Category: revised common lectionary

Unity in the Power of the Cross – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 3A (1 Corinthians 1:10-18)

1 Corinthians 1:10-18 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

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                When Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthian Church, he called them saints (1 Cor. 1:2). That might have been a more aspirational than descriptive statement, as we quickly discover when coming to the Second Reading for the Third Sunday after Epiphany. This reading follows the previous week’s reading which didn’t hint at problems, but it’s clear from this passage that this was a divided people. It seems that Paul, who had helped found the Corinthian congregation, had received word from a number of sources, including Chloe’s people, that the Corinthian saints were quarreling. Factions had developed, and they seem to have been dividing up according to allegiances. Some claimed to be followers of Paul, and some Cephas (Peter), and others Apollos. Then there might have been another group, who stand out for their claim to follow Christ.

I especially like that last grouping, the one that claimed to follow Christ. You see, I’m part of a denominational tradition that prides itself on its non-sectarian name. We’re “Disciples of Christ” and one of our Movement’s favorite slogans is “We’re not the only Christians, but we’re Christians only.” Yes, we’re Disciples of Christ and we wear that title proudly. So, take that Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Baptists. Why don’t you get with the program? For some reason, I don’t think Paul would appreciate this attempt to portray our movement as holier than others because we claim to follow Jesus and not a later leader or form of church government. After all, as Paul asks, “Has Christ been divided?” Paul’s point is that the church shouldn’t be divided. It doesn’t matter how you define yourselves, be of one mind and purpose. In other words, remember your calling.  

 

                Paul’s call for the Corinthians to be of one mind and one purpose, with no divisions among them, appeals to me. Things ecumenical stir my passions. That may be due in part to my own denominationally diverse background, but I have longed to the followers of Jesus united. At the same time, as a historian, I know that unity that is coerced, often by governmental decree, doesn’t honor the one whom Christians claim to follow. In many ways, Christian unity is more aspirational than practical, especially as the “church” has expanded across the globe. Besides, it’s difficult to let go of beliefs and practices that have been embraced over time. Sometimes it’s just the way we organize ourselves that stands in the way of unity.

Nevertheless, unity might be difficult to achieve, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on it. But unity needs to find its path in ways that honor our diversity in doctrine, practices, and governance. Since Paul mentions baptism here, we might think of our differences with regard to baptism. There isn’t just one way that Christians baptize. We’ve been arguing about it for centuries. I have embraced a particular form of baptism as my own, but I understand why others have embraced a different view. In Paul’s context, it may have been a question not of form or even doctrine, but the person who baptized a particular person. Paul responds to this problem, by downplaying his own participation in the baptism of members of the Corinthian Church. He goes so far as suggesting that his calling involved preaching the Gospel not baptizing people. Now that claim might get him in trouble in certain circles of my tradition. It might even get you fired from your post as a theology professor. since some in the broader tradition of which I’m a member believe that baptism is essential for salvation (and by baptism, I mean immersion for the remission of sins on the basis of an informed confession of faith). Baptism is, in my mind, an important element of the Christian faith, but fighting over it does nothing to further the message of God’s realm.

Rather than focus on who baptizes whom, Paul wants to focus on the cross of Jesus, which is itself rather scandalous. Paul says that it is foolishness to those who are perishing, but for those who are being saved, it is the power of God. We might struggle with Paul’s statement regarding salvation, but his point is clear, the gospel is revealed in the cross, which to Jew and Gentile was scandalous. In our day much of the scandal of the cross has dissipated. We wear the cross as jewelry, with no thought to its original use. In other words, what was once scandalous has been domesticated.

          The arguments that were dividing the Corinthian community had to do with power and influence. That’s why Paul put his focus on the cross in all its foolishness. There in the cross, one would find the power of God, and not in the eloquence of a preacher. Paul felt called to preach the gospel, but he was concerned about those who put an emphasis on eloquence. It’s possible that some in Corinth didn’t think much of his preaching, but that didn’t really matter to him. He might not be the best preacher in the realm, but he knew what his calling was. It’s probably useful to remember that in his day there were those who studied rhetoric so they could be professional speakers. To be eloquent, was to have power. As for Paul, whether he was a good preacher or not, his focus was on the cross, lest it lose its power. He didn’t want to get in the way of the gospel, which is rooted in the cross of Christ. It’s a temptation that is as prevalent today as it was in the first century. There is a desire within all of us to be admired, but when that desire gets in the way of the gospel then it’s a problem. It’s not that preachers ought not to give attention to their craft, they just need to keep things in perspective. As a preacher, I try to do my best to offer something worth hearing, but in the end, it shouldn’t be about me (or any preacher, even the most eloquent of preachers).

            Now those who claimed to be of Christ rather than Paul, Apollos, or Cephas, were on the right track, but perhaps for the wrong reason. We should be about Christ in the church, but if we use that claim as a way of holding ourselves over others then we’ve defeated the purpose of our identification with Jesus. So, even though the cross seems to be a foolish place to center ourselves, that’s where Paul puts the focus. Not his eloquence. Not his prowess as a baptizer. No, it’s the cross of Jesus that matters.  Whatever unity was to be had in the Christian community would come in terms of the cross, which may seem like a rather foolish idea—Why would one want to find unity in a method of execution that emphasized humiliation? —but it is the way of Jesus (and Paul).        

 

Lacking No Spiritual Gifts – A Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 2A (1 Corinthians 1)

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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                Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian Church is one of the best reminders that there never was a Christian Golden Age that we might seek to restore. In this letter we encounter a church that is, to put it mildly, dysfunctional. Here in 1 Corinthians, we find a church that is divided and conflicted. There is evidence of sexual indiscretions, marriage problems, concerns about social inequality, and much more. If you are looking for a model church this is not it, and yet despite the many problems facing the congregation, it is also a congregation that is truly gifted. So, there are things we can learn from them that can enhance life in the modern church—just not the conflicts.

                This reading from 1 Corinthians doesn’t reveal the problems present in the congregation. Paul addresses them as a community that is sanctified in Christ Jesus. In fact, he calls them saints. In fact, Paul gives thanks to God for them, and he does so always. He might be frustrated with them at times, but he seems to have great affection for this community, which he helped launch. He will address the problems that are presenting themselves as the letter proceeds, but he doesn’t start out by taking them behind the woodshed. While the appellation of saints might be more aspirational than descriptive, this is the way he wishes to them. They may have their problems, but they still are part of the body of Christ.

