Tag: Proclamation

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.

Obedience to Whom? A Lectionary reflection for Easter 2C (Acts 5)

Acts 5:27-32 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

 

27 When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, We must obey God rather than any human authority. 30 The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

 

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                I woke up Easter morning to news that churches and hotels in Sri Lanka had been bombed with hundreds reported dead or injured. It wasn’t the kind of news I wanted to hear as I prepared to help lead the congregation in worship on Easter Sunday. My sermon offered hope of a new creation emerging from the resurrection. It was a good plan, but how do you celebrate life when the news reports suggest that death has once again claimed victory? Then again, Easter is rooted in a prior act of violence, the crucifixion of Jesus. It is with these competing images of violent death and God’s victory over death in the resurrection that we began our Easter season. The question is, where do we go from here? How do we respond?  

 

The Gospel reading from John 20 invites us to receive the Holy Spirit and believe the good news even if, like Thomas, we don’t have physical evidence. The first reading for the week, as laid out by the Revised Common Lectionary, points us to the Book of Acts, rather than the Hebrew Bible, which is the case through most of the year. Since my focus in this cycle of lectionary reflections is on these first readings, during the Easter season I will be taking up the witness of the Book of Acts. So, we find ourselves in Acts 5. The reading for the Second Sunday of Easter, in Year C, comes from Acts 5.

This reading from Acts 5 begins in the middle of a story. The Apostles have been arrested and imprisoned, but somehow, they have escaped, though the doors were locked, and the guards were at their post. To the surprise of the authorities, the apostles had gone back to the Temple and had started up preaching once again, just like before their arrest. Having been sent to look for the Apostles, the Temple guards took the apostles back into custody (without violence) and brought them before the council to be questioned (Acts 5:17-26). This is where the lectionary selection picks up the story.

The goal here, at least in the minds of the religious authorities, is to put an end to this nascent movement of Jesus followers, before it led to trouble with the Roman government. If the death of Jesus failed to suppress the movement, what would do the trick? Thus, we have before us what you might call a power encounter. Two forces are on a collision course. On the one hand there is the religious establishment and on the other there is this emergent religious sect that is flouting the rules and undermining the status quo.  The religious authorities demand that the apostles give up their preaching, while Peter and Apostles insist on preaching. As Peter puts it: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” It’s one of those “Here I stand, I can do no other” moments. Something has to give, and Peter shows no signs he’s ready to give in.

                Peter and the apostles turn this appearance before the religious authorities into an opportunity to share their basic message, as if the authorities hadn’t already heard it!  To begin with, the religious authorities were frustrated that the Apostles were placing the blood of Jesus on them. That is, the Apostles were blaming the authorities for the death of Jesus, and they didn’t appreciate it. Afterall, they were just doing their job of keeping the peace when they tried to shut down Jesus. They figured that if they dealt a deadly blow to the leader of the group, it would dissipate. So far, that tactic hadn’t worked, but they still didn’t want to be blamed.  

 

When Peter and his cohorts get up to offer their defense, they reaffirm this charge. Yes, the authorities were responsible for Jesus’ death, but they had failed in their mission to deal a deadly blow on the movement, because God had raised Jesus from the dead. Not only had God raised Jesus from the dead, but God exalted him to his right hand, making him “Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” They stood before the community as witnesses to this message and did so through the power of the Holy Spirit given by God to those who obey God. Remember the question—who should we obey?

If we read between the lines, we will understand why the religious leaders were concerned about the activities of this upstart sect. The religious leaders were essentially in the employ of the Roman authorities, who charged them with keeping the peace. They were supposed to be the buffer between the empire and the people (who weren’t all that keen on being part of the empire). As for the Apostles, they were doing anything but keeping the peace. They were stirring up trouble with their preaching and their miracles, all of which occurred in the Temple precincts. This was an area of the city under the control of the religious authorities, and they didn’t appreciate the activity that cast them in a bad light.  

