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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.

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                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.

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            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.

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                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

A Mystery Revealed – Lectionary Reflection for Advent 4B — Romans 16

Romans 16:25-27
New Revised Standard Version

25 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

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                Everyone loves a mystery. Mystery novels have been published for decades and continue to be popular fodder for reading. When it comes to the things of God, well there’s mystery there as well. After the age of Enlightenment dawned many sought to establish a more rational version of the Christian faith. Thus, John Locke and others spoke of a “Reasonable Christianity.” With this emphasis on reason, mystery was deemphasized, at least in mainstream Protestantism. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that with this proclamation of a reasonable Christianity, the divinity of Christ and the teaching of the doctrine of the Trinity became problematic.

                Mystical theology, of course, continued to be promulgated in some sectors of the Church, especially in the Eastern Church. Therefore, in this postmodern world, it’s not surprising that Eastern Christianity has begun to attract the attention of many who find that a rationalistic version of the faith leaves one cold. Sometimes the attraction to the mystical theology of Eastern Christianity is experiential, at other times it is the theological side of things that has proven attractive because it provides a way of embracing divine realities that lie beyond our ability to fully comprehend or explain. This is especially true for those of us who embrace doctrines like the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. But, as the late Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky writes regarding the relationship of theology and mysticism: “There is, therefore, no Christian mysticism without theology; but, above all, there is no theology without mysticism.” In fact, Lossky calls mysticism “theology par excellence” [The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 9]. While I embrace the place of reason in religion, I must confess that I’m beginning to agree with Lossky.  

                With the arrival of the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we reach a pivotal moment in the Advent/Christmas season. The lighting of the fourth candle invites us to enter into the mystery that is the incarnation. The season invites us to ask the question: who is this Jesus who the Gospels proclaim to have been born in Bethlehem? This is the final Sunday before we light the Christ Candle on Christmas Eve to signal the arrival of Emmanuel, “God with us.” The message of the incarnation is that in this person as Jesus the “only wise God” whose presence has been shrouded in mystery has been revealed to us. Regarding the mystery of the incarnation, Gregory of Nazianzus, a leading fourth-century theologian, proclaims that “this is the feast we celebrate today, in which God comes to live with human beings, that we may journey toward God, or return—for to speak thus is more exact—that laying aside the old human being we may be clothed with the new, and that is in Adam we have died so we may live in Christ, born with Christ and crucified with him, buried with him and rising with him.” [Festal Orations, p. 63].

                This reflection on the mystery of God, as revealed in this final stage of our Advent journey is rooted in the reading from Romans 16 as stipulated for this day by the Revised Common Lectionary. This brief doxology, which closes out the letter to the Romans, may or may not be Paul’s work. Although the doxology is absent from some ancient manuscripts or appears elsewhere in the letter in still other manuscripts the doxology speaks to the good news Paul and others have proclaimed through the ages. Therefore, whether or not Paul wrote these words, they celebrate the work of God that brings salvation to Jew and Gentile.

                According to the letter, God has strengthened the readers through Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel. In preaching about Jesus, Paul has made known the “revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages” to the Gentiles. He has done so at the command of the eternal God so that Gentiles might be brought to “the obedience of faith.” Something similar is revealed in two other letters that may be post-Pauline—Ephesians and Colossians. In Ephesians, we read that “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit:  that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:5-6, see also Col. 1:6-7).

                For Paul, God is the one who is at work to bring about this mystery. At the beginning of the letter,  Paul offers a prayer of thanksgiving to God for having been given the opportunity to announce the Gospel of  God’s son (Rom. 1:8-9). Now, he closes the letter with a word of thanksgiving to God for having the opportunity to proclaim the Gospel. As Paul makes clear, he does this as a servant of God, who strengthens those who receive the Gospel.    

                Returning to the mystery of God that has been revealed through Paul. The word revelation there is in Greek apokalypsin. That word should look familiar because it is the foundation for words like apocalyptic.  That is the kind of vision that Paul pursues. For him, the day of the Lord was close at hand (remember that Advent envisions two advents, one in the past and one yet to come). We may be getting ready for Christmas, but that’s not what Paul has in mind here. After all, Paul never speaks of Jesus’ birth. Instead, he’s focused on the mystery that impacts the future, and which has finally been revealed. This is the mystery (mysterion) that has been disclosed/revealed after long ages through the prophetic writings to the Gentiles. This is important to Paul because he saw himself as the Apostle to the Gentiles. It was his mission to bring the word of Jesus to people outside the Jewish community. He didn’t deny the revelation made known to the Jews, but now what was known to Jews could now be extended to Gentiles through the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus. Now they too could prepare for the coming of the Lord.

                The call given to Paul is to “bring about the obedience of faith” in the Gentiles, and all of this is for the Glory of the only Wise God. The glory that emerges out of the revealing of the mystery of God to the Gentiles has eternal  ramifications. That is the mystery that has been under wraps until the coming of Jesus and the proclamation of the Gospel to the Gentiles. Therefore, we can sing:

All earth is waiting to see the Promised One,

and open furrows, the sowing of our God.

