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Preparing for Sunday: February 6, 2022

Preparing for Sunday: February 6, 2022

The text for this upcoming Sunday comes from Luke 5:1-11. You can read the text by going here. Watch the video and listen to the questions.

What are your answers? What are your questions? Feel free to share them by responding to this post in the comments section or sending an email to info@fccsaintpaul.org.

Preparing for Sunday: January 30, 2022

Preparing for Sunday: January 30, 2022

The text for this upcoming Sunday comes from Luke 4:21-30. You can read the text by going here. Watch the video and listen to the questions.

What are your answers? What are your questions? Feel free to share them by responding to this post in the comments section or sending an email to info@fccsaintpaul.org.

Time to Rejoice – Lectionary Reflection for Advent 3C (Philippians 4)

Philippians 4:4-7 (8-9) New Revised Standard Version

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

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                The four Sundays of Advent are driven by four themes—hope, peace, joy, and love. We light candles to highlight each of these four themes. The candles might be blue or purple, depending on the color scheme we choose. On the third Sunday, this Sunday, however, we light a pink candle. Why do we light a pink candle on this particular Sunday? What does pink have to do with the day we light the candle of joy? Well, here’s the reason. The purple (or blue) is seen as a more somber color that signifies repentance, which is part of the path of preparation for welcoming the birth of the Christ child. The choice of pink here softens the image as a way of acknowledging that joy is breaking through the more somber days of Advent. Since we light the candle of joy, what better scripture text to hear on a day like this than the passage from Philippians 4.

                Whatever is happening around us, Paul calls for us to “rejoice in the Lord, always.” Yes, rejoice always, not just when we feel in a happy mood. Indeed, joy is not the same as happiness. Remember that Paul writes this letter not from a beach in Hawaii, but a jail cell in some undisclosed location. When Paul writes here about joy, he’s not suggesting that joy depends on our circumstances in life. Joy is rooted in relationships with God and with the community of followers of Jesus.

                While Paul seems to have a deep and abiding friendship with the people in Philippi, which is the cause of his joy, it’s not as if this is a perfect congregation without problems or concerns. It might not be the Corinthian or Galatian congregations, but it’s not a perfect place (as if such a thing exists). Consider the word given to the congregation to encourage his former co-workers, Euodia and Syntyche, to get along. That will occur if they are of one mind in the Lord. The reason he wants to encourage the healing of the relationship is that these two women have been important partners in his ministry (Phil. 4:2-3). How often in churches do we find key members, who have had an important ministry, get cross-ways undermining their message. Thus, Paul wants them to reconcile so they can focus their attention on the ministry of the congregation.

                Ultimately it is because the Lord is near that he has reason to be joyful. While that word has eschatological implications, it could also speak to Paul’s sense that God is present with him by the Spirit. This relationship with God, therefore, makes it possible to rejoice always. In fact, he tells the Philippians in this paragraph of the letter not to be anxious about anything. That’s, of course, easier to say than to do. Many of us live anxiety-filled lives. We worry about our health, the health of our family members, the situation in our nation and our communities. There is so much stuff going on in our lives that it’s difficult not to feel a bit anxious. You’d have to be a Vulcan not to feel anxiety in this day and age. So, how can Paul say to us don’t worry, be happy? Well, he doesn’t say that exactly. He simply says, don’t be anxious. Instead, pray. Again, it’s important to remember that Paul is writing this letter from a jail cell, so we can’t really dismiss this word as little more than pious claptrap. He knows what it means to live his life amid difficult circumstances. Nevertheless, he believes it’s possible for those who are people of God to experience joy, no matter the circumstances. That suggests that joy is something that is rooted in God’s presence in our lives.

                I’m going to pick up on a word here that can be read in different ways. Paul writes to them, noting that “the Lord is near.” That can be read apocalyptically. We can think here in terms of Paul’s expectation that Jesus’ return in glory was near at hand. That is a message we find throughout Paul’s letters. He’s not, necessarily, a millennialist. That is, he doesn’t have a position on whether Jesus will return at some point to reign on earth for a thousand years (Rev. 20:4-6). That’s not part of his message. He does, however, believe that the last day, the day of the Lord, was near at hand. So, we can read it in this way. For our purposes, however, I’d like to read it in a more spiritual manner, in a way that someone like Origen or maybe St. Augustine would appreciate.

