Category: revised common lectionary

From Glory to Glory by Way of the Cross – Lectionary Reading for Passion Sunday (Philippians 2)

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

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

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                The Sunday before Easter presents the church with two choices when it comes to the lectionary. Should we go with the Palms or the Passion? As there is no established second reading for Palm Sunday, the choice has been made for us by the creators of the lectionary. That’s because I’m currently working through the second reading in this cycle. Therefore, the reading comes from the Passion Sunday selections. As a result, I am essentially resharing last year’s reflection. As with 2020, we remain caught up in the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year we were still in the early stages of the pandemic. In-person worship was largely canceled. Churches are starting to open up, but many congregations still are being careful and are limiting the number of participants. So, choirs and palm processions remain problematic.
The appointed Gospel reading comes from Matthew 27:11-54, which takes us from Jesus’ appearance before Pilate through the crucifixion to the Centurion’s declaration “Truly this was God’s Son!” (As a side note, I can’t read this without hearing John Wayne intone those words in The Greatest Story Ever Told – a 1960s Jesus movie starring Max Von Sydow as Jesus). Here in Philippians 2, we hear a word about the incarnation of the one who was in the form of God but did not exploit his equality with God but chose to empty himself of his pre-existent heavenly state, become human, and face death on a cross, all of which leads to his exaltation to the position of ruler of the cosmos. Paul offers this Jesus to us as an example, so that we might find unity as the body of Christ by becoming servants to one another and thus being of one mind. If we read between the lines, the Philippian church, which Paul founded, was experiencing a time of conflict.  Thus, Paul tells them to take on the mind of Christ, as revealed in this ancient hymn that Paul has appropriated for this purpose. The hymn reminds us that Jesus endured humiliation for our benefit and was vindicated by God as a result. The one who was crucified was then exalted by God so that he might move from humility to glory.
                When Paul wrote his letter to the Philippian Church, he was sitting in a jail cell (Phil. 1:12-17). Where he was being detained is unknown to us. Paul doesn’t identify the location though he does mention the Praetorian guard. That would suggest a cell in Rome. It’s a clue but not proof. That he is in prison, suggests confinement at best and perhaps a degree of suffering as well. That is his situation. The letter suggests that the congregation was facing its own sets of difficulties. While Paul was the founding pastor of this congregation, he could only reach out to them virtually, offering guidance by way of a letter.
 Regarding the internal concerns, he asks that they exhibit unity. He asks them to make his joy complete by having the same mind, love, and unity. He asks that they not do anything out of selfishness or conceit. Instead, he asks that they have the same mind as Jesus (Phil. 2:1-5). That request leads to what many scholars (and I tend to agree) consider an early Christian hymn that takes note of Jesus’ pre-existence with God (his divine status), his self-emptying (humility) that leads to the cross, and finally, his exaltation by God, thus vindicating Jesus by establishing him as ruler of the cosmos. Thus, to fully embody God’s realm, one should embrace the way of Jesus, which has the promise of exaltation.
                The hymn takes note of three distinct phases of the Christ event. We begin with an affirmation of Christ’s pre-existence. The hymn states unequivocally that “though he was in the form of God . . . but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil. 2:6-7). This isn’t quite the same wording as John’s prologue (John 1:1-18), but it’s close. The second phase is Christ’s self-emptying of himself of divinity so that he might become human and face death on a cross. Finally, the second half of the hymn celebrates God’s vindication of Jesus by exalting him to the position of ruler of the cosmos [Ronald J. Allen, Connections, Kindle loc 4177-4192].
                For those of us who affirm the divinity of Christ, this is one of the most direct statements (along with John 1) in support of that position. Pre-existence doesn’t prove divinity, but it suggests that in Paul’s estimation that Jesus has a status that is ultimately different from us, even if he experienced life as being fully human. Karl Barth writes that “this equality of Christ with God is, so to speak, the fixed, ultimate background from which his road sets out to which he returns” [Epistle to the Philippians, p. 61]. This is the starting point for a movement from heaven to earth and back, so to speak. But the point here is not his equality with God, but what he does with it that is the point. That leads to the emptying of himself of his stature as the Father’s equal so that he might become a human and ultimately face death on a cross. Thus, his humanity fully covers his divinity, and this was of his own doing, his own choosing, and yet it was an act of obedience. This is the point of Passion Sunday, the willingness to go to the cross, to experience death, and not just any death, but the most humiliating of deaths. He descended to the depths in his self-emptying and bore upon himself the brokenness of the old age.
                This is not the final word in the story. The second part of the hymn (verse 2) reveals that God vindicated Jesus by exalting him to the position of ruler of the cosmos. This exaltation is revealed in the name given to him, which stands above every name, so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” As I read this, I can’t help but think about the context in which it is revealed. Caesar is the exalted one, to whom every knee would bow, and whose name would be confessed as Lord. In this confession, Paul (or the hymn writer) reveals that Jesus, the one whom Rome crucified, had been exalted above Caesar. Thus, Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord. While Caesar might rule an empire, Jesus ruled the cosmos and that to the glory of God.
  
