Category: revised common lectionary

Raised with Christ – Lectionary Reflection for Easter A (Colossians 3)

Colossians 3:1-4 NRSV

 

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

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                Although Easter has arrived, this particular year (the year I write this), churches won’t be gathering for in-person services (or at least they shouldn’t be gathering in person). Instead of in-person gatherings, most of us are trying to find alternate ways of being together online. While we grieve the loss of this opportunity to join in singing the great Easter hymns (Christ the Lord is Risen, Crown Him with Many Crowns) and share in all the other elements that make Easter special, it might be worth remembering that on that first Easter morning, the followers of Jesus were either scattered to their own homes or perhaps hiding out in an upper room, while a few brave souls, including Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John checked out the tomb. They didn’t gather in a sanctuary colorfully decorated with lilies and tulips. While I find the organ to be a powerful instrument on Easter morning, they didn’t have organs either.

With that reminder concerning the first Easter morning, might we hear the witness to the resurrection offered to us by the Colossian letter? Whether the author is Paul or not (and for the sake of simplicity I’m assuming Pauline authorship), this letter offers us one of the most robust discussions of the Cosmic Christ in the hymn (Col. 1:15-20). While the reading for today comes from chapter 3, which has a more practical application, I think it is appropriate to consider that hymn as the backdrop to this reading.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Col. 1:15-20)

The one, whose resurrection, we celebrate is the “image of the invisible God.” In him, all things were created. In him, the “fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” This is the one whose resurrection and exaltation we come to celebrate. We have been raised with Christ who sits exalted at the right hand of God. Yes, Easter has cosmic implications. Death has met its match. So, let us “crown him with many crowns.”

                In these four verses of chapter 3 of Colossians Paul applies the message of the resurrection to the daily lives of the Christians gathered in Colossae. Note the realized eschatology present here— “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above.” Paul is assuming that they were already resurrected with Christ, maybe not physically, but they received the promissory note of resurrection, so in Paul’s mind, they should live accordingly. That is they should “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” Yes, Paul presumes that the heavens lie above the earthly realm, so looking up is an appropriate metaphor. We might not view the universe in quite the same way as first-century folks did, but I think we can work with the metaphor. Paul wants the church to focus on the things of God, rather than on earthly things. That may sound like an encouragement to live our lives in such a way that we’re so heavenly minded that we’re of no earthly good, I don’t think so. Instead, the concern here is the orientation of our lives. Do we orient our lives to the ways of God, or do we follow the lead of a narcissistic culture?  

 

                As we read this word, we might want to think in terms of baptism. While it’s not explicit here, we could read this in light of Romans 6, where Paul makes a clear connection between one’s baptism and one’s participation in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. This is the word we read in Romans: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4).

                While Paul assumes that our resurrection is accomplished in the resurrection of Jesus, we still live mortal lives. We still await the full revelation of Christ’s glory, but the promise is there. If you read further along in the chapter, from verses 5-11, you will find more specific instructions as to what it means to live a resurrection life.  

But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10 and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11 In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!  (Col. 3:8-11 NRSV)

With this word of admonition, might we celebrate the day of Christ’s resurrection? And, If we understand this word in light of the letter’s cosmic vision, the resurrection of Jesus has turned everything upside down, or perhaps better right-side up. We have drawn into that cosmic vision because we share in the resurrection in Christ, and we can enjoy the blessings of that event.

                As John of Damascus declared many centuries in the past:

                Now let the heavens be joyful! Let earth its song begin!
                                The world resound in triumph, and all that is therein;
                Let all things seen and unseen their notes of gladness blend;
                                For Christ the Lord has risen, our joy that has no end
—“The Day of Resurrection!” Chalice Hymnal, #228, vs. 3
               
               

 

From Glory to Glory by Way of Death – Lectionary Reflection for Passion/Palm Sunday (Philippians 2)

Philippians 2:5-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

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                The Sunday before Easter presents the church with two choices when it comes to the lectionary. Should we go with the Palms or the Passion? As there is no established second reading for Palm Sunday, the choice has been made for us by the creators of the lectionary. That’s because I’m currently working through the second reading in this cycle. Therefore, the reading comes from the Passion Sunday selections. In this particular year, this seems to be an especially appropriate decision in any case. Since the world is facing a pandemic that has led to the cancelation of worship services across the globe, which will result in few if any palm processions (and the same goes for in-person Easter services this year).

