Category: revised common lectionary

Food Fight – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 4B (1 Corinthians 8)

1 Corinthians 8:1-13 New Revised Standard Version

 

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not loves God is known by him.

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For
if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? 11 So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. 12 But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

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                For some reason, food is often the foundation for true fellowship. Living as we are in a pandemic that requires that we stay separated making normal fellowship meals not only difficult but impossible, we are probably feeling this more acutely. It’s not the food we miss. It’s the fellowship. But food can be a problem as well since people have different eating habits and requirements. So, once we can gather for meals once again, this example may bear fruit. Consider that you are sending out an invitation to a dinner party. You have a meal plan in mind, but then you begin to get the responses. One person notes they have gluten allergies. Another is vegetarian. Still another is vegan. Oh, one of your guests happens to be Jewish and can’t mix meat and dairy. So, what do you do? What kind of meal plan will work?

                It seems that the church in Corinth was struggling with food issues. At issue was food that had been sacrificed to idols. Some in the church didn’t think it was an issue where the food came from. Others were quite concerned. The debate once again divided the congregation into parties labeled the weak and the strong. There are plenty of suggestions as to the identities of the partisans, but no conclusive answer has been provided. However, the weak party does seem concerned about food offered up to idols.  

                Paul opens the conversation by contrasting “knowledge” with “love.” It would appear that the strong group was emphasizing their superior knowledge. In their wisdom, they apparently had decided that since the gods and deities that their neighbors worshipped in the local temples were mere idols. These monotheists decided that food offered idols had no impact on them or anyone else. So, why not eat food offered to idols. It’s just food after all.

                Interpreting this passage is complicated by questions of context. The issue is food sacrificed to idols, but what does that involve? We know that the temples often served meals featuring food that had been offered to the gods. Could it be that members of the community had chosen to participate in communal banquets or family celebrations held at the temples, which featured such food, believing that it did not affect them? In that case, it’s not just the food, it’s the location. A strip bar might have good food, but is that a good place for a Christian to frequent to get a good burger? Or could it be that the best meat in town was sold at the temples, which meant that if you wanted to serve a nice platter of steaks you would want to go to the temple meat market?  Either way, some in the community found all of this to be problematic and requested Paul’s intervention. The question posed here is rooted in an earlier one we encountered in chapter 6. In that case, while Paul might agree with those in the community who claimed that all things were lawful, he also reminded them that not everything is beneficial (1 Cor.6:12). In this case, knowledge is contrasted with love. Knowledge is fine, but love is superior.

                Now, our situation in life is much different from that of the Corinthians. Christendom might be fading, but Christianity remains the majority religion. There still are more churches in our communities than worship spaces for other religious traditions. It’s likely that the members of the Corinthian church were relatively new converts, whose family and friends were adherents of the local religions. They might feel as if they were being pulled between two poles. Since our situations likely are very different, what word might we hear in this passage that speaks to us?

                I think we have to start with the reference here to knowledge (gnosis). First of all, what Paul has to say here about knowledge shouldn’t be taken as an embrace of anti-intellectualism. It is also not a reference to some form of esoteric knowledge. The position articulated by the strong is orthodox monotheism. There are no other gods like the God they worship. So, Paul could agree with them on that matter, however, he is concerned about how knowledge is understood. Alvin Padilla notes that Paul has a specific form of knowledge in mind. This is the kind of “knowledge that lifts men and women to the point that causes them to have an exaggerated self-conception without concern for the needs of others” [Connections, p. 221]. Paul contrasts this self-centered form of knowledge with love. That’s because instead of puffing one up, love builds up others. That is important to Paul.

                Of course, Paul feels that it is necessary to address the question of whether these so-called gods really exist. Writing as a Jewish monotheist, he acknowledges the reality of gods and deities. That is, he believes that there are spiritual entities, so-called gods, that stand behind these idols. He believes there are demonic forces that can entice humans to worship false gods. He wants to make sure this doesn’t happen.

                Having acknowledged the reality of spiritual forces that might stand opposed to God, he confesses that for him and his community in Corinth there is one God (see Deut. 6:4-6) and one Lord (Jesus). Paul declares that it is through the Lord Jesus Christ that all things are made and through whom we ourselves exist. Having handled the question of spiritual forces, he can make clear his concern about how parties are dividing the congregation over matters of food.

                Since they appear to be the problematic group, Paul addresses those who have concluded that based on their knowledge of spiritual things the gods don’t exist, calling on them to recognize the needs of the members of the community who don’t share their elevated sense of understanding of spiritual things. He points out that those among the weak might see them dining at the temples and because their consciences aren’t as strong, might have their tender faith in God destroyed. In doing this, they sin against Jesus.

                I sense that Paul isn’t all that concerned about food issues, but he is concerned about the spiritual health of his flock. Consider that Paul insists that food won’t bring us close to God (1 Cor. 8:8). Food is, for Christians, adiaphora. There are no real food restrictions. Nonetheless, Paul concludes that “if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.” (vs. 13). Now what that means for a modern dinner party is hard to say, though it might mean considering the needs of your invitees as an act of love of neighbor. That would definitely reflect what Paul has in mind here.  We might follow Augustine here in his view of the relationship of love to biblical interpretation: “Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought” [Saint Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 1:36:40, Kindle Edition]. Knowledge has its place, but love is of greater importance! If we affirm that principle, there won’t be any food fights!

               

                 

Time Is Short – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 3B (1 Corinthians 7)

 

1 Corinthians 7:29-31
New Revised Standard Version

29 I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

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                Jesus  is on his way! The end is near! As Larry Norman sang decades back, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” I came of age in the 1970s when everyone in my Christian circles was sure that the end was near. Larry Norman sang about the “Six O’clock News” and Barry McGuire turned his antiwar protest song “Eve of Destruction” into an apocalyptic message. We were sure that Jesus was going to return any minute. How did we know this, well we read Hal Lindsey’s best-seller The Late Great Planet Earth. He made it seem as if all the signs were there. These purveyors of apocalyptic messages weren’t the first Christians to offer such visions of the times. It seems as if every generation has its apocalyptic preachers. Going back a bit to the early nineteenth century, we can point to William Miller’s message. He thought he could pinpoint the actual date of Jesus’ return by unlocking the code he believed was to be found in books like Daniel and Revelation. Of course, he was wrong in his calculations and his followers went away disappointed. But he attracted a lot of attention, even among leaders of my own denomination. We can trace such visions all the way back to the first century. So, here we have Paul telling the Corinthian church that getting married, having children, planning for the future might be futile since the time was short and “the present form of this world is passing away.” 