When we read a passage like this, we must be cognizant of the danger posed by a passage like this, which has been used to target Jews. We can criticize the religious leaders without blaming the Jews as a people. It is important that we remember that the Apostles were themselves Jews. This was in reality a contest for the hearts of the people—the institutionalists or the outsiders. As an institutionalist by profession, I find myself uncomfortable at this point in the story. Where would I be in this story?   

Peter stakes out the grounds for debate with the declaration that they must obey God rather than human authority. The opposition position is given voice by the chief priest, who in this story is representative of alliances made for political expediency. So, what we see here is a common occurrence through history, especially in the age of Christendom that extended from the time of Constantine to the present. It may seem like we’re in a post-Christendom era, but not everyone has gotten the message. Thus, we continue to see such corrupting alliances emerge to this day, with religious leaders lining up to support the reigning political authorities. In the current context, we’ve seen religious leaders bow before the President, embracing his immoral behavior, all in the name of gaining access to power. It’s an easy trap to fall into. Billy Graham discovered to his chagrin that he had been compromised by his friendship with Richard Nixon. And, consider how the religious authorities in Germany got into bed with Adolph Hitler, and in doing so compromised their beliefs and abetted Hitler’s demonic program.

You don’t need a Hitler to be corrupted. We entangle ourselves because we may believe it will benefit us or we might even believe we can steer the authorities in the right direction. As one who is engaged with political leaders, at least on the local and state level, I have to be watchful about my loyalties. It is easy to get corrupted, and it’s good to remember that whatever benefits we accrue from these alliances are often short term in nature. If we look at the history of first century Palestine, the alliance between the religious authorities and the Romans did not prevent the destruction of the Temple. It pays, then to be watchful, no matter what the politics of the governing authorities might be.

So, we come back the declaration of Peter: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” This is not a call for disengagement. It is a call to be wary of corrupting alliances. The Apostles rejected the demands of the authorities, and as the verses follow note, the authorities exacting some pain and suffering on them, having them flogged. They might have done more, but Gamaliel suggested that they might want to wait and see if this movement fell apart now that its leader was gone, as had been true with earlier movements. On the other hand, if its from God, you can’t defeat it. My sense is that Gamaliel figured that the movement would eventually collapse under its own weight. Why create more martyrs?  Of course, the movement did survive, so does that mean it is of God? What then will our witness be?

               

                 

 

Turn Back to God – A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 3B

comesundayfbActs 3:12-19 Common English Bible (CEB)

12 Seeing this, Peter addressed the people: “You Israelites, why are you amazed at this? Why are you staring at us as if we made him walk by our own power or piety? 13 The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God of our ancestors—has glorified his servant Jesus. This is the one you handed over and denied in Pilate’s presence, even though he had already decided to release him. 14 You rejected the holy and righteous one, and asked that a murderer be released to you instead. 15 You killed the author of life, the very one whom God raised from the dead. We are witnesses of this. 16 His name itself has made this man strong. That is, because of faith in Jesus’ name, God has strengthened this man whom you see and know. The faith that comes through Jesus gave him complete health right before your eyes.

17 “Brothers and sisters, I know you acted in ignorance. So did your rulers. 18 But this is how God fulfilled what he foretold through all the prophets: that his Christ would suffer. 19 Change your hearts and lives! Turn back to God so that your sins may be wiped away.
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Note: During the season of Easter the First Reading from the Revised Common Lectionary is drawn not from the Hebrew Bible, but from the Book of Acts.