                Because I am deeply interested in matters relating to spiritual gifts (see my book Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening), Paul’s statement in verse 7, where he gives thanks that they’re not lacking in any spiritual gift (charismata), stood out to me. Of course, it is here in 1 Corinthians that Paul devotes the greatest amount of space to spiritual gifts, but here he gives us a hint of what is to come. He commends them for their giftedness, and he couches this statement in eschatological language. He notes that they don’t lack any spiritual gift as they “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 

 

                This word about the revealing of Jesus fits well into the context of Epiphany. At this point in the liturgical year, we are supposed to be looking for those signs that God is present, those moments of divine revealing. The Spirit is the one who does the revealing, and who empowers the church to bear witness to that revealing, as we await the day when Jesus returns. The expectation is that when this day arrives we will be found blameless.    

 

                Unlike with Paul’s greeting to the Roman Church, in this case, Paul is quite familiar with the community to which he writes. This is a congregation (likely a collection of house churches) that he founded. These are his people, his congregation. As we discover as we read further, Paul uses this letter to answer queries from members of the congregation. His responses are meant to get them back on track. One would assume that when he left, he had some confidence that they were ready to go out on their own. Perhaps that confidence was unwarranted. The reading ends in verse 9, but verses 10 through 17, suggest that there is significant division in the church. This is not what Paul desires. He appeals for unity. He asks that they would be “united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Cor. 1:10).  

 

Among the points of division in the congregation is the matter of these spiritual gifts, which the congregation is not lacking. They have gifts aplenty, but not a come sense of purpose as to their use. When we get to chapters 12 and 14, we discover that this is a congregation that prizes spiritual things and spiritual experiences. They understand these spiritualities in very individualistic ways. They appear to have ranked the gifts and desire to possess the most spectacular of the gifts. The one that seems to be prized the most is this ability to speak in tongues. Instead of seeking gifts that enhance one’s own stature, Paul encourages them to pursue gifts that build up the church (1 Cor. 14:12).

                As I noted earlier, Paul sets this conversation in a context of expectation. There is a high level of concern in this community as to the return of Christ. The conversation in chapter seven about marriage is evidence of this, as is the discussion of the resurrection in chapter fifteen. It might be that this eschatological fervor created a sense of anxiety that led to some of the problems present in the congregation. This spiritual anxiety might help explain why they seemed to embrace a rather individualistic spirituality. Paul addresses that anxiety, while also pointing them toward gifts that will benefit the community. Thus, while the body of Christ has many members, no one member stands on her or his own. Therefore, there should be no divisions. After all, there is no lack of gifts in the congregation. They simply need to be affirmed. The good news is that “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

 

No Partiality – A Lectionary Reflection for Baptism of Jesus Sunday (Acts 10)

No Partiality – A Lectionary Reflection for Baptism of Jesus Sunday (Acts 10)

Acts 10:34-43 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

34 Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

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                Christmas and Epiphany have come and gone. It’s time for the story of Jesus’ birth and childhood to give way to the beginning of his ministry. On this first Sunday after Epiphany, we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. This baptismal event at the hands of John, which took place in the Jordan, marks the point at which God claimed Jesus as beloved Son. With that, after spending time in the wilderness, Jesus began his earthly ministry. As Matthew, and other Gospels, tell it, at the moment of his baptism the heavens opened, and God claimed him as God’s Son, the beloved (Mt. 3:13-17). Baptism of Jesus Sunday often serves as an opportunity for modern followers of Jesus to reaffirm their baptismal vows and renew their vision of ministry.  

 

If the Gospel reading from Matthew 3 invites us to join Jesus at the Jordan, the Second Reading, which normally is drawn from one of the epistles, takes us to the Book of Acts. Contextually, we find ourselves at the home of Cornelius, a Gentile Centurion, who has summoned Peter to share with the household something about Jesus. At this point in the story, as told in the book of Acts, Peter’s focus has been on the ministry to those Jews who might be open to the message of Jesus, although the ministry of Philip had opened the mission to the Samaritans. But things are about to change because Peter has discerned through a vision that God might be opening the circle a little wider. Maybe, that circle could be drawn to include not only Jews and Samaritans but Gentiles as well. The connecting tissue linking this reading from Acts 10 to the aforementioned baptism of Jesus, is the reference to God anointing Jesus, perhaps through the aforementioned baptism of John, “with the Holy Spirit and with power.” As the reading for today speaks of John’s Baptism and suggests that Jesus might have experienced that baptism, we have another element of background information to interpret this passage and the message Peter wants to deliver to Cornelius’ household. Since this is a Sunday in which so many reaffirm their baptisms, it’s appropriate to note that before Peter gets too far into his sermon the Spirit falls on Cornelius and his household, which leads Peter to decide that there is nothing stopping them from being baptized themselves.

 

In this excerpt from the longer story that takes up chapters 10 and 11 of the Book of Acts, Peter’s gospel preaching begins with Jesus’ anointing with the Holy Spirit in the aftermath of John’s baptism. He notes that Jesus traveled the countryside doing good things, including offering to heal to those oppressed by the devil (exorcism). He notes that he was a witness to all that Jesus said and did, including his death and resurrection. He also notes that God appointed Jesus to the position of judge over the living and the dead. All of this took place as revealed by the prophets, so that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43 CEB). As for Peter, he was a witness to all of this.

 

                While Luke records Peter’s stump speech, what stands out is Peter’s declaration that he has learned that God doesn’t show partiality to any one group of people. We need to be careful here so that we don’t take an anti-Jewish step. This could involve the suggestion that Jews are Christ-killers (“they hung him on a tree”). We also need to be careful not to suggest that what Peter is doing here offers Jesus as a replacement for Judaism. Peter is saying, however, that while God may have chosen Israel and continues to treasure Israel, God ultimately shows no partiality to any specific group. This may seem contradictory, but I think God can hold things into tension. The message that Peter heard in his vision and he shares now is that in Christ all are welcome. God may have chosen Israel, but that doesn’t exclude Gentiles from enjoying the blessings of God’s realm.

 

                If we can remove any possible taint of anti-Semitism from this statement, then we get to what I think is the core message here, and that is God welcomes everyone into the family. The criteria we often use to exclude have no standing here. In the case of Cornelius, Peter may have in mind his Gentile status. He might also have been concerned about Cornelius’ military career. But, apparently, none of this matters to God.  

 

                Now, this moment has been coming for some time. It would seem to be rooted in the call to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). That could have been simply a call to minister to the diaspora, but even the Gospel of Luke there are hints that Jesus has other things in mind. Eventually, Paul’s mission to the Gentiles will take center stage, but not quite yet. It’s actually Peter who gets the first honor of breaking down the wall of separation. Again, we need to be careful not to cast Jews in a negative light. There were degrees of welcome in Judaism of the first century and earlier, just as there have been degrees of welcome within the Christian community toward those who have lived outside the circle.

