Posts Tagged discipleship

The God who gives a damn; a poem by Emmy Perez; and the lessons for Sunday, June 24, 2018

See the source imageFIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Job 38:1-11
Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God of creation, eternal majesty, you preside over land and sea, sunshine and storm. By your strength pilot us, by your power preserve us, by your wisdom instruct us, and by your hand protect us, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Teacher, do you not care if we perish?”  Mark 4:38

“Why are you afraid?” A simple question addressed by Jesus to his disciples. The answer seems obvious. The disciples have just left the familiar shores of Galilee for what Mark characterizes as “the other side.” We know from the context that Jesus means the other side of the Sea of Galilee, the country of the Gerasenes. The length of this journey does not appear great on the map, but tackling it with a boat designed chiefly for netting fish just off shore represented a significant risk even in fair weather. Moreover, Jesus and his disciples were leaving the neighborhood in which Jesus had become well known and had built up a substantial following. This was safe territory. The territory across the sea was new ground populated by strangers, many if not most of whom were gentiles. When the disciples exclaim in exasperation, “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?’ I can hear undertones of “I told you this was a bad idea!” The disciples have plenty of good reasons to be afraid, but they also have one good reason not to give into fear. Jesus is with them. He is the one who initiated this venture to the “other side” and he can be trusted to see it through.

The disciples have good reason to be afraid. The threat of the wind and the waves breaking over the boat is real. Furthermore, it could not have been obvious to the disciples that there was much Jesus could do about the storm. It is far too much to expect even a great teacher like Jesus to control the weather. But is it too much to ask that he care? If Jesus can’t be bothered to wake up and help bail, couldn’t he at least offer a few words of encouragement? Are the lives of his disciples so cheap that they merit not even a final benediction before they are swallowed up by the sea?

At the very core of our being, there is a craven fear that perhaps, after all, nobody cares. I see that fear in the eyes of elderly people who manage to outlive their friends, have no family nearby and little in the way of human contact outside of the institutions in which they live. I see it in the eyes of those teens who just don’t seem to fit in anywhere. Lately, I have seen too much fear that no one cares in the eyes of refugee families incarcerated and split up for the crime of wanting a safe and productive life in a land where they need not fear starvation, war and gang violence. It’s the fear that each of us is finally alone in the world and nobody in it or beyond it gives a damn.

According to the scriptures, that fear was placed into our hearts by the serpent who managed to convince Adam and Eve that God did not care about them, that God didn’t have their best interests at heart, that God looks out for God and that they should be like God and do likewise. From that vantage point, life becomes a zero sum game of survival at all costs in a war of all against all. America first, but of course, Americans like me first. Within my racial, cultural and ideological tribe, my family first. In the end, though, it finally boils down to me first. If everyone is finally in it for themselves, then I would be a fool not to put my own interests first. I can’t afford to care because I know that no one really cares for me.

Jesus makes it clear that he does care-as does his heavenly Father. So the disciple’s fear is unfounded. It is tempting to accept the calming of the storm as the end and object of this story. Just have enough faith and you will be safe in any storm. But those of us familiar with the whole gospel narrative know that isn’t the case. We know that the storm on the Sea of Galilee was but a minor squall compared with the storms to come. When Jesus arrives at “the other side,” he will be met by a legion of demons and rejected by a community that wants nothing more to do with him. As he leads his disciples toward Jerusalem, resistance to Jesus grows. We know how this will end. Jesus is going to the cross and he invites his disciples to follow him there. There is no safety in discipleship. Any storm you face could be your last and one of them one day surely will.

The good news in this story-and it is incredibly good news-is that God cares about a dozen fishermen tossed about on their leaky little boat in the midst of the sea. God cares about that old guy in the nursing home that never seems to get any visits. God cares about the kid who cries herself to sleep after another day of bullying at school. God cares about the families that are being ripped apart at our southern border a good deal more than God cares about the policy decisions of a certain biblically illiterate Attorney General spun out of the loathsome religion of Trumpist Evangelicalism. God even cares about the likes of selfish, egotistical, spoiled, privileged white guys like me who were born on third base and congratulate ourselves for hitting a triple. God cares. And because God cares, we had damn well better start caring too.

Here is a poem by Emmy Perez calling us to a deeper level of caring.

Not one more refugee death

A river killed a man I loved,
And I love that river still

—María Meléndez

1.