                Paul opens up this reading by asking that we be like Christ, who emptied himself of his glory so as to taste life as we live it, even to the point of death, as a result, God vindicated him by raising him to a position of glory. If this is true for Jesus, as those who are his people, might we participate in what is his by nature? As we ponder this question, I leave you with this word from one of Gregory of Nazianzus’ Festal Orations:

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

                As we begin a Holy Week that will continue to be different from “normal years,” may we take up the mantle of Jesus, and find in him a path of obedience that leads to salvation.
                  
                 

High Priestly Duties – A Lectionary Reflection for Lent 5B (Hebrews 5)

Hebrews 5:5-10 New Revised Standard Version

So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,

“You are my Son,
today I have begotten you”;

as he says also in another place,

“You are a priest forever,
according to the order of Melchizedek.”

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, 10 having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

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                In 1 Peter 2, we’re told that to be in Christ is to be part of a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9). That revelation led to the doctrine, especially prominent among Protestants, of the “priesthood of all believers.” The document that guides the ordering of ministry in my denomination—The Theological Foundations for the Ordering of Ministry in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)—speaks directly to this understanding of priesthood: “In Christ the individual becomes a member of ‘a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of God’s own possession’ (1Peter 2:9). Thus it has been common to speak of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ —the persons who live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ in the church and in the world. This language highlights the sacramentality of the work of the laity through whose witness and service the grace of God is made manifest.” If we are all part of this royal priesthood, who is the high priest? In the Book of Hebrews, we are told that Jesus is the high priest. Of course, there is a caveat here, and we’ll need to address it. That caveat has to do with the qualifications for being a priest and whether Jesus actually qualifies.

                In ancient Israel, the priesthood was limited to the tribe of Levi, while the high priests were to be lineal descendants of Aaron. As for Jesus, he was neither a Levite nor a descendant of Aaron. So, how might he be our high priest? According to the genealogies in Matthew and Luke Jesus was a descendant of David, which made him a member of the tribe of Judah. That seeming barrier does stop the author of Hebrews from creating a workaround so that Jesus might qualify. While Jesus might not be a descendant of Aaron, Hebrews simply calls Jesus a priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

                Before we get to this mysterious Order of Melchizedek, we would be wise to begin with the question of Jesus’ appointment to the office of high priest. Then we can turn to Melchizedek and the implications of this passage for our Lenten journey.  The reading from Hebrews 5:5-10 is part of a larger section of the letter that begins in verse 14 of chapter 4. In the opening lines of the section, the author of Hebrews (Hebrews is anonymous) writes that “since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.” We’re also told that this high priest can sympathize with our weaknesses. He was “tested as we are” and yet he did not sin. Therefore, we can “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16).  

                Having learned about this high priest who was tested and yet without sin, when we come to verses 5-6 of chapter 5, we are told that when appointed to this position, Jesus did not glorify himself but was appointed to the position by God. Thus, the author draws upon the Psalms to describe the qualifications of this high priest. First, God says of this high priest, “you are my Son, today I have begotten you” (Ps. 2:7). So, the main qualification here is that Jesus is the Son of God. Then, we learn that Jesus is “a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek” (Ps. 110:4).  

                The author of Hebrews makes it clear that one does not appoint oneself to the position of high priest. In the verse prior to our passage, we read that “one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was (Heb. 5:4). As noted above, Jesus did not descend from the priestly line, so Hebrews links him to the mysterious Melchizedek, who appears in Genesis as the priest-king of Salem who receives tithes from Abraham and blesses him (Gen. 14:17-20). This figure suddenly appears and then disappears from the story. But, the author of Hebrews discovers in this mysterious figure the means to unlock Jesus’ high priestly calling. He might not have an Aaronic pedigree, but he has something else, something rooted in mystery. Interestingly, it’s only in Hebrews that Jesus is connected to Melchizedek. But the identification of the too is intriguing.   

                Having been appointed to this position as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek by God, in large part because of his status as Son of God, Jesus takes up his priestly duties. During his earthly life, Jesus “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death.” Here is a reference to Jesus’ priestly duties taken up, it would appear, while on the cross. He was heard because of his submission to the one who appointed him to this role. He was heard because of his submission. Though he held the status as Son of God, in words reminiscent of what Paul said of Jesus in Philippians 2—he “learned obedience through what he suffered.” It was in this suffering that he was perfected and became the source of our salvation. Nothing is said here about being a substitute sacrificed for our sins. The point simply is that his pathway to this priesthood of Melchizedek included the suffering of the cross.  

                Back in Hebrews 4, the author reveals that Jesus is not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses. He too has been tested and yet did not sin (Heb 4:15-17). That testing includes suffering. Jesus can understand our struggles, our sufferings, because he also suffered. This is the foundation of his priesthood. You might say that he graduated from the school of hard knocks. This is true even though he was the Son of God. That status did not prevent him from experiencing human realities, therefore, we can put our trust in him. In this, we find good news.

The Rich Mercy of God – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 4B (Ephesians 2)

Ephesians 2:1-10 New Revised Standard Version

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

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                As the Lenten journey continues, we are continually invited to engage in self-examination. That can be challenging. If we look too deeply, we might find things buried inside that we’d rather not see the light of day. We all have those secret things that we wrestle with, and that we work hard at keeping them at bay, so they don’t define our lives. Here in the Ephesian letter, we read a word likely spoken to Gentiles, whom the author of the letter suggests had been children of wrath. That is, they once lived in bondage to a spiritual power that kept them separated from their Creator. But there is good news here. God’s mercy reigns. There will be liberation from the bondage. Once they were children of wrath, but that is no longer true, so now they can embrace the good works God has prepared from them.