                If we read it in a more spiritual manner, we can embrace the idea that no matter where we are or situation in life, the “Lord is near.” That is, we’re not alone as we take this journey of life. That is why we can live through difficult times without anxiety. It is the relationship that we experience with God, that sustains us, and brings us joy. It’s this relationship that is embodied by his connection with the congregation that sustains him. This suggests that the community is important to the life of faith.

                People will ask whether one can be a Christian without being part of a church. Now there is a theology that suggests there is no salvation outside the church. The point of that message is a sacramental one. It is in the church that one receives the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I believe that these sacramental moments are important contributors to the Christian life and that they are made available in the context of the church, but that’s not what I have in mind here.  It is the relationship that exists when we are in community that provides a space where God draws near to us.  As Jesus said, “when two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matt 18:20). This is the key to our ability to live lives of joy.

                Now, the reading designated by the Revised Common Lectionary for the third Sunday of Advent is centered on verses 4-7 of Philippians 4. I’ve chosen to include in this reflection verses eight and nine. They seem to belong to what Paul writes in verses 4-7. These verses help focus our attention on what it means to live a joy-filled life. The key here is keeping our minds focused on the right things. That is, things that are noble and pure, lovely and admirable. Yes, keep your minds focused on praise-worthy things. When we keep focused on the things of God then the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding can guard our hearts and mind. That comes through Christ Jesus.

                Since the Advent season has an eschatological dimension, we should keep our eyes on that word about Christ drawing near. That word reminds us that the day of the Lord is out there ahead of us. But there is no need to fear if one keeps one’s eyes on the prize. And, as we see here in this letter, Paul is committed to making sure this congregation is ready for that day. This message fits well with the message we find in the reading for today from the Gospel of Luke. In the reading from Luke 3, John the Baptist preaches a message of repentance and offers a baptism that will prepare the people to receive the coming Messiah. John is not the Messiah. He is only the one who prepares the way (Luke 3:7-18). Paul is not the Messiah, but he also is called upon by God to prepare the way for others to encounter the peace of God that comes to us through Christ. The final word of this reading, which is found in verse 9, is simply a word of encouragement. “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.” Follow the way of Jesus, which involves love overflowing so we might know what is best so that on the day of the Lord we’ll be ready with a harvest of righteousness (Phil. 1:9-11). Then, we will break out in joyful song, singing “Joy to the world, the Lord is Come! Let earth receive her King!; let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing!” Yes,”Joy to the world, the Savior reigns!”

Hebrews 9:24-28 New Revised Standard Version

24 For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25 Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; 26 for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

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                Like much of the New Testament, the Book of Hebrews has a strong apocalyptic element. We see that apocalyptic dimension present here in this passage. Because of how apocalyptic messages have been used over the centuries and especially over the past several decades, there is general discomfort with the apocalyptic dimension of the New Testament. It’s understandable. However, it’s there for all to see. We can’t ignore it. Besides the apocalyptic elements of the New Testament provide a certain intensity and alertness to the texts. It brings to the fore a certain anticipation that something is about to happen. Granted, we live two millennia later and, as of yet, Jesus hasn’t returned. That is why theologians such as Origen and Augustine allegorized texts like this. In fact, one scholar spoke of Origen demythologizing the apocalyptic elements. There is reason to do so. At the same time, it’s important that we not ignore the message even if we must reinterpret it.

                First-century Christians expected Jesus to return at any moment. At times Paul encouraged such thinking and at other times he had to calm the folks down, reminding them that in the meantime they needed to attend to business. That is, go to work so you can eat. That being said, the author of Hebrews, whose identity remains unknown, offers us a meditation on the apocalyptic dimension of Jesus’ ministry.

                As noted in a previous reflection, Hebrews represents a Platonized vision of the ministry of Jesus. He contrasts the earthly ministry of the Levitical priesthood with Jesus’ heavenly priesthood. Whereas the Levitical priests had to annually offer sacrifices on behalf of not only the general populace but themselves as well. In our reading, which continues the messaging we’ve been hearing, Jesus enters the heavenly Temple ready to offer a sacrifice for sin. The sacrifice he offers is himself. Nothing is said here of the cross upon which Jesus died but is rather an offering of himself to God as a replacement for the annual sacrifices. That is, the author of Hebrews focuses on the sacrifices offered on the Day of Atonement and not Passover. While we know from Scripture (Leviticus 16) what this involves, the nature of the sacrifice on  Jesus’ part is not revealed. In other words, the cross is not specifically mentioned.

