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Mediator of a New Covenant – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 23B (Hebrews 9)

Hebrews 9:11-15 New Revised Standard Version

11 But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), 12 he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!

15 For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.

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                The overarching message of the Book of Hebrews is that Christ is both our perfect high priest and the perfect sacrifice. The calling of this high priest is rooted in the priesthood of the mysterious Melchizedek. This has been a major point of discussion in the previous two lectionary readings (Revised Common Lectionary). As we’ve seen, the danger here is that when Hebrews speaks of the priesthood of Jesus and a new covenant supersessionism creeps in. That is, Christianity is understood as replacing Judaism as God’s covenant people because the covenant Jesus initiates is a better covenant. That has had horrific consequences down through the ages.

                With the danger of supersessionism in mind, we can attend to the message of Hebrews that speaks of the difference between old and new covenants. As I’ve noted in an earlier reflection the contrast doesn’t have to be between Judaism and Christianity, with Christianity replacing Judaism. Rather, Hebrews seems to have a different vision, one that contrasts the earthly and the heavenly. Now the sacrificial/priestly system of ancient Israel does provide the model for the earthly side of the equation, but the interpretive grid here is Platonism. We’ve already established that the author is steeped in some form of Platonism. Therefore, it’s not surprising that there are similarities between what we read in Hebrews and the writings of the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo.

                As we come to this reading from Hebrews 9, we are again told that Jesus is our high priest and that in this role he brings good things to us. While he holds this position, it is interesting that the author doesn’t speak of the Temple in Jerusalem. Instead, the author takes us back to the Book of Exodus and the tent or Tabernacle. Whether or not the author of Hebrews knows the Gospel of John, the reference to the tent here does bring to mind the message of John 1:14, that the Word (Logos) of God became flesh and dwelt (tabernacled) among us.

                Whether or not the Jerusalem Temple still stands when this is written doesn’t seem to matter to the author who takes us further back to that mobile worship space. Thus, Jesus doesn’t enter the Temple. Instead, he enters the Tabernacle where he performs the priestly duties. This tent is not made by human hands. It is not of this creation, which suggests this is a heavenly tent, not an earthly one. That should be a clue to what is going on here. The author’s Platonism seems to be at work here. The earthly tent/temple is a shadow of the heavenly tent/temple. This heavenly tent is where Jesus does his priestly work.

                Not only does Jesus act as priest in this perfect, that is heavenly, tabernacle, but he also offers himself as the sacrifice that brings redemption. Standing behind all of this is the Day of Atonement, the one day of the year when the priest entered the Holy of Holies and offered sacrifices of redemption.  This annual event stands as a shadow or analogy for what Jesus does as both priest and sacrifice.

                If we go back to the beginning of the chapter, which is omitted in this reading designated by the Revised Common Lectionary, we read:

Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year make perfect those who approach. Otherwise, would they not have ceased being offered, since the worshipers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sin? (Heb. 9:1-2).

Note how Hebrews speaks of the law being “a shadow of the good things to come” but it is “not the true form of these realities.” This is Platonism at work. The earthly is the archetype or shadow of the true and perfect heavenly form. As we sometimes say of Platonism that which is in heaven is “the really real.” What Jesus does on the cross is enter the heavenly Tabernacle and perform the priestly duties, which the Jewish priests perform as a way of prefiguring what happens in heaven.

                So, when it comes to the Temple/Tabernacle sacrifices offered by the Levitical priests, it’s not a question of effectiveness. The blood of goats and bulls does sanctify and purify the flesh of those who are defiled, but the blood of Jesus goes further. As we read through Hebrews, it’s important to remember that in the ancient world animal sacrifices were a regular part of life, in Israel and its neighbors. It’s just the way things were—in fact, that’s one of the concerns of I Corinthians, should one eat meat from the pagan sacrifices?

                In any case, when it comes to the blood of Jesus, which is offered without blemish, through the Spirit, purifies the conscience from dead works. While the cross may be in view here, it is not mentioned. What is important to the author is that the ones who are purified of dead works through this act Jesus’ part can now worship the living God. As for the identity of these dead works, Ron Allen and Clark Williamson helpfully note that “the ‘dead works’ should not be confused with the mitzvoth of torah. ‘Dead’ works are not ‘deeds of loving kindness’; they are sins that pollute the conscience” (Preaching the Letters without Dismissing the Law, p. 43].

                 Having defined how Jesus acts as both priest and sacrifice so that in doing so our consciences are purified and we’re now able to worship God with clean consciences, Hebrews moves on to Jesus’ role as “mediator of a new covenant” (v. 15). The reading designated by the Revised Common Lectionary ends in verse 15, though the nature of this covenant and how it is implemented is described in the rest of the paragraph. This covenant, we’re told, requires blood, as is true of all covenants. So, just Jesus’ blood purifies, it becomes the foundation for a new covenant. The idea of a new covenant is rooted in Jeremiah 31, where we are told the new covenant will be written not on stone but on our hearts. Since the reading ends with verse 15 and doesn’t go further, we are simply told that this new covenant that Jeremiah promised is mediated to us by Christ. What is said here is a restating of the earlier declaration in Hebrews 8:6, that Jesus “is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises.” This is where things get tricky. The question is: if God made the first covenant with Israel, why would God need to redo things? Nevertheless, here in chapter 9, the message of the new covenant is that with the new covenant comes the “promised eternal inheritance.” It would seem that the key is the death of Jesus, which “has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.” For Hebrews the difference appears to be that the offering made Jesus is made once for all, offering the ransom that redeems. Therefore, we receive the eternal inheritance.

                As we ponder this word about Jesus’ offering of himself to God fully, we can read this not only in light of the cross, which is never mentioned here, but in terms of his act of worship of God. Fred Craddock writes:

Christ’s offering of his life to God was the ultimate act of worship in order that we, with purified consciences, may “worship the living God.” What, then, is this worship if it is not the offering of ourselves to God in ways appropriate to the nature of God and the needs that present themselves to us? On this matter, the word of Hebrews is not unlike the urging of Paul to the Roman Christians: “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1 NRSV). [“Hebrews,” New Interpreter’s Bible, 12:118].

Thus, Hebrews invites us to participate in the work of Christ by sharing in the worship of God and all that this entails.

The Perfect High Priest – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 22B (Hebrews 7)

Hebrews
7:23-28 New Revised Standard Version

23 Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; 24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

26 For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.

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                When we arrive at chapter seven of Hebrews, we again encounter a conversation about the priesthood of Jesus. As in chapter 5, so in chapter 7 we are told that Jesus, the Son of God, holds a priesthood different from that of the Levitical/Aaronic priesthood. Instead, he is a priest like Melchizedek, the mysterious priest/king of Salem who receives tithes from Abraham after Abraham’s military victory (Heb. 7:15-17). Now, Jesus takes that same priesthood, and unlike the Levitical priests, death is not an impediment to his continuation in office. Instead, he will hold this office forever, making intercession for those who approach God through him. That is, Jesus serves as the mediator between humanity and God. Thus, he mediates for us, as our high priest, salvation.