             Over time the expectation that the end was near began to ebb and Christians began to settle in for the duration. It’s not that they gave up the expectation that Jesus might return in glory; they just began to realize that the Day of the Lord might be a bit delayed. So, you might as well prepare for the long haul, even if the times might be short. We just know the timing of this event. There is value in heeding the apocalyptic/eschatological messaging of Paul. It keeps us on our toes so we don’t get complacent.

                Unfortunately, not everyone interprets such directives in the same way. It appears that some of these newly converted Gentile Christians had embraced disembodied spiritual practices, which led to problematic sexual issues. Since the body is irrelevant, anything goes. Thus, at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 7, Paul has to deal with matters of marriage and divorce, and there is more to come in the chapters that follow. Paul writes these words as part of his effort to explain how one lives faithfully in such times. In suggesting that the form of this world is passing away, Paul understood that to mean living into the new creation (2 Corinthians 5).  

                Paul’s time was a bit off. Jesus didn’t return in his lifetime. As we know, Jesus still hasn’t returned (and may not return in the way Paul envisioned). Nevertheless, apocalyptic thinking continues to make itself felt within the Christian community. Sometimes that can be helpful and healthy and other times not so helpful. On the positive side, the season of Advent invites us to hear again each year the call to be prepared and stay awake to what God is up to in the world. Unfortunately, apocalyptic thinking can lead to a form of hypervigilance that has dangerous political, social, cultural, economic, and environmental consequences. We are living at a moment in time when many Christians have bought into conspiracy theories that undermine democracy and endanger one’s neighbors. As an older example of susceptibility to conspiracy theories, I’ll point back to the 1970s and 1980s when UPC codes were first introduced. These now-ubiquitous icons that allow us to scan our groceries and other merchandise were portrayed in books and magazines as the mark of the beast. We were told that before too long we would have them emblazoned on our foreheads and hands so that the anti-Christ could keep track of us. So far that hasn’t happened, but these kinds of theories continue to flare up. Now the theories relate to stealing elections by cannibalistic pedophilic Democrats who control the Deep State. Apparently only Donald Trump can save us from these dark forces. Then there are the warnings being issued about the COVID vaccine. In this case, it is being suggested that tracking devices will be injected so that the deep state/anti-Christ can keep track of us (just a reminder since most of us carry smartphones with GPS, we’re already being tracked!). It’s this susceptibility to conspiracy theories that have led Christians to share false information about the presidential election and even join in the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

                As we ponder this brief reading from 1 Corinthians 7, perhaps it lends itself to having an important conversation about eschatology and apocalyptic messages found in Scripture and Christian history. We can have a conversation about the way we envision the emerging future and our role in it. We can consider Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God/Realm of God. What might the passing away of the form of this world look like?  What role do we play in all of this? If Jesus inaugurated the realm with his baptism, what role does the cross and resurrection play in all of this? If we take seriously the message of the Book of Revelation, which envisions a new heaven and a new earth, what does that have to do with the present? If, as Paul believed, the form of this world is passing away, even if that passing away is taking longer than he expected, what should we expect the future to look like? 

                Perhaps one way to read this passage is to hear it as a call to resist the worldly regime that opposes the realm of God. Might we hear this as an expression of the new creation that Paul spoke of in 2 Corinthians 5? If so, we might hear this as a call to living out that vision in the world. Might this speak of a different set of values from the one the world that is passing away sets before us? As we ponder this message of Paul concerning the passing of ages, it’s important to remember that he was still living in the old age and was influenced by it. We see this in his views on slavery and gender roles. Paul wasn’t a progressive Christian thinker in the modern sense. Charles Campbell writes that Paul’s “own theology remains to some degree captive to the old age ‘cosmos’. On the other hand, one should not interpret Paul’s words in a static, moralistic way in order to reify any hierarchical status quo” [1 Corinthians,  p. 133]. To be faithful to Paul’s message concerning Christ doesn’t mean we embrace first-century social structures. So, Campbell continues: 

“Interruptions and tensions abound, even within Paul’s assumptions about the male-female hierarchy. In the midst of the old age, Paul gives us glimpses of the new creation. The old age nevertheless continues to exercise its influence, and even Paul remains captive to some of its perspectives and priorities. Paul’s own concession that he is often not speaking a command from the Lord, as well as the disruptive qualifications that punctuate his argument highlight his own recognition of the dynamic, contextual character of theology between the ages. At the turn of the ages, as we seek to do theology in the Spirit, we celebrate the glimpses of the new, even as we remain humble about the ways in which theology itself may remain captive to the old. We keep moving and struggling to resist the old-age hierarchies that are passing away.”  [1
Corinthians
,
pp. 133-134]. 

We still experience the penultimate reality. The realm of God has broken into this world, but we still live in the old creation. We see this in all the “isms” of our day, from racism to sexism and more. Thus, there is no place for complacency, even if the time is not as short as Paul envisioned!               

Freedom and Responsibility – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 2B (1 Corinthians 6)

 

 

 

 

 

1 Corinthians 6:12-20 New Revised Standard Version

 

12 “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. 13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the  body. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” 17 But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

 

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                For Paul, the way of Jesus is an embodied faith. Therefore, what happens in the body plays an important role in the way we express our faith. This may explain why he addresses matters of sexual mores in his letters. It’s not just that he’s prudish. He believes that how we conduct ourselves bodily is an expression of our discipleship. This is especially true of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian churches. What we have in 1 Corinthians is a missive to a rather new Christian community whose membership is largely composed of Gentile converts living in a famous port city. Corinth could easily have carried the moniker of “Sin City.” To get a sense of what this fledgling church was dealing with, take note of the references to prostitution. Paul the Jewish Christian would have been troubled by the lifestyle of the folks there in Corinth, which seems to have been carried over into the life of the church. Paul might advocate grace, but it’s not cheap grace. There are expectations. As John M. G. Barclay writes of Paul’s views on grace: “it is given ‘freely’ in the sense that it is given without prior conditions and without regard to worth or capacity. But that does not mean that it comes with no expectations of return, no hope for a response, no ‘strings attached.’” He goes on further to stated that Paul expects the gift of Christ’s grace to be transformative: “it remolds the self and recreates the community of believers” [Paul & the Power of Grace, p. 125].

                Paul tends to give the people he’s responding to a sense that he agrees to a point but then springs on them the trap. The other shoe drops. We that here in the opening lines of our reading from 1 Corinthians 6. Paul first writes: “All things are lawful for me.” While this might be true, he responds by telling the community that “not all things are beneficial.” Indeed, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything.” While the original Greek lacks punctuation, including quotation marks, scholars have a rather good sense that the slogan “All things are lawful for me” didn’t come from Paul. It appears to be a slogan popular among the Corinthians who had heard a message of freedom from Paul, which they received with gusto. They heard freedom from the Law as meaning no law (antinomianism). That seems to have caught hold in the congregation, with people taking advantage of their freedom to indulge in activities that Paul would not countenance. He offered them grace but expected self-discipline in response.