All the world, bound and struggling, seeks true liberty;

it cries out for justice and searches for the truth. 

[“All Earth Is Waiting,” Alberto Taulé]

     

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

 

1 Thessalonians 2:9-20  New Revised Standard Version

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apostle Paul – Rembrandt

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 New Revised Standard Version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Philippians 4:1-9 New Revised Standard Version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking Humbly with Jesus – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 17A (Philippians 2)

Philippians 2:1-13  New Revised Standard Version

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

***********

                As we open chapter two of Paul’s letter the Philippians, what find is a continuation of a thread that begins in verse twenty-seven of chapter one, in which Paul tells his readers to live their lives in a manner worthy of the Gospel. He asked them to stand firm in one spirit and strive together in one mind for the gospel (Phil. 1:27). Now, he takes this word of guidance a step further by offering Jesus as our example of what it means to live a life worthy of the Gospel. In pointing our attention toward Jesus, he calls on the congregation to live humbly. He asks them not to consider themselves better than others. In fact, they should do nothing from selfish conceit. If they follow this word of guidance, they’ll make Paul’s joy complete. By following the example of Jesus they’ll be of the same mind, have the same love, and be in full accord. It is a call to unity in the Spirit of Christ that requires walking humbly with Jesus. This is expressed by looking after the interests of others, rather one’s own.

While we don’t see the same kind of conflict present in this letter as some of the others, there are hints that the community might not always be on the same page. Perhaps it’s due to persecution or some other matter. Later in the letter, Paul refers to Euodia and Syntyche, who are being urged to be of one mind. Paul asks his companion (perhaps the bearer of the letter) to help these women whom Paul acknowledges as having struggled alongside him for the gospel (Phil. 4:2-3). While Paul does give an explicit explanation, the original readers understand. What we do know is that Paul offers Jesus as the model for the Christian life, and that model is one of humility and even self-sacrifice.  

                Just a caveat here. It’s possible to take this too far and not consider one’s own welfare. We need to set boundaries so that we don’t get abused by others. Now, Paul might not agree with that caveat, but we’ve learned the need for a bit of balance lest we burn out or get run over. That being said, we can hear Paul’s word concerning a way of life that imitates Jesus, a word that he inhabits in his imprisonment due to his work on behalf of Jesus.

                Standing at the center of the passage is a hymn, or what looks like a hymn, since most translations lay it out in hymnic form. It’s possible Paul wrote it, but it’s more likely that it’s a well-known hymn in the circles of Paul’s churches. It’s a bit like me quoting from a hymn like “Amazing Grace,” which the congregation will know and love and be able to understand its meaning.

The initial vision presented by the hymn is kenotic. It envisions Jesus being in some form divine, and seemingly pre-existent (this would fit with John’s prologue—John 1:1-14). Nevertheless, despite his original form, he doesn’t exploit this equality with God. Instead, he humbles himself, taking on the form of a human, even that of a slave. That is, Paul envisions Jesus taking the lowest form in society, and from that form revealing God’s vision of salvation. There would be exaltation, but first, there must be the act of taking on human form and identifying with the lowliest members of society. This act of identification with humanity is understood to be an act of obedience that would take him to the cross.

I refer here to the theological word “kenosis” because it is pregnant with meaning. It speaks of emptying oneself of one’s prerogatives, glory, and even divine status. It gives room for divine-human interaction, and in this case for our salvation. Karl Barth suggests that in this act of emptying of himself of his divine glory, Jesus “puts himself in a position where only he himself knows himself in the way that the Father knows him.” Any act of revelation will come from the Father. [Epistle to the Philippians, 63]. The message here to the Philippians is this: If Jesus was in a position of equality with God the Father, and he let go of it so that he might experience human life even to the point of suffering death on a cross, then shouldn’t they be willing to follow suit?

           Of course, this is not the end of the story. What occurs in the first verse of the hymn, the humiliation of Jesus, is reversed in the second verse of the hymn (vs. 9-11), wherein God exalts Jesus by raising him from the dead and seating him at the right hand of God. As he ascends to this exalted status, every knee bends before him and every tongue confesses that he is lord. All of this is to the glory of God, from whom he descended and then ascended. Jesus is exalted, but he doesn’t exalt himself. The same true for us.

           While this passage doesn’t provide us a fully developed trinitarian vision, since such a vision can’t be found in the New Testament, you can see the foundations of such a vision here. While, unlike in John’s prologue, there isn’t a reference to the logos here, the hymn may presuppose some form of preexistence, that later theologians could build upon. But Paul isn’t so much interested in laying out a theological argument on the divine nature of Jesus as he is attempting to provide a foundation for living the Christian life in a way that reflects the person of Jesus who was willing to sacrifice all for others, a sacrifice that led to his exaltation through the resurrection. In other words, leave the work of exaltation to God!          If we take Jesus, who though having equality God, thought it not necessary to hold onto, but emptied himself of that glory, taking on human life, then surely we can follow his example in our lives. As we do, we can work out our salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that it’s God who is at work in us, enabling us to “work for his good pleasure.”