The appointed Gospel reading comes from Matthew 27:11-54, which takes us from Jesus’ appearance before Pilate through the crucifixion to the Centurion’s declaration “Truly this was God’s Son!” (As a side note, I can’t read this without hearing John Wayne intone those words in The Greatest Story Ever Told – a 1960s Jesus movie starring Max Von Sydow as Jesus). Here in Philippians 2, we hear a word about the incarnation of the one who was in the form of God but did not exploit his equality with God but chose to empty himself of his pre-existent heavenly state, become human, and face death on a cross, all of which leads to his exaltation to the position of ruler of the cosmos. Paul offers this Jesus to us as an example, so that we might find unity as the body of Christ by becoming servants to one another and thus being of one mind. If we read between the lines, the Philippian church, which Paul founded, was experiencing a time of conflict.  Thus, Paul tells them to take on the mind of Christ, as revealed in this ancient hymn that Paul has appropriated for this purpose. The hymn reminds us that Jesus endured humiliation for our benefit and was vindicated by God as a result. The one who was crucified was then exalted by God so that he might move from humility to glory.

                When Paul wrote his letter to the Philippian Church, he was sitting in a jail cell (Phil. 1:12-17). Where he was being detained is unknown to us. Paul doesn’t identify the location though he does mention the Praetorian guard. That would suggest a cell in Rome. It’s a clue but not proof. That he is in prison, suggests confinement at best and perhaps a degree of suffering as well. That is his situation. The letter suggests that the congregation was facing its own sets of difficulties. While Paul was the founding pastor of this congregation, he could only reach out to them virtually, offering guidance by way of a letter.

 Regarding the internal concerns, he asks that they exhibit unity. He asks them to make his joy complete by having the same mind, love, and unity. He asks that they not do anything out of selfishness or conceit. Instead, he asks that they have the same mind as Jesus (Phil. 2:1-5). That request leads to what many scholars (and I tend to agree) consider an early Christian hymn that takes note of Jesus’ pre-existence with God (his divine status), his self-emptying (humility) that leads to the cross, and finally, his exaltation by God, thus vindicating Jesus by establishing him as ruler of the cosmos. Thus, to fully embody God’s realm, one should embrace the way of Jesus, which has the promise of exaltation.

                The hymn takes note of three distinct phases of the Christ event. We begin with an affirmation of Christ’s pre-existence. The hymn states unequivocally that “though he was in the form of God . . . but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil. 2:6-7). This isn’t quite the same wording as John’s prologue (John 1:1-18), but it’s close. The second phase is Christ’s self-emptying of himself of divinity so that he might become human and face death on a cross. Finally, the second half of the hymn celebrates God’s vindication of Jesus by exalting him to the position of ruler of the cosmos [Ronald J. Allen, Connections, Kindle loc 4177-4192].

                For those of us who affirm the divinity of Christ, this is one of the most direct statements (along with John 1) in support of that position. Pre-existence doesn’t prove divinity, but it suggests that in Paul’s estimation that Jesus has a status that is ultimately different from us, even if he experienced life as being fully human. Karl Barth writes that “this equality of Christ with God is, so to speak, the fixed, ultimate background from which his road sets out to which he returns” [Epistle to the Philippians, p. 61]. This is the starting point for a movement from heaven to earth and back, so to speak. But the point here is not his equality with God, but what he does with it that is the point. That leads to the emptying of himself of his stature as the Father’s equal so that he might become a human and ultimately face death on a cross. Thus, his humanity fully covers his divinity, and this was of his own doing, his own choosing, and yet it was an act of obedience. This is the point of Passion Sunday, the willingness to go to the cross, to experience death, and not just any death, but the most humiliating of deaths. He descended to the depths in his self-emptying and bore upon himself the brokenness of the old age.