                Before we get to the heart of the matter, I need to address the question of authorship. While traditionally authorship has been assigned to Paul. After all, the letter begins with a greeting from the Apostle (Eph. 1:1). Nevertheless, many scholars have questioned that claim, believing that the letter comes from a later time. As for the identity of the author, I tend not to take sides. When I wrote my study guide on Ephesians, I left the question of authorship open. There are good arguments on both sides, but I’m not sure that authorship is going to make too much of a difference to our interpretation of this passage. However, in the pursuit of brevity, I’m going to use Paul’s name in this meditation. As I do so, I hold this ascription very lightly!

                What I discern here in Ephesians 2 is a reminder that there is a spiritual realm that influences/affects our lives. According to Paul (remember for our purposes I’m using the traditional author) there are powers, both good and evil present in the universe. We would be wise to keep that in mind as we attend to our Lenten journey. Concerning this spiritual realm, Richard Beck has done a marvelous job in explaining how things work in his book Reviving Old Scratch. Just to be clear, “Old Scratch” is another name for the devil. He writes: “I’d love to have a Christianity full of rainbows and daisies, full of love and inclusion. But there are forces working against love and inclusion in the world, and some of those forces are at work in my own heart and mind. We call those forces hate and exclusion, to say nothing about everything else that is tearing the world to shreds, pushing the loving and gracious rule of God out of the world” [Reviving Old Scratch, p. 10]. So, have you noticed those forces at work of late? I have and sometimes they’ve been at work in me.

                Might this be what Paul has in mind when speaking of the ruler of the power of the air? The Enlightenment mindset sought to eliminate the spiritual/supernatural realm. Science or at least reason was expected to explain everything (I’m not anti-science here, just to be clear). In this modern view of things, there was no room for the devil. While there might not be a “personal” devil out there, I do believe there are malignant spiritual forces that entrap us and keep us in bondage. Lent gives us the opportunity to pause and check to see if any of these forces have taken hold of our lives. If so, we can give thanks for God’s mercy that can recalibrate our lives, so we live in tune with God’s vision for creation. Although these spiritual forces continually seek to push God out of the picture, God isn’t going anywhere.

                The good news that comes to us from the Ephesian letter is that God is “rich in mercy.” In fact, God loved us even when we were caught up in this web of wrath and because of that, God has been providing us a way out of the morass through faith in Christ. As we consider how Jesus does this, we might want to keep in mind that the Gospel writers regularly picture Jesus engaging in exorcisms. It was one of the ways in which he healed people. He did so as an expression of God’s mercy and grace. So, it is by this grace that we are saved, we are healed.  We receive the healing by faith, but it is the work of God that provides the healing/salvation. In doing this, God raises us up with Christ so that we might be seated with him in the heavenly places.

                In this passage, the emphasis is on grace. We can’t work our way into the heavenly places? We don’t earn the right to sit with Jesus. That’s a gift of grace. However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing for us to do. In fact, God has prepared works for us to do. These works also come as gifts of grace. So, who we are now is not the same as who we were before the divine encounter with Jesus, and so we live accordingly. Once we were dead in our sins, now we are alive in Christ! That is because, due to the rich mercy of God, the prince of the power of the air no longer holds sway in our lives! That is good truly news.   

The Foolishness of the Cross – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 3B (1 Corinthians 1)

 

The Crucifixion — Taddeo di Bartolo (Art Institute of Chicago)

 

1 Corinthians 1:18-31 New Revised Standard Version

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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Ah, holy Jesus, how has thou offended, 

that mortal judgment that on thee descended?

By foes derided, by the world rejected, O most afflicted! 

—Johannn Heerman (Chalice Hymnal, 210).

                The scandal of the Gospel is that it is centered in a message about a crucified  messiah. What is it about a figure who suffered a humiliating death on one of the cruelest forms of execution ever devised that would attract anyone? Truly it would be foolishness to embrace such a one as Jesus of Nazareth, who met his death on a Roman cross outside a city in a backwater part of the Roman Empire.

                The cross continues to be a scandal. For some within the Christian community, the way in which Jesus is often portrayed as a means of satisfying the demands for blood on the part of a wrathful God causes angst.  This is because some forms of atonement theory can look a lot like divine child abuse. Thus, for some, it seems as if it would be better if we eschew the message of Good Friday and simply skip from Palm Sunday to Easter, from one triumph to another. Of course, there are others who worry that a religious leader who dies on a cross might look like a loser. Who wants to be associated with a loser. Maybe we can photoshop out the cross and simply focus on a Jesus sitting on a throne.  Nevertheless, Paul makes it clear to critics, both Jewish and Greek, ancient and modern, that he is going to “proclaim Christ crucified.” Just so you know, Paul’s not afraid of being associated with someone the world might consider a loser.