            The creators of the Revised Common Lectionary have left out the preceding verses that contrast the new and the old covenants. Unfortunately, this contrast between the two covenants has led to the assumption that Christianity supersedes and replaces Judaism as God’s covenant people. The old priesthood, the Levitical priesthood is set aside because it cannot do what Jesus as a priest according to the priesthood of Melchizedek can do. That is because Jesus has been declared a priest forever. It’s understandable that the lectionary creators skipped over the verses that give rise to supersessionism, but they provide the foundation for our reading. Therefore, we must wrestle with them, even if we reject the implications.

            The reading for the day is rooted in the author’s reinterpretation/midrash of Psalm 110:4: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” The assumption is that Melchizedek is superior to Abraham, from whom he receives tithes, as well as Moses and Aaron, through whom God makes a covenant with Israel at Sinai. The difference between Jesus and his predecessors is that his appointment is everlasting. It is not affected by death, so he does not have a successor.

            These verses chosen for this reading by the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary focus more specifically on the longevity of a priest. Because the Levitical priests are human, and as a result, they sin they must offer sacrifices on their own behalf. Additionally, due to their human state and thus affected by sin, they also die. That’s just the way things work in the world. But Jesus is different and his priesthood is unique. That is why he has taken up the priesthood of Melchizedek, which doesn’t appear to have any successor. Melchizedek appears and then disappears (Genesis 14). With this priesthood open, Jesus receives his appointment to this priesthood, which is an expression of a divine oath as revealed in Psalm 110:4.

            Hebrews raises an interesting question about the priesthood. Formerly, there were many priests because death took them away from their posts. Now, we have this perfect, sinless, high priest, who lives forever and who can mediate our salvation before God forever. The Jewish answer to this assertion would likely be that they understand that the priests were many and would be taken in death, but priests are mediators, not saviors. Their authority is not inherent in their person but in the office itself. Hebrews suggests that it is not just the office but the person who mediates salvation. Is one really superior to the other, or just different? What distinguishes the two is that Jesus’ priesthood is undertaken not in an earthly Temple, but a heavenly one. For a first-century reader, who viewed reality in terms of a three-storied universe, this made perfect sense. But we no longer live with that worldview. We may continue to use that language in worship, but I’m assuming most of us, at least those reading this post don’t view the world in that way. So, whether we like it or not, we have engaged in a bit of demythologization. But, if we work with the passage theologically, then we can envision Jesus’ heavenly ministry of mediation.

            Although it is spelled out more clearly in 1 John (1 Jn. 2:21), Hebrews also embraces the idea that Jesus is the advocate with the Father is the promise that we have an advocate, Jesus Christ the Righteous. Therefore, unlike other priests, Jesus doesn’t have to offer sacrifices for himself. That is because he is “holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (Heb. 7:26). For the author of this homily, this should give us confidence in Jesus’ ability to intercede on our behalf. In fact, Jesus’ priestly offering comes once and for all, as he offered himself up to God. That is because he is the Son who has become the priest forever. In this, there is good news!

            As I pondered the message of this passage, I began thinking about how we speak of priesthood within the Christian community. Some parts of the community have clergy who are called priests. They are called upon to officiate at the altar. They are priests because they mediate the relationship between God and humanity through the sacraments. The question that has arisen through time is whether the efficacy of the sacraments is dependent on the holiness of the priest. Hebrews would suggest that this is true. The offerings of the Levitical priesthood are deemed insufficient because they, like us, are sinners. But Jesus’ offering is effective because of his holiness.

            In the early centuries, when persecution was rampant, questions emerged about the efficacy of sacraments administered by priests and bishops who had saved themselves by offering sacrifices to the emperor or turning over scriptures to the authorities, or simply signing affidavits that acknowledged the divinity of the emperor. There were those in the church who concluded that any sacraments, including baptisms, performed by such priests were, invalid. In fact, ordinations of priests by bishops who had saved themselves in this way were invalid. Thus, any sacraments administered by these priests were invalid. The reasoning was similar to what we see here. The validity of Jesus’ offering is rooted in his holiness. Augustine answered those who argued in this way (the primary group he addressed are known as the Donatists), by suggesting that the validity of the sacraments was due to the holiness of God present in the church, not in the holiness of the individual priest. For those of us who are members of traditions that do not speak of their clergy as priests, but instead speak of the priesthood of all believers, how might understand this word about the priesthood of Jesus speak to our priestly calling? We might even ask what this passage says to us about leadership in the church.

            When it comes to leadership, none of us are “holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.” In other words, we’re not divine beings. Perhaps we ought to leave the priestly duties to Jesus, who is properly equipped to intercede on our behalf. As Roger Ferlo notes: “In effect, the passage declares, priests and ministers come and go, but Christ holds his priesthood permanently.” Therefore, “Christ holds title to the word ‘priest.’ He holds the true priestly authority—and authority characterized not by power but by humility—offering a sacrifice to God on our behalf ‘once and for all’ (v. 27) when he offered himself.” [Feasting on the Word, p. 208]. Perhaps if we clergy understand this word, then we will better understand our own calling. Christ is the only true head of the church.   

            Christ’s calling to the priesthood is rooted in his status as the Son (that is, the Son of God) who has been made perfect forever through his sufferings. As the Son of God, who lives forever, there is continuity in his priestly ministry. Because of this continuity, we don’t have to worry about whether we have a priest to mediate the relationship between us and God, because as the author will later add, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8).  

            So, while recognizing the possibility of supersessionism in the passage, might we contemplate the promise that Christ has been, is, and always will be with us. Yes, Priests and pastors come and go, but Jesus is always there for us. 

Naked Before God – Lectionary Reading for Pentecost 20B (Hebrews 4)

Hebrews 4:12-16  New Revised Standard Version

12 Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

 14 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. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

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                Jesper Svartvik writes in a critical essay published in the Christian Century  that the Book of Hebrews is the most dangerous book in the New Testament for Jews. That danger is due to the way in which it has been used down through time to elevate Christianity at the expense of Judaism, whose covenant relationship is said to be obsolete. When read this way, Hebrews suggests that a superior covenant is now in place. That which is obsolete is of little or no value. Thus, Judaism has been placed on the dust heap of history. God has moved on to Christianity. This message of obsolescence and Christian superiority serves as the foundation for supersessionism and it has given rise to all manner of anti-Jewish efforts down through history, culminating in the Holocaust/Shoah. So if we do not wish to embrace supersessionism but wish to profitably read, teach, and preach from this book it does seem that we will need to tread carefully.