                This is not the final word in the story. The second part of the hymn (verse 2) reveals that God vindicated Jesus by exalting him to the position of ruler of the cosmos. This exaltation is revealed in the name given to him, which stands above every name, so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” As I read this, I can’t help but think about the context in which it is revealed. Caesar is the exalted one, to whom every knee would bow, and whose name would be confessed as Lord. In this confession, Paul (or the hymn writer) reveals that Jesus, the one whom Rome crucified, had been exalted above Caesar. Thus, Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord. While Caesar might rule an empire, Jesus ruled the cosmos and that to the glory of God.

  

                Paul opens up this reading by asking that we be like Christ, who emptied himself of his glory so as to taste life as we live it, even to the point of death, as a result, God vindicated him by raising him to a position of glory. If this is true for Jesus, as those who are his people, might we participate in what is his by nature? As we ponder this question, I leave you with this word from one of Gregory of Nazianzus’ Festal Orations:

Let us become like Christ, since Christ also became like us; let us become gods because of him, since he also because of us became human. He assumed what is worse that he might give what is better. He became poor that we through his poverty might become rich. He took the form of a slave, that we might regain freedom. He descended that we might be lifted up, he was tempted that we might be victorious, he was dishonored to glorify us, he died to save us, he ascended to draw to himself us who lay below in the Fall of sin. Let us give everything, offer everything, to the one who gave himself as a ransom and an exchange for us. But one can give nothing comparable to oneself, understanding the mystery and becoming because of him everything that he became because of us. [Gregory of Nazianzus, Festal Orations, p. 59].

                As we begin a Holy Week like no other I’ve experienced in life, may we take up the mantle of Jesus, and find in him a path of obedience that leads to salvation.
                  
                 

 

Living in the Spirit – A Lectionary Reflection for Lent 5A (Romans 8)

Romans 8:6-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

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                As I write this reflection, the world is caught up in a deadly pandemic that threatens to take the lives of perhaps millions of people. It is a moment when fear is rampant, and for good reason. Most faith communities have suspended in-person services and are looking at a wide assortment of alternatives so that they can keep in touch with each other. (Even if faith communities might have exemptions from some of these regulations, it is unwise to flout them!) In this moment in time, how do we speak of flesh and Spirit, death and life? This is especially true for those of us who are called to preach. How do we address Paul’s message about flesh and Spirit, death and life when death and the prospects of death seem to be very real?

                According to Paul, setting the mind on the flesh is death, while setting the mind on the Spirit is life. By flesh, I don’t believe Paul means the body (he’s not a gnostic). Instead, as C.K. Barrett notes, flesh “in this context means a mind from which God is excluded” [Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 158].  When Paul speaks of setting the mind on the flesh, it would probably be best to think in terms of a mindset. In this case, to have a fleshly mindset is to live a life that is focused on pleasing one’s self at the expense of living for God. Might we call this spiritual narcissism? As Sarah Heaner Lancaster suggests this is a question of allegiance. Thus, “there is no neutrality. One either lives for God or not, and by not living for God one displays loyalty to another dominion.” [Lancaster, Romans, p. 134]. In doing so, we settle for lesser things, which ultimately leads to death. Right now, I think we might consider this a warning against taking unwise actions that could lead to our deaths or the deaths of others because we don’t think the warnings about Covid-19 apply to us.

                As we ponder the message of the passage and Paul’s emphasis on the Spirit, it is important to remember that he has a very strong pneumatology. He envisions the church living by the Spirit, making use of the gifts of the Spirit (charismata) in such a way that the body of Christ is built up. We’ve not reached that point in the letter, but in chapter 12, Paul speaks of spiritual gifts and their use in the community: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function,  so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us” (Rom. 12:4-6a). Thus, if we are to live by the Spirit, then we will bring into the community the gifts given to us by the Spirit. We do this not to necessarily benefit ourselves, but so that the body of Christ can be built up until we reach the fulness of Christ (Eph. 4:11-13). This is what it means to live in the Spirit—follow the way of love (1 Cor. 13).