                The apocalyptic element is clear in the statement that Jesus has appeared “at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.” The way it is phrased here, Jesus has already done this, suggesting that the “end of the age” has already occurred, and that it occurred when Jesus offered himself in the heavenly Temple in the presence of God on our behalf. In doing this, Jesus acted to remove sin from us. As noted elsewhere in Hebrews, Jesus does this only once and not annually as was true of the Levitical priests. As we’ve seen earlier, Jesus takes his priesthood from the mysterious line of the priest-king Melchizedek (Heb. 7).

                The reading suggests that the end of the age began when Jesus offered himself up as the atoning sacrifice in the heavenly temple. In other words, what happened on earth with the crucifixion also happened in heaven as Jesus entered the heavenly Temple and offered himself up to God as an atoning sacrifice. This is the word Hebrews offers concerning the first advent, but there is a second as well. Some use the analogy of D-Day for understanding the cross. While the war would continue for almost a year in Europe, once the allies landed in Normandy the war was won. There would be no turning back. With that analogy as a reference to the cross, Jesus gained a beachhead that would never be turned back. There would be many more battles to come. Evil hasn’t given up its resistance, but it will not win. Even for those of us who believe that the future is open and unwritten, could we not say that Good Friday and Easter turned the tide?

                Hebrews acknowledges that we all die once, and then comes the day of judgment. What this means is not clear, though Jürgen Moltmann cautions those of us who lean toward universal salvation,

If salvation is tied to faith, then all the universal statements in the New Testament must be related to God’s good salvific intention, but not to the outcome of history. What is meant is the possibility of redemption, not its inevitable actuality. It is true that the word aionios does not mean the absolute eternity of God, but it does mean the irrevocability of the decision for faith or unbelief. Faith’s experience that in the presence of the call to decision one is standing before God has as its corollary the finality of human decision. Consequently `the double outcome’ is the last word of the Last Judgment.  [Moltmann. The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (Kindle Locations 3506-3509). Kindle Edition].

That is good to remember—the outcome is not inevitable. We have choices and redemption can’t be coerced if God is truly love.

                When it comes to the timing of this day of judgment, it does sound here as if it immediately follows death. Other passages of Scripture suggest a different timeframe, so unless we embrace a God who stands outside time (timeless) then we have some interpretive moves to make here. Whatever the time frame, the story is not yet complete. There is also a second coming. But unlike the first advent, in which Christ dealt with sin (apparently through his death on the cross) this second advent is designed to save the faithful who are eagerly awaiting Jesus’ return.

                Hebrews doesn’t reveal exactly what is meant by the word “save,” but it would seem that the expectation is that Jesus will return to gather up the faithful bringing this age to a close. Judgment has already occurred, so the expectation is not one of fear but hope. Thus, salvation in this context is not related to deliverance from sin, but a gathering up of those whom Jesus has already saved. Tom Long puts it this way concerning the anticipated day of judgment:

In this part of the passage, the writer of Hebrews indicates that the offering of Christ makes this obsession with judgment moot. In Christ, sin has already been extinguished, and lasting forgiveness has been granted. So Christians do not have to dread the future, watching fearfully for God the judge. God’s future is one of salvation and redemption. Christ is “coming again,” not with a sword of judgment, but “to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” [Long, Feasting on the Word, p.
283].

So, instead of putting up signs that call for people to get right with God, in Christ, we are already made right with God. So, we can focus on other things.  Judgment day is not a day to be feared but celebrated. So keep alert, the day of the Lord is near at hand!!  Maranatha!  Lord Come Quickly!

Image attribution:  Icon of the Second Coming, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56666 [retrieved October 31, 2021]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Icon_second_coming.jpg.

Stand Fast in the Faith – Lectionary (RCL) Reflection for Pentecost 25B

Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25  New Revised Standard Version

11 Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. 14 For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

15 The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:

16 “This is the covenant I will make with them 

  after that time, says the Lord.I will put my laws in their hearts,

    and I will write them on their minds.”

17 Then he adds:

“Their sins and lawless acts

    I will remember no more.”

18 And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.

                        19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

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                The reading from Hebrews 10 begins where we’ve left off several times. The Levitical priests must offer the same sacrifices again and again in the Temple/Tabernacle. They have effectiveness, but they need regular boosters (think flu shot or maybe COVID vaccines).  However, when it comes to the offering of Jesus, acting as our high priest, who offers himself as the perfect sacrifice, it only takes one dose (sort of like the measles shot). Then, when Jesus has completed this once for all offering, he takes his place at the right hand of God until the moment when his enemies are made a footstool for his feet. That is, he will sit upon the throne next to God until all those who oppose his work on our behalf finally submit themselves to his authority. Thus, “by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” This is the good news given to those who will receive it with open arms.

