Category: revised common lectionary

Getting Ready for the Day of the Lord — A Lectionary Reflection for Advent 1B (1 Corinthians 1)

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 
New Revised Standard Version

1 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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                It is time to restart the liturgical cycle with the First Sunday of Advent. Because Paul doesn’t give any attention to the birth of Jesus, Pauline readings for Advent will be eschatological in nature. They speak not of the first advent, but the second. Paul’s message tends to be deeply apocalyptic, in that he believed that Jesus would soon breakthrough and establish the kingdom of God/new creation. Therefore, he focuses on preparing the communities he founded for the Day of the Lord.

                The lectionary reading from the first chapter of 1 Corinthians begins in verse 3, though I’ve included the opening verses for context. Paul begins, as he often does, with a word of thanksgiving to God for this community that he had only recently founded. He offers this word of grace as a representative of “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” This is a message for people who are called to watch and wait. Isn’t that an appropriate message for the Advent season, which continually calls us to slow down during the frenzy of the season leading up to Christmas? Even in a season that is being affected by a pandemic, is still filled with stuff to do. So, as we wait (are we doing this patiently?)  Paul delivers a message rooted in God’s faithfulness.

                As Paul opens up this letter, which at times, is anything but joyful, he wants them to know that as they wait for the coming Day of the Lord, they have everything they need as they begin this journey. They have been enriched in Christ in every way. Nothing has been held back. They have “knowledge” (gnosis) and they have “speech” (logos). Finally, every spiritual gift necessary to fulfill their calling. Of course, as the letter proceeds, we will discover that they struggle with how they understand and implement these gifts. They tend to focus on themselves rather than the body as a whole. Thus, as Charles Campbell points out, this word about God’s provision is true, but for Paul “these words of thanksgiving can be said only ironically, with a tone that subverts the Corinthians’ trust and assurance in these gifts, which have themselves become divisive” [1 Corinthians, Belief, p. 26]. Thus, whatever message of thanksgiving is present here, it is offered with a bit of uncertainty on Paul’s part. He knows that this is going to be a tough letter.   

                While it’s easy to give this early Christian community a hard time for their behavior, we need to be careful if we choose to point fingers. It’s helpful to remember that these are relatively new believers. Most of the members of the congregation are recently converted Gentiles who don’t have the same history and background as Jesus followers who are Jewish. They may have brought spiritualities and religious practices with them that didn’t mesh well with the Gospel. Our contemporary congregations, many of which have a long history and are filled with people who have inhabited them for decades can be just as troubled as this congregation. 

                One of the big issues that impacted the Corinthian community was the place of the ego. Perhaps it’s a cultural flaw, but humility doesn’t appear to be a strong personality trait in this community. Members of the community seem to embrace the idea that particular gifts, mainly speaking in tongues, held great value. If you had the gift, then you were a person of importance (chapters 12-14).  While Paul doesn’t have any issues with the gift itself and likely introduced it to them—as one gift among many—at least
some members of this community held it up as the gift sine qua non. Paul, however, who claimed to speak in tongues than any of them, disagreed. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Here in this passage, Paul simply broaches the point, reminding them that they are all sufficiently gifted to fulfill their calling. Later, he will develop this further, emphasizing the need to under that everyone is gifted. That is, they are all part of one body, and every part of the body is important (1 Cor. 12:12-27).

                Here in the opening verses of the letter, Paul offers some hints about the kinds of questions he’s going to take up in the letter, one of which had to do with spiritual giftedness. This conversation set in a word of encouragement. Paul wants them to embrace the faithfulness of God as they prepare for what lies ahead. Again, they have what they need as they await the return of Christ. Even if we don’t share Paul’s eschatological timeline, as Matt Gaventa writes: “In a contemporary landscape in which few Christians are immune from the pressures of achievement—whether preachers longing for elocution, or congregations longing for knowledge, or any of us in late Christendom longing for some revitalizing gift of the Spirit—Paul’s words come as an arresting reminder of God’s provision. We already have everything we need.” [Connections, p. 10].     

                Paul’s goal here, as I’ve noted, is preparing this community for the Day of the Lord. The end result of this preparation is enjoying fellowship with Jesus. While the Day of the Lord is often envisioned as a moment of judgment (Matthew 25), that part of the story is not front and center here in these verses. Paul wants to present them as being blameless on the day of the Lord, so perhaps that’s assumed. Nevertheless, at least at this point, the letter wants to begin on a positive note. I sense that what Paul means by blameless here is not perfection but maturity. This is a community, that as the letter reveals, shows a lot of spiritual immaturity. So, he invites them to consider what it means to be in fellowship with Jesus. He wants them to know that God is faithful, so as they prepare is to come, they’re not taking this journey alone. Instead, they’re invited to be in partnership with Jesus. Is not that true for us as well? 

                As we begin this journey through Advent, may we be prepared to join Jesus in partnership. May we set aside the pettiness that keeps us from enjoying true fellowship with Jesus. We might not have quite the same sense of apocalyptic expectation as Paul and these early Christians, but surely, we understand the importance of always being prepared for the coming of God’s realm in its fulness. If we embrace this understanding, we can also find encouragement in the message that we have been provided the spiritual gifts necessary to fulfill this calling. 

Heirs of the Realm – A Lectionary Reflection for Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday (Ephesians 1)

 

 

Ephesians 1:11-23  
New Revised Standard Version

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.

15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

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                It is Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday. The year-long journey that began with the promise of Advent has come to its conclusion. We’ve heard the stories of Christ’s birth, his baptism, death, and resurrection. Then, after we celebrated his ascension, we waited patiently with the church in Jerusalem for the coming of the Spirit like a mighty wind to empower the body of Christ so that it might embody the Gospel of Jesus in word and deed. The journey culminates with an eschatological celebration of the reign of Christ. We will continue this cycle until the day when the realm of God comes in its fulness.

                The second reading from the lectionary designated for this last Sunday of the liturgical year comes from the first chapter of Ephesians. As to the identity of the author, that has long been disputed. The mainstream scholarly consensus suggests that it is a later document written in the name of Paul. I tend to follow that consensus, though I don’t feel compelled to take a firm position on the question. But, if you’re interested in this question, I will point you to my discussion of the issue in my Participatory Study Guide for Ephesians, (pp. 2-7).

                As for this reading, it closes with a prayer on the part of the author, that asks for wisdom to be given to the readers of the letter, so that they might, with enlightened eyes, know the hope to which God has called them, a hope that brings with it “the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints” (vv. 17-18). The closing words of the prayer affirm the power of God that is at work in Christ because God raised him from the dead and “seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.” With that declaration, we can join in singing “All the power of Jesus’ Name!”