 

                The context for hearing this message is the celebration of the baptism of Jesus, which inaugurates his ministry. The context of the passage is a different baptism, but one that marks a transitional moment in the life of the church. Paul will be the lead person in the Gentile mission, but Peter is the one who takes the first step. That’s appropriate. He was, it seems, Jesus’ closest companion. He was the leader of the church. Whatever decision he made in a situation like this set the parameters for what would come later.

 

                The sermon he preaches to Cornelius’ household occurs only because Peter had already experienced conversion through the vision in which God reminded him that he should not declare unclean what God had declared clean. Now that part of the story isn’t mentioned here, but it’s the context. We wouldn’t be here without that vision.

 

                So, what does Peter’s declaration that God shows no partiality mean for the 21st-century Christian community? After all, our churches remain largely segregated according to ethnicity/race. Some of this is cultural and some of it has to do with comfort level. But it also to do with the fact that many of us in the White Christian community has not yet made peace with our complicity in the suppression/oppression of minority communities. Then there is the church’s relationship to those who make up the LBTQ community, which itself is not monolithic. The church as a whole has been largely hostile to this community, to everyone’s detriment. The story that we find in Acts 10 and 11 has proven to be an important piece in my own journey to welcoming fully my LGBTQ brothers and sisters. The Spirit moves as the Spirit moves!  

 

                Regarding the question of Partiality, I appreciate this word from Matthew Skinner:

A God who “shows no partiality” is not politically neutral or aloof; the expression in this context indicates God’s active concern for all humanity. Peter would have already known this from Jewish scriptural traditions, but he sees it coming to pass now in an unexpected way, with old boundaries passing away and new solidarity and fellowship springing into being, sealed by the Holy Spirit. If God shows this kind of impartiality, so should God’s people. [Connections, Kindle Edition].

Boundaries are difficult to let go of, but as Peter discovered in his encounter with Cornelius, it’s possible. It’s just a matter of flowing with the Spirit. So, what about our boundaries and barriers? What needs to go so that God’s inclusive love might be made known to the world? Since this is Baptism of Jesus Sunday, how does such a concern relate to our understanding of baptism?

 

A Call to Worship – A Lectionary Reflection for Christmas 2A (Ephesians 1)

 
 
 

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.

 
A CALL TO WORSHIP
 

Although the identity of the author, as well as the destination of this letter, remains clouded in mystery, the letter itself has a strong liturgical sense to it. That is, it serves as a call to worship the God who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing and who will ultimately gather up everything into God’s being. That is, in Christ God will be “all in all.” Whether the conversation in this letter is doctrinal or practical in nature, ultimately the letter serves as a call to worship.

 

                The author begins by offering a blessing to the God we know in Jesus Christ, the one who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing. In fact, verses 3-14 comprise one long sentence (in the Greek), celebrating the blessings God has poured out upon Christ’s body, the church. Then, in the concluding verses of the chapter, the author offers a prayer of thanksgiving for the recipients of the letter, commending them to God for their faithfulness, and asking that they might truly experience the presence of the one who has been made head of the body, the one whom God has resurrected and exalted above all powers and authorities.

CHOSEN/DESTINED
 

The reader is told that God “chose us in Christ” to be holy and blameless, and God has “destined us for adoption” through Christ. The use of these two terms can be disconcerting for many Christians, especially those who come from traditions that stress human free will. How can we be free if God “chose us” before the foundation of the world and “destined us” for adoption? It is possible that our discomfort may stem from our own individualistic reading of the text. It is easy to read the text as if it is speaking to individual believers, speaking to and about our personal destinies, which appear to have already been written, and thus we have no choice in what happens in our lives. Such a reading has led theologians including Augustine and John Calvin to conclude that in God’s infinite wisdom, some who deserve condemnation will be damned and others will be redeemed, what is known as “double predestination.”

There is another way to look at this discussion of chosenness and destiny Instead of reading this in terms of one’s individual destiny, it might be better to read this in a corporate sense. It is, therefore, God’s decision/choice that humanity as a whole would experience holiness and adoption as God’s children through Christ. That is, God hasn’t chosen some from among us to experience salvation, but that God has chosen to bring redemption to humanity through Christ.

If the text should be read in a corporate rather than an individualistic manner, it can also be read eschatologically. A close reading of this chapter will show that the focus is on God’s final end for the universe. The author is looking out into the future to the time when all things belong to God. Therefore, this word isn’t meant to be read as a limitation on our choices, but it stands as a word of hope. It reminds us that no matter what happens God’s purpose for the universe will be fulfilled. Note that the focus of the passage is not limited to humanity, for the letter affirms that in Christ there will be a “restoration of all things,” which means that God has a broader vision than simply rescuing humanity. Instead, God is seeking to bring to wholeness all that is broken and alienated and fragmented. In this way, it is a word of hope and assurance—reminding us that God is good, faithful, and committed to redeeming, that is restoring to God’s purpose, the created order through Christ, who will reign over all authorities.

ADOPTION AND INHERITANCE
 

                There is an incipient Trinitarian structure to this passage. According to the author, we have been called upon to bless the God and Father of Jesus Christ, in whom we receive our adoption as God’s children and in whom we receive our inheritance, which is an adoption that is sealed with the Holy Spirit. With this Trinitarian structure in mind, we gain understanding of our place in God’s economy. We are introduced to Jesus in the role of the elder brother, the one who by rights receives the inheritance of the Father. Not only is Christ the elder brother, and therefore the rightful heir to the inheritance of the Father, but Christ has brought us into the family through adoption. Although we are adopted into the family, that doesn’t mean we have a share in the inheritance. It is at the discretion of the elder brother whether or not any other members of the family receive a portion of the inheritance. In this case, our elder brother, the one to whom the inheritance has been given, has chosen to share the inheritance with all members of the family of God, even those who come into the family by adoption.

The appropriate response to such a decision on the part of Christ can be found in the earlier Pauline letter to the Roman church. Led by the Spirit of God, the children of God are empowered to cry out to God “Abba! Father!” We may do this because, the Holy Spirit of God is bearing witness to the fact that we are now not only children of God, but “joint hears with Christ” of the things of God (Rom. 8:12-17).