Thousands of fish killed after Pemex
spill in el Río Salado and everyone
runs out to buy more bottled water.
Here, our river kills more crossers
than the sun, than the singular

heat of Arizona, than the ranchlands
near the Falfurrias checkpoint.
It’s hard to imagine an endangered
river with that much water, especially
in summer and with the Falcon Reservoir

in drought, though it only takes inches
to drown. Sometimes, further
west, there’s too little river
to paddle in Boquillas Canyon
where there are no steel-column walls

except the limestone canyon’s drop
and where a puma might push-wade across,
or in El Paso, where double-fenced muros
sparkle and blind with bullfight ring lights,
the ring the concrete river mold, and above

a Juárez mountain urges
La Biblia es La VerdadLeela.

2.

Today at the vigil, the native singer
said we are all connected
by water, la sangre de vida.

Today, our vigil signs proclaimed
McAllen is not Murrieta.
#iamborderless. Derechos
Inmigrantes=Derechos
Humanos. Bienvenidos niños.
We stand with refugee children.
We are all human. Bienvenidos
a los Estados Unidos.

And the songs we sang
the copal that burned
and the rose petals spread
en los cuatro puntos were
for the children and women
and men. Songs

for the Guatemalan
boy with an Elvis belt buckle
and Angry Birds jeans with zippers
on back pockets who was found
shirtless in La Joya, one mile
from the river. The worn jeans

that helped identify his body
in the news more times
than a photo of him while alive.
(I never knew why the birds
are angry. My mother said
someone stole their eggs.)

The Tejas sun took a boy
I do not know, a young man
who wanted to reach Chicago,
his brother’s number etched in
his belt, his mother’s pleas not
to leave in white rosary beads

he carried. The sun in Tejas
stopped a boy the river held.
Detention centers filled, churches
offer showers and fresh clothes.
Water and a covered porch may
have waited at a stranger’s house

or in a patrol truck had his body
not collapsed. Half of our bodies
are made of water, and we can’t
sponge rivers through skin
and release them again
like rain clouds. Today

at the vigil the native singer
sang we are all connected
by water, la sangre de vida.

Source: With the River on Our Face (c. 2016 by Emmy Perez, pub. by University of Arizona Press). Originally from Santa Ana, California, Emmy Perez earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California and her Masters in Fine Arts from Columbia University. Her poems have been published in numerous periodicals. She is an associate professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, where she teaches in the MFA and undergraduate creative writing programs. She was a Canto Mundo fellow from 2010 to 2012 and a member of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop. Her honors include the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation Award, the James D. Phelan Award. She has also received poetry fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and the New York Foundation for the Arts. You can learn more about Emmy Perez and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Job 38:1-11

“Stay away from the Book of Job,” my preaching professor told me in seminary, “unless you are prepared to go the distance.” What he meant, I think, is that preaching Job honestly requires us to deal with the whole messy, troublesome story. And this story is plenty messy and troublesome.

Job, you may recall, was a righteous man. So righteous was he that he not only took care to avoid sin himself, but offered sacrifices on behalf of his children to atone for any sins they might have committed. Job 1:1-5. God rewarded Job’s righteousness with a beautiful wife, wonderful children and fabulous wealth. “Now there was a day,” we read,” when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord and Satan also was among them.” Job 1:6. The NRSV translates “sons of God” as “heavenly beings” which, though making the text properly inclusive, says more than we actually know. It is presumed that we know who Satan is, though we might wonder at how he manages to slip in and out of God’s court with such freedom. Though clearly adversarial, Satan’s relationship with God seems almost collegial. Their rivalry resembles more the philosophical jousting typical among professors within the same university faculty than cosmic conflict between mortal enemies.

God, it seems, is a humanist convinced that human nature is capable of righteousness and moral progress. Satan, by contrast, is a hardened cynic. To him, human beings are a bundle of nerve endings. They do whatever they do to avoid pain and obtain pleasure. The specimen Job seems to prove God’s position and God cannot help but rub this in a little. “How ‘bout that Job, Heh? Blameless, upright, not an evil bone in his body! Now tell me Satan, doesn’t the existence of a man like that put the lie to your pessimistic outlook on the human race?”

“Righteous, yes. I’ll give you that.” Says Satan. “Of course, he’s got good reason to be righteous, doesn’t he? You reward him well enough for it. Pay me like you pay him and I’ll be righteous too!”