                In this declaration, Paul affirms both the resurrection and the ascension of Jesus.  Now seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, Jesus reigns with God, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” Having given dominion to Jesus, God has also “put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the
church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” This is the key to the message of this passage. Jesus has been given authority over the church. He is its head, its source, its ruler. This is an appropriate message for Christ the King Sunday. It is a moment that is summed up by hymns such as “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name!” Yes, “let angels prostrate fall, bring forth the royal diadem, and crown him Lord of all” [Edward Perronet].  We can sing with Isaac Watts “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun does its successive journeys run; his love shall spread from shore to shore till moons shall wax and wane no more.”

                In this word, the church is reminded that it is not just an institution. It is the very body of Christ who reigns with God on high. And as the body of Christ, it is to embody all that is Christ for us. We also receive this word as the church, that we are heirs of Christ. To be in Christ is to be destined to live for Christ’s glory. We needn’t take this in a hard and fast determinist way. The concern of the moment isn’t the destiny of individuals (that’s a very modern concept). The reference here is to the church, the body of Christ. The church is destined to live for Christ’s glory. Not only would we be well served not to read this in an individualistic manner, but we should read it eschatologically. This is meant to be read as a promise, that in the end, all things will belong to God, for there will be a restoration of all things.

                Having been destined for Christ’s glory, we are then told that “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; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory” (vv. 13-14). We have been marked with the seal of the promised Spirit of God. This is most likely a reference to baptism, but whether that is true or not, as Karl Barth notes this sealing in the Spirit “brings to mind a contract, which is legally valid by virtue of the seal that the contracting party places on the document”  [The Epistle to the Ephesians, p. 121]. Because God has sealed this contract with the presence of the Spirit, then God guarantees its fulfillment. It is, Barth writes, “as certain as if it were already fulfilled because he is the one who made the promise.” Therefore “the future is already present for those who are sealed with the Spirit, which is why Paul can speak about the future in terms of the present, as he does here” [Barth, p. 122-123].

                Again, we need not be determinist in our reading of the message here. We can receive this word in an open and relational manner, affirming that while the future may be open, God will pursue God’s purpose (not coercively, but persuasively) to its culmination so that the reign of Christ might come in its fullness. Paul writes to the readers of the letter, whether in Ephesus or elsewhere, affirming that they are the first fruits of God’s promise. Thereby, they are heirs of the promise, which in the end is to participate in the restoration of all things, as Christ fills all. While we may not see this reign fully expressed at the moment, we can embrace it in our lives and our ministries. We can be expressions of Christ’s reign in the pursuit of justice and peace in a world torn by hate, greed, tribalism, and more. Therefore, may Jesus reign wherever the sun does shine!

Belonging to the Daylight – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 24A (1 Thessalonians 5)

 

 

 

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 New Revised Standard Version

 

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

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                The Day of the Lord, when Christ returns (Parousia), for his people (1 Thess.4:13-18), will come without warning, just like a thief in the night. The analogy Paul uses here of the thief coming in the night is well-known in
certain circles that insist that we are living in the last days. The reference has apocalyptic elements, which were developed for full effect in a movie by that title made back in the 1970s with the title A Thief in the Night that proved rather popular (strangely enough, I don’t remember seeing it).

                Paul uses this image of a thief coming in the night because it catches one’s eye. We understand the implications. If you know when the thief is going to strike, you will be ready. Of course, thieves don’t give warnings. They don’t call ahead to tell us the time and location they intend to make their entry. They also don’t generally come during the day (bank robbers are not in view here), because they could easily be seen. At night, they can wear dark clothing and skulk about in the shadows. When they find a weak spot, they can get in and out without anyone knowing the difference (unless you have a very effective security system that wasn’t available in the first century). At least that’s how it works in the movies! The image, therefore, underscores the unexpected nature of Jesus’ return.

                What we read here is a continuation of the message Paul delivered in 1Thessalonians 4:13-18. In that reading, Paul gives us a few details about what the moment of Christ’s return would look like. On that day, Jesus will return in the clouds and the dead in Christ will rise first, after which the believers who are alive will join them for the grand procession. Paul offered that message as a word of encouragement to a community worried about those who had died before the Day of the Lord. While Jesus might come as a thief in the night, without warning, Paul wants the Thessalonian believers to be ready when that moment comes.

                One must be ready  for the sudden appearance of Jesus, like in the thief in the night, but believers should live in the light as children of the day and not the night. The assumption here is that evil takes place under the cover of darkness when things go bump in the night. Keep in mind that the action in most horror movies under the cover of darkness. There is a clear dualism at work here, with light and darkness, day and night, contrasted. Thus, daylight is when we are awake, but we sleep at night. Here, we’re not supposed to sleep. The night is also the time when people get drunk. Believers, on the other hand, are supposed to be sober,
not drunk.   

                What Paul is doing here is reinforcing the apocalyptic message he had earlier delivered. He has offered them a word of encouragement concerning the dead in Christ (they will rise first). However, Paul is concerned that in the interim, they might grow complacent. If this happens then they could easily fall back into old Gentile habits (living in the night). That concern is revealed in Paul’s reference to those who speak of “peace and security,” a watchword of the Empire, which placed those words on some of its coins. This may be the message of the Empire, but Paul warns against taking it to heart because to do so leads to destruction. Paul uses the metaphor here of a pregnant woman whose labor pains come without warning. When they begin, there is no going back. The same is true of the coming of the Lord. So, don’t get complacent. Be ready!

                All of this is rooted in Jewish apocalyptic though, which offers a dualism of light and darkness, earthly realm versus the heavenly realm. As George Parsenios notes, “the hostility between the two realms is most obvious in Paul’s use of the imagery of armor in verse 8. This armor, though, is also the basis of the Thessalonians escape from judgment because the helmet that arms them is the ‘hope of salvation.’” [Feasting on the Word, p. 305]. The reference to armor is similar, but not as developed as that found in Ephesians 6:10-17. It should be noted that this armor is not something we choose, but is something received. In any case, Paul is preparing them for spiritual warfare that includes salvation that is received through Christ who died for us. As we hear this message of spiritual warfare, it’s worth noting that, as Ron Allen and Clark Williamson write: “Given the fervor for supporting national wars that sometimes uncritically sweeps through Christian communities, it is worth noting that the breastplate and helmet are to protect the wearer and are not instruments of killing” [Preaching the Letters without Dismissing the Law, p. 101].

                While the Day of the Lord will come, according to Paul, the Thessalonians, if they keep alert and stay in relationship with Jesus, they will receive the gift of salvation. They will not be subject to God’s wrath, God’s judgment. It is good to remember as Allen and Williamson remind us, this apocalyptic message isn’t a “pie in the sky” sentiment. For Apocalyptic theologians, like Paul, the Day of the Lord was understood to be the means by which “God would set things right for people who had been denied blessing in the present evil age—for example, the poor, the enslaved, those who suffered injustice and violence” [Preaching the Letters, p. 101]. We might not embrace a full apocalyptic vision, but we must recognize the need for God to set things right, lest we not take seriously the realities of our age. For those of us who have universalist tendencies, we need to be careful that we don’t deny the possibility of God’s judgment. To do so might lead to the belief that there are no ultimate consequences of our actions.  