IN CHRIST
 

                It is important to note the use of the phrases “in Christ” and “in Jesus Christ” throughout this text. It is a constant refrain, reminding us that God’s blessings, which include adoption and the inheritance, come to us “in Christ.” It is in the one whom God has raised far above all powers and authorities, that we receive the blessings. It is also a reminder to the recipients, who most likely are Gentile believers, that their place in God’s realm results from God’s work of redemption, which brings forgiveness, through the death of Christ.

SEALING/DOWN PAYMENT
 

Whether or not water baptism is present in the mind of the author, the use of both words/phrases is important to note. If the promised inheritance comes to us in Christ, this decision of God is sealed in us through the denouement of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13). It is the presence of the Spirit in one’s life that reminds a person that he or she has been given the opportunity to share in the inheritance.

Note:  This reflection is drawn from chapter two of my book:  Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide, (Energion Publications, 2010), pp. 14-17. The book is designed to be used by small groups or in personal study, and includes study questions and exercises.    

 

Introductions – Lectionary Reflection for Advent 4A (Romans 1)

 

1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3 the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6 including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

7 To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

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          It’s always good to introduce yourself to new communities, especially if you’re a missionary heading to a community that already has a church. The community you’re going to might want to know what you want from them. The community you plan to visit might have heard of you, but it’s always good to introduce yourself instead of relying on the word of others. Knowing what we know about Paul, it’s quite possible that his reputation in the Roman congregations might have been mixed. Many think of Paul’s Letter to Romans as being his magnum opus. It is also quite theological, probably because he wants to make his positions on matters of concern clear. Maybe he’s heard there are questions about his theology.

We hear this opening passage of Paul’s Roman letter on the Fourth Sunday of Advent. It’s good to remember that this is only an introductory word, with much more to come. What we have before us is Paul’s introduction of himself and of his mission, as well as a word of grace and peace to the community that is rooted in God the Father and Jesus the Lord. What he does here is to remind people not only who he is, but who he represents. He identifies himself with Jesus Christ, whom he serves as an apostle, having been entrusted with bringing to the Gentiles the Gospel that had been promised through the prophets in the form of Scripture and then through the Son. This Son descended from David according to the flesh but was declared to be the Son of God through the Resurrection. Paul has staked his life and ministry in bearing witness as an apostle to Jesus the Christ, who is both a descendant of David and Son of God. Of course, if we read further, he has more to say on these matters. But this is a good place to start.

                Again, we hear this word from Paul on the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Christmas is close at hand. The excitement is building. We’re ready for the big day. Our patience with Advent might be growing thin. We do get to light the Love candle but isn’t it time to get on with the show? Well, the readings for the fourth Sunday, both here in Romans and in Matthew 1, give us a foretaste of Christmas. In the reading from Matthew 1, it is revealed that the birth of Jesus the Messiah went something like this—Mary was engaged to Joseph when she discovered she was pregnant with a child from the Holy Spirit (Matthew doesn’t give us details here). Joseph has some concerns, but an angel appears to reassure him that this is all from God. In fact, this child will save his people from their sins and is to be called Emmanuel, as promised by the prophet (Is. 7:14). The meaning of this name Emmanuel is “God is with us” (Mt. 1:18-25). The Gospel reading is very Christmassy, but what about Romans 1? What does it have to say about either Advent (do you see anything about the coming of the Lord?) or the birth of Jesus, except for the cryptic word about descent from David? Yet, while Paul doesn’t offer details he does speak of Jesus as the Son of God, much like the angel describes in Matthew 1. There is something about Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, that reveals the presence of God.  

 

                So, what is the Word that we are to hear at this moment in time? When I decided on this passage as the foundation for my sermon for the week back in August, the word that stood out to me is the final sentence of the passage. There in verse 6, Paul speaks of those who are “called to belong to Jesus Christ.” I plan on asking the question: “To whom do you belong?” That is an important question, especially at this moment in time when we who are Christians face the reality that there are those who claim to be followers of Jesus, but who have some rather disturbing views on many issues of our day. That is a pathway worth exploring, but since I plan to do that in my sermon, I will explore some of the other elements here in this introductory statement.

The theological elements are intriguing. Being a trinitarian, I’m always on the lookout for passages of Scripture that at least hint at revealing something that is trinitarian in nature.  There isn’t a full trinitarian formula here, but there are elements that are suggestive. In fact, the focus here is Christological. We hear something about humanity but also possible divinity. Thinking theologically about this word of introduction, I find the connection between Jesus’ descent from David according to the flesh and the declaration that he is Son of God through the resurrection intriguing. It appeals to my trinitarian instincts, though it can be read as a form of adoptionist Christology. There is not a word here about the pre-existent Logos (Jn 1:1-14). There isn’t even a word about Jesus’ baptism being the moment of recognition as in Mark. Instead, it’s the resurrection that reveals Jesus to be the Son of God.

As I often do in moments like this when it comes to Romans, I turn to Karl Barth for help. In his commentary on Romans, he takes note of the two declarations. One regarding his descent from David and the other his revelation as Son of God through the resurrection. Barth speaks of two planes intersecting—the known and the unknown—in Jesus of Nazareth, who is descended from David according to the flesh. “The name Jesus defines an historical occurrence and marks the point where the unknown world cuts the known word.” He speaks of the years 1-30, as an “era of revelation and disclosure; the era which, as is shown by the reference to David, sets forth the new and strange and divine definition of all time” (The Epistle to the Romans, p. 29). In Jesus, as I read Barth’s reading of Paul, the divine intersects with the earthly. But there is more to this story. This is a disclosure that can happen at any point in time. What makes this point in time important is that Jesus “has been declared to be the Son of God.” Here lies, Barth writes, the “true significance of Jesus,” that he is the Christ, the Messiah, the end of history. He goes on to suggest that “as Christ, Jesus is the plane which lies beyond our comprehension. The plane which is known to us, He intersects vertically, from above” (pp. 29-30). Barth recognizes that this declaration is beyond history. It is something we receive by faith. But it is the declaration that Jesus is Son of God that makes all of this worth considering.

We can read this passage as suggesting that Jesus became Son of God in the resurrection. That is, the resurrection transformed him from human (descending according to the flesh) into something beyond human. On the other hand, we could read this as others have down through the ages as signaling that Christ’s full identity is revealed in the resurrection. That is the way I read it. When we consider the identity of Jesus as the Christ, it is good to remember that Paul says little about the life and teachings of Jesus. He is focused on the cross and resurrection. He doesn’t say much, if anything, about the birth, except to remind us here of Jesus’ descent from David according to the flesh. This is a witness to Jesus’ humanity, but not much else is said. Therefore, it’s not surprising then that the Creeds give such little attention to the life and ministry of Jesus. We might want more, and the Gospels give us more, but this is all that Paul is ready to reveal.  