John the Baptist and Jesus had a common message: Repent. Turn back to God. Stop your rebellion. In the post-resurrection age, Peter picked right up with their message. He proclaimed to any who would listen: turn from your sins and embrace the realm of God. For Peter this messaging included reminding his audience that the religious and political leaders conspired to kill Jesus, the author of life. So, “turn back to God so that your sins may be wiped away.” Preaching a message of repentance so soon after Easter Sunday is probably a bit radio-active. After all, shouldn’t we be celebrating the coming of spring. For those of us who live in colder winter climates, spring is something is to be celebrated. So, why talk about sin and repentance? Perhaps, in Peter’s mind (and Luke’s), repentance and resurrection are related. After all, it was the conspiracy to have Jesus executed, because of his message of repentance, that led to his death and then resurrection.

The lectionary reading begins with Peter’s message to the people, but who are these people Peter is addressing, and why is he speaking? Acts 3 begins with a beggar sitting at the gate to the Temple. Luke tells us that he is crippled, and that he depends on alms shared by those who go to the Temple to worship. It’s a good plan. Surely worshipers will be generous. Among those worshipers are Peter and John, who apparently go up to the Temple in Jerusalem to worship three times a day. If they have been through this gate with any frequency, and I’m assuming they had, they would have run into this man. They know his message. Maybe they have thrown a few coins his way. In any case, as they walk by on their way to worship, the man calls out to them, asking for alms. The two apostles stop and face the man. He wants money, but they decide to give something else. There is a song, that I sang years ago in Bible study and at camps. It tells the story of this encounter:

Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee,
In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.
He went walking and leaping and praising God,
Walking and leaping and praising God,
In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.
In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.

When the people see the man walking and leaping, they want to know what happened. How can this man, who sat begging alms, perhaps for years, now be jumping around and praising God?

This eruption of praise and the attending questions, gave Peter his opening. It is now sermon time. A crowd gathers, eager to hear from these workers of miracles, who once walked with Jesus. Now, remember, Luke only gives summaries of sermons, not the full text. But the text as given starts with a rebuke. He’s asking them why they needed to ask the question. Didn’t they realize that the power of healing was with Jesus, whom, according to the apostles, they conspired to kill by delivering Jesus to Pilate. Peter gives a witness to Jesus. You conspired with Pilate, but God raised him instead.

Once again, we must be careful how we read a passage like this. It can and has been used as fuel for anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic exclusion and violence. Even today, there are those who accuse Jews of being Christ-killers. Let us remember that Peter and John and Jesus and John the Baptist, were all Jews. The religious leadership, who derived power from Rome, as was so of the case, turned Jesus over (at least that’s how Luke tells the story). Most likely they did this, because Rome didn’t like people challenging its authority. You could believe whatever you wished, but just don’t challenge Rome’s authority. So, let us be careful how we read this passage. In this particular case, we have before us an in-house conversation. Peter is addressing his own community and reminding them of what has happened in the past. Jesus, like earlier prophets of God was struck down by the powers that be, but God turned the tables and his raised him from the dead. So, turn back. Choose a different path.

When we read a passage like this from the lectionary, we’re not only asking what it meant back then. We’re asking, what does it mean for us today? So, the message is this: “Turn back to God.” Repent of your sins, and God will forgive, wiping away your sins. Perhaps the way to read this today is ask the question of our own complicity in deeds of destruction. How have we rejected God’s messengers?

The healing of the man that brought Peter and John to the attention of the people is a sign that life reigns victorious. Willie James Jennings writes:

The man healed is now a sign of the man resurrected from the dead, the author of life itself. Now the actions of the One confront the wayward propensities of the many. If peoples are often seduced by the power of violence and take up the weapons of death, here is Jesus the Messiah who has overcome the effects of violence and the pull of death. If peoples are prone to choose against their own well-being and life, here is the Messiah who heals, restores, and gives life. [Jennings, Acts, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, (WJK Press, 2017), p. 43].

Peter and John stand before their neighbors, who like them have come to worship the God of Israel. The apostles proclaim the message that the Messiah of God, the one who was rejected, has been accepted by God, and brings life, even in the midst of death. So, will you join with God, and turn away from the path of destruction? Will you join the movement for the common good of all?

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.