                Some of this embracing of freedom may have had its roots in a form of gnosticism in which the spirit was elevated above the body so that the body was irrelevant to the life of faith. You could do what you wanted in the body. It had no spiritual implications. That is not Paul’s view of things. So, when it comes to the body, remember the stomach is for food. The reference is a bit ambiguous, but at least at this point, Paul isn’t focused on food. He’s more concerned with fornication and prostitution. For Paul, illicit sexual escapades, including visits to brothels (which might have been the local religious establishments), were not in line with the faith he proclaimed (see 1 Corinthians 7).

                Passages like this are controversial in our day. Sexual mores have changed. In fact, marriage patterns have changed dramatically. Once upon a time, people got married in their late teens and early 20s. Now, marriage is often delayed into the 30s. There is, therefore, a long period between the onset of puberty and sexual maturity and when marriages are being consummated. So, you can understand that the possibility for people to engage in sexual relationships outside of marriage would be more commonplace than in earlier years, even among Christians. So, whatever we take from Paul’s message to the Corinthians, we will need to take into consideration changing societal and cultural contexts. Nevertheless, Paul’s attempts to bring to bear the holiness code of Leviticus to the lives of Gentiles might still have meaning for our day.

                I sense that while Paul is concerned about sexual behavior, even more important to him was the importance of holiness as the foundation for service to God. We might think here in terms of the behavior of Christian leaders, ranging from the sexual abuse on the part of Catholic priests and bishops to sex scandals among Protestant clergy. Although some, including Augustine, would counsel Christian leaders to embrace celibacy, I don’t think the kind of holiness Paul calls for requires an embrace of extreme asceticism. What it does mean is that we must be concerned about how we connect our personal relationships, making sure they are above board. To put it a bit differently, when it comes to the body not everything is beneficial! In our day respecting the bodies and persons of the other, embracing mutuality, is essential to an embodied faith.

                Paul roots his message in the order of creation, drawing from Genesis 2. He tells his readers that when they come together sexually, they become one flesh. So, don’t treat sex lightly. The sexual relationship unites people with each other.

                When it comes to the reference to prostitution, I wonder whether Paul might have not only illicit sexual relationships in mind but also certain religious rites that involve sex. Temple prostitutes became the conduit for union with the gods. Perhaps Paul is concerned that they might be drawn away from their faith in Jesus through engaging in sexual acts with Temple prostitutes as acts of worship of other gods (idolatry).

                Whatever Paul has in mind here, the opening point is well taken. We may have freedom, but freedom doesn’t mean anything, and everything, goes. This includes sex of course, but many other things that we may let dominate us. Consider the political landscape in the United States where vulgarisms, insults, and more have become the order of the day. In reaction to what is called “political correctness,” we find people saying whatever comes to mind, even if it is destructive and inappropriate. We see this as well in the resistance to wearing masks during a pandemic. People declare that they have the freedom to do as I please, even if that puts others at risk. This is true even of those who claim to be Christians. That is because this is an embodied faith. What we do in the body reflects on the body of Christ, which is the church. So, when I was watching the footage of the rioters breaking into the Capitol during the Congressional meetings to confirm the Presidential election and saw at least one person carrying the so-called “Christian flag” and breaking into the Capitol building, I saw that as a stain on the body of Christ. So, all things might be permissible, but not everything is beneficial.

Which Baptism? — A Lectionary Reflection for Baptism of Jesus Sunday (Acts 19)

Acts 19:1-7 New Revised Standard Version

 

 

While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— 7 altogether there were about twelve of them.

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            As Christmas gives way to Epiphany, the moment when in the liturgical year we celebrate the coming of the Magi to offer gifts to Emmanuel, we begin to add to the story of Jesus. When we come to the first Sunday following Epiphany we’re invited to celebrate the Baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan. On this particular Sunday, which we call Baptism of Jesus Sunday, we have the opportunity to reflect on our baptisms and reaffirm them. As we look back on our baptisms, we can acknowledge that some of us were baptized in infancy. Others of us were baptized at a later moment, usually upon profession of faith. Some were immersed and others had water sprinkled on them. Then there are those, like me, who have been baptized a couple of times, just to cover the bases.   

            In my lectionary reflections, I’ve been focusing on the second lectionary reading, which normally draws from one of the epistles/letters. However, on occasion the stipulated reading dips into the Book of Acts. On this occasion, the reading comes from Acts 19. This reading is paired with the reading from the Gospel of Mark, which takes us to the Jordan, where we find John the Baptist preaching and baptizing. It appears that he is drawing quite a crowd. These people, according to Mark have come to confess their sins and begin life anew. The baptism that John proclaimed spoke of repentance in preparation for the coming of one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Yes, while he baptized with water the one who followed him would baptize with the Holy Spirit. It was after this, according to Mark, that Jesus came and was baptized by John. When he came out of the water, Jesus “saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased’” (Mk. 1:4-11).

            The reading from Acts 19 also speaks of baptism, and both the baptism of John with water and baptism with the Holy Spirit come into play. The passage begins by telling us that Apollos, who had been in Ephesus, where he was further instructed by Priscilla and Aquilla in the way of Jesus, was now in Corinth (Acts 18:24-28). Paul, who had been in Corinth was traveling to Ephesus. When he arrived in Ephesus, Paul encountered persons whom Luke calls “disciples.” Paul asks these “disciples” if they had received the Holy Spirit when they believed. This question suggests that like Apollos, they were believers in Jesus. However, they answered Paul by saying “we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” This exchange, and what follows, raises an important question. Who are these “disciples”? What is the nature of their relationship with Jesus? They claim that, like Apollos, they had received the baptism of John. Paul responds by telling them that while John baptized with water for repentance, Jesus baptized with the Holy Spirit (as John had foretold). This led them to be baptized by Paul in the name of Jesus.

            This is where the reading from Mark, and its parallel in Luke 3:15-18, come into play. Paul draws on the story told by both Mark and Luke that while John’s baptism focused on repentance, the baptism of Jesus brought the Holy Spirit. What is interesting here is that, according to Luke, Paul baptized this group of twelve believers in the name of Jesus, something that is not recorded of Apollos, who also had only the baptism of John. There is no evidence that Jesus rebaptized disciples of John who followed him. So, why this group?   