                The question for us, as we bring the Advent season to a close and prepare for those last few steps toward Christmas concerns the identity of the one who is coming into our midst. The answer is that he is the Son of God. As we encounter him, we encounter God’s presence (as we read in Matthew 1).  

                 

 

Just Be Patient – Lectionary Reflection for Advent 3A (James 5)

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field in Rain
James 5:7-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! 10 As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

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                This word about patience comes at an interesting time in the year. The season of Advent is meant to be a contemplative time. That means we should slow down and prepare ourselves to welcome the coming Lord. John the Baptist prepared the way for the Lord, making the pathways straight, by proclaiming the coming reign of God by inviting all who would list to repent and change their hearts It was a ministry that Matthew saw foretold in the words of Second Isaiah (Mt. 3:1-3; Is. 40:3). In this Advent season, we hear the call to repent and live into God’s realm that is coming into existence. The place we will find this realm revealed is in the person of Jesus. As Matthew records, the Holy Family is told that the child who will be born in Bethlehem is to be called Emmanuel (God with Us) (Mt. 1:23).

                Each Sunday of Advent we hear a call to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord by embracing a particular core value. First is the call to embrace hope and then there is the call for peace. On the third Sunday, a day when we hear this reading from James 5, we are called to embrace the joy of the Lord. While we hear these invitations to prepare for the coming of the Lord, the broader culture has invited us to a party. While Christmas (often in its commercialized forms) dominates, it’s not the only holiday party going on. That’s why it’s appropriate to greet each other with a Happy Holidays. Whether religious or secular these events can overshadow the call to prepare for something other than the beginning of a new year (and the end of a decade).  

 

So, in this busy season how do we embrace the virtue of patience? When people are rushing around making last-minute preparations for parties or travel, as well as doing all that Christmas shopping, how do we take seriously James’ call to be patient? Maybe in January, when things settle down, then we can consider the idea of being patient. Then we can consider the patience exhibited by the farmer who waits for the rains to come and water the crops.

               The Letter of James is often understood to be an expression of the larger Wisdom tradition. It has the marks of that tradition, in addition to a distinctly Jewish feel. That makes sense as it is often attributed to James, the Lord’s Brother. And, in the absence of a better claimant, I’m comfortable with that appellation. If it is from the pen of that particular James who, according to the Book of Acts, was a leading figure in the church in Jerusalem, it would be a rather early letter. The context of chapter 5 suggests that the recipients may have been experiencing some form of suffering. That might have come as a result of the Jewish Wars that took place between 60 and 70 CE, which scattered the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine. Among those Jews who were sent into the Diaspora would have been Jewish Christians. That appears to be the audience of this letter. While this letter has the marks of Jewish wisdom literature, this particular passage also has an eschatological, even apocalyptic feel. That is because it is offering counsel to the people as they look forward to the coming of the Lord.

Whoever is the intended audience, they are in this passage being counseled to be patient. What this coming of the Lord involves is not certain. It might include the expectation or the hope of a victory over the Romans. Whatever the hope is, the greater hope is placed in the coming of the Lord and preparing for it. That preparation includes endurance, as seen in the word present in verse 11, pointing to the story of Job.

                The eschatological element present here does point toward a day of judgment, with perhaps the coming Lord being that judge. Thus, with the day of judgment on the horizon, James warns the community to live as ones who can face that day without worry. This is a call to live faithfully as the people of God. Leading up to this word of wisdom, James has spoken of judgment on the rich who oppress the poor (Jms.5:1-6). He has also warned against the dangers of the tongue which can destroy (Jms. 3:1-12). Inappropriate use of the tongue also could lead to judgment. In the midst of this particular reading from James 5, we hear a warning against grumbling against others in the community. In other words, be careful with what you say.

James is concerned about actions that can divide and destroy a community that is facing many challenges. In response to those who, perhaps claiming support from Paul, say that faith alone is sufficient, James has declared that faith without works is dead.

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. (James 2:14-17)

There are times when it would be appropriate to emphasize grace and faith as the foundation of our relationship with God in Christ. God’s love is unconditional, but there are also times when it’s clear that we can take this grace received by faith for granted. James wants us to understand that our relationship with God in Christ should bear fruit. If it doesn’t, then somethings wrong.

                So, when it comes to the counsel of patience here, we shouldn’t think here in terms of a passive waiting for something to happen. Consider this analogy of the farmer. It may be true that the success of the harvest is dependent on the rains (in a land that is by nature dry), but that doesn’t mean the farmer is sitting back doing nothing. No, the farmer is always at work preparing things so that when the rain comes everything is ready to go. The same is true for the prophets, whom James mentions. They are more examples of endurance in the midst of suffering than “patience,” if patience means simply waiting around for things to happen. Of course, in James’ mind, their patience is related to the delay in the coming day of the Lord. They were faithful in their proclamation even if they did not see the fullness of their message revealed. For James, the messages of the prophets pointed to Jesus and his embodiment of God’s realm.

This call to embrace patience is not an invitation to passivity. If we know anything about James, it’s an active form of patience. That patience has to do with the coming of the Lord. In the Gospel reading from Matthew that is paired with James 5, Jesus tells the disciples: Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Mt 24:42). Such is the message of Advent: Stay awake, be ready, for the rains will come, as will the day of the Lord. On that day there will be judgment, but will that entail? That is the question that we continually ponder. Matthew has a separation of sheep and goats. It’s a powerful image, and it fits with James’ message, but is that the final word?

 

As we consider this call to prepare for the coming of the Lord, I want to leave you with a word from theologian Jürgen Moltmann, and then the opening lines of an Advent hymn that speaks of waiting “patiently” for the coming of the Promised One. So first Moltmann and then the hymn.

 

What we call the Last judgment is nothing other than the universal revelation of Jesus Christ, and the consummation of his redemptive work. No expiatory penal code will be applied in the court of the crucified Christ. No punishments of eternal death will be imposed. The final spread of the divine righteousness that creates justice serves the eternal kingdom of God, not the final restoration of a divine world order that has been infringed. Judgment at the end is not an end at all; it is the beginning. Its goal is the restoration of all things for the building up of God’s eternal kingdom.” [Jürgen Moltmann. The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (Kindle Locations 3617-3621).] 