Paul is known to offer dualisms in his presentations of the gospel, as do other New Testament writers (especially John). When we consider this contrast between flesh and Spirit, death and life, we might think in terms of the old and new age, a contrast that is true to Paul’s theology. As he writes in 2 Corinthians 5, the old age has passed away, and the new age has broken through into the world. Like what we have here in Romans 8, Paul’s message in 2 Corinthians 5, has an eschatological orientation. Paul is clearly envisioning a major transition point in history that is centered in the cross and resurrection.

                While the lectionary reading begins in verse 6 of Romans 8, we should keep in mind the opening words of the chapter, which opens with the declaration that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Rom. 8:1-2). It is this promise of forgiveness that sets the tone for this word concerning the relationship between flesh and spirit. The Spirit sets us free from the grasp of the flesh.  The path forward has been set, but the choice is ours as to how we engage with it.

                The focus here is, of course, living in the Spirit. To be in Christ is to live in the Spirit. It is to live in a state of transformation marked by the resurrection. The body may be dead, but the Spirit lives. Perhaps this is where we should focus. After all the Resurrection of Jesus is an eschatological event that inaugurates the new age of the Spirit. We may still live an embodied life, but our destiny is defined by the Spirit and not by the flesh. The promise here is that Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead lives in us.

                The reality is that death will come to our mortal bodies. That is a given. But there is the promise of the resurrection. We’re not yet at Easter, and right now, as I write, in-person Easter celebrations remain in doubt. Nevertheless, the promise of resurrection is there, giving us hope even in times of distress.

 

Living in the Light – A Lectionary Reflection for Lent 4A (Ephesians 5)

Ephesians 5:8-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13 but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore, it says,
“Sleeper, awake!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

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                As we continue our Lenten journey our world is being turned upside down by a major viral pandemic. Schools, libraries, restaurants, and congregations are shutting down. Store shelves are empty of everything from bread to toilet paper. People are starting to hunker down because they don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Fear is rampant. Even for people of faith, times like this can be daunting. We can hold on to the promise that there is no fear in love, but when dark cloud hovers over us, blocking out the sunlight, hope may seem fleeting. You might even say that things are looking somewhat apocalyptic.

 

                Into this moment of darkness, we hear this word from Ephesians 5. It reflects a certain dualism separating darkness from light. In this case, it’s not just that we might live in darkness, but we are darkness. On the other hand, it’s possible that we not only live in the light, but we are light. Yes, “once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light” (Eph. 5:8a).

 

                When I read this passage, I can’t help but view it through a Star Wars lens. I am, after all, a Star Wars fan, going back to my college days when I took in the very first episode (Episode IV). For those who know the Star Wars story, the Force is an energy field that has a dark side and a light side. The dark side is quite powerful and therefore it’s enticing. The dark side of the Force feeds off of fear and anger, which are emotions easily ignited, especially when we feel threatened. I doubt George Lucas was reading Ephesians 5 when he developed the Star Wars saga, but it seems to fit. While Darth Vader (otherwise known as Anakin Skywalker) was once a brave and powerful Jedi Knight, he was seduced by the dark side of the force and became darkness itself. It made him very powerful, but it transformed him into something quite evil. The word we hear in Ephesians 5 is that we were once possessed by darkness, but that’s no longer true. As happened in Episode VI, The Return of the Jedi, Vader had a conversion of sorts and returned to the light.

 

                What we have here in this passage is a conversion text. It speaks of a radical transformation, much like that experienced by Vader. In this experience of transformation from darkness to light, the old self is exchanged for the new. While the question of authorship of Ephesians remains open (see my study guide on the Book of Ephesians for more on that question), there are similarities to this message and what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5. There Paul speaks of becoming a new creation so that the old is now gone, and a new creation comes into existence. The message here is that because of this conversion from darkness to light, one should live accordingly. If we’re to live in the light, this means stepping away from the old life and embracing a new way of living. The word here is: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Eph. 5:11).

This call to separate oneself from the works of darkness, but rather expose them, is a call to action. Stand up for justice, for what is good and right. But also remember that darkness is powerful. We might want to heed this word of warning from Reinhold Niebuhr: “It must be understood that the children of light are foolish not merely because they underestimate the power of self-interest among the children of darkness. They underestimate this power among themselves.” [Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition].