            What is interesting here is that after Paul baptized this group of twelve disciples in the name of Jesus, he laid his laid hands on them, at which point the Holy Spirit came upon the group. This conferral of the Holy Spirit was confirmed by the act of speaking in tongues and prophesying—much like what happened with the household of Cornelius (Acts 10), though in the case of Cornelius the Holy Spirit fell upon them before baptism was offered (and didn’t require laying on of hands). In this case, the laying on of hands suggests a separate ritual from baptism, even though in Acts 2, the gift of the Holy Spirit was linked to baptism. So, we’re left with a wide variety of ways in which the Holy Spirit comes upon these early disciples in the Book of Acts. Sometimes, as with Acts 2, it is connected with baptism. Sometimes the Holy Spirit falls on people even before they can confess faith and be baptized (Acts 10). Then there is the time when baptism and the coming of the Holy Spirit are two separate events. First came the baptism of a group of Samaritans who embrace the message preached by Philip, which is followed by the conferral of the Holy Spirit at the hands of Peter and John (Acts 8). That case has served as a foundation for the rite of Confirmation, which in some traditions is administered by bishops, while baptism is an act that priests and deacons can perform. All of this suggests that the Spirit acts as the Spirit decides! That should give us pause before we become too “dogmatic” about the method and timing of baptism.

            In this encounter, the emphasis is less on baptism and more on the Holy Spirit. The act of being baptized in water is important, even foundational, but it is the gift of the Holy Spirit that truly transforms. Whether the Spirit comes upon a person before, during, or after being baptized, the important point is that to be in Christ is to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Now, that doesn’t mean one must speak in tongues or prophesy. In I Corinthians 12 and 14, Paul lists tongues and prophesy as possible gifts, but insists that they are not the only gifts of the Spirit nor are they necessarily the most important gifts (for more on this topic see my book Unfettered Spirit). A passage like this can be useful in initiating a conversation about the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. Here in Acts 19 Paul reiterates the promise of John that with Jesus comes the infilling of the Holy Spirit. If we follow this into Paul’s own letters, we gain insight into what that means. There are the gifts, but more importantly, there is the unity of the body of Christ, for as Paul writes to the Corinthian church: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ, for in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor.12:12-13).   

Image attribution:  Scott, Lorenzo. Baptism of Jesus, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56877 [retrieved January 1, 2021]. Original source: https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/baptism-jesus-33953.

Divine Christmas Blessings – Lectionary Reflection for Christmas 2B (Ephesians 1)

Ephesians 1:3-14 New Revised Standard Version

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

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                It’s still Christmas, at least for a few more days. We still have Christmas carols that either haven’t been sung yet or need to be sung one more time before we move on to the next season. If we are being strict in our liturgical observance the magi won’t arrive until January 6, though since we have two Sundays in the Christmas season of 2020-2021 it’s perfectly okay in my mind to jump the gun a few days early and use the Sunday before Epiphany to celebrate the coming of the magi. However, if you wish to stick with the readings for the Second Sunday after Christmas, then the second reading from the lectionary takes us to Ephesians 1, which has parallels to the Gospel reading from the Prologue to the Gospel of John (John 1:1-18).  The reading from Ephesians 1 celebrates Jesus as the one through whom God pours out spiritual blessings on those whom God has adopted as children of God. These blessings are part of our inheritance as God’s children.

                You might notice some similarities between this reading and the reading from Galatians 4:4-7 that we encountered the previous week. Both passages speak of our adoption and the inheritance that we receive in Christ, though this reading from Ephesians 1 is much more expansive than the reading from Galatians. Thus, the message of a week earlier is being reinforced. The point then is that in Christ, we find union with God and that leads to our redemption in Christ.

                Whenever we come to the Ephesian letter, we have to acknowledge that there is disagreement as to the author. Is it Paul? Or is it not? I will confess that I haven’t made up my mind, so I leave it open (I did this in my participatory study guide on Ephesians and I’ll do the same here). One thing to take note of is that—whatever your view on authorship—is that this passage is all one sentence in Greek. In fact, this is the second-longest sentence in the New Testament. Fortunately, our English translations help us out by breaking this lengthy sentence into more digestible sentences!

                In this passage, if we were to read it as one long sentence, the subject is God the Father (vs. 3) while the verb is “chose” (vs. 4). The remainder of the passage is made up of relative clauses and prepositional phrases that expand on that declaration. Lynn Cohick notes that in Greek the “phrases, terms, and synonyms flow rhythmically and produce a ‘chantlike effect’” [The Letter to the Ephesians, NICNT, pp. 85-86]. With this rhythm working in the passage, we can hear the message of God’s work in time and space through Christ and in the Spirit. God is the primary actor. God blesses, chooses, adopts, redeems, and makes those chosen and adopted in Christ heirs of God. The God who does all of this is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, linking definitively Jesus as a son to the father. You can understand why this has certain Trinitarian resonance, especially since the inheritance is sealed in the Holy Spirit (vs. 13). 

                As in Galatians 4, this mystery has been revealed in the fullness of time so that God might gather up all things in [Christ] (Eph. 1:10). In other words, none of this is happenstance. God had a plan developed before the world was created. Now, in Christ, in the fullness of time, God has implemented that plan. God chooses to act at this moment in and through Christ according to God’s wisdom. Thus, according to Paul (I will speak of the author as Paul), “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.” (Eph. 1:7-8a). When it comes to God choosing (remember that in Greek this is the primary verb in the sentence), we need to pause for a moment and consider what Paul has in mind. Is this a matter of God determining who is in and who is out of the kingdom, whether by way of single or double predestination? Or is Paul speaking of God’s choice to redeem us in Christ? The latter is my preference.

                Most importantly, it is God who does the choosing and the word we hear from Paul is that God chooses us in Christ. This act of choosing is rooted in love. By this act of choosing to redeem us in Christ, we receive forgiveness of our sins. As Karl Barth notes that “in love, God determined that we should be his children through Christ.” Thus, taking on the role of the electing God, God’s “act of electing must be understood as an entirely absolute action from beginning to end, is revealed in Jesus Christ as love” [The Epistle to the Ephesians, p. 100]. 

                What is the result of this act of revelation in Christ? God will “gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth,” and as a result gives us an inheritance in Christ. All of this is sealed by the mark of the Holy Spirit, which I take to be baptism. If we embrace our chosenness in Christ, which is sealed in baptism, we can now give glory to God our Creator. Is this not a Christmas blessing?

In the Fullness of Time – Lectionary Reflection for Christmas 1B (Galatians 4)

Galatians 4:4-7 New Revised Standard Version

4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

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                The Sunday that falls after Christmas Eve/Christmas Day often seems anti-climactic. Church attendance, even under the best of circumstances, is usually pretty low. Clergy who have been working hard preparing for those important Christmas services held a few days earlier often take the Sunday off or at the very least turn it into a congregational carol sing (not a wise thing to do in 2020). Nevertheless, the church gathers, even if with a substitute preacher and a smaller crowd. It’s in this context that we hear this word from Paul’s Galatian letter.