               It’s appropriate to situate this word about the cross in an imperial context. The Romans valued power. They ruled a vast empire on the basis of their military might. They built roads that made commerce efficient, but just like our modern interstates, these roads had a military purpose. In fact, it was the Roman legions who built the roads so they could move quickly across the empire. The religions of the empire tended to emphasize power as well. The mystery religions promised their adherents access to power that was intoxicating. So, it’s not surprising that these young Christians in Corinth would have expected something similar from their religious tradition. Some of them might have been embarrassed by Paul’s preaching a gospel that placed the cross at the center.

                We encounter this word from Paul as we journey through Lent, a season that invites us to let go of things that impede our relationship with Jesus. It invites us to consider how the cross of Jesus defines our faith. Perhaps it’s the desire for power that we need to let go of so that we might share in a different kind of power. This is the kind of power that emerges from humility. It’s a very different message from the one proclaimed by imperial Rome. Is it not different from the message we hear in our culture? Who wants to be a loser or aligned with a loser?

                Here is how Paul defined the way of the cross. He informed his readers that God wasn’t interested in hanging out with the rich and powerful of this world. Instead, God had chosen the “low and despised in the world” to identify with. This is the message revealed in Jesus’s death on a cross. What we see in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is evidence of class-based division. Most likely a large portion of this Christian community was poor. Many might have been slaves. There were, of course, wealthier members, who seemed intent on having power over the poor and the despised. Paul responds to this division by reminding the people that Jesus had died on a cross, despised by those who were in power and those who prized power.

                Paul emphasized God’s identification with the ones the world considered to be expendable and losers, recognizing that for many it appeared that Rome’s power reigned supreme. Was not Jesus’ death an expression of weakness? If so, is this not foolishness? Now, Paul understood that there was more to the story than simply Jesus’ death. Paul knew that his proclamation of this message of the cross included the resurrection. It might appear that Rome won, but did it really? That is a question we need to wrestle with in our day. What does it mean to win?

                Ever since Constantine decided to make Christianity a recognized religion, we’ve tended to rethink the message of the cross. For Constantine, it was a symbol of conquest. He would not be the last to conquer in the name of the cross. What was once a symbol of weakness has been transformed into a symbol of political and military power. Many Christians today have found the promise of gaining power over others, of using the premise of religious liberty to discriminate, rather intoxicating. In fact, it appears that quite a number of Christians have given their allegiance to a figure who promised them power in exchange for loyalty. They have given themselves over to his vision of dominance over others. Lest we think ourselves immune from the intoxicating allure of political power, we might want to heed Paul’s words here. We might want to remember that we are called to live in a relationship with one whose death on a cross was deemed foolish.

                It might help us gain perspective on our place in the world if we remember that this message Paul delivers to the Corinthians is rooted in an eschatological vision of reality. Rome represented the old age, while Jesus represents the new age. We have a choice. We can stay with Rome, which promises victory. Or we can embrace Jesus, who also offers a vision of victory, but of a very different kind. Yes, it might appear that Rome has won, but if dive below the surface of our reality, we will discover that the crucified Jesus is risen and has set in motion a new way of living before God. That is a message worth considering during this Lenten season.    

Reckoned as Righteous – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 2B (Romans 4)

Romans 4:13-25  New
Revised Standard Version

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

16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18 Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20 No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 23 Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

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                How might a person be reckoned as righteous? Is it by faith or by keeping the law? Is it even possible to keep the law so as to be judged righteous before God? And what does being so reckoned lead to? According to Paul, it may have something to do with the inheritance given to Abraham and his descendants. What would that be? According to Paul, that inheritance given to Abraham and his heirs is the world (Rom. 4:13). To suggest that it is through the law, again according to Paul, would make faith null and void. Therefore, the inheritance must be an act of grace received through faith. That sounds like a message Martin Luther would embrace! The idea that we are justified by faith has been a central part of the Christian confession, but like everything in life, things are more complicated than what might be revealed in a simple slogan like sola fide, sola gratia (faith alone, grace alone).

                Here in Romans 4, Paul focuses our attention on Abraham our Ancestor, who believed God and therefore was reckoned or counted as righteous (Rom. 4:1-3; Gen. 15:6). The premise of chapter 4 is that Abraham’s relationship with God rested in God’s
grace and did not depend on his adherence to the law. If by law, one means Torah, then he would not have had that available to him, as it was revealed at Sinai. What Paul is getting at here is that Abraham’s relationship with God, a relationship that declared him righteous, which made him the recipient of God’s promise, rests on God’s grace, which Abraham received by faith. It is through faith that he and his descendants shall receive the inheritance (vs. 13). The promise that is spoken of here is summarized in a word given to Abraham by the Angel of the Lord: “I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and the as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice” (Gen. 22:17-18). Interestingly enough, in Genesis 22, the blessing is pronounced after Abraham showed his willingness to offer Isaac, the chosen one, as a sacrifice in response to God’s request.   

                Regarding the Law, in this chapter, Paul seems rather negative. But, I wonder whether Paul should be seen as rejecting the Law. It seems to me that Paul wants to broaden the possibilities by which one is included in the covenant community. He’s concerned that the requirement to be circumcised would be a stumbling block to Gentiles (Rom 4:9-10). In Paul’s mind, Abraham was declared righteous before he was circumcised. Circumcision was not a requirement for this declaration, but it did seal the relationship, much like baptism seals the commitment Christians make to follow Jesus. Now, it’s true that Paul did say that the law brings wrath and if there is no law there is no violation, but isn’t that a technicality? It’s like saying, if we don’t get tested for COVID-19 then we don’t have COVID. 