                This reading from Hebrews 4 that has been chosen for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost appears to be less susceptible to supersessionism, but we will need to keep a close eye on how we interpret and use this passage. What we do see here is an elevated view of Jesus’ personhood. He is the  “great high priest who has passed through the heavens” who can sympathize with our weaknesses since he too has been tested but without sinning. Therefore, we can go before the throne of grace with boldness so we can receive God’s grace and mercy. While the second part of the reading speaks directly to the ministry of Jesus, our high priest, the first part can be read in this way as well. Though it has often been read in reference to the Bible, I’m not sure that this is the most appropriate reading.

                In the first paragraph, we read that the “word of God is living and active,” and it judges our thoughts and the intentions of our hearts. Thus, we stand naked before this word, so that we are laid bare before the one who judges us. The message here is that we can’t hide from God. God sees us as we are, that can be a bit scary if you ask me. I like to pretend that I can hide from God’s eyes, though I know I can’t. That’s the first message, but the second one offers a bit of relief from the rather scary message present in the first paragraph. You see, Jesus is our high priest who understands our predicament. He’s been tested also even though he didn’t give in to the temptations we all face as human beings. Nevertheless, he understands!

                The passage that the lectionary offers us is relatively brief. It’s just five verses. Though it is brief it does pack a lot into these sentences. As I noted above, the reading begins with a statement concerning the word of God, which “is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” While I have often seen this used to speak of the Bible—and it could speak of Scripture (at least the Old Testament)—I believe it might be better read in reference to Jesus, who according to John 1 is the word of God (Jn 1:1-14).

                Now, reading Scripture can open our hearts and minds to challenging messages that may have the feel of a sword piercing into our inner being, so that we are laid naked before God. We call that being convicted by the message of Scripture. However, when read in the larger context, it seems to me that the author of Hebrews has in mind something like what John speaks of in chapter one of the Gospel. When read this way, the reference to the word of God takes on life in the person of Jesus. It becomes not just words on a page but a living and active person. In his words and his actions, he becomes that two-edged sword that cuts to the quick. While Hebrews uses the word sword here, might a scalpel be an even better image? In either case, this sharp instrument divides soul and spirit and judges the “thoughts and intentions of the heart.” No matter how hard you try, you cannot hide from him. In fact, we are all “naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”

                As we ponder this word, we might think back to the Garden. Although in the beginning Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed (Genesis 2:25), once sin opened their eyes to their situation, they realized they were naked so when God came to the Garden they hid (Gen 3:8-10). Now in Genesis 3, when God entered the Garden, it appears that not only did they hide, but God couldn’t see them. That’s not the case here. No matter how hard we try, we can’t hide from the word of God (Jesus) who as our judge cuts to the quick.

                Yes, God sees. In fact, Hagar discovered that truth after she was exiled from the household of Abraham and Sarah. When God came looking for her after she cried out for help, she gave God the name “El-Roi,” which means “God sees” (Genesis16:7-13). Adam and Eve tried to hide from the eyes of God, but Hagar welcomed God’s eyes. That’s because God saw her predicament and responded. So, as Jennifer Kaalund writes, “Like Hagar, the audience of this homily is experiencing trials that are testing their faith. God sees and responds. Recognizing the God sees us should not be met solely with fear and trepidation. One should also have a sense of eager anticipation, knowing that the God who sees is also the God who reveals Godself and responds with mercy and grace” [Connections, p. 382].

                While judgment is the message of the first paragraph in this brief reading, grace and mercy is the message that comes through in the second paragraph. The word of God may be sharper than a two-edged sword cutting between joint and marrow so that everything is laid bare before God, but when Jesus acts as High Priest and intercedes on our behalf the result is grace and mercy. The author makes a comparison here to the Temple system in which priests offer sacrifices and prayers on behalf of the people. The difference, according to Hebrews (and where the danger of supersessionism lurks) is that Jesus both understands our situation because he was tested like us, but at the same time he did not sin. He understands but didn’t give in. The same can’t be said for us or the Temple priests. Nevertheless, an offering is made that allows us to go before the throne of God to seek God’s forgiveness. We can do this boldly because of Jesus’ priestly intercessions. The result is grace and mercy. In other words, God invites us to speak openly and honestly about whatever is on our minds and hearts. We don’t have to hold back. After all, God already can see us warts and all. As a result, we will receive mercy from God and the grace that we need in our time of need. For the original recipients, who appear to be struggling against stiff opposition this is good news. They are not alone. They have a priest who not only understands their situation but is ready to go to bat for them. The same can be true for us. We can go boldly before the throne of God because we have a high priest who is ready to stand with us, even as he lays us bare before God.         

   

The Power of Prayer – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 18B (James 5)

 

 

 

James 5:13-20 New Revised Standard Version

 

13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20 you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

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                James invites us to consider the power of prayer. Everything we’ve explored to this point, this word of wisdom, according to James is rooted in a relationship with God. The people of God, the church of Jesus Christ, can and should do good things in the world, but that work should be rooted in worship and prayer. James does say that faith without works is dead, but here we learn that the work we do is rooted not in our own strength, but our relationship with God. That is, the work we do is in partnership with God (but not without God). Thus, the church is not just another social service agency or advocacy group. It is a community deeply rooted in the presence of God who is love.

                In a series of questions, James invites the readers to consider various forms of prayer. Prayer is a form of speech, but in contrast to the negative forms that James spoke of in chapter 3, this is a positive form. This word about prayer comes immediately after James’ prohibition against swearing in verse 12. In that word from James, we’re told not to “swear either by heaven or by earth or by any oath, but let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.” It is good to remember that James doesn’t have cussing in mind, but things like oaths of allegiance. Consider how this verse pairs with our practice of swearing on the Bible in court or to take an oath of office. What James says here is close to what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:33-37). With this word in mind, in verse 13 James picks up the question of prayer. As Marsha Moore-Keish points out, “unlike the destructive power of speech to harm others and betray God, prayer offers an example of positive and powerfully upbuilding power of speech.” [James: Belief, p. 187].

                Beginning in verse 13, James picks up the question of prayer, asking first if any are suffering. If they are, then they should pray. I need to add a caveat here because in recent years we’ve heard politicians and others address all manner of suffering with the offer of “thoughts and prayers.” By this, they simply mean, we’re not going to do anything, so you’re on your own. Hopefully, God will take care of what we are not going to take care of. That may be true in the public sphere, but for us who are believers and followers of Jesus, the first step is prayer. Prayer starts with the one who suffers, as one places one’s trust in God. If, as is possible, this suffering is the result of oppression on the part of the rich, then the prayer must be accompanied by an appropriate response by the followers of Jesus. One of those responses, will be the prayer for endurance and perhaps the expectation that the oppressors will face judgment (Jms. 5:1-6). Now, James, understanding the situation, advises patience until the coming of the Lord to set things right (Jms. 5:7-11). But, as we’ve learned from James that prayer for endurance will be accompanied by some form of action since faith without works is dead (Jms.2:14).  