                Paul doesn’t say much about Jesus’ origins. He doesn’t reveal whether he had any information about Jesus’ birthplace, the name of his parents, or whether he envisioned a virginal conception. This may be as close as we get to a word about those origins. What he does say is that in the “fullness of time . . . God sent his Son.” That suggests that God is Jesus’ father, but what does that mean? As for his mother, well, all we’re told is that he was born of a woman and under the law. The reference to the law could suggest Jesus’ Jewish heritage though he was also born under Roman jurisdiction. As for the woman’s name, no identification is made. No mention of Joseph is made either.

                If we take this at face value, God is Jesus’ father and his mother is an unnamed woman. Nevertheless, despite the absence of the kinds of details we’d all like to have—I might be pressing things a bit here, but it is Christmastime—Paul appears to be raising some significant Christological questions. Might we take this as Paul’s incipient acknowledgment of Jesus’ divinity (derived from the Father) as well as his humanity (taken from his mother)? I don’t want to suggest that Paul had a full-blown Chalcedonian Christology (Chalcedon was the 5th-century council at which the “orthodox” understanding of Jesus’ two natures was affirmed), but the reference is intriguing and seems to allow us to do a bit of speculative theologizing. Whatever Paul says here about parentage, he was still born in the same way as every other human being.  

                While Paul’s statement here raises questions about what he knew of Jesus’ origins, his major point here concerns our redemption, adoption, and inheritance. In other words, if in the fullness of time God sent his Son to be born of a woman, in Paul’s mind that has important implications for us. It’s useful to take into consideration that when Paul speaks of Jesus as God’s Son, he knows that the emperor claims to be the son of a god. Therefore, in making this declaration Paul could be offering Jesus as a rival to the emperor. But more to Paul’s point, not only did God send the Son but as the Son of God, Jesus redeems those who were under the law. Not only are they redeemed, but they are also adopted.  In other words, in Christ, we become God’s adopted children. As children of God, through the Spirit of the Son, we are empowered to declare before God: “Abba Father!” In this, there is a sense of intimacy. It’s not just an honorific. It’s true relationality.

                If we are God’s adopted children, then we are also heirs of God with Christ. Paul wrote something similar to the church in Rome:

15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15-17)

In both Galatians and Romans, belief in Jesus, more specifically trust in Jesus, becomes the foundation for our redemption from slavery. As for the nature of this slavery, for Paul, it is defined by sin. Nevertheless, now that we are in Christ that state no longer defines us. We are no longer slaves because we’ve been adopted out of slavery as children of God, which makes us heirs of the promise. If Paul was directing this word to Gentile Christians, then this word concerning adoption is likely linked to the promise of blessing given to Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 12). As Kelley Nikondeha writes in her wonderful book about the spiritual dimensions of adoption as a sacrament of belonging, reflecting on Paul’s message to the Church in Rome that Abraham acted in faith before he was circumcised so that he was reckoned as righteous before being circumcised. She asks rhetorically why this was true? The answer she hears from Paul is that this happened “so that Abraham would become our common ancestor, the father to all who believe. He has uncircumcision in common with some, circumcision in common with others, but what holds this expanded family together is faith. According to Paul, we belong to each other, a family shaped by faith, not physical marks.” [Nikondeha, Adopted, p. 13]. Therefore, by faith, all of Abraham’s descendants share in the inheritance.

                Contextually, it’s always too good to remember that when we come to the Galatian letter, the conflict between Jewish and Gentile Christians is center stage. Paul wants the two parties to recognize each other as God’s children in Christ. Both are adopted and both are heirs, with or without circumcision. For Gentile Christians, Paul was making quite clear that they needn’t be circumcised to be adopted!

                Here is the thing about adoption, it is an act of grace. People don’t usually ask to be adopted, at least if they are infants or young children at the time of their adoption. They are simply adopted out of love. When adopted, they become new persons with new identities, because they are now part of a new family. The same true for us as we become part of the family of God through Christ. If we are adopted into the family, we have all the rights and privileges of the family. Therefore, as Kelley Nikondeha writes:

God’s family stretches beyond our smaller notions of biological or ethnic connection. The other is always  much closer to being our kin than we imagine. It’s the continual work of the prophets and the Spirit to open our eyes to this simple yet astounding truth: Anyone can be our family if we let them. With eyes opened, we realize we are a family so wide with welcome that enemy love is inevitable. Eventually, contrary to the current world order, even our enemy can become our flesh. [Adopted, p. 154].

               As we continue to reflect on the message of Christmas, a message that speaks of God’s presence with us through Jesus, the one born in Bethlehem, who would eventually die on a cross before being resurrected, we can embrace our adoption and our inheritance as children of Abraham and Sarah, and therefore as children of God, joint-heirs as it were with Jesus, our elder

A Mystery Revealed – Lectionary Reflection for Advent 4B — Romans 16

Romans 16:25-27
New Revised Standard Version

25 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

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                Everyone loves a mystery. Mystery novels have been published for decades and continue to be popular fodder for reading. When it comes to the things of God, well there’s mystery there as well. After the age of Enlightenment dawned many sought to establish a more rational version of the Christian faith. Thus, John Locke and others spoke of a “Reasonable Christianity.” With this emphasis on reason, mystery was deemphasized, at least in mainstream Protestantism. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that with this proclamation of a reasonable Christianity, the divinity of Christ and the teaching of the doctrine of the Trinity became problematic.

                Mystical theology, of course, continued to be promulgated in some sectors of the Church, especially in the Eastern Church. Therefore, in this postmodern world, it’s not surprising that Eastern Christianity has begun to attract the attention of many who find that a rationalistic version of the faith leaves one cold. Sometimes the attraction to the mystical theology of Eastern Christianity is experiential, at other times it is the theological side of things that has proven attractive because it provides a way of embracing divine realities that lie beyond our ability to fully comprehend or explain. This is especially true for those of us who embrace doctrines like the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. But, as the late Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky writes regarding the relationship of theology and mysticism: “There is, therefore, no Christian mysticism without theology; but, above all, there is no theology without mysticism.” In fact, Lossky calls mysticism “theology par excellence” [The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 9]. While I embrace the place of reason in religion, I must confess that I’m beginning to agree with Lossky.  

                With the arrival of the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we reach a pivotal moment in the Advent/Christmas season. The lighting of the fourth candle invites us to enter into the mystery that is the incarnation. The season invites us to ask the question: who is this Jesus who the Gospels proclaim to have been born in Bethlehem? This is the final Sunday before we light the Christ Candle on Christmas Eve to signal the arrival of Emmanuel, “God with us.” The message of the incarnation is that in this person as Jesus the “only wise God” whose presence has been shrouded in mystery has been revealed to us. Regarding the mystery of the incarnation, Gregory of Nazianzus, a leading fourth-century theologian, proclaims that “this is the feast we celebrate today, in which God comes to live with human beings, that we may journey toward God, or return—for to speak thus is more exact—that laying aside the old human being we may be clothed with the new, and that is in Adam we have died so we may live in Christ, born with Christ and crucified with him, buried with him and rising with him.” [Festal Orations, p. 63].