                If we look closely at Paul’s message, we’ll see that if received by faith, the promise is extended both to those who are adherents of the Law (Jews) and those who are not (Gentiles) (Rom. 4:16). Perhaps that is the key for Paul. He is emphasizing a broader view of what it means to be a descendant of Abraham. As Paul reminds us, Abraham is not only the father of Israel but is the father of many nations. Therefore, while Israel is included in the inheritance, others are as well. That is true for both those who are adherents of the Law and those who are not. As Karl Barth writes:

Since the heirs are what they are not through the law by of faith, not as a consequence of moral and historical status but according to grace, it follows as a matter of course that participation in that company cannot be confined to those who have been made children of Abraham according to the law, cannot be limited to the historical Israel, or to those who accept a particular and definite and historical tradition and doctrine, or to those who are members of some particular ‘movement.’ Such limitation in the number heirs makes the inheritance itself more than insecure (iv. 14, 15). As the recipient of the promise, Abraham stands outside every historical and particular company of men; similarly his true seed, being the race of believers, likewise stand outside. [Barth, Epistle to the Romans, pp. 138-139].  

I might be taking this a bit farther than Barth might, but it does seem to make sense that if inclusion in the family is by grace, then we might see this as broadening out beyond believers in Jesus. It is worth pondering for a moment that Muslims understand themselves to be heirs of Abraham through Ishmael. So, what does it mean for Abraham to be the father of many nations?

                I sense that Paul might take a narrower view of who is included among the heirs than I just suggested, but it’s worth pondering. For Paul, Abraham is understood to be the ancestor of those who believe and walk in faith. For Paul that involves who
“believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (Rom 4:24-25).  Thus, in Paul’s mind, circumcision isn’t a requirement when it comes to being judged righteous (justification). Only faith is necessary. It is worth noting here that the lectionary reading from Genesis 17, stipulated for this Sunday, excludes the verses that refer to circumcision as the seal of the covenant. While the lectionary creators set aside reference to circumcision, it’s there in Genesis 17 (Gen. 17:9-14). Paul is aware of this and acknowledges it (Rom 4:11). Of course, all of this takes place before the Law is instituted at Sinai, but circumcision was instituted long before Sinai.

                Paul draws on the promise of God made to Abraham and Sarah as a foundation for the inclusion of Gentiles in the family of God. He suggests, again just before our reading, that Abraham is the “ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them” (vs. 11). While Paul doesn’t seem to have a problem with the Law as it applies to Jews, he does not see the Law as the appropriate means through which Gentiles will be included in the blessing promised to Abraham. After all, Abraham received God’s call by faith, believing that though he and Sarah didn’t have children of their own, somehow God would take care of that problem. In other words, they trusted God’s promise.

                Now, if you follow the story of Abraham, you know that Abraham did try on occasion to take matters into his own hands. Nevertheless, Paul wants to claim that the promise made to Abraham was an act of grace. Therefore, those who are considered heirs with Abraham, are recipients of the same grace. That means that Gentiles enter the covenant community that is rooted in the promise made to Abraham through faith in Jesus.

                If we read Paul here through the lens of the covenant that God made with Abraham and Sarah, which is a covenant of blessing (Gen. 12, 17), then it seems right that we should embrace our place in the family with humility. After all, it is not by biological descent that we Gentiles trace our heritage back to Abraham. Rather it is through an adoption that Jesus engineered on our behalf. For that, we give thanks that by God’s grace we’ve been added to the family that inherits the earth.

The Way of Salvation – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 1B (1 Peter 3)

Coventry Cathedral Baptistry

1 Peter 3:13-22 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

13 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14 But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15 but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

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                As we begin the Lenten journey, the Second Reading, which generally takes us to one of the  Epistles, invites us to consider the words found in 1 Peter 3. Although this letter is attributed to the Apostle Peter, we don’t know the identity of the author. However, in the course of this reflection, I will simply speak of the author as Peter.

                I’ve titled the reflection “The Way of Salvation” because that seems to be the focus here. Peter is concerned that his audience, which is experiencing suffering, could fall away. He acknowledges their suffering in the verses that are excluded from the passage designated by the Revised Common Lectionary (verses 13-17) but reminds them that they are not alone in their suffering. Remember that Jesus himself suffered, the righteous for the unrighteous (vs. 18). So, stay the course and emulate Jesus. This is the way of salvation. However, know that you do not walk the path alone. Jesus has already been there!

                I decided to include the excluded opening verses of the paragraph (13-17) because they provide the reason for Peter’s words about Jesus. Peter reminds them that though they suffer, they have a reward waiting for them. Before we get to Jesus, we need to address the suffering incurred by his followers. A passage like this could do some harm if it leads to the conclusion that suffering is either a divine punishment or the promise of a heavenly reward leads deadens us to suffering. That is, it becomes the opiate of the people that is used to oppress people in the name of heaven.   