“What are you suggesting?” God inquires, a little uncertainly.

“Oh, just this,” says Satan. Job is righteous because he knows it pays to be righteous. But take away all the goodies, rob him of his wealth, introduce a little tragedy into his life and he will turn on you in a New York minute.” This, by the way is strikingly similar to the tactic the serpent used on Eve in the Garden of Eden. “Can God really be trusted to do right by you? Are the commands he gives you really for your own good? Or is God holding something back? Is there something God wants to keep all to God’s self?” Just as the serpent undermined humanity’s trust in its Creator, so now Satan seeks to undermine God’s confidence in God’s creature. Like Eve, God takes the bait-hook, line and sinker. God gives Satan leave to take everything from Job but his life and health.

If Satan thought he would score an easy philosophical victory here, he was wrong. Job lost his wealth and his children in one fell swoop. Though urged by his wife to curse God and die, Job replies: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job 1:21. Now God can hardly contain himself: “Have you considered my servant Job…he still holds fast his integrity, although you moved me against him, to destroy him without cause.” Job 2:3. In what God thinks is a victory speech, God has unwittingly conceded defeat. God admits that Satan has “moved” God against his faithful creature. That has been Satan’s game plan all along.

Satan has more dirty work to do, however. “Well,” says Satan, “I must admit that your Job held up much better than I expected. But every man has his price. Job still has his health. Break his body, render him incontinent, deform his appearance and afflict him with chronic pain and he will crack. A human being is but a bundle of nerve endings. Let’s see how well he pronounces blessings when those nerve endings start to hurt.” Once again, God takes the bait and Job is afflicted with bodily sores that disfigure him. At this point, Satan drops out of the story and is heard from no more. God is also off stage until the very end of the drama. In the meantime, Job receives a visit from three friends who come to comfort and advise him.

Job can see no reason for his suffering or the failure of God to respond to his cries for vindication. His friends, however, know full well what the problem is. Job is being punished for his sin. That is the only explanation there can be if we accept as true the theology of Psalm 1, which teaches us that the righteous one “is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season,” who prospers in all that he does; whereas the wicked “are like chaff which the wind drives away.” If Job is perishing, it can only be because of some evil he has done. Any other conclusion ascribes injustice to God-which is blasphemy. Naturally, the friends’ theology of God constricts their ability to speak a life giving and comforting word to Job. Job’s insistence upon his innocence only threatens the friends’ deeply held beliefs about how God’s justice works to reward the righteous and punish the wicked. Their lengthy poetic argument with Job on this point proceeds for thirty-four dreary chapters, becoming more vitriolic with every verse. The friends seem to be more concerned with defending God’s honor than comforting poor Job. Job increasingly ignores his friends’ arguments and directs his speech to the God who does not answer. Finally, just as the argument seems mercifully to have ground to a halt, one more friend steps out of the shadows to put in his two cents worth. In fact, he puts in more than two cents worth of pedantic blather, lecturing poor Job for six more chapters on his pride and impiety.

Then God speaks, and that is where our lesson for Sunday comes in. God bypasses the friends and speaks directly to Job, peppering him with rhetorical questions that Job cannot possibly be expected to answer. The point seems to be that creation is such a terrible, fearful, beautiful and awesome mystery that no mortal can comprehend it. Human life in all of its complexities cannot be boiled down to simplistic rules of moral cause and effect. The reasons for beauty, terror, joy and despair defy rational explanation. It should be enough to know that the creation is a wondrous place filled with potential for human joy and fulfilment as well as human tragedy. It is not for Job to complain that God did not make the world differently or that God could have made it better.

All of that might fly well enough if only Job’s suffering really were inexplicable. But it’s not. We already know that Job’s suffering has nothing to do with mysteries too deep for human understanding. The reader understands only too well why Job has been so cruelly afflicted. God was induced by Satan to brutalize Job in order to make a point. Worse than that, it is obvious that God is not coming clean with Job. God has Job believing that his suffering lies hidden in mysteries too great for his understanding. In the end, God restores Job’s wealth and gives him more children. The inadequacy of such a remedy is clear enough to every parent who has lost a child and been told by some well-meaning friend, “Well, thank God you’re young enough to have more children.” Children are not fungible goods. So the Book of Job ends as it began-with a lot of very troubling issues.