                This reflection on the mystery of God, as revealed in this final stage of our Advent journey is rooted in the reading from Romans 16 as stipulated for this day by the Revised Common Lectionary. This brief doxology, which closes out the letter to the Romans, may or may not be Paul’s work. Although the doxology is absent from some ancient manuscripts or appears elsewhere in the letter in still other manuscripts the doxology speaks to the good news Paul and others have proclaimed through the ages. Therefore, whether or not Paul wrote these words, they celebrate the work of God that brings salvation to Jew and Gentile.

                According to the letter, God has strengthened the readers through Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel. In preaching about Jesus, Paul has made known the “revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages” to the Gentiles. He has done so at the command of the eternal God so that Gentiles might be brought to “the obedience of faith.” Something similar is revealed in two other letters that may be post-Pauline—Ephesians and Colossians. In Ephesians, we read that “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit:  that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:5-6, see also Col. 1:6-7).

                For Paul, God is the one who is at work to bring about this mystery. At the beginning of the letter,  Paul offers a prayer of thanksgiving to God for having been given the opportunity to announce the Gospel of  God’s son (Rom. 1:8-9). Now, he closes the letter with a word of thanksgiving to God for having the opportunity to proclaim the Gospel. As Paul makes clear, he does this as a servant of God, who strengthens those who receive the Gospel.    

                Returning to the mystery of God that has been revealed through Paul. The word revelation there is in Greek apokalypsin. That word should look familiar because it is the foundation for words like apocalyptic.  That is the kind of vision that Paul pursues. For him, the day of the Lord was close at hand (remember that Advent envisions two advents, one in the past and one yet to come). We may be getting ready for Christmas, but that’s not what Paul has in mind here. After all, Paul never speaks of Jesus’ birth. Instead, he’s focused on the mystery that impacts the future, and which has finally been revealed. This is the mystery (mysterion) that has been disclosed/revealed after long ages through the prophetic writings to the Gentiles. This is important to Paul because he saw himself as the Apostle to the Gentiles. It was his mission to bring the word of Jesus to people outside the Jewish community. He didn’t deny the revelation made known to the Jews, but now what was known to Jews could now be extended to Gentiles through the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus. Now they too could prepare for the coming of the Lord.

                The call given to Paul is to “bring about the obedience of faith” in the Gentiles, and all of this is for the Glory of the only Wise God. The glory that emerges out of the revealing of the mystery of God to the Gentiles has eternal  ramifications. That is the mystery that has been under wraps until the coming of Jesus and the proclamation of the Gospel to the Gentiles. Therefore, we can sing:

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. 

[“All Earth Is Waiting,” Alberto Taulé]

     

Time to Rejoice – Lectionary Reflection for Advent 3B (1 Thessalonians 5)

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 New Revised Standard Version

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil.

23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

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                It’s the third Sunday of Advent and it’s time to light the Joy Candle. That’s the rose-colored one. This reading is fitting for this Sunday, if for no other reason that the word rejoice is present in it. We hear the word from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, which is also by most estimates the earliest Pauline letter. That would make it the oldest document in the New Testament. In this reading, Paul brings the letter to the Thessalonian congregation to a close. The lectionary cuts things off a bit early (there are another four verses to go), but we get the idea. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all things.” Again, these words make for a reading fit for Gaudete Sunday as we light the Joy candle.

                As I write this reflection on the reading from the Epistles for the Third  Sunday of Advent, the world is anything but joyful. We’re beginning the tenth month of this COVID-inspired exile that continues to surge, at least in the Northern Hemisphere as we head into the winter months. So where is the reason for joy? There is a reason for hope, of course. We just have to survive the next few months before a vaccine is readily available for the bulk of the population. In the meantime, we’re tired and lonely and frustrated and anxious. We might even be a bit fearful. If the pandemic weren’t enough to take make us all Grinches, we’re also dealing with political turmoil in the United States. An election has been held and the votes counted. We know who won, at least if you accept the certification of votes by the states. Unfortunately, a large swath of the population hasn’t accepted the results, at least when it comes to the presidential results. So, perhaps it’s a bit premature or maybe naïve to talk about joy, even if the season is supposed to be filled with joy.

                 All of the above may be true, but Paul won’t let us off the hook. Remember he doesn’t tell us to rejoice only when things are going well or when it feels good. No, he tells us to rejoice always. I will confess that I find this a hard directive to live into. Nevertheless, the directive is there for us to ponder. Now, Paul doesn’t just tell us to rejoice, he also calls on us to pray unceasingly (and by that Paul isn’t suggesting that we all go off into the mountains and spend every waking hour on our knees talking to God). When Paul talks about praying unceasingly, he’s encouraging us to live with God in our hearts always. In this, we will find joy. Then Paul adds gratitude to the list. As William Brosend notes, the focus here is on wholeness. This is, Brosend suggests “at the foundation of Paul’s understanding of the Good Life.” He adds: “The shape of the Christian life is not contoured in measured apportionment—one part work to one part prayer, or some other recipe for spiritual fulfillment—but in unreserved and all-consuming self-giving” [Feasting on the Word, p. 64].  Thus, joy, prayer, and gratitude all go together as a sign of wholeness.

                That sounds like a good place to stop, but Paul isn’t finished. He has a lot on his mind as he brings this letter to a close. What we’ve heard so far might suffice for the third Sunday of Advent that is focused on Joy, but Paul has practical concerns to deal with before he seals the letter. He wants to address the role of the Spirit in the community. Paul tells the Thessalonians not to quench the Spirit or despise the words of the prophets in their midst. We moderns tend to think in institutional terms when it comes to church. We have our constitutions and by-laws. We have governing boards. Everything is done decently and in order (at least if we follow the rules). As for the Spirit, well, what does the Spirit have to do with church? In these early days of the church, the Spirit was moving and that led to the prophetic. While Paul was open to the work of the Spirit, and even encouraged prophetic ministry. He understood the need for boundaries. This word may concern a problem in the community. There is a sense that under the guise of prophecy some may have confused the congregation concerning the coming Parousia (the return of Christ) so that many in the church were suspicious of those claiming to speak for God. That’s understandable. Paul doesn’t want to quench the Spirit, but he understands the challenge posed by rogue prophets. So, he encourages the congregation to test what they were hearing. Only embrace what is good and stay away from what is evil. If we turn to 1 Corinthians, we find guidance there concerning the proper place of prophetic ministry within the church. He even gives guidance to how women who are gifted in this way should comport themselves, which I find intriguing since a few chapters later Paul tells women not to speak. So, which is it?  (1 Cor. 11:5). Nevertheless, he tells the Corinthian church that the purpose of prophecy is to build up, encourage, and console (1 Cor.14:3). Therefore, they should listen to the prophets with great discernment. In fact, some of them should pray to receive the gift of discernment. The point here, in the Corinthian letter, is guidance for orderly worship (1 Cor.14:26-33). Paul gives this word of guidance in the Thessalonian letter because he knew that not everyone claiming to have a word from God was a true prophet. After all, there were plenty of false prophets making the rounds, as we can see not only in the Corinthian letter but also in 2 Peter and 1 John.