                Even as the previous reading from chapter 4 concluded with a call to encourage one another with this message, so does this portion. Paul wants them to encourage one another and build each other up with this message that believers are not destined for wrath but for salvation in Christ who died for us. With that, we can know that whether awake or asleep we will ultimately live with him, for as we learned in chapter 4, Jesus will gather us up. The challenge here, especially for Christians living in the United States, we must be careful not to receive

He’s Coming Back – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 23A (1 Thessalonians 4)

 

 

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 
New Revised Standard Version

 

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

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                Down through the years, debates have raged over when or if Jesus will return to gather up the saints. Among the questions asked is whether Jesus will return before or after the millennium (Rev. 20:4-5). There is a third position on this question, in case you’re wondering. Amillennialists avoid the question of a millennium, treating it simply as a metaphor for the church age. Beyond the question of a millennium, there is the question of the timing of the tribulation. Are you pre? Mid? Or Post? There is a multitude of books that will explain how all of this works if you are interested. Truth be told lots of people are interested.

                As a high schooler, I got extremely interested in these speculations. So, I read Hal Lindsey and other prognosticators who were sure that we were living in the Last Days. I was led to believe that Jesus would return around 1988 (a generation after the founding of the state of Israel, according to Lindsey). I also learned that those bar codes that allow us to scan our goods at the grocery store were the mark of the beast, and that before long they would be imprinted on our foreheads and our hands (and you wonder how conspiracy theories find a ready audience among Christians?). Then there is the rapture, an idea that seems to have its roots here in 1 Thessalonians 4. Many attempts have been made to visualize this event. So, as Christians are caught up in the clouds, cars careen off the road and planes fall from the sky because the drivers or pilots have suddenly disappeared.

                So, are you ready to dive into this passage? Or, like many progressive/liberal Protestants would you rather avoid the passage and others like it as if it were the plague? I understand the sentiment. Talk of Armageddon and the like is often troubling, as is the glee with which tales are told of how people are going to die horrific deaths after the Christians are rescued. However, avoiding passages that have been used to support ideas like this might not be wise. That’s because the kind of images that many find present in texts like this have a certain hold on many people. Since there are numerous apocalyptic passages in Scripture they can’t be avoided and beg for interpretation.  

                In the passage before us, Paul and his companions, offer a word of encouragement to a group of believers who are concerned about where they stand with God. More specifically, in light of certain expectations—that Jesus was going to return in the near future—they were concerned about those who had died in the interim. What is their fate? What does Jesus plan for them? Paul offers this brief word in the closing verses of chapter four of his letter to set their minds and hearts at ease. He tells them that he doesn’t want them to be uninformed, so he will give them some more details as to what the future might entail. Remember that this letter comes very early in the life cycle of the Christian community. The movement is a little more than fifteen to twenty years old. Apparently, they didn’t think that they would be long for this world. That can put people on edge. While it can motivate action it can also hinder it. 

                Paul answers the question of the fate of those who have died by letting the Thessalonians know that they need not grieve as if there is no hope. It’s not they shouldn’t grieve their loss, but the nature of their grief should be different from those who live without hope of the resurrection. That is because they could hold on to Jesus’ own death and resurrection. So, don’t worry, God will bring the dead with Jesus. Thus, they can take solace in the hope of Jesus’ triumphant return. This was not a vision shared by all, as seen in the words of people such as Plutarch and Seneca, who essentially encouraged those who grieved to face their mortality with a stiff upper lip. Not so with Paul. [Beverly Gaventa, First and Second Thessalonians, p. 63]. For him, the promise of the resurrection offers a very different sense of things. As Beverly Gaventa writes: “Jesus’ resurrection is not an isolated event, a single rabbit God pulls out of the hat to demonstrate that Jesus is in fact the Christ. The resurrection is directly connected to God’s final triumph and with the lives of all human beings” [First and Second Thessalonians, p. 64].

                To clarify things further, Paul speaks of timing. First, the dead will rise, and then the living, not the other way around. Using very apocalyptic language, Paul writes that the Lord will issue the command and then with the archangel’s call and God’s trumpet sounding, Jesus will descend from heaven and meet the dead in Christ who rise first. The descent from heaven and the sounding of the trumpet are common visions found in apocalyptic texts. When we hear about a trumpet here, think of royal trumpeters letting the people know that the monarch is arriving. As for the references to angels and in this case archangels, these are common in apocalyptic texts (see Daniel and Revelation). Though, in this case, Paul doesn’t identify the archangel.

                Unless you are used to being with people who embrace apocalyptic visions, this language might be unfamiliar and even bewildering. While this isn’t true for me due to my own experiences in contexts where this kind of language was common, I can understand how bewildering this might be to some who don’t have my background. It all might seem like watching a TV show like Grimm.

                As for the living in the Thessalonian church and beyond, at the time of the “coming of the Lord” (Parousia) they will be caught up in the air so they too might be with Jesus forever. This is where the idea of the rapture idea comes into play. The word itself is not present in scripture but the idea surely is. Modern speculation might be somewhat off-center, but you can understand where it comes from. In fact, in the subsequent chapter, things get a bit more specific. Though at the same time Paul warns against getting caught up in trying to figure out when and where this will take place. Know that his return will be similar to the coming of a thief in the night—unexpectedly! (1 Thess. 5:1-2).

                A text like this may seem strange to many in the church. We don’t have the same sense of expectation that the second coming, the Parousia, is close at hand. We’re too far out from these early moments. It’s not that there is no expectation, we’re just not quite as on edge as these believers were. At the same time, it’s understandable that a community under duress, which appears to be true for them, would find a certain comfort in the expectation that Jesus would return in their lifetimes to set things right. Nevertheless, the text does offer a reminder of the strong eschatological dimension to the Christian faith. There is an expectation that is rooted in the message of Jesus and Paul that a day of judgment, a final accounting, will take place. We might not know the times and seasons (1 Thess. 5:1) with any precision, but that’s the expectation. While we’re still a few weeks out from Advent, that is one of the elements of the season. We don’t just observe Advent as preparation for the coming of the baby Jesus. Advent speaks also, and very profoundly, of that second coming spoken of here.

                Perhaps the word we can take from this passage is that death will not have the last word. Whether living or dead at the coming of Christ in triumph, we will experience resurrection. This is a promise to take hold of, not as an escape from reality, but as empowerment to live boldly (though Paul would have us live rather quiet lives, living holy lives and behave properly to those outside the community of faith—1 Thess. 4:11-12). As Paul notes in verse 18, let us encourage each other with these words of hope in the resurrection.