                While suffering is part of life, and we may grow through our experiences of suffering, not all suffering is the same. This was brought home to me by James Henry Harris, whose book Black Suffering: Silent Pain, Hidden Hope, is a reminder that “all Black suffering relates back to evil—an evil grounded in American chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws and practices, and the residuals of perpetual hate” [Harris, p.20]. As one who is white and male, I need to acknowledge that I have not experienced systemic suffering as described by Rev. Harris and that at times I’ve benefited from it. Such suffering we must do what we can to rectify such situations.

                In the context of this letter, the suffering experienced is related to one’s participation in the community gathered around the name of Jesus. The message has a strong eschatological dimension to it, as it speaks of a heavenly reward. In other words, if you persevere through this time of suffering you will experience heaven’s joys. So, don’t be afraid as the pagans are afraid. Whatever fear you may have, let it be reverence for God. When your faith is challenged, as appears to be the case, don’t be intimidated. Instead, be confident as you graciously answer that challenge. Be confident in your profession of faith and sanctify Christ in your hearts.

                Even as Peter encourages the people to stand fast in their faith in the midst of their suffering (and the nature of that suffering isn’t fully revealed), Peter tells the people to be prepared to make a defense of their faith. What Peter has in mind here isn’t the same thing as what we find in modern apologetics. Nor is it Schleiermacher’s speeches to the cultured despisers. This seems to be more of a life and death situation. He encourages them to give an account of their faith by sharing that hope that is within them. Reveal why one follows Jesus when suffering is a possibility, and do so with gentleness and reverence, keeping a clear conscience. Then when you are maligned, those who seek to abuse you will be put to shame.

                Having addressed this situation, we turn to the suffering experienced by Jesus. His suffering is a result of human sin, so he has suffered as one who is righteous for those who are unrighteous, so as to bring them to God. While he was put to death in the flesh, he was made alive in the Spirit. There is in this passage an atonement theory. The theory that seems to fit best here is Christus Victor. That is, Christ saves us in that through his death and resurrection, Jesus triumphed over evil—once and for all.  It’s not that he is a substitute sacrifice. Instead, Jesus overcomes the power of sin and death through his own death and resurrection. Another way of looking at this word is offered by Wendy Farley in her book Beguiled by Beauty. Though she doesn’t address this passage, I think she speaks to something similar when she writes that “Jesus entered history to witness to its turmoil, poverty, and
imperial violence. In Jesus, we see the story of humanity itself. The Beloved enters history and suffers with us so that we will not be deserted or alone in whatever befalls us. In the passion of Christ, we are promised an ever-faithful companion in suffering and shown a glimpse of something beyond the seeming victories of suffering” [Beguiled by Beauty, pp. 124-125]. 

                Peter isn’t finished, however, he has something to say about Jesus preaching to the “spirits in prison.” The question is, what does Peter mean? While Peter isn’t clear here, the spirits spoken of here could have been the angels who rebelled—the watchers of 1 Enoch. It could also be read in connection with the message about those who didn’t believe Noah who was saved through the water of judgment. By the early second century, this idea had developed into the doctrine of the “harrowing of hell.”
That is, on Holy Saturday, Jesus descended into hell, preached to the spirits there, and converted them thereby releasing them from death’s control. There is even reference to this in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where C.S. Lewis speaks of Aslan “ransacking the witch’s fortress,” seeking out all whom she had turned to stone after the Stone Table is broken with his resurrection.

                Peter connects this reference to Jesus’ preaching to spirits in prison with those for whom God waited patiently in the time of Noah. He notes that in the building of the Ark, eight persons were saved through water. He makes this reference to Noah analogous to baptism, which he says now saves us. How does baptism save us? To Peter, this is not a removal of dirt from the body, but an appeal to God for a good conscience. The appeal for a good conscience takes place in the context of the resurrection of Jesus, who is now in heaven, seated at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him. This imagery of Noah and the ark as a symbol of baptism, reminds us, as Ron Allen suggests that “the power of God is so awesome that God transforms the flood water into the means of salvation. From this perspective, 1 Peter’s attitude toward baptism is similar to that of the Reformers: Baptism is a sign from God to assure the congregation of God’s continuing providence, even amid the suffering that comes from faithfulness” [Feasting on the Word, p. 42]. Thus, we move from a reminder that though we suffer Jesus
suffers with us, to a word about baptism, so that we will know that through it all, God is with us in Christ. That is a good way to start the Lenten journey.

 

Coventry Cathedral – Baptistery, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54899 [retrieved February 14, 2021]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevecadman/2652744641/.

Let the Light Shine Bright — Lectionary Reflection for Transfiguration Sunday, Year B (2 Corinthians 4)

2 Corinthians 4:3-6   New Revised Standard Version

3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

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            On Transfiguration Sunday we join with Jesus as he climbs the mountain with three of his disciples. When they arrived on that mountain top Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah, the lawgiver and the prophet. While these three conversed, Jesus was transfigured. Then a voice from heaven called out “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:2-10). The heavenly message was essentially the same as the one heard by Jesus at his baptism. Mark’s description is of course spare in detail, but we have enough to get a sense of the experience. And from Peter’s response to the event, it’s clear that something dramatic has occurred. If we use Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians as a guide, then what we have before us is an unveiling of the light of God present in Jesus. As Vladimir Lossky notes, “In so far as God reveals Himself, communicates himself and is able to be known, He is Light. The divine light is not an allegorical or abstract thing; it is given in mystical experience” [Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 220]. Might the transfiguration be a moment of mystical experience where the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” is revealed to these three witnesses?