 

                Niebuhr’s warning about the power of self-interest is apropos at this moment. We should not underestimate its power over our lives as we face the challenges of the moment. At this moment the challenge comes in the form of a world-wide Coronavirus pandemic. How do we care for ourselves, but not put others in danger? We’ve watched as people hoard goods and prices for necessary goods skyrocket. When it comes to health care, who will be considered expendable if the resources need to be rationed? Too often we think about things in abstract terms, but this is reality. What is light and what is darkness? How does self-interest work its way into the conversation?

 As we ponder this question of moving from darkness into light, hearing the call to live as children of light, exposing the deeds of darkness, what is our responsibility? How do we speak truth without exploiting fear? We know it will occur politically. This is, after all, a political season. But, what about faith? It’s easy to exploit fear for religious gain. People are looking for hope amid news that only brings despair. How do we offer hope without manipulating these fears? Times like this can bring out both the worst and the best in us.

Since this is the season of Lent, when confession of sin becomes a significant part of our experience, even in communities (like my own) that generally eschew prayers of confession, we have the opportunity to allow light to be shined into our lives. The darkness that is present will be exposed. Turning back to Star Wars, when Vader became once again Anakin, his son, Luke, said of him, “I knew there was still goodness in you.” There is a view of things that suggests that we are totally depraved, and without any hope outside the grace of God. I wonder, could it be that the image of God, in which we are created, might be clouded over by darkness, but never completely erased? This reading from Ephesians doesn’t answer that question, but I wonder. Might there still be a fragment of light present that can be set free in Christ, so that we might act as light, ever mindful that even as Children of Light there is still the possibility of falling back into darkness?

            The reading closes with this declaration that might be part of an early Christian hymn:

                “Sleeper, awake!
                                Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

May the light that is Christ sine on us, and through us, so that life might be fully embraced. Yes:

                Come, heav’nly brightness, light divine,
and deep within our hearts now shine;
                There light a flame undying!  (O Morning Star, Chalice Hymnal, 105, vs. 2)
               

Image attribution: Hartman, Craig W.. Cathedral of Christ the Light, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54202 [retrieved March 16, 2020]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sicarr/3251258111/.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

               
                 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

               

 

We Have Seen His Glory – A Lectionary Reflection for Transfiguration Sunday (2 Peter)

2 Peter 1:16-21 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 18 We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. 
19 So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21 because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
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                Epiphany begins with a star shining in the night sky pointing us to the child born in Bethlehem. It ends with this same Jesus, now an adult who is fully engaged in his ministry, standing on a mountain-top, his glory fully revealed and witnessed to by a voice from heaven. The day on which we celebrate this revealing of Christ’s majesty is called Transfiguration Sunday. While you will find a full description of this event in the reading for today in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt.17:1-9), there is another witness to the event, that witness is found here in 2 Peter. The season of light is coming a close, with this brief revelation of Christ’s glory, but the witness continues on to this day.

                This passage bears witness to the moment of transfiguration. The author, whose identity is not known to us, tells us that what is being made known is not a “cleverly devised myth.” It is an event to which there were witnesses. Now, the author claims to be a witness to the event, but scholars suggest that this is a rather late document. We need to recognize the irony here of a message that opposes cleverly devised myths with eyewitness testimony given by an unknown, rather late in the game, author. Nevertheless, even if this wasn’t written by St. Peter, as claimed by the letter, it is likely rooted in a communal witness that goes back to the apostolic era. The reason for claiming apostolic authorship is to support the authoritative nature of the witness. The original readers likely knew this wasn’t written by Peter, but they accepted it as an authentic witness. For our purposes, it stands in line with the witness of the Gospels. In fact, it’s rather sparse in its details.

                Although no mention is made here of the transformation of Jesus’ appearance or the presence of Moses and Elijah (nor of James and John for that matter), what is referenced is the voice of God. It is God who bears witness to Jesus’ majesty, declaring: “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The author reveals that he was present to witness this voice from heaven. Now, he shares it with others.