                The previous readings from Hebrews have been making this claim for the superiority of Jesus’ priesthood/offering. It is a central part of the message in the Book of Hebrews. We can see here that the author of Hebrews is working with Platonic categories that distinguish between the material/spiritual and earthly/heavenly dimensions.  Thus, the Levitical priesthood provides the earthly counterpart to the heavenly priesthood of Jesus. That is why Jesus offers the perfect sacrifice that needs to be offered only once. Again, it’s important that when we read this, we do not read it with supersessionist eyes such that Christianity supersedes/replaces Judaism.

                The creators of the Revised Common Lectionary have made verses 15-18 optional. Nevertheless, these verses which direct our attention to the message offered by the Holy Spirit through the prophet Jeremiah might be worth hearing. In these verses, Hebrews points us to Jeremiah 31, where Jeremiah speaks of the new covenant God makes with Israel, a covenant in which the law is written on the heart rather than stone tablets. In other words, if the law of God is internalized then it need not be codified. People will simply walk in the ways of God without having to be reminded by external symbols such as stone tablets. Therefore, God “will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Thus, Jesus will have reconciled to God all those who believe. As a result, there is no longer a need for sacrifices. With one offering by Jesus the High Priest of himself everything is wiped clean. It is not that the law and the sacrifices are meaningless, however, in Christ, they take on a new identity. What was a largely material engagement is now essentially spiritualized. The earthly is now heavenly.

                To this point, the reading has focused on what God has done for us through Jesus. Now we hear what this means for us. As we move into this final section of the reading it’s important to remember that Hebrews spiritualizes things. So, having been made clean through Jesus’ sacrifice, we can now enter the sanctuary (the holy of holies) through the blood of Jesus with confidence. This sanctuary is not an earthly temple/tabernacle. It’s a heavenly one. In this vision, there is a curtain that has been opened so we can enter the sanctuary. This is the new and living way so that we might approach the altar with an assurance of faith and hearts cleansed from an evil conscience, our bodies having been washed with pure water. This could be a reference to baptism as the means by which the believer identifies with or embraces the gift of salvation in Christ.

                In speaking of entering the sanctuary likely serves as a call to join together as a congregation in worship. As one participates in the worship of God, one enters the heavenly sanctuary. This message is reinforced in verse 25, where the author tells the readers not to neglect meeting together, which appears to have been the habit of some in the community. Why is this important? We’re told that in gathering together they can encourage one another as the “Day” approaches. That day would be the Second Coming of Jesus referenced in Hebrews 9— “so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly awaiting him” (Heb. 9:28). By joining together in worship, the believers prepare themselves for the coming Day of the Lord. Again, we see that Hebrews has a strong apocalyptic dimension.

                Stepping back to the prior verses, the author of our text tells us that we are to approach the heavenly altar/throne, “with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Heb. 10:22). It is important that we highlight this reference to the word “faith,” which will be developed more fully in chapter 11, where we learn that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.” It is, Hebrews tells us that it was through faith that the ancestors, including Abraham, receive approval (Heb. 11:1-2). We see that vision of faith present here in the call to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering.” 

                This call to not waver in one’s faith needs to be understood in context. The issue here is not one of “doubt” as we often think of it in the modern context. This isn’t a call for theological certainty. It is a call to stay with the program, to not give up in the face of persecution or pressure. It is a call to endurance. This is why the author addresses those who are absenting themselves from the community. Modern Christians, especially American Christians, think in individualist terms when it comes to matters of religion or faith. The community is secondary. In fact, for many “church” is nothing more than an “institution.” When looked at through consumerist eyes, the question is usually, what do I get out of this exchange. For the author of Hebrews, by absenting yourself from the community you not only endanger your own faith, but also that of the rest of the community. So, having decided to follow Jesus, a decision confirmed through the washing of water (baptism), don’t look back. Keep your eyes on the prize. You can do this, our author tells us, because God is faithful to the promise!  In other words, don’t squander the gift of salvation. Jesus is faithful to the promise, so we should be faithful to it as well.

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

Hebrews 9:11-15 New Revised Standard Version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hebrews
7:23-28 New Revised Standard Version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hebrews 4:12-16  New Revised Standard Version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   

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

 

 

 

James 5:13-20 New Revised Standard Version

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Diego Rivera Mural, Detroit Institute of Art

James 2:1-17 New Revised Standard Version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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