                James asks a second question: “Are any cheerful?” If so, they should sing songs of praise. When good things happen in our midst, it is appropriate for us to celebrate those good things. The Psalms are filled with calls to share words of praise and thanksgiving to God. Worship stands at the heart of our life together. But, as we know from James and the Psalms, worship is not just for happy moments. Worship is the foundation for the life of the community. It is worship that enables us to endure in hope.

                James asks a third question: “Are any among you sick?” Interestingly, in this case, the call is not to personal prayer, but a call to the Elders, to the leaders of the congregation, to come and pray. These leaders are to pray and to anoint with oil in the name of the Lord. With this action comes a promise, “the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” We’ll leave the question of sins, forgiveness, and confession, for a moment so we can focus on the call to the Elders.  The prayers spoken of here are intercessory. The faith that is required here is not that of the one being prayed for, but the faith of the Elders who are praying. While we often think of healing in terms of curing, that is not always the case. In fact, as Osvaldo Vena writes, “healing in this context means social restoration and not so much individual well-being. The elders, figures of authority in the community, rather than doctors (see Mark 5:26), are called to enact the healing” [Connections, p. 345]. As for the anointing with oil, it is often assumed that this is understood to be medicinal, but that is unlikely here. Remember, if the point here is social restoration, it is a sign of blessing. Now, the Gospels do record that Jesus healed persons, even raising some from the dead, as did his disciples, so might a cure be in order here? Perhaps, but healing is the broader category and might be meant here. 

                James writes that the prayer of faith will save the sick. That word “save” could have a double meaning here. It could refer to the restoration of a relationship to God and healing of the body. This is where the question of forgiveness of sins comes into play. James writes that the prayer of faith will lead to the forgiveness of sins. That is, James encourages the readers to confess their sins to one another and pray for one another. This is interesting, in that it suggests the restoration of intra-congregational restoration. By praying for one another they might be healed.

                Having spoken of three forms of prayer, James writes that the “prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective,” and as an example, he points to Elijah. James reminds us that Elijah is not a superhero or a demi-god. He was a human being, just like us, and yet when he “prayed fervently that it might not rain,” it didn’t rain. In fact, it didn’t rain for three and a half years. Then, when Elijah prayed for rain, the rain fell (if only that worked in the American West as it deals with horrific drought). Is not the message here “you can do this too”? This is a powerful word, but a dangerous one as well. This is a theme present in the “Prosperity Gospel.” There is power in prayer, but perhaps not the
kind of power some have read into this message. 

                Having spoken here of prayer, James closes with a call to restore members of the community who have wandered from the truth. This is a fitting close to a “letter” that focuses on “pure and undefiled religion” (Jms. 1:27). James has written this letter to guide the community back to the right path so that their religion is reflective of God’s wisdom. The good news for those who work to restore sinners who have taken the wrong path is that they will have helped save the sinner from death (spiritual?) and then cover a multitude of sins. James reminds us that the path of faith is not an individual journey, but rather is a communal one. In seeking out those who wander and restoring them to the flock, we do so in partnership with God who is always seeking us out. So, as we go on this journey together, lifting each up in prayer, we participate in the work of God in the world. In this, we join together in a form of religion that is pure and undefiled before God. Or, as Marsha Moore-Keish writes, quoting from Dale Allison’s commentary on James, “James seeks to empower his brothers and sisters to see out the wanders and bring them home. They (and we) are the main actors. ‘God is not named, and there is not even a divine passive here. So James concludes characteristically by emphasizing the importance of human beings doing what is right.’ God, the giver of all good gifts has ‘given us birth by the word of truth’ (1:18); now we are to bear fruit through rescuing, saving, forgiving” [James, p. 203]

                The message James has delivered here is an important one. He has been speaking throughout the “letter” about broken relationships. That is the message here as  well. It might involve interpersonal ones. It could even involve the relationship of mind and body. It certainly involves the divine-human relationship. Whatever it is, James offers us a path to healing that brokenness through prayer and worship. This is the foundation for all that we do as the people of God. So, let us pray for ourselves and one another, that we might know wholeness in Christ.

 

               Image Attribution: Dürer, Albrecht, 1471-1528. Praying Hands, or Study of the Hands of an Apostle, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57523 [retrieved September 19, 2021]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Praying_Hands_-_Albrecht_Durer.png.

Jesus Doesn’t Play Favorites – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 15B (James 2:1-17)

Diego Rivera Mural, Detroit Institute of Art

James 2:1-17 New Revised Standard Version

                2 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

                        8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

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

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                If we’re honest, we all play favorites. There are some people we really don’t enjoy being around and others we really want to be with. I remember when church growth theory was all the rage, with its message of homogeneity. In other words, churches grow when we target specific groups of people because “birds of a feather flock together.” There is truth to this observation. But, apparently, that’s not the way it works with Jesus, who does play favorites. Though, he does seem to prefer bringing Peter, James, and John with him when he goes off by himself. At least that’s what I’ve noticed when reading the Gospels. Nevertheless, according to James, Jesus doesn’t want us to show favoritism.

                Here in James 2, Jesus begins with a word about favoritism and then our reading ends with a word about faith being dead if it’s not accompanied by works. Once again, we see why Luther preferred Paul to James. Paul indeed focuses on grace and faith rather than works, but I’m not sure Paul would disagree with what James writes in this letter. After all, Paul takes the Corinthians to task for their classist behavior.  But, we’re not focused here on Paul. Instead, we need to listen to what James has to say about wealth, partiality, murder and adultery, and more (the lectionary creators put verses 11-13, where we read the word about murder and adultery, in parentheses. So if you don’t like those verses you can skip over them). Behavior, in James’ estimation, is the best expression of one’s faith in Jesus.

                At first sight, this is a word about egalitarianism that targets the wealthy, whom James warns the church against favoring over the poor. However, James not only warns against favoring the wealthy, who could be benefactors to the life of the church (what church wouldn’t like to have a few wealthy donors to endow the budget), but he also speaks of God’s decision to favor the poor. Much like the Magnificat, in which God brings down the rich and powerful and lifts up the poor and lowly (Lk. 1:46-55), James affirms God’s “preferential option for the poor.” What James does here in chapter 2 is contrast the way the rich and poor are often treated by society (including the church). It is to their shame as the church if they welcome with open arms the person with gold rings and fine clothes and then ignore the one who is poor and wearing dirty clothes.  The persons James has in mind here are probably field hands and other workers who come to church after work, tired, hungry, and yes dirty. Whether slave or free, they likely weren’t paid well. Thus, they make up the working poor who are taken advantage of by the wealthy whom the church leaders may have wanted to honor by letting them take the seat of honor, while the poor are pushed to the side where they must either stand or sit on the floor. So, by showing partiality and making distinctions in this way, they become judges with evil thoughts. What should a preacher do with a passage like this? [A note here, in 2021 (when this reflection first appears), the text is due to be read on Labor Day, making this an interesting conversation for that day.] 