The Crown of Glory – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 22A (1 Thessalonians 2)

 

1 Thessalonians 2:9-20  New Revised Standard Version

9 You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10 You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. 11 As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, 12 urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

13 We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers. 14 For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone 16 by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus, they have
constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has
overtaken them at last.

17 As for us, brothers and sisters, when, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face. 18 For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, wanted to again and again—but Satan blocked our way. 19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 Yes, you are our glory and joy!

 

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                Paul speaks to the Thessalonians as a father speaks to his children (vs. 11). What we are tasked by the Lectionary to read/reflect upon here (vs. 9-13) is a continuation of the reading from the previous week, where Paul revealed that God had entrusted the gospel to them (Paul and companions). Thus, the reading here reinforces the earlier message concerning their mission in Thessalonica and beyond. Paul affirms their being witnesses, along with God, of the diligence with which Paul and his companions proclaimed the Gospel in Thessalonica. As noted in the opening verses of the chapter, Paul reminded them that he and his companions hadn’t proclaimed the gospel with false motives or out of concern for financial gain. They didn’t even take advantage of their rights as apostles (vs. 5-7). In other words, they weren’t hirelings. They were servants of God’s mission in the world.  

                As noted, the Revised Common Lectionary limits the reading for the week to verses 9-13. It’s understandable that verses 14-16 are omitted (there are unfortunate words regarding the Jews), but it seemed to be important to take a look at the remainder of the chapter to better understand Paul’s words here in verses 9-13.

The centerpiece of this week’s reading is the nature of the Gospel proclamation. Paul commends the Thessalonians for receiving their message not as a human word, but as the word of God. In describing their message as a divine rather than human word, Paul isn’t implying that their message was somehow inerrant or infallible (these categories are rather modern and thus not something Paul would have even considered). Rather they were speaking to their belief that God’s word had been made known in Thessalonica through their ministry. In other words, God speaks through human voices and words. There is good news here. The word has been heard and embraced by some (that’s the locus of the selected reading), but there is also opposition (the remainder of the chapter). Both exist and must be addressed. In the end, however, Paul commends them as being his crown when Jesus returns.

                The concept of the “word of God” is problematic. That’s because too often this phrase is applied solely to Scripture, when in fact the phrase is used in multiple ways. First and foremost, the term Word (Gk. Logos) is used in reference to Jesus, who is understood to be the Word (Logos) of God incarnate (Jn.1:1-14). In several places in the Book of Acts, the phrase is used in terms of the proclamation of the Gospel. That is the case here, where Paul has in mind the act of preaching/proclamation. The variety of ways this phrased is used has led me to embrace Karl Barth’s well-known articulation of the principle of the “three-fold Word of God.” As I’ve noted in a book on this question, Barth has proven very helpful in my own theological journey. Barth writes in the first volume of his Church Dogmatics

Proclamation is human speech in and by which God Himself speaks like a king through the mouth of his herald, and which is meant to be heard and accepted as speech in and by which God Himself speaks, and therefore heard and accepted in faith as divine decision concerning life and death, as divine judgment and pardon, eternal Law and eternal Gospel both together. [Church Dogmatics, 1:1:52].

Of course, Barth, and I assume Paul would agree, recognizes that not all preaching reflects God’s message. However, both men recognize that God can speak through human messengers, and thus preaching can be a conduit of God’s word.  

                Having made this clear, speaking as a father to his children, Paul urges the readers to live lives worthy of God, “who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (vs. 12). This is a good place to pause and note that while Paul places great emphasis on God’s grace received by faith, he is also concerned about conduct (behavior), which might be understood as works. Therefore, he gives thanks that the Thessalonians received their word as the word of God and that this word is at work in their midst.

                Having taken note of this gracious word on Paul’s part, we now must take note of a most problematic word concerning the Jews. In verses 14-16 Paul commends them for being imitators of the churches in Judea who had suffered persecution from “the Jews,” even as they were suffering similarly.  We need to remember that contextually Paul understands his message being directed at reaching Gentiles. He finds any interference in that work problematic (at the very least). This leads to an unfortunate rebuke of his fellow Jews, who had opposed the Churches in Judea and had done the same in Thessalonica. If we remember that this letter was written several decades before the Book of Acts, we might want to take note of Acts 17, where Luke tells us of Paul and Silas’ visit to Thessalonica. In that passage, Paul is said to go and preach in the synagogue concerning Jesus. While some followed Paul, along with devout Greeks and leading women, “the Jews became jealous,” and along with some ruffians in the community attacked Jason for hosting them. That led Paul to head off to Berea and then Athens. This might be what Paul is referring to, but we can’t be certain.

                Living in a post-Shoah world, where the murder of millions of Jews along with others, has forced the church to be attentive to texts that have been and can be used to justify persecution and even murder of Jews. In a sidebar in the Jewish Annotated New Testament, we read this reminder: “These verses present a succinct summary of classical Christian anti-Judaism: the Jews killed Jesus, persecuted his followers, and threw them out of the synagogues; they are xenophobic and sinners, and God has rejected and punished them. The harshness of these words raises questions about Paul’s attitude toward his fellow Jews” [Jewish Annotated New Testament, p. 374].

There have been suggestions among scholars that this sounds less like Paul and more like a later Gentile scribal insertion. While that makes some sense, especially since it doesn’t fit well with what Paul writes in Romans 9-11, where he affirms that God has not rejected the Jewish people. The problem with this suggestion is that there is no textual support for such a conclusion. In any case, whether these are Paul’s words or not, unfortunately, the damage has been done and the passage can be and has been used to justify anti-Jewish views and behavior. It would seem that Paul is trying to encourage his spiritual children to persevere in the face of
opposition and even persecution. Contextually, this might be understandable when one is in a minority position. However, in a different context, when Jews are the minority voice, this can be dangerous.

                Having commended them for hearing and embracing their message as God’s word to them, and having encouraged them as they experience persecution, the chapter closes with Paul letting the community know that he wants to visit them. Unfortunately, Satan had blocked their way time and again. The reference to Satan’s interference reminds us that Paul viewed the world in supernaturalist/apocalyptic terms.  As John Byron notes: “Although Paul does not explain what Satan did to hinder him, he has an acute sense that his freedom of movement was curtailed, and viewing the situation on a supernatural level, determined that Satan was interfering with the seen world.” [Benjamin E. Reynolds. The Jewish Apocalyptic Tradition and the Shaping of New Testament Thought (p. 249). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition]. Despite the supernatural interference (however that transpired), Paul celebrates their faith. They are his hope and joy, and the “crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming.” That is, when Jesus comes in his glory to judge the living and the dead, Paul can stand before Jesus and point to them as being his crown of glory and joy!  

Finals Week – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 21A (Matthew 22)

Matthew22:34-46 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) 

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they
gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” 
 
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 
 
42 “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 
 
44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet”’? 
 