I have a feeling some folks might be taking offense at my treatment of this great book. In my own defense I can only say that I have chased commentators, preachers and linguists from hell to breakfast looking for a way to derive a positive message from Job. But the only way I have found to make peace with the book is to interpret it as satire from beginning to end. It is, I believe, a cautionary tale about religion run amok. “This,” says the anonymous author(s) of Job, “is what you get from a religion of moral causation, a religion that interprets all events as rewards or punishments for human behavior. (Are you listening Pat RobertsonFrank Graham and Assemblywoman Shannon Grove?) You wind up with people like Job who can find no comfort in their faith. You wind up with people like Job’s friends whose religion can provide no healing or life giving word to those who suffer. You wind up with a god who is unworthy of Job’s worship and trust.

The latter observation is aptly expressed in Robert Frost’s play Mask of Reason, which is based on the Book of Job. The drama takes place years after the events related in the Bible have transpired. God pays a visit to Job and his wife and Job poses the question: “Now after all these years You might indulge me. Why did You hurt me so? I am reduced to asking flatly for the reason-outright.”

God responds: “I was showing off to the Devil, Job, as set forth in Chapters One and Two. Do you mind?”

“No, No. I musn’t,” Job Replies. “Twas human of You. I expected more than I could understand and what I get is almost less than I can understand.”

Mask of Reason, lines 207-269; lines 327-233 printed in Frost, Robert, The Poetry of Robert Frost (c. 1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston) pp. 473-390.

If there is a positive word in this book, it finds expression in the character of Job. Though Satan succeeded well in turning God against God’s creature, he failed to turn Job from his faith in his Creator. So the question posed by the Book of Job is this: “Is there a God out there worthy of Job’s steadfast trust and confidence?” The book does a fine job of telling us what such a god is not. We must look beyond that book for a portrait of who that God is.

Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32

This is a psalm of praise. Verse 22 suggests that it was sung by the faith community before a sacrifice of thanksgiving. That the worshipers are “gathered from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (Vs. 3) suggests that this psalm was composed after the Babylonian Exile and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. Though some of the exiled Jews returned home to Palestine, most of the Jewish population remained scattered throughout the Mediterranean world, making pilgrimages to Jerusalem on high holy days. Such pilgrim journeys were fraught with dangers, escape from which was one of many occasions for thanksgiving.

Our lesson begins at verse 23 and relates the adventures of sea going merchants (who might also have been pilgrims). In addition to being a powerful metaphor for the primordial chaos that reigned prior to creation (Genesis 1:2), the sea was also a very tangible source of terror for the Israelite people. How many Jewish sea captains do you read about in the Hebrew Scriptures? Jonah is the only Hebrew scriptural character known to have gone to sea-and it did not turn out well for him. Yet even the terrifying power of the sea is subject to the voice of Israel’s God.

“Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.” Vss. 27-28. These words parallel the cries of the terrified disciples in our gospel lesson and the Psalm as a whole implies the answer to their question: “Who, then, is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?” Mark 4:41. Of course, for the pilgrims in the Psalm standing safely within the confines of the temple courts, escape from the dangers of the sea seemed no less miraculous and God driven.

These are the testimonies of persons who have experienced in a graphic way God’s saving intervention. That God does not always so act and that there are also ships full of people that go down does not dull the effect of their faithful witness. Rather, it underscores the gracious nature of God’s salvation which is neither earned, deserved, nor can it be expected as a matter of course. People who have experienced God’s salvation from death understand that each morning is a gift of one more day in a finite lifetime. Such humble thankfulness is well expressed in a poem by the late Jane Kenyon:

Otherwise

I got out of bed on
two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

Jane Kenyon from Constance (1993)

Moreover, such salvation experiences are not to be understood as special favors reflecting God’s preference for one person over another. Instead, they are occasions for God’s mercy and steadfast love to be manifested to the world. Hence, the command: “Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders.” Vs. 22.

2 Corinthians 6:1-13

Paul has just finished a very fine articulation of his apostolic mission set forth in II Corinthians 5:16-21. He describes himself as an “ambassador” for Christ; God making God’s appeal for reconciliation through Paul’s ministry. In the name of Christ, then, Paul appeals to the Corinthian church “not to accept the grace of God in vain.” That is, let not the grace of God be without effect. Furnish, Victor Paul, II Corinthians, The Anchor Bible Commentary (c. 1984 by Doubleday & Company, Inc.) p. 341. Quoting Isaiah 49:8, Paul urges his readers to respond faithfully now, for time is of the essence. Vs. 2.