So let us sing:

All earth is waiting to see the Promised One,
and open furrows await the seed of God.
All the world, bound and struggling, seeks true liberty;
it cries out for justice and searches for the truth. 
                                                                —Albert Taulè
               

Picture attribution:  Gogh, Vincent van, 1820-1888. Wheat Field in Rain, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56228 [retrieved December 8, 2019]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh,_Dutch_-_Rain_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.

All Are Welcome — Lectionary Reflection for Advent 2A (Romans 15)

Lahneck Castle, Germany
Romans 15:4-13 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6 so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
 
7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
 
“Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
    and sing praises to your name”;
 
10 and again he says,
 
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;
 
11 and again,
“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
    and let all the peoples praise him”;
 
12 and again Isaiah says,
“The root of Jesse shall come,
    the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.”
 
13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
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                What a wonderful message to hear proclaimed during the season of Advent, especially on Peace Sunday: All are welcome in the name of Christ.  Paul’s message to the Church in Rome is that God of steadfastness and encouragement, who is revealed to us in the person of Jesus, continues steadfast in service to the promise to the circumcised, the Jewish people, but we’re reminded that as part of this commitment to the Jewish people is a desire to bring into the covenant family Gentiles.  So, we hear Paul declare: “welcome one another” … “as Christ has welcomed you.”

The audience of this letter likely includes both Jewish and Gentile Christians. They may have been struggling with how to assimilate these two communities into one body of Christ. In using the word assimilate, I am aware that in our day its use often assumes that minority communities will be subsumed into the majority culture. That may have been an issue here as well, but Paul’s message seems to underlie the promise that whether Jew or Gentile, both are fully included in the community of Christ. It’s also important to remember that Paul has yet to visit this congregation, so he is speaking to a community that he didn’t establish. These are not his people, but he wants them to know that the gospel he preaches is one that bridges Jew and Gentile. He speaks of a harmony that is rooted in Christ. To do this he seems to be reminding his Jewish Christian audience of the promise found in the Scriptures concerning the Gentiles. Yes, Paul draws from the word of Isaiah 11:10 to reveal that the root of Jesse will not only rule over the Gentiles but in him, the Gentiles shall find hope. Though this is Peace Sunday, the message we hear on this Second Sunday of Advent is that of hope, which is found in Christ, the “root of Jesse.”  So, let the Gentiles join the people of God in giving praise to God who is revealed in the steadfastness and encouraging presence of Christ. With this word of hope comes a call to live in harmony (peace) with one another (both Jew and Gentile).

                Regarding this call for harmony, Karl Barth offers this word of guidance:

God does not merely instruct us: He GIVES us the incomprehensible, in order that in all our differences and in all our brokenness we may be—like minded; in order that we may, in all the play of our thoughts, look up to the One, and in order that we may, in the disharmony of the community, hear the voice of fellowship: —That with one accord ye may with one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  [Barth,  The Epistle to the Romans, p. 526].

 

     Notice that Barth points out that we are called to be “like-minded” in the context of difference and brokenness. He notes the disharmony that exists. It is a good reminder that we do not live in a utopia, where all are on the same page, for we are not. Disunity is not new, but it seems that we are feeling it in new ways. Perhaps it is due to the increasing diversity of context. We may find this disturbing and disrupting, but maybe, if we look at things through the lens of Christ, we might see a way forward.

           Barth speaks of glorifying God, and Jin Young Choi connects the call to worship (praise God) with welcoming others, suggesting that the two together are “essential components of Advent hope.”

Worshiping God cannot be separated from welcoming others. These are essential components of Advent hope as Christians eagerly wait for the Day of the Lord when all the nations—usually translated as the “Gentiles” in English—will worship God together. Accordingly, this concrete vision of a future inclusive community inspires believers to practice welcome.  [Connections,WJK Press, Kindle Edition. Loc. 1044].

                In an age when walls are being erected—both physical and metaphorical—that are designed to keep the “other” at bay, we hear this message of grace and welcome. It is a reminder that when we gather for worship in this Advent season, we come as hearers and bearers of the good news of welcome to those for whom walls have been erected. In fact, Paul is rather insistent that in Christ dividing walls do fall (Ephesians 2:14).

                The recent observance of the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is a good reminder that walls are not permanent. Some walls, like the Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall, remain as remembrances of past attempts to keep others out, but today they are tourist attractions rather than bulwarks against the other. So, on this Peace Sunday, may we join with Paul and tear down the dividing walls that keep us apart. In doing this, we can affirm with Paul the promises made to the Patriarchs and join with the Gentiles (being that I am a Gentile that does include me) in glorifying God.

                Might we sing the second verse of Mary Anne Parrott’s Advent hymn:

            Come quickly shalom, teach us how to prepare
                         for a gift that compels us with justice to care.
Our spirits are restless till sin and war cease. 
            One candle is lit for the rein of God’s peace.   (Chalice Hymnal, 128)
               
               

 

Day Is Dawning — A Lectionary Reflection for Advent 1A (Romans 13)

Romans 13:11-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

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

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NOTE to Readers:  Having reflected upon the first readings of the Revised Common Lectionary, which largely covers the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), and having completed reflections on the Gospels, I will now turn for the next three years to the second readings, which normally come from the Epistles. You can find the earlier reflections by searching the text on this blog.
 
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                It is the first Sunday of Advent, which means that Christmas is near at hand. The tree and the lights and the decorations are probably up, and shopping has begun. With all the buzz around the holidays, attending to the message of Advent, which tends to be darker than the celebratory mood of the Christmas season, might be difficult. Hearing a word from Paul, especially one that has eschatological overtones (as is true of many Advent texts) might be even more difficult, but here is the word: It’s time to wake up, because salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.” The day of salvation is near at hand, so get ready. Yes, now is the Kairos moment. Something transformative is at hand, so be ready. Be awake to the possibilities of the moment.

                Advent is intended to be a season of preparation. It even has penitential elements, much like Lent. Even the Advent hymns, though not all, tend to be in a minor key, which is why so many churches skip them and jump to carols. When it comes to the penitential side of things, it doesn’t sit well when everyone is in a mood to party (myself included).  Nevertheless, it would be wise to heed the message of the moment, to watch what is happening around us. What might God be up to in this Kairos moment?