45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” 46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
 
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            If you’ve been to college, or even experienced high school, you likely know the meaning of the words “Final’s Week.”  That’s the dreaded week that papers are due and major tests are given. If you’re lucky your professor won’t give a comprehensive test, but only one that covers the material presented since the last test. Looking back to the tests I gave as a professor, I didn’t put greater wait on the final that the other tests.  I did, however, require students to take and pass the final in order to pass the class. 
 
As Matthew’s story nears its end the tension has risen. Jesus is now teaching in Jerusalem, and his opponents are close at hand. In other words, it’s “Final’s Week” and lots of tests are being given.  Interestingly enough, while his political and religious opponents are putting him to the test, Jesus turns the tables on them and gives them tests as well.  You might say this has become a “test of wills.”  As the stories pile up, it seems that Jesus is coming out better in his tests than his opponents in theirs. 
 
            The passage for the week begins with  an acknowledgment that the Sadducees had failed in their attempt to flunk Jesus. Now it was the Pharisees’ turn. They send a lawyer to Jesus, and the lawyer asks him to name the greatest commandment. Which commandment is the most important?  You would think that the lawyer would come up with a more difficult question because every Jew knew the answer, and so as a good Jew Jesus would have to know the answer.  The answer is found in the Shema, which declares that there is only one God (a declaration omitted in Matthew) and that one should love God with one’s heart, soul, and might (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).  It shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus was fast with his answer – though in Matthew might is replaced by mind, following the Septuagint.    
 
Then he adds a second commandment – one that had not traditionally been linked to the Shema – “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This second commandment draws from Leviticus 19:18.  Jesus declares that upon these two laws, which he raises to near equal status, are the basis for everything else found in the Law (Torah) and the Prophets. In other words, this is the essential message of Judaism as Jesus understood it:  You should love God with your entire being, and your neighbor as yourself.  There is both the vertical and the horizontal axis upon which faith is founded. Thus, Jesus heard the question and answered appropriately, passing his final. 
 
            Digging deeper it is appropriate to ponder the relationship between the two commands.  It seems clear that the two commands organize the Ten Words or Commandments.  The first table focuses on the relationship with God and the second table the relationship within the community.  Whatever we read in the Ten simply expand what we read in the Two.  You might even call them commentary.   But then this wasn’t really a new insight.  Jesus was simply showing he understood the Torah!  If he understands the message, what about you and me?
 
            I have long seen the two commandments as being two dimensions of the Gospel message.  As noted above there is the vertical — the relationship one has with God – and the horizontal – the relationship one has first with the church and then with the larger world.  Both dimensions are needed – the vertical and the horizontal.  They provide balance.  Focusing on only the vertical makes us “so heavenly minded that we’re of no earthly good.” Focusing on the horizontal, our relationships with one another, cuts us off from the power source that allows us to go deeper into the relationship and expand outward into the community.  To fully be a follower of Jesus we need both. 
 
            Having answered their question, Jesus has a question of his own for his inquisitors.  This question is a tough one. It requires significant theological reflection to answer.
 
Remember how Jesus had been hailed as Son of David as he entered the city (Palm Sunday)?  Not everyone was pleased. In fact, that event led his opponents to up their opposition, lest Jesus bring the wrath of their Roman overlords down on them. It was clear that Jesus was a threat to the status quo. To hail him as Son of David or Messiah had political implications. The people were calling for him to take over the country – to reinstate the Davidic kingdom that had come to an end with the exile centuries before.  But is this how Jesus understood his mission?
 
            In posing question, Jesus asks the questioners to define the true identity of the Messiah?  In other words, whose son is he really?  Is there a one to one connection between the Messiah, the one whose coming many awaited, and David?  What Jesus was doing was asking them to consider what kind of person the Messiah would be?  If the Son of David, would he be a warrior king who would drive out the Romans and set up an earthy kingdom?  It’s clear that many hoped that Jesus was that one, but his message didn’t fit that scenario.  In posing his question, Jesus sets the stage by quoting from the Psalmist and noting that the Psalmist, who is presumed to be David, calls the Messiah Lord.  If, therefore, the Messiah is Lord of David, how can he be David’s son (Psalm110:1)?  It’s just not logical.  It’s not the way things are done. So maybe the Messiah is David’s son, but someone else’s?
 
It is important to remember that Matthew starts the Gospel with the statement that Jesus, the Messiah, is the Son of David and the Son of Abraham.  Is Matthew contradicting himself, but having Jesus set aside the relationship to David?  Or is he expanding the notion of Messiah by looking further back to Abraham (Matt. 1:1)?  How would the mission change if Jesus understands himself to be the son of Abraham?  As the son of David, the nature of his messianic realm is that of an earthly kingdom composed of Jews, but as the son of Abraham he is the bearer of blessings to the nations – that is, he brings hope not just to Jews but to Gentiles as well (Genesis 12:1-3)?  In posing his question Jesus is expanding their understanding of the Messiah, by demilitarizing it.  Many messianic pretenders took up arms against Rome. They would all fail – and in the end – Jerusalem itself would be destroyed as a result. But Jesus’ realm transcends these attempts to simply restore an earthly kingdom.  That doesn’t depoliticize it; it simply changes the nature of politics. It’s not about gaining political power over one’s enemies, but rather learning to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.
 

So there is for us a final test question.  It has to do with our own sense of vision of God’s realm. How narrow or how expansive do we envision it to be?  Is it simply about gaining power?  Or is it about bringing the blessings of God – that is reconciliation – to all?  It is important to keep in mind that Jesus achieves his mission, not by staging a military coup but by going to the cross and in doing so conquers the very powers of death that are arrayed against us all.

 
 
Wooden Love Sign, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57756 [retrieved October 6, 2020]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mastababa/2398441001/.

Entrusted with the Gospel — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 21A (1 Thessalonians 2)

Apostle Paul – Rembrandt

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 New Revised Standard Version

2 You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, 2 but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. 3 For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, 4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. 5 As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; 6 nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, 7 though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. 8 So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

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                Having commended the Thessalonians for their receipt of the message of Jesus, as brought to them by Paul and his companions, in chapter one, now Paul speaks of his role in this process in chapter two. He is thankful that the time spent in Thessalonica wasn’t in vain. Even though they had been mistreated at Philippi before they arrived in Thessalonica (see Acts 16 for the report of the imprisonment of Paul and Silas), Paul and his companions courageously (boldly) proclaimed the Gospel in Thessalonica despite great opposition (See Acts 17). Paul makes clear that he and his companions were not deterred by opposition from their task of proclamation.