Verse 3 seems to be an abrupt transition. Paul has been speaking of his apostolic mission to the world, but now seems fixated once again upon his detractors’ rejection of his apostleship. Some commentators suggest that the material in II Corinthians 6:14-7:1 belongs immediately after vs. 2 rather than after verse 13. Ibid. 353. There is no question that this material seems wildly out of place where it now is and that II Corinthians 7:2 follows naturally after verse 13 in our lesson. But the transposed section does not seem to fit any more naturally between verses 2 and 3 than it does after verse 13. Accord, Furnish, supra. For my part, I am doubtful that II Corinthians 6:14-7:1 is even genuinely Pauline. It seems to contradict entirely the advice given in I Corinthians 7:12-16. If, however, one enlarges the focus to include the whole of Chapter 5, it becomes evident that Paul is simply circling back to the defense of his apostleship begun at II Corinthians 5:11-15. He points out that his credentials are the hardships he has embraced and the sacrifices he has gladly made for the sake of Christ’s reconciling mission. Vss. 4-10. Paul argues that he has done everything possible to earn the trust of the Corinthian church and asks that, as he has opened his heart to them, they similarly open their heart to him.

This passage illustrates how the greatest asset any church leader has is his/her integrity. A pastor that tithes need not apologize for asking the same from his/her congregation. A trustee that takes up the rake need not be bashful in calling upon the rest of the congregation to pitch in with the spring cleaning to avoid the expense of landscaping bills. Nothing takes the wind out of criticism quite as effectively as honesty, transparency and reliability.

Mark 4:35-41

In this gospel lesson Mark continues pressing the $64,000 question: “Who is Jesus?” Of course, those of us reading the gospel already know who Jesus is because the gospel begins in Mark 1:1 by telling us that this is the story of Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah. Jesus knows who he is because the voice from heaven spoke to him at his baptism saying, “You are my beloved Son.” Mark 1:11. The demons know that Jesus is the Son of God and Jesus has to tell them to keep quiet about his identity. Mark 1:23-25. The only people who don’t seem to be getting it are the disciples.

Mark’s telling of this story is rich in allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures suggesting that Jesus is something more than a mere teacher. Indeed, as will later be demonstrated on the Mountain of Transfiguration, he is more even than Israel’s Messiah. The ability to control the sea and subdue storms was regarded as divine. Psalm 89:8-9Psalm 93:1-4Psalm 106:8-9Psalm 107:28-29; and Isaiah 51:9-10. Additionally, the image of “the waters” was a common metaphor for the powers of evil and the trials of the righteous. Psalm 69:1-2Psalm 18:16. Finally, in the mist of such tribulation, the faithful are called upon to express confidence in God’s power to save and deliver. Isaiah 43:2Psalm 46:1-3; and Psalm 65:5. It should also be noted that the ability to sleep peacefully, as Jesus is evidently doing, is a sign of trust in the protective power of God. Proverbs 3:23-24Psalm 4:8Psalm 3:5; and Job 11:8-19. Jesus’ posture of trust evidenced by his sleeping is therefore a potent contrast to the agitation of the disciples. For a fuller discussion of these Hebrew scriptural echoes, see Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) pp. 146-148.

It is tempting to criticize the disciples for being such dolts. Particularly after they make the remark, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” vs. 41. Unwittingly perhaps, they are practically quoting from this week’s Psalm. Had they realized what they were saying, they would not have had to ask their question. Yet the problem here is deeper than mere failure to connect the scriptural dots. Surely the people to whom Mark’s gospel is addressed, like us, know that Jesus is the Son of God. The question is, does that knowledge make any difference to them or us? Though we confess that Jesus is the Son of God, is he the first one to whom we turn in the midst of a raging storm? Or do we call out to him only when our strength, our wits and our resources have all failed us and the boat is half swamped? In these troubled and fearful times, we can still hear Jesus speaking to us, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” vs. 40.