                The purpose of sharing this message of the Transfiguration is revealed in the words that follow. That has to do with the prophetic witness of Scripture. Be attentive to it, the author says. He compares it to a lamp shining in a dark place. That is a message that resonates during Epiphany. We’re told that the revelation of Christ’s glory and majesty on the mountain top gives credibility to the message of Scripture and their witness to it. While Protestants, and I count myself among them, have hailed the right of the individual to read and interpret Scripture for themselves, the author of 2 Peter isn’t quite as sanguine about this. The author writes that “you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation” (vs. 20). Instead, the prophecy of Scripture, the revelation of God, comes as men and women are moved by the Holy Spirit to speak for God.        

 

                While what we call the New Testament is in formation by the time 2 Peter is written, it’s still forming. Gospels and letters are floating around, but they’ve been organized into a whole that one would call Scripture. So, we’re likely talking here about what Christians call the Old Testament, most likely that testament was written in Greek, what is known as the Septuagint (LXX).

                Whatever is meant here by prophecy and Scripture, the author is clear that it can’t mean whatever we want it to mean. Contextually, the interpretation of prophecies was often a matter of conjecture. As Pheme Perkins notes, this was known to occur at places like Delphi. She writes that “Second Peter insists that prophetic words inspired by the Holy Spirit are not that sort of prophecy; they reflect God’s purposes, not human cleverness” [Feasting on the Word, p. 451].

                So, this reading reminds us that we should be attentive to the witness of Scripture, that it might be a lamp to light the way forward, until the morning dawns and the full light of God has been revealed to our hearts.

                The story of the Transfiguration suggests that for just one moment the full majesty of Jesus’ identity was revealed. Only a few people (Matthew names Peter, James, and John) got to see that revelation. Only they got to hear the divine witness to Jesus’ identity. We the readers of the Gospels and of this letter must take their word as being true. This witness is extended to Scripture, which isn’t open to just any interpretation but requires the movement of the Spirit. That is tricky because it’s easy to claim the Spirit’s lead. How do we discern when and how the Spirit is leading? It’s a question that we preachers ask all the time as we consider the message found in Scripture and seek to bring something of value to our congregations. We pray for the Spirit’s guidance. We also pray that the Spirit will speak in, through, under, or over our words (that’s something akin to consubstantiation, just applied to Scripture rather than the Eucharist).  

 

                As we move into Lent and journey toward Easter, may the lamp that 2 Peter speaks of light our way until morning dawns and we can see more fully the things of God.

                 
Image attribution: Duccio, di Buoninsegna, d. 1319. Transfiguration of Christ, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46150 [retrieved February 16, 2020]. Original source: http://www.yorckproject.de.

 

No Solid Food For You – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 5A (1 Corinthians 3)

1 Corinthians 3:1-9  New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? 

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

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                When a child is born, they are given milk at first (whether a mother’s milk or formula). Later, pureed foods are added. Finally, when their systems are ready, and teeth have arrived they will be introduced to solid food. You can’t introduce solid food until a child has the ability to chew. What is true for a human child is true for us as spiritual children. You don’t hand a volume of Barth’s Church Dogmatics or Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is to a new believer. You might want to give them something more easily digested. As we see in this third chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul has concluded that the Corinthians aren’t quite ready to move on to solid food. They’re still infants needing to be fed a more appropriate diet. Paul comes to this conclusion as he deals with the vexing problem of divisions within the congregation. The quarreling and jealousy that is present in the congregation is evidence that they remain infants in Christ. They’re not ready to receive the deeper truths Paul would like to share with them. They don’t have any spiritual teeth with which to chew this food.

                In this chapter, the nature of the divisions introduced in chapter one seems to become clearer in chapter three. We know that there is a party spirit present in the congregation. Paul had mentioned in chapter 1 that some were claiming to follow Apollos, others Cephas, some Paul, and some simply identified with Jesus. Or perhaps the division is a bit narrower. Perhaps it centers on partisans for Paul and partisans for Apollos. Whatever the nature of this division, Paul refers to it as an expression of the flesh. When Paul refers to the flesh here, he doesn’t have the body in mind. His is a very embodied theology, so what he has in mind here is a sinful predisposition that has its grip on this congregation. To say that the congregation is divided over their loyalty to Paul or Apollos, doesn’t mean that either man intended for this to happen. Nevertheless, the Corinthians, being spiritual infants who are not ready for solid food, have fallen into this trap that is so common in our world. Just look at the way politics often works, especially right now.  