In this chapter, Paul addresses the question of motives. It’s not clear whether there were questions about his motives, but in any case, he wanted to make it clear that he and his companions hadn’t come to Thessalonica with impure motives or made their appeal for the Gospel through deceit or trickery. Whether or not they had been accused of something, with all the religious/spiritual options that were before the people, surely at least a few of the purveyors of these spiritualities were less than upfront about their motives. Thus, Paul simply wanted to be transparent about who he was and what he and his companions were doing. Thus, Paul wasn’t engaged in people-pleasing religious trickery. He had answered the call of God and was making known the message entrusted to him and his companions by God.

Religion then and now can be a business proposition. Religious organizations offer certain goods in exchange for some form of compensation (after all we take offerings each week and engage in stewardship campaigns). When it comes to compensation provided to religious professionals, I’m not suggesting that we are doing something unethical by receiving salaries or honorariums. Paul himself affirmed the principle in his first Corinthian letter. He might have chosen not to receive financial support from the churches, he noted that the Lord had “commanded that that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel (1 Cor. 9:12-14).  Whatever Paul’s reasons for not making use of his rights, the larger point is that money shouldn’t be the motive for ministry.

As we meditate on this passage it might be that what Paul is claiming here is a recognition that he and his companions had been called to act as stewards of the Gospel. They didn’t invent it nor did they possess it. They were simply tasked with making the message of Jesus known to those who were prepared to listen. With this calling in mind, Paul could speak of being apostles. When Paul speaks here of being apostles, he’s not thinking so much in terms of office by in terms of missionary calling. While Paul does at certain points make it clear that he is an apostle in the formal sense, having been visited and called by Jesus (Gal. 1:11-24), that isn’t what he has in mind here. For not only is he given an apostolic calling, but so have Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy.

                Getting back to motives, Paul notes that in engaging in this work, he wasn’t acting out of greed. This wasn’t a financially lucrative career he had undertaken. He and his companions probably traveled on foot. They faced opposition and even imprisonment. He didn’t own a Lear jet or a massive motor home so he and his crew could travel in comfort. As far as I know, this missionary group didn’t live in mansions either. Most of us who have accepted the call to serve in vocational ministry haven’t done this for the money. Now, I will admit to living a decent middle-class life, but like most of my colleagues, I don’t make the big bucks! That was true for Paul as well.

As for methodology in proclaiming the message, Paul notes that he didn’t use flattery. He was straightforward in his messaging. His preaching came with boldness, in large part because he wasn’t seeking human praise. The only audience he sought approval from was God. Thus, his boldness was rooted in his trust in God.

                While Paul claimed to proclaim the message with boldness; when it came to his relationship to the Thessalonian congregation, he spoke to them with gentleness. It should be noted that some manuscripts suggested that the “were infants among you.” That would suggest not just gentleness, but great vulnerability. As noted by Beverly Roberts Gaventa, the “Greek words for ‘infants’ (Gr. nēipoi) and ‘gentle’ (Gr. ēipoi) consists of a single letter so that a scribe might easily confuse the two words” (Gaventa, First and Second Thessalonians, pp. 26-27). While the scholars are not of one mind, and there are arguments on both sides, for my purposes both possibilities offer a sense of Paul’s softer side. We see this in the following statement, where Paul suggests that they tenderly cared for them as a nurse for her children. Here again, there is an intriguing concept. As Gaventa notes, in that era of ancient history it was quite common for wet nurses to be used—not only for the wealthy but even by slaves (so that they wouldn’t be sidelined from their duties). Whatever the case, wet nurses were both common and beloved in that world. With this in mind, Paul’s use of the concept suggests an “image of loving concern.” But note, Paul refers to a nurse “caring for her own children.” While wet nurses might be beloved figures in the ancient world, the relationship between a nursing mother and her own children was even greater. Thus, “verse 8 serves to unpack what is implicit in the nurse metaphor: the apostles regard the Thessalonians as so dear that they share with them their very selves” [Gaventa, First and Second Thessalonians, pp. 27-28].

                The lectionary reading ends with this maternal image, which Paul uses to describe his own relationship to the community. This was unusual for the era, though not without precedent. The use of this maternal imagery is helpful in understanding Paul’s vision of ministry. His view of ministry isn’t rooted in seeking personal fame or fortune. Rather it is one expressed in deep love and care for the community, which in this case, he birthed. After all, this is his congregation, one he founded. Of course, ultimately, Paul knows that they, as children of God, are dependent not on him, but God alone.  

  Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1606-1669. Apostle Paul, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55240 [retrieved October 18, 2020]. Original source: http://www.nga.gov/fcgi-bin/tinfo_f?object=1198.

Turning from Idols to Serve God – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 20A (1 Thessalonians 1)

 

Statue of Jupiter-Germanicus’ Tomb – Ashmolean

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 New Revised Standard Version

1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,

To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the
Lord Jesus Christ:

Grace to you and peace.

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

 

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                The ancient Greco-Roman World offered many religious options. Gods were plentiful, and the people indulged in serving them. Jews were a peculiar people since they only worshiped one God, considering all others to be mere idols. The Jesus movement, which was rooted in Judaism, embraced the same view of the many religious options present in their world. That made them rather peculiar as well. The difference between the two was the Jesus Movement was more assertive in its outreach to their Gentile neighbors. Over time that would cause problems for them. When we open Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church, we’re taken back to the earliest days of the Jesus Movement. It is the consensus view that this is Paul’s earliest letter, making it the earliest book in the New Testament. If, as is likely, it was written from Corinth around 50 or 51 CE, we are within two decades of Jesus’ death in Jerusalem and subsequent birth of the church on Pentecost. As we know, Paul made Gentiles the focus of his ministry. He might go first to the synagogue, but he was more interested in spreading the gospel to those outside the Jewish community. That of course, led to some conflict between those who embraced the message of Jesus and those who didn’t.

                In these opening lines of Paul’s letter, we hear a word of commendation and encouragement to people who have embraced the message of Jesus as delivered by Paul. They have even become known for their commitment to this message. As for the letter itself, it is written by Paul, together with his companions Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy. The mention made here of Silas is a clue that this was written after the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) when Silas replaced Barnabas as Paul’s companion.  As he often does, Paul writes that he always gives thanks for them in his prayers. These are his people, and he cares about them. Paul also records that they had received a Gospel message that came not only in words but also in the power of the Holy Spirit. He also notes that their reception of the Gospel was due to have been chosen by God. For Paul, conversion always begins with God’s initiative. That doesn’t require some form of predestination, only God’s initiative. Regarding the role of the Spirit, what he has in mind here isn’t clear but suggests that their preaching was accompanied by signs and wonders. 

