Category: revised common lectionary

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).        

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 
 
 

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

 
A CALL TO WORSHIP
 

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

 

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

CHOSEN/DESTINED
 

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

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

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

ADOPTION AND INHERITANCE
 

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

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

IN CHRIST
 

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

SEALING/DOWN PAYMENT
 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

                 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:14-17)

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

So let us sing:

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

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