 

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When optimism isn’t enough; a poem about hope; and the lessons for Sunday, June 17, 2018

FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Ezekiel 17:22-24
Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15
2 Corinthians 5:6-17
Mark 4:26-34

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you are the tree of life, offering shelter to all the world. Graft us into yourself and nurture our growth, that we may bear your truth and love to those in need, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“We walk by faith, not by sight.” II Corinthians 5:7

That’s good, because I can’t see very much these days of the “new creation” Paul talks about in this Sundays’ lesson. This week Italy’s new populist government refused to let a humanitarian boat carrying more than six hundred refugees and migrants, including one hundred twenty-three unaccompanied minors, eleven other children and seven pregnant women dock at any of its ports. Meanwhile, here at home our nation’s policy on illegal immigration is routinely separating minor children from their parents. Last week South Dakota Republican State Representative, Michael Clark, declared that a businessman “should have the opportunity to run his business the way he wants. If he wants to turn away people of color, that’s his choice.” All of this sounds a lot more like the old creation of marital strife, violent religious conflict, tribal animosity and cultural divisiveness depicted in the early chapters of Genesis than anything new. We had better be walking by faith because walking by sight leads only to despair.

Walking by faith involves more than a Polly Annaish hope that things will get better. For Paul, walking by faith means living as though Jesus really was raised from death to life. If it is true that the crucified one who poured out his life for the poor, the sick and the unwanted of the earth has been exalted to God’s right hand, if it is true that the nations are to be judged strictly on their treatment of the people for whom Jesus died, if it is true that every knee will one day bow and every tongue confess this Jesus as Lord, then we are compelled to see the world in a new and radically different way. No longer is it possible to view anyone, least of all the outcast, strictly from the human viewpoints of national security, cultural compatibility and economic utility. No longer do we dare allow ourselves to be formed by these false measures of judgment, much less employ them. The resurrection subverts the tenants of nationalism, populism, racism and tribalism with the bold declaration that Christ died for all so that we might no longer live for ourselves, for our families, for our tribes or for our nations, but rather for all people-especially for those living at the margins of society.

Paul challenges us to stake everything on the belief that God raised Jesus from death, thereby changing everything. That is a big ask, especially when it appears that nothing is changing, that the whole world is playing by the winner-take-all rules of the old creation and that we stand to lose everything if it turns out this whole resurrection thing never happened. “Nice guys finish last” says the old adage. Ironically, that very point was made recently by Tony Perkins, evangelical leader and president of the right-wing Family Research Council. Mr. Perkins said contemptuously of Jesus’ admonition to turn the other cheek when stricken: “You know, you only have two cheeks…Look, Christianity is not all about being a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on.” I guess that means you can only follow Jesus so far. There comes a point where you have to lay aside all that Jesus crap and follow Kenny Rogers’ dictum: “Sometimes you have to fight to be a man.” I get that. It is hard to be a disciple of Jesus when it appears that everything Jesus tells you to do seems ineffective and might get you beaten up or even killed. But that is precisely where walking by faith begins.

Last week Paul pointed out exactly what it looks like to walk by faith:

“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” II Corinthians 4:7-12.

I have said many times that I am not a “progressive.” That does not mean I don’t think progress is sometimes made. Most assuredly, it is. I count it progress that our nation elected an African American president named Barak Obama. I count it progress that on any given day on most college campuses in the United States you will see mixed race couples, gay and lesbian couples and transgender persons walking the pathways between classes and nobody takes a second look. I count it progress that women are being emboldened to speak out against and stand up to a culture of sexual abuse and exploitation that has for too long been tolerated at all levels of our society. These are tangible gains, but they are far from permanent. We dare not suppose that any gain is irreversible. The reemergence of blatant racism and the growing acceptance of white supremacy we have seen since the 2016 election are grim reminders that we can never safely turn our backs on evil or confidently suppose that the hard-fought gains we achieve for good are complete or safe from reversal.

I am hopeful that the election of Donald Trump was the last frantic scream from the GOP base of predominantly angry white men whose numbers are decreasing and who rightly sense that they are losing their grip on power and privilege. I am hopeful that a younger generation of voters with minds uncluttered by the bogymen of their parents will move us from stale partisanship to fresh thinking and a determination to address our nation’s entrenched racism, its environmental challenges and its role in the global community. Yet I know all too well that this penultimate hope of mine might be misplaced. It is possible that we are entering into a dark period in the history of our nation and of the world. It may be that we will finally be unable to come together in time to avert ecological disaster, nuclear war and tyranny. It is possible that we are being plunged into a new age of night where “because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold.” Matthew 24:12.  What then?