            In the story of the transfiguration event, we see the veil that kept the three disciples from fully perceiving that light is lifted for a moment. However, according to Paul, the veil continues to cover the eyes of those who to this point fail to see the light of Christ’s glory. For Paul, that veil will be lifted as we come to understand the things of God as they are revealed in Christ. So, if we participate in the life of Christ, we can see the glory of the Lord with unveiled faces, and thus experience transformation through the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:12-18). What we see here in 2 Corinthians 4 is rooted in the conversation that begins in chapter 3 that takes into consideration the revelation of God’s presence to Moses.

            This brief reading for Transfiguration Sunday stands as part of a larger conversation about Paul’s ministry. Some have challenged his ministry and he seeks to defend that ministry by speaking to the spiritual realities of his day. Part of his defense includes a word about the “god of this world” who blinds the eyes of the unbelievers. We moderns struggle with the idea that there are spiritual forces that resist the ways of God. While we may have explanations unavailable to the ancients about how the world works, it’s also possible that we are susceptible to spiritual reductionism. We may have taken the process of demythologizing too far and have thus clouded our minds from seeing deeper things. Perhaps it is time to reimagine the spiritual realm. If so, might not the story of the transfiguration be a good place to start? As we do this, we can ask the question, what are the “things” that cause this veil to stay in place and how might it be lifted? We know from Paul’s letters that there was all manner of issues present in the Corinthian church that got in the way of their ability to experience the full presence of God. So, what are the issues present in the modern context?

            A word of caution is necessary as we approach this passage. The contrast present in this letter of Paul that seems to pit Moses against Jesus lends itself to a supersessionist interpretation. As Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us, in our context, “the proclamation of Christ’s light does not require the debasement of Moses’s light. Those who are being transformed by God’s shining presence can find far better ways to witness to what they see in Jesus’ face.” [Feasting on the Word, p. 451]. So, be careful if you attempt to contrast law and gospel. 

            While the glory of God that Jesus embodies might be veiled to some, however, that veiling is understood, there are moments when the veil is lifted. That is part of the message of the Transfiguration. Something happens on the mountain, and the disciples of Jesus see the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”  As Jesus and his disciples gather on the mountain top with Moses and Elijah, the disciples (Peter, James, and John) appear to have a mystical experience in which the veil that covers Jesus in his humanity is removed for a moment and they see Jesus in the fulness of his glory. They see his divinity shine through for a moment.

            Gregory Palamas, a medieval Orthodox theologian, writes of the Transfiguration: 

The light of the Lord’s transfiguration does not come into being or cease to be, nor is it circumscribed or         perceptible to the senses, even though for a short time on the narrow mountain top it was seen by human eyes. Rather, at that moment the initiated disciples of the Lord “passed,” as we have been taught, “from flesh to spirit” by the transformation of their senses, which the Spirit wrought in them, and so they saw that  ineffable light, when and as much as the Holy Spirit’s power granted them to do so. [Gregory Palamas, The Saving Work of Christ: Sermons by Saint Gregory Palamas (p. 43). Mount Thabor Publishing. Kindle Edition].

Gregory speaks of such mystical encounters coming as a result of contemplation: 

Those who behold God in divine contemplation need no other light, for He alone is the light of those who live forever. What need is there for a second light when they have the greatest light of all? Thus, while He was praying, He became radiant and revealed this ineffable light in an indescribable way to the chosen disciples in the presence of the most excellent of the prophets, that He might show us that it is prayer which procures this blessed vision, and we might learn that this brilliance comes about and shines forth when we draw near to God through the virtues, and our minds are united with Him. It is given to all who unceasingly reach up towards God by means of perfect good works and fervent prayer, and is visible to them. Everything about the blessed divine nature is truly beautiful and desirable, and is visible only to those whose minds have been purified. Anyone who gazes at its brilliant rays and its graces, partakes of it to some extent, as though his own face were touched by dazzling light That is why Moses’ countenance was glorified when he spoke with God (Exod. 34:29).  [The Saving Work of Christ: Sermons by Saint Gregory Palamas (p. 44). Kindle Edition].

According to Gregory, to have this experience one must put oneself in a position to encounter the unveiled Christ so that we too might behold his glory. Something similar is true for Paul as well, the light that shines in the darkness is Christ as one beholds the face of Jesus.

            Transfiguration Sunday serves as an invitation to see Jesus with unveiled faces, to set aside the distractions of this world, and to see, if only for a moment, a glimpse of Jesus’ full  divinity. As we do so we can participate in the divine energies, moving us toward union with God in Christ. As Athanasius declared, God became human so that humans might be God—not in the sense that we share the divine essence, but through mystical experience of God’s light, we can experience union with God. In this, may the light shine bright, bringing hope to our world.    

                          

 Image Attribution: Latimore, Kelly. Transfiguration, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57114 [retrieved February 6, 2021]. Original source: https://kellylatimoreicons.com/contact/.

For the Sake of the Gospel – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 5B (1 Corinthians 9)

1 Corinthians 9:16-23 New Revised Standard Version

16 If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! 17 For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. 18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.