                Although not directly related to the word about prophecy, the encouragement to test what we hear speaks to concerns of the moment in our world. We are living at a time that has come to be known as a “post-truth” era. Both religious and political leaders spout “alternative truth” as if it is fact. With the expansion of
24-hour news channels and social media, we are bombarded by messages, all claiming to represent truth, but often it is nothing more than rumor, innuendo, or speculation. So, how do we know what is true and what is not?  This might not be the kind of topic that is welcome on Joy Sunday in the season of Advent, but it is timely, nonetheless. It is therefore important that we heed this word to us, that we hold fast to what is good and resist evil, wherever we encounter it.

                All of this is couched in a larger conversation about the future. The message Paul has preached to this community suggests that Jesus would be returning soon to inaugurate the second Advent. It’s possible that the false prophets have been upsetting the people with claims that contradict what Paul has been teaching. We know that some in the community were worried about whether those who died before the Parousia would be included in the great gathering up of the people at Jesus’ return. Paul had given them assurances that the dead in Christ would rise first (1 Thess. 4:13-18). In these concluding verses, Paul reaffirms that premise, encouraging them to remain faithful, because the “God of peace” would sanctify them, making them holy and therefore be blameless when Jesus returned. 

                This is the word of joy we hear on this third Sunday of Advent. Rejoice, pray, give thanks, because this is the will of God for us. It is worth remembering that when Paul writes these words he addresses not just individuals, but a community. It is in the community that we can stand for what is right and resist evil so that we might rejoice in the Lord always!  We can also rejoice in the knowledge that “the one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.” That is a message that is deeply rooted in the biblical story. God’s steadfast love will endure forever! There is joy in that word.

God’s Patience Is a Blessing — A Lectionary Reflection for Advent 2B (2 Peter 3)

João Marques de Oliveira, Waiting for the Boats

2 Peter 3:8-15a New Revised Standard Version

8 But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. 9  The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

11 Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? 13 But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

14 Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; 15 and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

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                They say patience is a virtue. When it comes to God’s patience it’s not only a virtue, it’s a blessing. You see God has God’s own timeline, which is different from ours. Thank the Lord for that! Humans are not very patient, especially those of us living in the modern age. We have embraced microwaves, computers, and fast food. We are also rather impatient drivers, some more so than others. Yes, and count me among them! Such is not the case when it comes to the way God works in the world. God is more tortoise than hare.  

                When we read the New Testament, especially the letters of Paul, we see a community that assumed that the Day of the Lord was close at hand. Paul encouraged people not to marry if they could control themselves because the days were short. As Paul put it, “the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:25-31). We see a similar message across the New Testament, but there is also another voice present in the text. While the Pauline letters give evidence that he believed the Parousia, the second coming, was near at hand, the letters that came later often call for patience on the part of the people. Such is the case here in 2 Peter, which suggests that it dates to a second or third generation period in church history. There is still an apocalyptic element to the message, but there’s less urgency and more caution.

                We come to this reading from 2 Peter, one of only two readings from the letter stipulated by the Revised Common Lectionary on the Second Sunday of Advent. This Advent season easily gets buried in the rush to Christmas. While that rush is both understandable and very enticing, if we set aside Advent we will miss something important. We will miss the message that we live not only after the first Advent, but we live between two Advents. One has occurred with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, according to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. However, the second advent is yet to come. Each year as we undertake this liturgical cycle that begins with Advent and ends with Christ the King Sunday, we’re reminded of this fact. While Paul, and even the author of 2 Peter, may have thought the second advent would have occurred already, two millennia later, we’re still living in the “between times.” For the most part, we live our daily lives as if things will go on as they have been for the foreseeable future. So, “we plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land,” with the expectation that the harvest will come once again, just like it comes each year. Those who are prudent will plan for the future. Because we don’t know how long we’ll live, we put make plans for tomorrow. If we’re able, we put away funds for our retirement years. We may purchase extended warrantees for goods we expect to use over the long term. Experience and history suggest that this is a wise move. However, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring! So, stay alert!

                Although written in the name of the Apostle Simeon Peter (2 Pet. 1:1), most scholars believe that this document is rather late. It could date to the middle of the second century, though more likely it’s the late first century. At the very least, it was written by a second-generation follower of Jesus, who probably was a member of what some call the Petrine circle. While this letter has a strong eschatological vision, it also reflects a changing understanding of what that looks like. Here, in this letter, we hear a call for patience. Though it is cast in the form of a letter, the scholarly consensus is that this is a farewell address, a genre that tends to be pseudonymous. 

                One of the arguments against Petrine authorship is that it would appear that the author is highly literate. This author appears to be well-versed in Hellenistic terminology. As Duane Watson notes, the author “was skilled in the art of Greco-Roman rhetoric, especially Asiatic rhetoric, a flowery, verbose, and excessive rhetoric popular in the late first-century CE.” Besides, the author’s knowledge of the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, suggests that “he was a strongly Hellenized Jewish Christian” [Watson, “The Second Letter of Peter,” New Interpreter’s Bible, 12:324]. That probably wasn’t St. Peter, the fisherman from Galilee. Nevertheless, it likely originated from a community that was committed to Peter’s vision of the Gospel.

                Knowing this context can help us better understand the message we find here. The apocalyptic element remains present in the letter, with the author speaking of the Lord coming “like a thief.” The author also suggests that the heavens will pass away and everything done on earth will be disclosed. There will be no hiding from the one who judges all. Despite the specificity of this message, the author also reveals that we don’t know when this will take place. After all, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years just a day in the eyes of God. This declaration reflects the words of the Psalmist who writes in Psalm 90: For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like watch in the night” (Ps. 90:4). So, God isn’t slow, as some might suspect. Instead, God is patient, hoping that none will perish, and all will come to repentance.