                One takeaway is that James provides the foundation for claiming God’s “preferential option for the poor.” In making his point here concerning the poor, James reflects the message of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus declares: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt.5:3). God takes the side of the underdog, the one who is marginalized. The wealthy, well, they know how to take care of themselves. As for the poor, they are oppressed by the rich. In fact, James suggests that readers of this letter  are themselves the subject of abuse on the part of the rich who drag them into court. So, in honoring the rich and powerful who oppress they give honor to those who blaspheme the God who welcomes the poor. Thus, maybe Jesus does play favorites!

                James brings the Law into the conversation, and that is the Royal Law, that one should love one’s neighbor as oneself (Lev. 19:18). If you show partiality—toward the rich—then you transgress that law. This is on the same level as adultery and murder. So, the passage concludes with a reminder that faith without works is dead. It does nothing to say to a brother or sister who is naked and lacks daily food to “go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill.”  Such faith is dead. It has no value. As Robert Wall points out, for James “the mere profession of orthodox faith does not save anyone if it is not demonstrated by works of mercy” [Connections,  p. 292]. Those who wish the preacher would stick to the “Gospel” and not engage in politics, probably won’t appreciate this word from James. Nevertheless, what sounds a lot like what some call the “Social Gospel,” if we take James seriously should we not say that this is the Gospel? That is, unless the Gospel is simply a matter of getting to heaven when we die, then surely the Gospel has something to say about how we live together in this world, in the here and now. That includes recognizing that Jesus doesn’t play favorites, except in lifting up those who are poor and marginalized, while bringing down those who are high and mighty!

A Christian Way of Living – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 11B (Ephesians 4:25-5:2)

Jesus Mocked by the Soldiers – Eduoard Manet 1865

Ephesians 4:25-5:2 New Revised Standard Version

25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore  be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

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                Interestingly, polls suggest that people are leaving the church (dones) or avoiding Christianity altogether (nones) is that they feel that Christians don’t live a very Christian life. I want to rebut this feeling, but when I look around at the state of the world, especially American Christianity, it’s hard to disagree with the sentiment. Clergy scandals that range from pedophilia to embezzlement are rampant. There are political alliances that undermine Jesus’ call to love one’s neighbor. I know I was appalled to see the “Christian Flag” being carried by rioters as they stormed the capital building (to be honest I’ve never liked the Christian flag, but that was the last straw for me). Now, I know that these are not the only expressions of “Christianity” present in our midst, but they do resonate with the broader public. So, a word like the one we hear in the reading from Ephesians for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost is worth considering as an antidote to the current situation. What we hear in this reading is a call to live one’s life in a way that reflects the message of Jesus. Surely this would be a good vaccine!

                The word we encounter here at the end of chapter 4 and the beginning of chapter 5 of Ephesians picks up after a conversation concerning spiritual gifts. According to Paul (remember for sake of tradition and brevity I’m assuming Pauline authorship even though it is disputed) these gifts have been given to the church by the grace of God to equip the saints for ministry so that the saints might move toward maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:7-16). The reading for the Eleventh Sunday is an outgrowth of that earlier word from Ephesians 4. There is, however, a paragraph that separates the two lectionary readings that need to be mentioned. In verses 17-24 Paul tells the readers, who are mostly Gentile, not to live as Gentiles. That is, they should not live in the futility of their minds with darkened understandings that result from living outside the sphere of God’s reign. Paul reminds them that because they are in Christ, they have to put away their old (may we say pagan) way of living. In line with the eschatological vision of the early church, Paul reminds them that to be in Christ means moving from the old world/life/creation to the new world/life/creation. Since they are in Christ they should clothe themselves in a manner that reflects that they have been “created in the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness”  (Eph. 4:24).

                The paragraph omitted by the lectionary creators is an important connector between the word about spiritual gifts and the call to live a life that is worthy of their calling as saints of God. Now that they are clothed with Christ, Paul tells the Ephesians (and all other readers if this was, as it appears, a circular letter) to put away falsehood, speak truth to one’s neighbors (now that’s a word for today), not let anger lead to sin (Paul recognizes that anger is a normal experience, just don’t let it fester and lead to evil deeds), and finally, he tells them not to make room for the devil. This last reference needn’t be taken literally in reference to a personage called the devil, but it is a recognition that evil is a spiritual force that can take root in our lives if we give it room to maneuver (vs. 25-27).

                Now Paul’s not finished. He also speaks of those who transgress the law by stealing rather than engaging in honest work so they can set aside a provision for the  needy. Paul’s is still not finished. He also includes a word about our speech. Don’t let any evil talk come from your mouth is the message that he gives them. What does he mean by this? Well, the phrase that follows is pretty clear. Let what you say build up others and provide words of grace. It is worth considering the message of James concerning the tongue, which he calls a “restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). Yes, it can be used to bless God, but it can also be used to curse those who are created in the likeness of God. James tells us that this is not the way things are supposed to be (James 3:9-10).  While we don’t have a full rundown of the Ten Commandments here, I think we get the point. The Christian life may begin with grace, but there are ethical expectations for us.

                Earlier in the chapter, Paul speaks of his desire that the people experience the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” He reminds us that there is but one body and one Spirit as well as one Lord, one baptism, and one God (Eph. 4:3-5). If you go to this passage do you see a possible allusion to the Trinity? In our reading, we hear the author tell the people not to “grieve the Holy Spirit of God with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30). The reference to the seal of the Spirit could be understood as being baptism. So, to those who are sealed in the Holy Spirit through baptism, they are called upon to live accordingly. Don’t grieve the Spirit by living in a way that dishonors the Gospel with which they are sealed through baptism.

                Having spoken of this seal of the Spirit, the author again addresses the Gentile way of living. Since they are sealed in the Spirit, they should put away bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander, and malice. Instead, they should be kind to each other, be tenderhearted, and forgive one another, even as God in Christ has forgiven them. With this word as a foundation, Paul makes a major ask of them— “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2).

                Imitate God as beloved children. How might one imitate God? Paul’s answer is this: “live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Later in this chapter, Paul will encourage husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church by giving themselves up for their wives (Eph. 5:25). However, we read that reference (and it can be read as a call to mutual submission (Eph. 5:21), it seems logical to answer the question of how to imitate God is to love as Jesus loves. Perhaps if we love as Jesus loves we will show the world a different face. Is that not a message for today?

                For more background on the passage see my book Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide, (Energion Publications, 2010), chapter 6.

Chosen for Blessings – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 7B (Ephesians 1)

 

Waiting for the Blessing —  Pymonenko, Mykola

 

Ephesians 1:3-14 – New Revised Standard Edition

 

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

 

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                Every professional team sport has a draft in which teams chose athletes to stock the team. If the team has the first pick in the draft, the choices are limited only by the number of athletes available. It’s a coveted position to be in, though the pick comes with a caveat. The team with the first pick normally is the one with the worst record in the league. That is, they are a bad team. The hope is that by giving the worst team in the league the first pick, they can begin improving themselves (as long as they choose wisely).