19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

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                Being that I’m a member of the professional class of Christians. That is, I make my living by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Now, I could justify myself a bit by suggesting that I’m paid to do the work of the ministry so that I don’t need another job. In other words, my salary and benefits allow me the freedom to share in the ministry of the church without the distraction of another form of employment. I should note that there is a lot of discussion about the sustainability of full-time ministry. Of course, it’s possible to do the work of the ministry without getting paid for it, or at least not paid full-time. Paul himself is often lifted up as an example of “tent-making” ministry. There are benefits to such a ministry. You are freer to say what you think needs to be said without the fear of losing your job. That was true for Paul as well. Then again, the point of preaching the Gospel is gaining a hearing.  

                As we near the close of the season of Epiphany, a season that focuses on sharing the light of Christ with the world, we encounter this reading from I Corinthians 9 designated for the fifth Sunday of Epiphany. In it, we hear Paul claim that while he could have derived an income from preaching the gospel, he chose to do so free of charge. While he doesn’t charge those who hear the message, he does feel a bit of compulsion from God to preach the gospel. In this, Paul is like most prophets. They may serve reluctantly, but they serve because they can do no other. They’ve been called, and so they deliver the messages entrusted to them. Perhaps this why Paul speaks of himself as being a slave to this calling. Therefore, whatever reward he might receive is due to his ability to offer it to his listeners free of charge, even though it is within his rights to receive financial support from them.  

                While he may be free, he has become a slave to all so that he might win his hearers to the Gospel. He becomes all things to all people, so he can win some over to the way of Jesus. Therefore, when it comes to the Law, he may feel that he is no longer bound to live under the Law, he chooses to abide by the Law to reach those within the Jewish community who continue to abide by the Law. The reference to the weak here underscores what we read in chapter 8, regarding food restrictions. It would seem that Paul no longer feels bound by the dietary laws of Judaism, but he’ll continue to abide by them so he can win over his Jewish audience. More specifically, he is proposing a Gospel that transcends the categories prescribed by the culture—thus, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, weak and strong. The only category not mentioned in this particular passage is male and female (see Gal. 3:28). Such a message could have been perceived as challenging.

                When it comes to preaching challenging messages, we need to make sure put ourselves in a position to be heard. For Paul that meant offering the message free of charge. That may not be true for us, but trust needs to be built for the message to be heard. I would guess that Paul had built at least a degree of trust in the Corinthian congregations. With this in mind, we might attend to this word from Lisa Cressman:

We want the gospel to spread to the ends of the earth, right? For that to happen, the gospel needs to be heard. If people tune out or dismiss a sermon because they feel defensive, shamed, or that we’re pushing them to pull down their beloved skies, they’re less likely to listen. They’ll tune us out, open their phones to check social media, or argue with us in their heads. Regardless, they’re not hearing the gospel. [The Gospel People Don’t Want to Hear, p. 48].

For Paul, gaining a hearing meant becoming all things to all people. That is, he embraced an adaptive form of missiology.

                As he describes his methodology, Paul speaks of adapting himself to the cultural context in preaching the Gospel even if he doesn’t feel bound by that context. However, we need to be careful that we don’t simply apply to Paul modern church growth concepts. He’s not saying that the end justifies the means. This isn’t an argument for “relevance.” A close reading of this letter to the Corinthian church reveals that Paul has strong beliefs that ground his message. A better way to view this is to think in terms of embodying the message. He might have discovered certain freedoms in Christ through his proclamation of the Gospel among the Gentiles that he is willing to relinquish to remain in fellowship with Jews whom he hopes to draw into the community of Jesus.  

                In making his message known, Paul exchanges his freedom for the status of a slave. In the Roman world, one was either slave or free. In that congregation, some members were slaves, and some were free. Paul, though free, identifies himself with those who are slaves. Ironically, Paul takes a bit of pride in his decision to take up this lower status for the sake of the Gospel. Ultimately, however, for Paul, he preaches because he can do no other. Thus, as Charles Campbell puts it:

“Paul’s emphasis on the divine
commission to preach (vv. 16-17) theologically creates space for anyone to
proclaim the gospel when God has laid an obligation on them. Ironically, Paul
might be considered the patron saint of all those whose calling to preach has
been challenged by the church. After all, Paul’s own preaching credentials were
themselves being challenged by the Corinthians—and he defines himself, like
women have done throughout history, on the basis of his calling.”
 [Belief: 1 Corinthians, p. 156].

Campbell’s reflections on Paul’s sense of calling reminds me of friends and colleagues who are women whose calling has been challenged. I think here of Aimee Semple McPherson, a powerful evangelist who launched her own denomination, though she had to overcome many barriers to fulfill her calling. Her response to her critics was that God had called her, and so she could do no other. I think of my friend Sarah Barton who wrote of her own sense of call to preach in a tradition that has kept women from the pulpit. She tells her story in her
book A Woman Called, which has inspired many women in her tradition to answer the call they’ve received. Paul makes the same claim here. He preaches because he must. By taking up this task that has been placed upon him, and adapting himself for that task, for the sake of the Gospel he preaches, therefore, he shares in its blessings.

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.

*******

                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!