                This word about God’s hope regarding the possibility that all will come to repentance is intriguing. Theologically, it is suggestive that God expects that all will come to the point of repentance and thus not perish. This message concerning God’s slowness to inaugurate the Day of the Lord, of course, stands in contrast to other texts for Advent that suggest immediacy. Consider the Gospel reading from Mark 1, which takes note of John the Baptists preaching a message of preparation for the coming of the one will baptize with the Holy Spirit. There is urgency in John’s message (Mk. 1:1-8). There is much less urgency here. Nevertheless, the author does call on the members of the community to lead holy and godly lives as they wait for and even hasten the coming day of the Lord. When that day comes, “the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved and the elements will melt with fire” (2 Peter 3:11-12). While this is suggestive of the idea that God’s creation will be annihilated rather than transformed, one need not embrace the annihilationist part of the message to embrace the word concerning God’s patience when it comes to the Day of the Lord.

                In fact, God desires that it’s better to wait if more people will be drawn into the realm of God than to jump the gun and leave lots of people on the outside looking in. What that looks like, the author doesn’t tell us. However, passages like this, even with the apocalyptic elements present, are suggestive of a possible universalistic reading. If God is patient in the hopes that all will return to God, then is that not good news? If we take a universalistic approach to the passage that doesn’t eliminate the call for repentance, it just extends the time for that to take place. What God desires is reconciliation.

                So, let us wait patiently, living our lives with holiness, in preparation for the Day of the Lord. The author fully expects that to happen but is aware that God’s timing is not ours. In the meantime, while we wait, the author encourages us to “strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or wrinkle, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation” (2 Pet. 3:14-15b). Since we stand some two millennia after this was written, we should take comfort in God’s patience. In fact, God may need to be patient for a good deal longer!  

Image attribution: Marques de Oliveira, João. Waiting for the Boats, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56327 [retrieved November 28, 2020]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Waiting_for_the_boats_(1892)_-_Marques_de_Oliveira_(1853-1927)_(16215690116).jpg.

Awake, Awake, the Son of Man is Coming – Lectionary Reflection for Advent 2B (Mark 13)

Mark 13:24-37 New
Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
24 “But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
 
26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
 
28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he[a] is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
 
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert;[b] for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
******************
                The
ancient hymn Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence
(4th Century) sets a penitential tone for the season of Advent, which is an appropriate stance as we begin the journey of a new liturgical year:
               
Let all mortal flesh keep
silence, and with fear and trembling stand;
                Ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in his hand Christ our God to earth descendeth,
                our full homage to demand.
                Advent is a penitential season.  It is a time to take stock of one’s life in preparation for the great festival to be held in the coming weeks.  It is a season of hope and expectation.  It is also a season where we begin to look at how faith is related to the facts of life and whether judgment is in store for us.  In other words, Advent is an eschatological season.
Mark 13, the gospel reading before us, is known as “The Little Apocalypse,” because of its similarity in tone to Revelation.  There is the sense that the coming of the Lord demands of us a certain fear and trembling. It requires that we be cognizant of our own resistance to the things of God.  It is a reminder that too often we fail to pay attention.  This first Sunday in Advent is, therefore, with Mark’s Gospel in hand, a wake-up call.  Yes, the Messiah is coming and not in a sleigh with eight tiny reindeer.  So be prepared.
The reading begins ominously. The sun is darkened. The moon fails to give off light.  The stars are falling.  The moment before the coming of the Lord is one of pure darkness.  As I prepare this meditation I’m mindful of events that took place the evening prior, under the cover of darkness. A prosecutor chose to make an announcement that a grand jury voted no indictment on a police officer who shot and killed a young African American man.  We don’t know all the details.  They are fuzzy.  The way they have been set out is meant to keep things fuzzy.  The announcement stirred anger in the crowd, and some chose violence as a way to respond.  This is nothing new.  Violence is always an option.  Others chose nonviolent protests.  The choice of timing, of course, seems to many, myself included, to be craven.  The verdict could have been just easily read at 8 AM as at 8 PM.  But the prosecutor chose to issue the report at night when such a response could be predicted.  Why do we never learn?  Why do we try to hide under the cover of darkness?  With regard to Ferguson and Michael Brown, I, as a white, middle class, pastor, must first listen to the voices calling out for justice.  I may want to understand, but in many ways, I cannot.  So what is required of me is solidarity with those who grieve and mourn and suffer.
Apocalyptic texts like this one emerge out of similar feelings.  Mark writes either right before or soon after the great Jewish War that led to the
destruction of Jerusalem. Could it be that the reference to a time of suffering has in mind that reality?  Where is hope to be found in the midst of all of this destruction and grief?
               In this gospel reading Jesus speaks of the coming of the Son of Man, an image that is lifted from Daniel 7:13.  The image is one of the Messiah coming riding on the clouds. We know that Jesus often used the title “Son of Man” as a self-appellation. The question is whether this mean to speak simply of his humanity, which he shares with us, or does it speak of something more?   Is this not a recognition that the people are crying out for a redeemer, one who will rescue them from the time of trial?  At the same time, Jesus speaks of this apocalyptic moment as one of a final verdict.  The Son of Man will come and gather the elect, the chosen ones, from the far winds.  Yes, this speaks of a final moment of gathering, much like the judgment scene spoken of in Matthew 25, the reading for Christ the King Sunday, just a week earlier.
                The greatest threat to justice and mercy is complacency.  We become immune to the cries of those suffering. We might not even hear them or understand the nature of the cry.  We fall asleep.  Our oil goes out.  We miss the sign of the fig tree, whose changing leaves signal a new day.  The signs suggest the time of deliverance and judgment is near at hand.  So will we be prepared?
There is only one problem – even if the signs are there, we don’t know the exact time and place of this coming of the Son of Man.  Not even the Son himself knows the exact time of this event.  If you know the exact time it is easy to be prepared.  Just set out your clothes, pack your bag, and set the alarm.  Then you can go to sleep knowing that when day breaks you will be ready.  But in the apocalyptic world, things don’t work that way.  You can’t predict time and place, even if certain figures have made a fortune on trying to make the prediction.  It makes for best-selling fiction, but in the end, proves unhelpful.  Why?  For one thing, it leads to disappointment.  The followers of William Miller found that out the hard way in the 1840s.  Besides, we can get hung up on details and miss the big picture.  So don’t get
caught trying to figure out what only God knows for sure.
In our context, it is better to see this as a call to always be ready for the Day of the Lord. I realize that this is not easy. It’s difficult to stay on high alert always.  It’s a ready recipe for burn out. You can do it for a while, but then you have to get some sleep.
Recognizing the challenges of remaining awake and alert, the word remains present with us – Don’t be found asleep when the day comes.  Don’t get complacent.  Don’t get too comfortable with your surroundings.  Instead, keep ready by being engaged in the word of God in the World. Seek justice and mercy wherever you go.  Listen for the cries of the suffering. This is our calling in the interim.  We all have our assignments, our callings, and it is to this work that we have been elected.
In hope we will continue to sing as the body of Christ:
O come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here, Until the Son of God appear.
                Rejoice, rejoice!
                Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!