One of the primary messages of the first twelve chapters of Romans is that grace is the foundation for our salvation, and now with that foundation, we hear a call to live lives that demonstrate gratitude for that grace. So, in the verses leading into our reading, Paul tells the Roman church to “owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8). Yes, love fulfills the law. This message isn’t unique to Paul or Jesus. It’s rooted in Leviticus, which calls upon the people of God to love their neighbor as themselves, and Rabbi Akiva, a near contemporary of Paul, suggested that love of neighbor was the essence of the Torah. Rabbi Reuven Hammer takes notes of Rabbi Akiva’s view of the love of others being the essence of the Torah: “It is not enough to insist that we treat others as we want to be treated since some people disdain themselves. It is not sufficient to say that all people are created equal. Love is the basic requirement” [Hammer, A Year with the Sages, p. 157]. Having made his declaration concerning love, Paul declares that now is the time of salvation. So, let us live accordingly.

                When Paul speaks of the day of salvation, which is dawning, and in fact, is at hand, he does so in dualistic terms. The night is almost over, and day is at hand, so “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” It is commonplace to think of evil acts occurring under the cover of darkness. Think of rats and roaches and other things that go bump in the night. When the light comes on the forces of darkness quickly flee. So be ready, the light is going to be turned on.

When we think of Paul’s message in eschatological terms, which fits Advent, darkness also represents the old age that is passing away. When dawn breaks, so will the new age. The old age is one in which sin dominates, and the new age offers freedom from the bondage to sin. Paul understands that we’re not completely free from the old age. Darkness still has some hold over the world, but we are to move toward the new age. The image here involves putting on the armor of light. Jin Young Choi comments on this call by Paul to put on the armor of light: “However, putting on the armor of light does not entail merely engaging ethical behaviors that the believers should choose; it also describes believers’ ontological status as those who put on Jesus Christ (Rom. 13:14; Gal. 3:27–28). In the new age, humanity is renewed into Christlike people.” [Connections, (Westminster John Knox Press). Kindle Edition. Loc. 565]. Thus, as we enter this new age of light, the age of salvation, we are to put on Jesus Christ.

Paul writes this letter with a great deal of urgency. He believes that the Kairos moment is at hand. The new age of light is about to break into the world. He believes something is about to happen that will turn everything upside down and that he is going to see it happen. By the end of his life, he might have begun to envision this inbreaking of the new realm taking a bit longer than he expected, but here in Romans 13, he’s still expecting something dramatic to occur that turn everything upside down. We’ve been on this journey now for nearly two millennia, so the anticipation may have worn off a bit. Thus, the value of Advent, for it calls us back to that moment of expectation. With that expectation comes the call to live in the light by putting on Jesus, which means living together in harmony and love. 

It’s unfortunate that what many think of when they hear the word eschatology are the end times scenarios of Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye. What this vision promises is a future of violence and trauma, where Jesus returns as a Marvel hero triumphing over his enemies with a terrible swift sword. I’m not sure that is what Paul has in mind; at least it’s not part of the message we read in Romans. Paul wouldn’t deny that at the turn of the ages there wouldn’t be suffering, for there likely will be resistance, but he doesn’t glory in it, nor should we. He may lay things out in terms of darkness and light, but what is key here is the reminder that having been redeemed in Christ, we have a future that promises peace and justice for all creation.

Leonora Tubbs Tisdale offers this word of encouragement in relation to our text. She speaks of two things that strike her concerning the season’s vision of social transformation:

The first is that what is often needed for Christians today is a wake-up call regarding the social evils of our day and our ethical injunction as Christians to respond to them. Often people are not so much intentionally evil as they are complacent and slumbering. Paul’s call to us to move out of the darkness of our sleeplike state and to move into the light of Christ’s work in the world is a needed one. Secondly, this text (given its locus in the book of Romans) reminds us that we do not do good works to earn our salvation. Rather, we do them out of gratitude to God and as a way of living into our baptismal callings in Christ. [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 4].

So, let us put on Christ and “let us live honorably as in the day.” With that we begin the Advent journey, singing:

All earth is waiting to see the Promised One,
And open furrows, the sowing of our God.
All the world, bound and struggling, seeks true liberty;
It cries out for justice and searches for the truth.
                                Albert Taulé (1972), tr. Gertrude C. Suppe, (1987)
               
               

 

The Righteous Branch—A Lectionary Reflection for Reign of Christ Sunday (Jeremiah 23)

The Crucifixion – Lucas Cranach the Elder, Art Institute of Chicago
 
Jeremiah 23:1-6 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

23 Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. 2 Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. 3 Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 4 I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord. 

5 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6 In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

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                We begin the Christian year on the first Sunday of Advent, and in year C it begins with a word from Jeremiah 33. The reading for that Sunday declares: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” (Jer. 33:14-16). The promise of this passage is the coming of the righteous branch who springs forth for David, and who will “execute justice and righteousness in the land.” This is a word of hope offered by a prophet who offers few such words. Year C of the Christian year concludes with another word from Jeremiah, this time from ten chapters earlier. In Jeremiah 23, we again hear a word about the “Righteous Branch” who will be raised up for David. From beginning to end, we hear the promise of God that righteousness and justice will be served and that God will provide the means by which this occurs. This word of hope that comes on the day we call Reign of Christ (Christ the King) Sunday comes with a caveat. There is first a word of judgment on shepherds who have served the people poorly.

 

                The reading from Jeremiah 23 with a word of woe to “the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture” (vs. 1). This word of judgment is laid upon the leaders of Judah, the monarchs, the ruling elite, and the religious leadership. This word comes to Judah just prior or perhaps in the midst of the Babylonian conquest that will destroy Jerusalem, the Temple, and lead to the captivity of its leading citizens. During this period of Jeremiah’s prophetic work, Judah had been led by three rather disappointing kings, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah. All three of these kings contributed to the chaos that led to the destruction of Judah and the subsequent exile. 

 

Into this debacle on the part of the leadership, God is going to step in and be the shepherd Israel needs. God is going to gather the remnant from the lands into which they are scattered. God will then provide shepherds who will lead with righteousness and judgment. That is the Righteous Branch” who will reign as king over the people. In Jeremiah words of judgment are brought together with words of restoration. Judah may suffer defeat and exile, but this is not the last word. There will be a time of restoration when justice and righteousness will prevail.

 

                We hear this word on Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. This concluding Sunday of the year is designed to focus our attention on the coming reign of Christ over Creation. We can see this envisioned in the iconography of the Eastern churches that picture Christ as Pantocrator or the ruler of the universe. It is a vision that is revealed in the Book of Revelation and in the Gospels, but the reading from the Gospels that is paired with this text speaks of Christ on the Cross. It may not be the vision that we would expect here, but it reminds us that visions of God are not all the same. Justice and righteousness, they are central to the day’s message, but the means could be one of apparent weakness. In the reading from the Gospel of Luke (Lk.23:33-43), the picture of the Christ who reigns is the one named “king of the Jews” by the Roman authorities, who seek to mock the claim. 