 

 Regarding the person known as Apollos, the only place besides 1 Corinthians that he’s mentioned in any detail is the Book of Acts (he is mentioned in Titus 3:13, where he appears to have been in Crete and may have served as a courier for the letter to Titus). According to the Book of Acts, Apollos arrived in Corinth around the time that Paul was leaving the city. He had come from Ephesus, which was where Paul was heading. In Ephesus, he had met Priscilla and Aquila, who instructed him more fully in “the Way.” It is said there that he had some knowledge of Jesus but had experienced only the Baptism of John. It would seem that Priscilla and Aquila gave him his graduate education in the Christian faith possibly baptized him before he left for Greece, where he ended up in Corinth (Acts 18:24-19:1). We’re told he was well-educated, probably in the art of rhetoric. Thus, he was an effective teacher of the faith. When he arrived in Corinth, it seems that Apollos, being an effective speaker and having the appropriate instruction, became part of the leadership in the Corinthian church. Perhaps there were those who embraced him at the expense of Paul, the founder of the church in Corinth.

I’m wondering, though I can’t prove it, whether Apollos had attempted to introduce the congregation to “solid food” before they were ready. Sometimes, immediately after finishing seminary, new pastors, flush with knowledge want to share what they know with their congregation. Some in the congregation might have been ready for it but were impressed by his erudition. Could it be that they were excited about receiving “deeper knowledge” than what Paul had shared with them?

If we read between the lines, it seems that Apollos was a much more impressive figure than Paul. If he was a rhetorician, he knew how to communicate effectively. He probably sounded a lot like the teachers that populated the town square. His message might have been different from theirs, but he might have shared their eloquence. So, it’s no wonder that he developed a following in Corinth. However, not everyone was as impressed. There were those who preferred Paul’s message. After all, he was the founding pastor. He had laid the groundwork. When Paul heard all this he wanted to straighten things out. He wanted to make it clear that this wasn’t about Apollos or him. Both had their place, but ultimately this was about God. Or, as Paul puts it here, switching metaphors from babies to agriculture, he had planted the seeds that Apollos watered, but ultimately God is the one who brings the growth.

What happened in Corinth is not a unique occurrence. History is filled with examples of division, quarreling, and jealousy. As a preacher, I’ve experienced I’ve known jealousy! So, I know what Paul is talking about.

The causes of division are many. They could be rooted in theological differences, but quite often what looks like a theological issue is really a personal one. Sometimes the messenger’s personality gets in the way of an effective conversation. It’s been suggested that the Nestorian controversy was rooted as much in Nestorius’ gruff personality as it was his theological views. We know that Cyril of Alexandria was a brilliant theologian, but he got himself caught up in some rather distasteful and violent affairs that shook the Alexandrian church during his tenure. The Donatist controversy wasn’t so much about theology as it was cultural differences. My own denomination is part of a larger movement that had as one of its reasons for existing the pursuit of Christian unity, and yet we’ve divided several times. Some elements of this division might be theological, but not all of them. As in Corinth, it probably involves a lot of fleshiness.

It’s worth remembering that the Corinthian church probably wasn’t much more than five years old. It was populated largely by converts. Even Apollos hadn’t been at this very long. So, it probably shouldn’t surprise us that this congregation might be experiencing growing pains. Can the same be said for the church today? After all, we’ve been at it for nearly two thousand years. Yet, the flesh is still with us. We are still captive to the ways of the world. Division is common. Fear is common, and it can lead, as it seems to be doing today, to circling the wagons. There are attempts to protect privileges that are rooted not in the teachings of Jesus, but human sinfulness.

The question is, are we ready for some solid food?  In other words, are ready to take up our calling to be God’s servants who work together in God’s field (or building)? Or do we still require spiritual formula?

