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To Be a Child of God – Lectionary Reflection for Easter 3B (1 John 3)

 

 

1 John 3:1-10

 

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. 

4 Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5 You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6 No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. 8 Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. 9 Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. 10 The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters

 

 

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                This Easter season we find ourselves in 1 John. While this letter/sermon is well known for reminding us that God is love, therefore we should love one another (1 Jn 4:7). As with the Gospel, the letter also reminds us that God is light. The first word we heard (last week) is that since God is light those who fellowship with God will also walk in the light (1 Jn. 1:5-7). One of John’s concerns is sin. At one level, John is realistic. Everyone sins, though they shouldn’t. However, since we do sin, God has provided us with an advocate to argue our  case before God. That advocate is Jesus, who also serves as the atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 Jn 2:1-2). While John understands that sin is with us, he also challenges the community to live without sin. That is the issue that gets raised here in chapter 3, where John speaks to us as children of God (in contrast to those who are children of the devil).

                While John doesn’t give precise definitions of sin in the letter, we know he is concerned about schism and the denial that Jesus is the Christ. Thus, he is concerned about those persons, the antichrists, who walk in darkness and will, if they can, lead people astray. So, he spends much of chapter 2 warning against the influence of antichrists who are attempting to deceive them with their lies. These lies if embraced will lead to schism. John wants to prevent that from happening. With that as the background, we come to chapter 3 of 1 John.

             While the lectionary reading begins in verse 1 of chapter 3 and ends with verse 7, we would be well served to begin with 1 John 2:29, which declares: “If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who does right has been born of him.” With that statement, we come to John’s word to the reader, whom he addresses as those who should be called children of God because of the love that the Father has given us. Our status as children, as those born of God, is rooted in God’s love. Of course, John has much more to say about love than what appears in this passage. If we might want to begin with 1 John 2:29, we might want to continue through at least verse 8, if not verse 10, where John contrasts the children of God with their opposites, the children of the devil. Part of his message here is that as children we will reflect our parentage in how we live our lives. If we are righteous, we reflect God as our parent. If not, then we demonstrate that the devil is our parent.

                I understand why the creators of the lectionary might want to stop in verse 7. It offers a more uplifting message. But, especially in this day and age, we need to address the other side of the coin. We moderns might find conversations about the devil problematic. History shows how references to the devil and the devil’s disciples have led to tragedy (think Salem witch trials). Nevertheless, the presence of evil in our world does suggest that we are facing spiritual problems that require spiritual answers. Perhaps John can help us with finding those answers.  

                When it comes to being a child of God (to be born of God) that will be reflected in a life that is not marred by sin. That is because, as we read in verse 9, God’s seed abides in those who are born of God. Thus, those born of God cannot sin. Another way of putting this is to say that because we are to be like Jesus, the Son of God, who does not sin, then the same should be true of us. On the other hand, if you’re a child of the devil, you’ll be like the devil. Since the devil has been sinning from the beginning, if you’re a child of the devil you will engage in sin. That is, instead of being righteous you will be devilish. his is stated in contrast to its opposite, that is, to be a child of the devil. If the latter, we will act in accordance with that identity.

                When we get to verse 8, John has something important to say about the mission of the Son of God (Jesus). He writes that the Son of God (Jesus) has been revealed to destroy the works of the devil. If we turn to the Gospels, we learn that Jesus was an exorcist. Yes, he cast out demons. That was the way he often healed. As Richard Beck points out not only did Jesus go around doing good, but he healed those who were under the power of the devil. In other words, his good works “are consistently described as spiritual warfare, as a battle he was waging with Satan.” Then Beck points us to this verse. [Reviving Old Scratch, p. 31].  I appreciate the word Beck brings to the conversation, as one who struggles with this idea of a devil/Satan. He urges us not to snip out (ala Thomas Jefferson) the stories of Jesus the exorcist. He writes that “We prefer to see Jesus as a moral teacher, especially when he calls out corrupt religious, political, and economic institutions. But if you excise the dramatic clash between Jesus and the Devil you eliminate the narrative glue that holds the Gospels together as a coherent story. If we want to understand what Jesus was up to in the world, we’ve got to confront his conflict with Satan and acknowledge how central that plotline is to the story being told in the Gospels” [Reviving Old Scratch, pp. 33-34]. 

                John is speaking here of spiritual warfare. There are those who oppose Jesus. They are the antichrists who, if successful, will destroy the community. John does not want that to happen. We live in challenging times. We are being pushed to accommodate ourselves to the world. It might be a message of America First. It might be a message of consumerism. It is that which divides and conquers, which takes on many different guises, all of which are at their base spiritual in origin.

                We read this passage during Eastertide as a reflection on the message of the resurrection of Jesus. If Good Friday is a sign of resistance to the righteousness of God as embodied by Jesus, his resurrection stands as a sign that those spiritual forces that resist God’s vision for the cosmos have been defeated. That is, the children of the devil may have their day, but in the end, they will succeed. Ultimately love will win. So, as we continue our celebration of Easter and with it the Resurrection, we’re invited to see the Resurrection of Jesus as the turning point in what can be described as spiritual warfare. As the Easter hymn declares: “The strife is o’er, the battle done, the victory of life is won; the song of triumph has begun. Alleluia!”  Yes, “the powers of death have done their worst, but Christ their legions has dispersed: let shouts of holy joy outburst. Alleluia!” (Latin, 1695; tr. Francis Pott, 1861). Oh, I understand the
resistance continues, but the battle has been won!  

    

Note: For more on 1 John, I suggest my book  The Letters of John: A Participatory Guide (Energion Publications, 2019).         

 

   Christ Cares for All, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57827 [retrieved April 10, 2021]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NatividadChurchjf8794_07.JPG.

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

Hebrews 5:5-10 New Revised Standard Version

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

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

as he says also in another place,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romans 4:13-25  New
Revised Standard Version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Corinthians 4:3-6   New Revised Standard Version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                          

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

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

1 Corinthians 9:16-23 New Revised Standard Version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Corinthians 8:1-13 New Revised Standard Version

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

               

                 

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

 

1 Corinthians 7:29-31
New Revised Standard Version

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acts 19:1-7 New Revised Standard Version

 

 

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ephesians 1:3-14 New Revised Standard Version

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

******************

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Galatians 4:4-7 New Revised Standard Version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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