of spiritual gifts see my book Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for a New Great Awakening, 2nd edition, (Energion Publications, 2021)].

            This call to be filled with the Spirit leads to the next point in the passage. That point has to do with worship. The worship of God is the foundation of the Christian life. So, as we are filled with the Spirit we gather to worship God, sharing together in singing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves.” Yes, as we are filled with the Spirit we can sing and make melody in our hearts to the Lord. As someone who finds singing to be foundational to my own worship life, I’m especially appreciative of this encouragement to sing to the Lord. Interestingly, the next phrase in the reading takes us beyond the corporate worship experience, though assumedly it flows out of that experience. Paul asks us to give thanks to God the Father As we do this, we can give thanks to God “at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20).

            With that, the reading ends, but the chapter does not. Interestingly, the Common English Bible extends the sentence to include verse 21: “and submit to each other out of respect for Christ.”  So, wise living includes submission to one another out of respect for Christ. That, of course, leads into the Household code that begins in verse 22 and continues through Ephesians 6:9. It is important to note that the verb in verse 22, which enjoins wives to submit to their husbands is derived from verse 21. In that transition verse, the author calls on the people of God to submit themselves to each other “out of reverence for Christ.” [For more on mutual submission see my Marriage in Interesting Times: A Participatory Bible Study, (Energion Publications, 2016), pp. 55-64]

            Whether the author (Paul) envisioned this as a call for a form of mutual submission that would overturn the traditional understanding of the household codes is difficult to discern. Nevertheless, however the household codes are understood, the call here is to live wisely as an expression of the Spirit-filled life that shows respect and reverence for Christ Jesus. In doing so, one will be an imitator of God (Eph. 5:1).

For more on this passage and its larger context see my Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide, (Energion Publications, 2010), pp. 59-83].

 

Image Attribution: Lamp of Wisdom, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54977 [retrieved August 8, 2021]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rowanbank/5815103193/.

A Christian Way of Living – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 11B (Ephesians 4:25-5:2)

Jesus Mocked by the Soldiers – Eduoard Manet 1865

Ephesians 4:25-5:2 New Revised Standard Version

25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore  be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

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                Interestingly, polls suggest that people are leaving the church (dones) or avoiding Christianity altogether (nones) is that they feel that Christians don’t live a very Christian life. I want to rebut this feeling, but when I look around at the state of the world, especially American Christianity, it’s hard to disagree with the sentiment. Clergy scandals that range from pedophilia to embezzlement are rampant. There are political alliances that undermine Jesus’ call to love one’s neighbor. I know I was appalled to see the “Christian Flag” being carried by rioters as they stormed the capital building (to be honest I’ve never liked the Christian flag, but that was the last straw for me). Now, I know that these are not the only expressions of “Christianity” present in our midst, but they do resonate with the broader public. So, a word like the one we hear in the reading from Ephesians for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost is worth considering as an antidote to the current situation. What we hear in this reading is a call to live one’s life in a way that reflects the message of Jesus. Surely this would be a good vaccine!

                The word we encounter here at the end of chapter 4 and the beginning of chapter 5 of Ephesians picks up after a conversation concerning spiritual gifts. According to Paul (remember for sake of tradition and brevity I’m assuming Pauline authorship even though it is disputed) these gifts have been given to the church by the grace of God to equip the saints for ministry so that the saints might move toward maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:7-16). The reading for the Eleventh Sunday is an outgrowth of that earlier word from Ephesians 4. There is, however, a paragraph that separates the two lectionary readings that need to be mentioned. In verses 17-24 Paul tells the readers, who are mostly Gentile, not to live as Gentiles. That is, they should not live in the futility of their minds with darkened understandings that result from living outside the sphere of God’s reign. Paul reminds them that because they are in Christ, they have to put away their old (may we say pagan) way of living. In line with the eschatological vision of the early church, Paul reminds them that to be in Christ means moving from the old world/life/creation to the new world/life/creation. Since they are in Christ they should clothe themselves in a manner that reflects that they have been “created in the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness”  (Eph. 4:24).

                The paragraph omitted by the lectionary creators is an important connector between the word about spiritual gifts and the call to live a life that is worthy of their calling as saints of God. Now that they are clothed with Christ, Paul tells the Ephesians (and all other readers if this was, as it appears, a circular letter) to put away falsehood, speak truth to one’s neighbors (now that’s a word for today), not let anger lead to sin (Paul recognizes that anger is a normal experience, just don’t let it fester and lead to evil deeds), and finally, he tells them not to make room for the devil. This last reference needn’t be taken literally in reference to a personage called the devil, but it is a recognition that evil is a spiritual force that can take root in our lives if we give it room to maneuver (vs. 25-27).

                Now Paul’s not finished. He also speaks of those who transgress the law by stealing rather than engaging in honest work so they can set aside a provision for the  needy. Paul’s is still not finished. He also includes a word about our speech. Don’t let any evil talk come from your mouth is the message that he gives them. What does he mean by this? Well, the phrase that follows is pretty clear. Let what you say build up others and provide words of grace. It is worth considering the message of James concerning the tongue, which he calls a “restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). Yes, it can be used to bless God, but it can also be used to curse those who are created in the likeness of God. James tells us that this is not the way things are supposed to be (James 3:9-10).  While we don’t have a full rundown of the Ten Commandments here, I think we get the point. The Christian life may begin with grace, but there are ethical expectations for us.

                Earlier in the chapter, Paul speaks of his desire that the people experience the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” He reminds us that there is but one body and one Spirit as well as one Lord, one baptism, and one God (Eph. 4:3-5). If you go to this passage do you see a possible allusion to the Trinity? In our reading, we hear the author tell the people not to “grieve the Holy Spirit of God with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30). The reference to the seal of the Spirit could be understood as being baptism. So, to those who are sealed in the Holy Spirit through baptism, they are called upon to live accordingly. Don’t grieve the Spirit by living in a way that dishonors the Gospel with which they are sealed through baptism.

                Having spoken of this seal of the Spirit, the author again addresses the Gentile way of living. Since they are sealed in the Spirit, they should put away bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander, and malice. Instead, they should be kind to each other, be tenderhearted, and forgive one another, even as God in Christ has forgiven them. With this word as a foundation, Paul makes a major ask of them— “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2).

                Imitate God as beloved children. How might one imitate God? Paul’s answer is this: “live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Later in this chapter, Paul will encourage husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church by giving themselves up for their wives (Eph. 5:25). However, we read that reference (and it can be read as a call to mutual submission (Eph. 5:21), it seems logical to answer the question of how to imitate God is to love as Jesus loves. Perhaps if we love as Jesus loves we will show the world a different face. Is that not a message for today?

                For more background on the passage see my book Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide, (Energion Publications, 2010), chapter 6.

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.