                The church to whom the letter was written inhabited a major Roman city situated in the province of Macedonia. Thessalonica served as the capital of the province and was a port city, making it not only a governmental center but also a commercial center. Thus, like Corinth, Thessalonica was quite cosmopolitan, drawing residents from across the empire and beyond. It was also a city that was known for its many religious options, including the imperial cult (it was a Roman colony after all), along with Egyptian gods, as well as the cult of Cabrius. This figure supposedly had died and had risen from the dead, which sounds a lot like Jesus. Thus, as William Brosend notes, “when Paul praises the addresses for ‘how you turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God’ (1 Thess. 1:9), he knew that they had made a choice with many alternatives” [Preacher’sBible Handbook, p. 302]. That reality may explain much that goes on in our reading.

                Paul commends them for their steadfastness in faith and for imitating him, as well as his companions, along with the Lord. He speaks of them joyfully receiving the message as inspired by the Holy Spirit so that the “word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia,” as well as every place their faith had been made known. This despite facing persecution. Though the persecution they were facing probably wasn’t legal or violent but entailed resistance to the message. What is clear from the letter as a whole, that it has an overtly eschatological feel. It’s not as prominent here in this first chapter, but as one moves into the letter it gets stronger. He writes with the presumption that Christ should be returning at any moment, and because they had received the word of God, Jesus would rescue them from the “wrath to come.”

                Getting back to their reception of the Gospel message, it seems apparent that the audience of Paul’s letter was a community largely made up of Gentile Christians. Although Paul had begun his ministry in Thessalonica in the synagogue (Acts 17:1-9), it appears from Acts that Paul didn’t get a very positive reception there. Evidence that the community was largely Gentile Christians is revealed in verse nine, where Paul commends them for having “turned to God from idols.” This isn’t something that Paul would have said to Jewish Christians but would make sense when applied to converts from a pagan context. As noted above, Thessalonica offered many religious options for them to choose from. As for them, they had chosen to “serve the true and living God.” Now, they await the coming of the Son of the true and living God, who is coming from heaven (the eschatological dimension), and whom the true and living God raised from the dead. This Jesus rescues the believer from the wrath to come (judgment day). As Fred Craddock and Eugene Boring note, this message represents the “traditional Jewish missionary message of the one God over against pagan idols, the God whose ethical seriousness is manifest in that he will bring all human beings to a final judgment.” They also note that the Jewish monotheistic message attractive to many in the Hellenistic world. As for the Christian proclamation, rooted in this Jewish message, “the living God is the one definitively manifest in Jesus, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, the one through whom God saves at the final judgment.” [People’s New Testament Commentary, p. 639]. While in the modern era, the idea of judgment along with the wrath of God is not well received, this message does make clear the power of an ethical message that insists humans will be held accountable. 

                While the reading ends with the word wrath, the message is one of joy because God has provided a new way of living that is rooted in Jesus rather than dead idols. He commends them for the way they have embodied the message of Jesus so that all of Macedonia and Achaea has heard the message. 

                As we attend to this word from Paul, what is its message for us? If we hear in this a call to turn from idols to God, what idols might we contend with? What is it that we worship instead of God? How does serving these idols affect our relationships with one another and with creation itself? To whom or to what do I give my allegiance? Is it my whiteness? My economic situation? Is it a particular politician or political party (this is election season after all)? What about my being a citizen of the United States? In asking that question, I’m glad I am a citizen of the United States, but does it have the ultimate claim on my life? I wrote a book on the Lord’s Prayer that I titled Ultimate Allegiance because I believe that this prayer repeated by Christians around the globe is itself a pledge of allegiance to God and God’s realm. Whatever I give allegiance to rather than to God and God’s realm, then that becomes my idol. May we join with the Thessalonian believers and turn from our idols and serve the true and living God.

                 

               

Joy in Challenging Times – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 19A (Philippians 4)


Philippians 4:1-9 New Revised Standard Version

4 1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

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                This is one of the most cherished passages in Scripture. Even if you’re not a fan of Paul, You have to embrace his encouragement to rejoice in the Lord always. Though it might seem odd to heed the call to be joyful in challenging times, like what has imposed itself on the world in 2020. While there is a place for lamentation, Paul seems to believe that there is also room for joy in difficult times. After all, he’s writing this letter from a jail cell (Phil. 1:7). So, here in the concluding chapter of Paul’s Philippian letter, written from prison to a community facing some form of persecution, Paul invites them to rejoice in the Lord always. In fact, he doubles down on that invitation, declaring “again I will say, Rejoice” (vs. 4). So, because the Lord is near (I take that to mean Jesus’ return in glory), “do not worry about anything, but in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (vs. 6).

                It’s clear that things aren’t going perfectly in Philippi. There appears to be some conflict going on, but not, it doesn’t seem, at the same level as what we find present in some of Paul’s other letters. Nevertheless, Paul seems to have reason to be concerned, which is why he keeps encouraging these beloved followers of Jesus who formed a church Paul had founded to keep focused on what is true and honorable. As we’ve seen, Paul wants them to keep focused on Jesus, whose humility can be the foundation for their unity (Phil. 2:5-11). He also offers himself as an example (Phil. 3:17).

Here in this concluding chapter, Paul speaks specifically to two women, Euodia and Syntyche, who appear to be at odds. We don’t know the background or nature of the conflict, but Paul wants them to be of the same mind. Therefore, he not only urges them to come together but also asks his unnamed loyal companion—perhaps Epaphroditus, who is mentioned as Paul’s companion and likely member of the Philippian community (Phil 2:25-30)—to help them resolve their differences. I should note that these two women are recognized by Paul as being coworkers with him for the Gospel, so they are important to him. This reality again reinforces the message that whatever Paul has to say about joy and peace in this passage, it is said in the context of challenging times both for him and for the Philippian congregation.

                As noted above, I write this reflection while the world is experiencing its own set of challenges that seem to keep piling on top of each other. First of all, the world is in the midst of a pandemic that has sickened tens of millions and killed hundreds of thousands of those inflicted, with the numbers in the United States outstripping every other country. That same pandemic has forced many of us into forms of isolation we’ve never experienced before. We miss the simple things like going to a restaurant or a movie without fearing the possibility that we might be exposed to the virus. Then there is church, where something as simple and joy-inducing as singing has been put on hold. We are also in the midst of a racial reckoning, that is forcing the nation to wrestle with the implications for our society of the deaths of African Americans at the hands of police (George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others) and vigilantes (Ahmaud Arbery). These deaths have led to months of protests that have yet to let up. We’re also in one of the most contentious and dispiriting election seasons most of us have ever seen. Many Americans fear that we are nearing the end of democracy in this nation. So, how do you find joy in moments like this? Where do you find peace? The answer is certainly not to be found in our cultural context.