                The opening chapter of the Ephesian letter takes up the question of being chosen by God to be part of God’s team. In a sense, everyone is a first-round pick. At least that’s one way of reading the passage before us. Just a note, the passage is also featured in the lectionary for the Second Sunday after Christmas. Liturgically, the context is somewhat different. Instead of a Christmas message, we find ourselves situated on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Year B). The reading is the first of several that will take us through the letter until we reach chapter six.

                When it comes to conversations about the Ephesian letter, the identity of the author always comes up. There is no consensus, with some scholars accepting the traditional view that Paul is the author. After all, the letter opens by identifying the author as the Apostle Paul (Eph. 1:1). Others argue that based on the theology, the style of writing, and other markers, it must be the product of a later author. I address some of this in my Participatory Study Guide on Ephesians, though I don’t take a position on the question of identity. For our purposes, I’m not sure it matters whether it is Paul or someone writing in Paul’s name (according to ancient practice this doesn’t make it a fake letter if Paul didn’t write it). What seems clear is that the author is a Jewish Christian/Christian Jew, and the audience is predominantly Gentile. Note that Paul uses the word “we” in verse 12 and “you” in verse 13. The we who were the first to set their hope in Christ would have been Jewish believers in Jesus. Nevertheless, as verse 13 spells out, “you” (Gentiles) are also included in this act of adoption since they had heard the word of truth and believed in Christ and had received the seal of their salvation, the Holy Spirit. If we keep all of this in mind, then we can for the sake of simplicity call the author Paul.

                “Paul” begins by affirming the many spiritual blessings God has poured out upon God’s people, doing this in Christ.  Having declared that God is the giver of spiritual blessings in and through Christ, Paul speaks of God choosing “us” before creation to be holy and blameless, predestining us according to God’s plan. If we understand the author to be of Jewish descent and most of the audience is Gentile Christians, then the “us” includes both Jewish and Gentile Christians, creating the bridge that the author wishes to build between the two communities.

                Now, words like choose and predestine found here tend to be problematic for some audiences. Indeed, it is a problem for me. So, what does it mean for God to have chosen “us” from before God began to create? How does that affect our own ability to choose? For those of us who embrace an “open and relational” view of God, which assumes that the future is open how might God predestine us for adoption as God’s child? Don’t we have a choice in the matter? As we ponder these questions, we can return to the opening line of the passage, which calls on us to offer blessings to God who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing.

                It is, in my opinion, best if we do not read these words about predestination in an individualistic manner. It’s not that God has predestined each of us individually for salvation (or damnation for that matter), rather God has chosen Jesus to be the agent of reconciliation. Thus, Jesus provides the means by which we are adopted as children of God. According to our reading, this involves the blood of Christ. Paul doesn’t go into graphic detail here. He doesn’t refer to the cross, only that in some way the blood of Jesus is the means by which we receive forgiveness of sins and receive God’s grace. Whatever the means, this act of grace is costly and should not be taken for granted.

                As the passage continues, Paul takes up the matter of our inheritance as one’s adopted as children of God. When it comes to adoption, the New International Version uses the word “sonship,” which is rather gender-specific but would reflect the way inheritances were understood in the ancient world, as an inheritance generally went to a son and not to a daughter. Thus, the choice made by the NRSV translators is likely a better one for a modern Christian audience. Now, when it comes to the heirs of God in Christ, note that the author speaks of all things being gathered up, both in heaven and on earth. Thus, in Christ we receive an inheritance. This reference to all things being gathered up is intriguing because it is suggestive while not being definitive that God has an eye toward universal reconciliation/redemption (vs. 10). While this word includes heaven, it also speaks of God’s care for the creation.

                This is a passage rich in meaning. It raises difficult questions that might not be resolvable in a sermon, but what it does say is that God is concerned about the creation, so much so that God has chosen a way of redeeming that which is broken. This comes as an act of grace in Christ and through the Holy Spirit (there is a Trinitarian feel in this passage). What it does, however, is invite gratitude to God on our part for the decision to choose us in Christ to be the recipient of God’s blessings. This need not require of us a belief that God determines all things. It does suggest that God has chosen to act on our behalf to bless us in Christ. In that way God is sovereign—not as a tyrant or despot but as one who acts graciously on our behalf, inviting us to become part of the family of God. That is not something we earn but which we receive as a divine gift in Christ our savior.   

For more on this passage see my book on Ephesians in Energion Publication’s Participatory Study Guide series.      

Image attribution: Pymonenko, Mykola. Waiting for the Blessing, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55788 [retrieved July 4, 2021]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PimonenkoNK_PashalZautrRYB.jpg.

Mystical Experiences, A Thorn in the Flesh, & Boasting – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 6B (2 Corinthians 12)

2 Corinthians 12:2-10 New Revised Standard Version

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

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                Mystical experiences can be powerful, even life-changing, but it’s best not to boast about them. Thorns in the flesh on the other hand could be a reason to boast, though even this might be problematic. We see both kinds of experiences discussed in the reading for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost. It is a word about boasting, mystical experiences, and thorns in the flesh, and in verse 1, which the lectionary omits, Paul acknowledges that he has to boast even if it’s not expedient to do so. However, the false apostles, who had come into the community and disrupted their lives with their boasts, need to be answered (2Cor. 11:12-13). Although Paul planted the church in Corinth, some of the people in the church had embraced these false apostles who had variously accused him of being weak, untrained in his speech, and more (2 Cor. 10:10; 11:6). The question is, about what should he boast? A mystical experience? A thorn in the flesh? The former might impress some in the congregation, but would the latter?

                Now he could choose to boast about mystical experiences, which he speaks of here in 2 Corinthians 12. Though he suggests that the mystical experiences he will speak of belong to someone else. However, he is more than willing to boast in what he calls his thorn in the flesh. When it comes to the mystical experience, I’ve always wondered whether Paul was speaking of himself, but didn’t want to go there. Karl Barth makes the same assumption that it was Paul who had this mystical experience, but he writes that “this is the distinctive thing with the description of this ecstasy—he puts a space between himself and this man. And it is only at this remove that he will take part in the glory which this man—himself—has by virtue of these high things” [Barth, CD, 1:2, p. 332]. So, instead of owning up to being the one with the mystical experience, Paul chose to emphasize his thorn in the flesh. As to its nature, Paul doesn’t say, but it’s clear he had sought relief to no avail.   

                In this reflection, I want to look at both the mystical experience and the thorn in the flesh. The former is intriguing. What does Paul mean by a third heaven or paradise? At the same time, his thorn in the flesh is intriguing. One thing we know from this letter is that Paul feels the need to defend his ministry. Whatever the thorn was, it might be one of the reasons why the Corinthians have been dismissing his ministry. He looks weak and in Greco-Roman culture, weakness was not something to boast about. If he wanted to a successful religious leader then he needed to be a “manly man!”