 

                The word we hear from Jeremiah is one that is relevant to our times when it seems as if the world is in disarray. People are frustrated with their leaders. In many parts of the world, including here in the United States, many have embraced populist voices that promise to turn everything upside down. Many of them fulfill the promise, but not for the good, not for justice and righteousness. These shepherds are the kinds of leaders Jeremiah condemned for leading the people astray. But all is not lost. There is hope. God will provide for shepherds who will bring justice and righteousness.

 

                Perhaps this is a good moment for the church to consider what is required of a good leader, and how we as the people of God can create and promote such leaders. How might the church speak out against bad leaders and policies? Here’s the thing, how do we do this without becoming enmeshed with partisanship, so that we exchange one set of bad leaders for another? As we ponder these questions, it is appropriate to take note that this word is directed not at the bad leaders, but at their victims, those who suffer under such leaders. God promises to stand with them and provide leadership that is different from what has been experienced. Here’s the thing, as Carlton J. “Cobbie” Palm notes:

The plan for a new future is in God’s hands always, but we must understand that it will never be God’s accomplishment alone. In the unfolding story of God’s work throughout history we see a pattern. God creates and restores on our behalf, but always, and without exception, gives the work back to us to carry forward. This is what Jeremiah is saying when he concludes with the words of God, “I will raise up for David, a righteous branch” (v. 5). This is pointing to us, calling us out of droopiness to prepare for the handover to continue and sustain the work that God has begun. We are the righteous branch. We are the participants in God’s unfolding restoration. [Connections, p. 499].

How is this to be heard on Christ the King Sunday? Can we not hear this in connection with Paul’s description of the church as the Body of Christ? As Christ’s body, might we engage in the work that leads to justice and righteousness in the world? And in this regard, may we sing:

 
Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
does its successive journeys run,
his kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
till moons shall wax and wane no more.
 
Blessings abound where’er he reigns:
the prisoners leap to lose their chains,
the weary find eternal rest,
and all who suffer want are blest.
 
Let every creature rise and bring
the highest honors to our King,
angels descend with songs again,
and earth repeat the loud amen. 
                                Isaac Watts
               

 

The Day Will Come . . . A New Creation — A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 23C (Isaiah 65)

Isaiah 65:17-25 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
17 For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.
 
*****************

                Won’t you envision with me a new heaven and a new earth, where violence and death and suffering are no more? This is the eschatological vision that is revealed here in Isaiah and then again at the end of the Book of Revelation. In that last vision of John the Revelator, we hear the pronouncement:  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Rev. 21:1). That reference to the sea is important, for the sea stands in for chaos. It is the enemy, so its absence is a sign that peace has come upon the land. It might not be a welcome word if you enjoy the ocean (as I do) but remember the context. The people of Israel weren’t a sea-going people. That said, the vision here is one of change, but what is the nature of that change? When the two passages are read together, this vision of a new heaven and new earth sounds rather ominous. That is because it seems to suggest something catastrophic occurring. It would appear that God intervenes in a radical way so that the old creation is done away with and something new replaces it. That vision has its attractions, but is this what the Prophet envisioned? Perhaps not.

We need to hear this vision in its original context. This word in Isaiah 65 was given to exiles who longed to return to their homeland. It’s given to people who are essentially homeless and face food insecurity. They are refugees who don’t have control over their own lives. Into this context comes this promise of abundance and peace. It is a promise of a long life, but not necessarily immortality. In this vision, the wolf and the lamb lie down together. Yes, predator and prey live together in peace. For a small nation, like Judah, this is a promise worthy of embracing, for they are the prey, while the Babylonians and other empires are the predators. It’s a reality that existed millennia in the past and exists today as well. So, it is a vision that resonates.

So, what do we make of this promise of a new heaven and new earth? Must we envision a catastrophic moment in time when this earth passes away and a new one emerges? Or is there another option? Jürgen Moltmann offers this response:

It is a golden Shalom age in the history of humanity and on this earth that is meant, not a world beyond. But that presupposes that this earth is good, and that in this promised age it will simply have to flower into a new undreamed-of fertility. It will not be annihilated and created anew. The pre-apocalyptic apocalyptic prophets saw a threat to Israel’s life and existence, but not to the cosmos. Their visions of the blessed life presuppose a profound trust in the earth. [Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (Kindle Locations 3916-3919). Kindle Edition.]

The Book of Revelation, which is definitely apocalyptic, may envision a radical change to the cosmic realm, but we needn’t take things quite so far. Ultimately, the future is unknown to us, so we don’t know how things will end. All we can do as make some judgments based upon our understanding of who God is. With that said, I for one don’t embrace a vision of God is one who destroys, but I do envision God being one who is actively engaged in drawing us into a future that looks a lot like what Isaiah suggests!

                To those who heard the prophet’s words, the vision is not of some cosmic reality. It is a vision of restored hope, where the return from exile will lead to stability. The city that was destroyed will be restored. Then the people will dwell in peace. Yes, this is a vision that promises a very different future from what was being experienced at that moment. In that new world envisioned by the prophet, there will be no more weeping. There will be no more war. People will build their homes and live in them, without fear that others will come along and take them. For exiles, that is a very compelling vision. The nation of Judah had watched as the Babylonians invaded their land, destroyed their Temple, and seized their homes, relocating them to another place. But now, with the return from Babylon, though things are still difficult, it’s possible that something new might emerge. Yes, a New Jerusalem could emerge where peace reigns and no injury takes place—the serpent will have to survive on dust (taking us back to Genesis 3).

                For those of living in the 21st century, what word do you hear? What word does this speak to those who are refugees, whether from war or famine or violence? Is there a word here for them? What about those who experience food insecurity or homelessness or who die young either from disease or violence? For those under 30, suicide is among the greatest causes of death. What about them? Then there are those of us who live relatively comfortable lives; those of us who have nice homes and don’t face food insecurity; what word is spoken to us? What word of newness do we hear in this message? We might not have a complete word for the moment. As a colleague shared in her recent sermon, perhaps “The answer is . . . under construction.” Depending on where we find ourselves, we might hear an invitation to join in the work of building a new creation, a new Jerusalem.

                As we contemplate this message we can take hold of the message found in the fourth verse of Brian Wren’s hymn “This Is a Day of New Beginnings.”

                In faith we gather round the table to taste and share what love can do.
 

                This is a day of new beginnings; our God is making all things new. 
                                                                                             (Chalice Hymnal, 518).