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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).

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.

******

            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.

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

                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!