                We begin by exploring this mystical experience that a person had some fourteen years before. If this letter is written around 55 CE, then we’re talking somewhere around 40-41 CE, before a congregation had been planted in Corinth. Paul writes that he doesn’t know if this was an in-body or out-of-body experience, but whatever the case he knew of a man who was caught up into the “third heaven.” He then adds that the man was caught up into Paradise, thus equating the two. The message here parallels other apocalyptic claims to visions that were present in Jewish/rabbinic thought (see 1 Enoch). Whether Paul believed there were only three heavens or levels of heaven isn’t known as there is evidence of belief in more than three heavens. Whatever the case, Paul seems to believe  that there are at least three levels, and following 2 Enoch 8, Paradise is the equivalent of the third heaven. There, the man heard words that could not be repeated. These were divine secrets that could not be shared with those on earth. While he might boast on behalf of the man who had the visions/mystical experience, he is only going to boast in his weaknesses.

                He might not boast of mystical experiences, but he is willing to boast about his weaknesses. Again, that makes little sense in a Greco-Roman context. I sense that the false apostles have been sharing their grand visions as a way of proving their legitimacy. But, while he likely could do so (Damascus Road), he chooses not to go that route. He instead boasts in the fact that he had been given a thorn in the flesh that God had chosen not to deal with. As C.K. Barrett notes, “Paul does not wish too high an opinion of him to become current; it would obscure the fact that it is to his Gospel, and not himself that men should attend, and that he is a more effective witness to Christ crucified if he endures suffering and disgrace” [Barrett, Second Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 313]. Thus, Paul makes it clear that if he is to bear witness to the crucified Christ he can’t glory in mystical experiences, which, as we know from the first letter, the Corinthians valued.

                So he turns to the thorn in the flesh, which he calls a “messenger of Satan.” Interestingly, he suggests that this thorn was sent upon him so that he might not become too elated by his visions, which leads to the suggestion that the above mystical experiences were his own. Now, this angel of Satan is actually sent by God, reminding us that in Paul’s mind, God is sovereign. Whatever happens, happens because God desires it. That doesn’t sit well with my theology that is rooted in an acknowledgment that God acts out of love and that God is not the author of suffering, but for a moment let’s simply let Paul talk. So, Barrett writes: “God allowed Paul astounding revelations of heavenly truth, which could not be communicated, but he did not intend that these should go to the apostles head” [Barrett, Second Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 314].

                The question then concerns the nature of this thorn. It has often been assumed that it is a physical ailment of some type, such as blindness, but that is not a necessary conclusion. Barrett suggests that a speech impediment might be possible as it would have given a bad first impression (Gal. 4:13-15—though here Paul speaks of his eyes) [Barrett, p. 315].  Whatever it was Paul sought relief on three occasions but wasn’t granted it. The answer to this prayer was simply: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Therefore, he has chosen to boast in this expression of weakness so that Christ’s power might be more evident in his life. So, he remains content with “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). Might these be what Paul had asked to be delivered from, but from which he was told that God’s grace is sufficient. Thus, having heard this, he was content to be buffeted by Satan if that served the purpose of the Gospel.

                The passage presents us with a series of questions. In a culture that prizes success, does the message Paul presents resonate today? Might we be better off testifying to our conversations with God instead of being content with suffering? Having spent my ministry life as pastor of small churches, I have at times felt as if my ministries were considered less valuable than that of the big churches. What do you say at a clergy gathering when colleagues glory in large numbers of baptisms or stewardship drives that bring in huge sums? The message here seems to be simply, “my grace is sufficient.” That is not to say that those ministries lack value, but only that we should not measure the value of a ministry on human standards of success. Since this passage is designated for a Sunday near Independence Day (in 2021, July 4th falls on a Sunday), how might it be heard at this moment? It is easy to glory in the nation’s history, but right now that might not be wise. At the same time for some in our context, a word about being content with suffering might be inappropriate. At the end of the day, the question then concerns what is the nature of grace in our context? How might it create strength in us, even when we may feel weak? There is a time and a place for mystical experiences, but it is the grace of God that emerges even in our weakness that engenders true strength. May we entrust ourselves to the grace of God.    

Focusing on Things Eternal – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 2B (2 Corinthians 4-5)

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
New Revised Standard Version

13 But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture— “I believed, and so I spoke”—we also believe, and so we speak, 14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. 15 Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. 

5 For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

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                Paul was an apocalyptic theologian, whether we like it or not. Everything he wrote was couched in an apocalyptic worldview centered on the death and resurrection of Jesus. There is in his writings a strong dualism, which places great emphasis on the spiritual and the eternal. Though, as we see in his responses to the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians, he has to qualify things lest they become so focused on the spiritual that they deny the material/physical and the ethical in pursuit of spiritual experiences (1 Cor. 12-14). Here in 2 Corinthians Paul spends a lot of his words defending his ministry, and he does so in dualistic/apocalyptic terms. So, what should we make of this message as presented in our reading?

                We should begin by recognizing that this letter we know as 2 Corinthians might not be his second letter. In fact, it could be his fourth letter to the church. We also know that he spends considerable time in the letter defending his ministry. As many a pastor can attest, not everyone will embrace your leadership. Apparently, that was true for Paul. As Michael Knowles notes, “in a society for which religious affiliation serves as a means of social advancement, Paul insists on humility, self-abasement, and a form of spiritual transformation that remains largely invisible to outsiders (4:16-18). In short, he presents a vision of discipleship and ministry that is diametrically opposed to the self-promotion and prosperity theology of ancient Corinth” [“2 Corinthians,” Preachers Bible Handbook, p. 272]. In other words, Paul was fitting their vision of a true religious leader. To put it in modern parlance, he didn’t have a private jet to use as he traveled around the world.

                The reading begins with a statement concerning the foundation for his preaching. In accord with Scripture, he believed and then spoke (Ps. 115:1 LXX). I hear in this a bit of the formula that emerged in the early church of faith seeking understanding. What Paul seems to be doing here is rooting his message not in his own authority or charisma, but in the power of God. It is this hope, rooted in the promises of God, that gives hope that sustains. While we may not share Paul’s apocalyptic worldview that didn’t bear the fruit he expected (we’re still here two thousand years later), it’s important to understand Paul’s urgency and his sense of hope that despite everything they were experiencing God was faithful and would bring things to a proper conclusion so that as Paul will reveal in 2 Corinthians 5, the old will give way to the new. So, as Eugene Boring notes, “Paul, like New Testament authors in general, has a firm eschatological hope of the ultimate victory of God, already begun, prefigured, and guaranteed in the resurrection of Jesus. God’s eschatological act in raising up Jesus is the basis of the confident Christian hope of eternal life” [Hearing Paul’s Voice, p. 65]. We see that hope present here in 2 Corinthians. Our eternal hope of experiencing resurrection is rooted in God’s resurrection of Jesus. With a focus on what is eternal, Paul seems not to be too concerned about his body. His body, as with all bodies, is experiencing decay. We may experience suffering, but it too is temporary. Hope lies elsewhere. So, Paul embraces the call to proclaim the good news of the resurrection. He’s willing to endure suffering if that means enabling the Corinthians to experience the glory of God.