Picture attribution: Blommers, B. J. (Bernardus Johannes), 1845-1914. A Peasant Meal, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=51140 [retrieved February 9, 2020]. Original source: http://www.mfa.org/.

 

The Foolishness of God – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 4A (1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Lucas Cranach – Chicago Institute of Art
1 Corinthians 1:18-31 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, 

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,

    and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

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

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

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                “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.” How do you read that statement? We might reply, yes, God’s thoughts are greater than ours but is that what Paul had in mind? Paul makes this statement in connection to his proclamation of the cross, which both Jew and Greek see as foolishness. Why would anyone think it wise to follow someone who was crucified? Yet, that is what Paul preached. He even takes note of the fact that those who answered the call to follow the crucified one weren’t considered wise by human standards. They weren’t powerful people or of noble birth. They were the kind of people who might be considered fools by those who thought of themselves as being wise by human standards. That may be true, but who really wants to be considered a fool?

                When I read this passage, I have to wonder what Paul has in mind. Might a message like this even be counterproductive in an age where growing numbers of our fellow citizens are rejecting expertise as elitism. Is Paul, in making this statement, giving license to Christian anti-intellectualism? I hope not, but I can see it being read that way. There has always been a strain of anti-intellectualism within the Christian tradition. Years ago, Mark Noll, a leading Evangelical historian wrote a book titled The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. In that book, he addressed the presence of anti-intellectualism in the evangelical movement (as signified by ideologies such as young-earth creationism). So, what do we make of this?

When Paul declares: “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” does this mean that there is no place for instruction or expertise in the religious world? We might want to start our reflection by remembering that Paul was confronting a congregation that was divided into factions that seem to be centered around specific teachers. Might there be those arguing against making the cross a centerpiece of the message, suggesting that this would look foolish to those who think of themselves as being wise? There is a tendency to tailor the message to the audience. Consider Friedrich Schleiermacher’s On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. Paul knew about the cultured despisers who seemed to reject the message of the cross.  

 

In making the case that the cross is the center of his message, Paul is arguing that human wisdom won’t lead you to God. You can’t study your way to a crucified messiah. It just will never make sense. It is something we take by faith. We look at Jesus on the cross and we see a different way of being. In the companion reading from Micah 6, we’re reminded that what God desires is justice, loving-kindness, and humility. The cross is a sign of humility and it is also a witness to justice, especially in light of the resurrection, which is God’s no to Rome’s act of condemnation. The cross is foolishness to those who cannot see God present in that moment, but it offers a different way of being, one that human wisdom can never discern.

If we can grant this premise, then we can address the other question, and that concerns the role of wisdom in the path of faith. I’m assuming that we still want physicians and our surgeons to be well qualified, though we seem less open to the possibility that the conclusions of the majority of climate scientists are correct. We seem, at times, to be impressed with our own observations, which we attribute to “common sense.” What comes to our religious teachers, should we expect a bit of knowledge and instruction? I understand that Jesus didn’t go to seminary, but Paul was rather well educated. In the Philippian letter he claimed as his religious heritage descent from the tribe of Benjamin, he was circumcised on the eighth day, and he was a Pharisee. As a Pharisee, he would have had significant religious training. There is even the suggestion that he had been a disciple of the famed Rabbi Gamaliel. But according to Paul, none of this mattered to him in relation to his position in Christ (Phil 3:1-11). He could brag if he needed to, but he considered this to be foolishness. That might be true, but Paul was still a rather well-educated person, as demonstrated by his letters.   

 

                So, when Paul speaks here of God’s foolishness and the foolishness of the cross, when he speaks of God destroying the wisdom of the wise, I don’t believe he is embracing anti-intellectualism. We don’t have to check our brains at the entrance to the church, but Paul makes it clear that human wisdom will not get you to the cross and thus to Jesus. He’s making it clear that following Jesus won’t make you respectable in the eyes of the world. Then again, when it comes to the message of salvation, God is willing to look foolish. St. Francis of Assisi was willing to be considered a Holy Fool for God. The question is, am I willing to be a Holy Fool? Am I willing to embrace God’s foolishness rather than seek salvation through human wisdom?       

               

 

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).