                Note that Paul invites them to “rejoice in the Lord” and not in their circumstances. He encourages them to exhibit gentleness in their relationships. He tells them not to worry, but to be in prayer. This isn’t Paul’s version of that Bobby McFerrin song: “Don’t worry, Be Happy.” It’s not a call for blissful ignorance, as if there’s nothing to worry about. Instead, it is an encouragement to put one’s trust in God. Let us remember that Paul is writing this from a prison cell. Death is, perhaps, a possibility. There is persecution of some sort going on. Nevertheless, Paul enjoins them to rejoice in the Lord. As Martin Luther declared in a sermon on this passage, “Joy is the natural fruit of faith.” He continues in the sermon, making mention of Paul’s doubling down on the call to rejoice, declaring:

It is essential that we rejoice. Paul, recognizing that we live in the midst of sin and evil, both which things depress, would fortify us with cheer. Thus rejoicing, even if we should sometimes fall into sin, our joy in God will exceed our sorrow in sin. The natural accompaniment of sin truly is fear and a burdened conscience, and we cannot always escape sin. Therefore we should let joy have rule, let Christ be greater than our sins.  [Martin Luther].

This invocation of joy is powerful, but trusting God isn’t always easy, even for those whom we are told are paragons of faith. My Bible Study group is reading the stories in Genesis about Abraham. While he’s held up in Hebrews 11 as a paragon of faith, if you read the Abraham story closely, Abraham doesn’t always exhibit faith in God. Consider that even though God has promised to provide Abraham a son through Sarah (Genesis 17 and18), in Genesis 20 he passes her off as his sister. Only God’s intervention prevents disaster. Nevertheless, Paul encourages the Philippians to rejoice and let the peace of God, which surpasses understanding, guard their hearts and minds.  

                Though Paul encourages them to put their trust in the God who brings peace to their lives, he’s not encouraging them to be passive in their behavior. The reading closes with a call to action. Paul encourages this beloved community to focus their attention on what is honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and that which is worthy of praise. From there, he asks that the “keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me” (vs. 9). In other words, while he commended them to look to Jesus for a model of the Christian life (Phil. 2:5-11), he’s not afraid to offer himself up as a role model. All of this begins in prayer so that the God of peace might be with us. Therefore, let us rejoice in the Lord, always!

Image attribution: Longview Christian Church. Joyful, joyful, we adore thee, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55774 [retrieved October 4, 2020]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8328367@N08/2949605288.

Proper Confidence – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 18A (Philippians 3)

4b If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 3:4b-14 New Revised Standard Version

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                When we read this passage, it is good to remember that Paul is in prison and that he’s already comfortable with the possibility of his death. “To live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21 KJV). Nevertheless, he believes that it is right for him to go on living for the sake of the beloved community. So, status means nothing to him, or so it seems. To further ground that sentiment, Paul has made it clear that the way of Christ requires humility, for Christ, though in the form of God, thought it not necessary to hold on to that status, but instead took human form and died on the cross (Phil. 2:6-8). Nevertheless, no matter what happens to him, he holds on to the promise of resurrection, which is expressed in the hymn of praise to Christ, whom God exalted (Phil. 2:9-11). Whether alive or dead, what matters most is the gospel. In fact, Paul has made it clear that his current predicament (imprisonment) has helped spread the gospel (Phil. 1:12). Therefore, Paul has asked his readers to live lives worthy of the Gospel (Phil. 1:27).

Having made it clear that living for Jesus in a way that manifests the gospel is his greatest concern, Paul now moves on to the goal of life, and that would be the “heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14). I titled this reflection “Proper Confidence,” because Paul makes it clear where he puts his confidence.  Right at the beginning of the letter, Paul declares: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). Here Paul follows his exposition of the hymn to Christ in Philippians 2 but revealing the status he is willing to let go of to be a follower of Jesus. He puts no confidence in the flesh, or markers on the flesh, including circumcision (and he has been circumcised). He has the right to put his confidence in the flesh. After all, he can claim to have been circumcised on the eighth day, is a member of the nation of Israel, and more specifically the tribe of Benjamin. He’s a Hebrews of Hebrews. When it comes to the law, he’s a Pharisee. When it comes to zeal, he was a persecutor of the church. Not only is he a Pharisee when it comes to the law, but regarding the law he’s blameless. I take that to mean that he follows it closely.  But, apparently, none of that matters to him now because he has found rest for his soul (to borrow a bit from Augustine) in Christ his Lord. In fact, that is all that matters to him, for in Christ Paul has found the culmination of the covenant promises that go back through Moses to Abraham.  

                In chapter 2, Paul broaches the concept of kenosis (emptying). Now, it appears that just as Jesus emptied himself of his divine prerogatives, Paul is doing the same concerning his own status as a Hebrew among Hebrews in the cause of Christ. Though he’s ready to give up these symbols of his status as a Jew, that doesn’t mean he’s rejecting his origins or the covenant promises that are embedded in Judaism. Rather, he no longer puts his confidence in these identity markers. Thus, he lives by faith not by law, for his confidence is placed in Christ and not in his religious affiliations.

                When we read a passage like this, it ought to cause us to examine our search for status. Paul has given up all the status markers that he had inherited and earned. What are mine—My education? My ordination? My gender? My race?  My American citizenship? Here’s the thing, society accredits to me a certain status because I am a White male. That is true as well of my American citizenship. Then there’s my education and ordination. Letting go of these markers of status is not easy. Some of these markers are the accident of birth—my race and gender. Other markers are earned (education and ordination). However, if I understand Paul’s message here, none of that matters. I needn’t feel bad about my identity. I don’t have to reject or diminish my identity. However, in the end, what matters is Christ. He defines who I am as a human being.

That being said, I must add the caveat, because gender and my Whiteness do accrue to me certain benefits. I can try to let go of them, but because they are so rooted in systems, I will still be accorded benefits that persons are not White or male will not be automatically accorded. In other words, I don’t have to worry about being pulled over by the police simply because of race. So, to put it bluntly, while I can put my hope in the heavenly call of God, here on earth, I must acknowledge that all lives will not matter until Black lives matter.

That leads us back to Paul’s proper confidence, which he places in Christ, who is the hope of his own resurrection. He can let go of his privileges because he knows that he is alive in Christ. So, the hope of the resurrection defines his identity. But wait a minute, notice the way Paul phrases his declaration. He uses athletic imagery. He’s pressing forward, like a runner (I’d suggest a long-distance runner rather than a sprinter) in pursuit of the prize. The fact is, to be a good athlete one must make sacrifices. One has to train, and that means giving up certain things. Paul also understands that one cannot rest until the race is over. Thus, as John Chrysostom suggests:

Thus too we should act, we should forget our successes, and throw them behind us. For the runner reckons not up how many circuits he hath finished, but how many are left. We too should reckon up, not how far we are advanced in virtue, but how much remains for us. For what doth that which is finished profit us, when that which is deficient is not added?”

 [John Chrysostom, “Homily XII,” NPNF]  

Image attribution: Resurrection 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=56588 [retrieved September 27, 2020]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:0000_Mosaics_of_Resurrection_of_Christ.JPG – Eugenio Hansen, OFS.