                The danger posed by apocalyptic theology is that it can undermine our concern for the good of the creation. It can be weaponized to encourage the despoiling of the earth. Why protect forests and species when the world is coming to an end soon. Who cares about what the world will look like a century in the future since Jesus will be coming back in the next few years? Paul can be read this way. After all, he suggests that “if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor. 5:1).  There is another way of reading this, however, that doesn’t give in to such pessimism while also recognizing that our bodies are temporary. We may experience suffering, including suffering as a result of our faith (though that’s not really a problem for Christians in the United States despite what we hear in certain circles—not having the opportunity to force children to offer Christian prayers in school or not being able to discriminate against LGBTQ folks is not persecution), but we do have the hope of eternal life to comfort us. As I say that I recognize the problem of religion being an opiate, and that’s not what I have in mind and isn’t, I don’t think, what Paul has in mind. Paul’s concern is with how we live in the interim before eternity begins for us.

                Perhaps we would be wise to read this passage as a reminder that there is an eternal witness written inside us. Consider this word from Paul, “even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). It is this inner message that inspires and empowers us to persist, to endure, to continue the journey even when it gets difficult. It’s like a homing beacon, calling us home. Home is rooted in the promise of resurrection. It’s not an opiate, it’s an empowerment to continue with our calling to live the new creation within the old creation. We live knowing that God will be victorious. We don’t know when and how that will fully come to pass, but we can find hope in the promise that we will share in the glory of God. Returning to Eugene Boring’s point, for Paul, hope is to be found in the promise of God’s ultimate victory that is guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus. That hope is implanted in us through the Spirit’s indwelling.

   

The Helping Spirit of God – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost Sunday — Romans 8

Romans 8:22-27 New Revised Standard Version

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

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                When
you think of the Holy Spirit, what comes to mind? Do you think about the Spirit who comes as a mighty wind on Pentecost empowering and inspiring a community that had recently lost its leader to carry out a new mission in the world? (Acts 2:1-21).  Do you think of John’s Paraclete, who comes alongside us and serves as our advocate (John 14)? What about the Spirit who helps us in our weakness? Might all of these references serve as descriptors of the Holy Spirit, the one whom Jesus promised to send to empower the church in its ministry of proclamation (in word and deed)? (Acts1:1-11). So, who is the Holy Spirit of God?

                Here in Romans 8, Paul speaks of the Spirit in cosmic terms. The world is groaning as if in labor pains, ready to give birth to something new. That new thing includes our adoption as children of God and the redemption of our bodies, but it’s not just individual followers of Jesus, it’s the cosmos itself that is looking forward to the day of its redemption, that begins with the redemption of the children of God. In other words, Paul speaks of looking forward to the dawn of the new heaven and new earth. It is the Holy Spirit who facilitates all of this. Therefore, those who are in Christ are the first fruits of this new creation.

                Since this is a Pentecost reading the focus is on the Holy Spirit. Paul isn’t looking back to Pentecost Sunday. Instead, he is looking forward to the moment when God’s cosmic purpose will be revealed through the Spirit. While Paul has an eschatological vision in mind, he knows he’s writing to people who are concerned about their present state of suffering. The new creation might be in the process of breaking into this realm, but it’s not fully present. So, suffering remains part of their reality. It remains part of our reality as seen in the ongoing challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. While suffering may be part of our reality, the reading begins in verse 18, with Paul telling the Roman church that he doesn’t consider the present sufferings worth comparing to the glory that is about to be revealed to them. This statement is a reminder that Paul’s theology is eschatologically oriented, so his word of encouragement suggests that the present suffering is temporary, while the glory to come is permanent. That is why our groanings serve as a prelude to our adoption and the redemption of our bodies. All of this is rooted in the work of the Spirit who intercedes on our behalf. In this, there is a similarity to John’s words about the Paraclete, our Advocate.  It should be noted that all of this is something to be hoped for. That which is hoped for is not seen yet. Thus, we still endure suffering until that time when we will experience that adoption as children of God and the redemption of our bodies. The good news, however, is that the Holy Spirit is present with us speaking on our behalf.

                The Holy Spirit, as Paul suggests here comes alongside us to assist us in our times of weakness. He couches this conversation in a word about the nature of prayer. Although the NRSV suggests that Paul’s audience might not know how to pray, his focus isn’t on the method of prayer (how). Rather it is a question of content.  Paul writes that when we do not know what to pray, the Spirit intercedes on our behalf “with sighs too deep for words.” For some in the Christian community, this is understood to refer to glossolalia (speaking in tongues). In other words, this would involve a Spirit-inspired prayer language. More likely this is a matter of the Spirit connecting with our inner thoughts and feelings, our groans. Remember that the intercession of the Spirit in verse 26 follows upon Paul’s discussion of creation’s groanings, as well as our own groanings as we await in the Spirit, as the first fruits of the Spirit, our adoption, which is the redemption of our bodies.

                So when it comes to praying in the Spirit, the intent is that in times of suffering we may not have the right words to say to God. We may not know how to express our concerns and our needs. All we can do is groan, and the Spirit translates those groans into a word to God. George Montague suggests that this idea that the Spirit serves as an intercessor was new because “the ruah of the Lord in the Old Testament was never sufficiently personalized or personified to be a separately operating entity, and certainly not toward God as in the case here.” Prophets interceded (Ex. 32:11; Amos 7:2) as did angels (Tob. 12:12). In addition, here in Romans 8, “the heavenly intercession is attributed equally to Christ (8:34) and to the Spirit (here)” [Montague, The Holy Spirit, p. 211].       

                When we read a passage like this, which speaks of the Spirit, many of us, rightly so in my view, read it through a trinitarian lens. In saying this, I also need to note that I don’t believe Paul had a fully developed trinitarian theology. I believe the foundations are there, but it would take a few centuries before theologians, like Basil of Caesarea, began to pay significant attention to the Holy Spirit. The formula is there early on as seen in Matthew 28, but the definition would take time to develop. Nevertheless, if we read it through a trinitarian lens it’s not as if the Spirit is a separate entity acting on its own. Rather the process of intercession and redemption all takes place within God’s being. A trinitarian reading of the passage also suggests that the transcendent God is present within us through the indwelling of the Spirit. It is as the Spirit is present within us that our groans are translated to God’s understanding of the creation.

                The message here is that as wait for what is hoped for, redemption and adoption, we know that we are not alone. The Spirit of God is with us and within us.  This is part of the Pentecost message. It is this presence that strengthens us for the journey that empowers our witness to the world. So, we pray, Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me. Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me” [Daniel Iverson, Chalice Hymnal, 259]

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For more on the Holy Spirit and life in the Spirit see my Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, (Energion, 2013).