Whether I am right in my hopes for the future or wrong, nothing really changes. Our calling as disciples remains the same. We stand with the marginalized-even when we lack the means, power or influence to do much for them. We love our neighbors, even those who seem to hate us. We care for the earth, even when it seems that it has been handed over to the “destroyers of the earth” for ruthless exploitation. Revelation 11:17-18. We speak truthfully to power, even when our voices are shouted down by the megaphone of falsehood. We meet violence with non-violent resistance-even if that means losing our lives. For the death we carry in our bodies is the death of Jesus, the seed of resurrection. The future belongs to the God who raised Jesus from death. For now, that future takes the shape of the cross. But when God is all in all; when God’s gentle reign of peace arrives; when God’s will is done on earth as in heaven; we will rise to discover that, after all, we were on the right side of history.

Here is a poem about signs of hope, their ambiguity and a call to walk by faith and not by sight.

Winter’s Song

I could have sworn I heard a songbird,
What type I cannot guess.
Her music came from so far away
I scarcely could tell whether
It was indeed a song I heard
Rather than the pipes, radiators
Or someone turning on NPR.
I stood still in the bathroom,
Staring out the window into darkness,
As if the intensity of my gaze
Might induce her to give me another bar.
She must have sensed my interest
Or perhaps my senses coming to life
Snuffed her music the way an
Acolyte extinguishes an altar candle.
I still don’t know if what I heard
Really was the song of a bird
Or just my restless imagination
Reaching out to embrace
A friendlier season.

Source: Anonymous.

Ezekiel 17:22-24

For some background on Ezekiel, see my post of September 7, 2014. You might also check out the Summary Article by Alan Padgett, Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N.

You can’t grow a new cedar simply by planting a twig from another cedar. Vs. 22. That is just not biologically possible. Moreover, cedars do not bear edible fruit. Vs. 23. But that only makes more emphatic the work God is doing here. The allegory of the cedar is filled with messianic and eschatological (consummation of the age) imagery. The messiah is frequently spoken of in prophetic literature as a “branch” or “shoot.” See Jeremiah 23:5-6Zechariah 3:8. The exaltation of Mount Zion is a common prophetic term for the fulfilment of God’s purpose for Israel and the world generally. See Micah 4:1-4Isaiah 2:1-4Psalm 87. From a mere twig cut from the tree out of which it draws sustenance, a twig that by all rights is as good as dead, God grows a tree on the highest mountain that will tower over all other trees. Vs. 23. It will give shelter to animals and a home to birds of every kind. Vs. 24. By this great act, “all the trees of the field,” that is, the nations “shall know that I the Lord bring low the high tree, make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish.” Vs. 24.

The phrase “you shall know that I am the Lord” appears frequently throughout the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel 6:7, 10, 14Ezekiel 7:4, 9, 27Ezekiel 12:15Ezekiel 13:23Ezekiel 14:8Ezekiel 17:21. It is important that God and God’s works be made known to Israel. In this passage, however, God is to be made known to all the nations, not merely by name but by action. God is to be known as the one who brings mighty empires to nothing and raises up a people that, to all appearances, appears to be nothing. Echoes here can be heard of the Exodus-God’s liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt to make of her a nation of promise. In a culture where the greatness of a god is measured by the political and military might of its patron nation, the God of a defeated and exiled people would seem hardly worthy of worship. But God does not belong to Israel only. God is God of all nations, raising them up and disposing of them as best serves God’s redemptive purposes. Moreover, God’s glory is not tied to Israel’s military might or geopolitical influence but to Israel’s faithfulness. This portrait of Israel’s exultation is therefore not comparable to the rise of great empires such as Assyria and Babylonia that dominate and exploit the lesser nations. Israel’s exaltation will be a life giving event for the nations of the world. This will be a different kind of kingdom ruling a different kind of world!

It is always worth asking how disciples of Jesus articulate and live out the prophetic confession of this God who raises and brings down empires for God’s own purposes in a nation that believes itself to have been uniquely selected by God to further God’s purpose through advancing its own national interests. The identification of God’s purpose with that of America, known as “American particularism,” is deeply imbedded in the American protestant psyche. Nowhere is this heretical notion better expressed than in our standard practice of placing the American flag in our sanctuaries, frequently on the same level as the altar and the cross. Sometimes I long for an encyclical from our ELCA presiding bishop condemning this idolatrous practice. I know full well, though, that no such directive will be forthcoming. First, American Lutheran bishops don’t issue encyclicals. Second, such a decree would generate more opposition than an order to shorten the worship service by omitting some of the appointed lessons. The latter is a sad commentary on the spiritual state of the church!

Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15

The superscription, “A Song for the Sabbath,” indicates that this psalm was used in connection with Sabbath observance in later Judaism. According to one commentator, the psalm most likely originated in public worship at a festival at some sanctuary lasting for several days. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 614. It is possible that the festival in question was the New Year celebration instituted in Leviticus 23:24-25Ibid. The strict injunction against work of any kind during this holiday would help to explain its later use for Sabbath worship. The sanctuary in which this liturgy was first used could have been the one at Shiloh referenced in I Samuel or the temple in Jerusalem.

“It is good to give thanks to the Lord.” Vs. 1. That is a simple yet important reminder. To live well is to live thankfully. Thankfulness does not come naturally for most of us. Many of us are stuck in the entitlement mentality, believing that God, the world, our families or our churches “owe us something” and never quite pay up in full. Or we are caught up in the deadly sin of envy that can never recognize God’s gifts to us as anything other than second best to what is given to others who seem to be better off. Of course, in a culture that values accomplishment and achievement, thankfulness is practically an admission that you received something you have not earned or deserved. Why thank God or anybody else for what I earned by the sweat of my own brow?

A thankful worshiper understands quite simply that s/he lives by grace. S/he lives life at a leisurely pace, refusing to be rushed. S/he savors the smell of fresh coffee each morning, the warmth of the sun, the refreshment a spring rain brings to thriving vegetation, the songs of birds and the shouts of children. A thankful worshiper understands that each day of health, strength and vigor is an undeserved gift and that there is no entitlement to the same tomorrow. S/he knows that on the worst day there is still always plenty for which to give thanks and praise.

It is not altogether clear what is meant by a “ten stringed lute” in verse 3. The lute was a medieval predecessor to the guitar, but whether it was anything like the instrument described in the psalm is unknown. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 161. That it had “strings” suggests that it was something like a lute, guitar or lyre.

Verses 12-14 are reminiscent of Psalm 1 which speaks of the prosperity that flows from choosing the way of righteousness over wickedness. The fate of those who lack the sense to recognize God’s works and ways is discussed in verses 5-9 which are not included in our reading. For my cautionary remarks on the interpretation of psalms such as these, see my commentary on Psalm 1 in my post for Sunday, May 17, 2015. As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 92 in its entirety.

2 Corinthians 5:6-17

For my general comments on Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, see my post of June 7, 2015.

The most puzzling piece of this passage is Paul’s remark that “while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.” Vs. 6. Shorn of its context, this sentence is rife with potential for misinterpretation. Paul is not suggesting that the body is the prison of the soul or that salvation is liberation of the spirit from bodily incarceration. Paul is merely stating a fact. As pointed out earlier in II Corinthians 5:1, “the earthly tent we live in is [being] destroyed.” We are dying as is the creation. Nonetheless, “though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day.” II Corinthians 4:16. So far from separating soul from body, salvation consists in resurrecting the body. Thus, “while we are still in this tent [body], we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked.” II Corinthians 5:3. There is no advantage to being a naked spirit even if such a thing could exist. To be human is to be a body. It is only through the body that we can know each other. We are dependent on speech, hearing and sight. Critical to communication are the subtle tones of voice telling the hearer that, whatever our bear words might convey, we are speaking in jest. Facial expressions, hand gestures, hugs, kisses and so much more can only be conveyed by creatures with bodies. That is precisely why God has always spoken to Israel and the church through the words of Moses, Elijah, the prophets and apostles. That is why in the fullness of time the word became embodied. Jesus’ resurrection was the resurrection of his Body. His ascension to the right hand of the Father did not dispense with that Body but extended its reach to every scrap of matter in the universe. God remains embodied in God’s holy people. It is for this reason only that we can say God is in some measure knowable.

That said, we are in a limited sense imprisoned by our bodies. However much we might think we know another person, there are depths we cannot reach even with our best communication skills. How much more so with our God! Our bodies are imperfect communicators, lacking the ability to “know as we are known.” We cannot know each other or our God perfectly. As Paul says in his first letter to the church in Corinth, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” I Corinthians 13:12. Thus, our hope is not that we shall be liberated from our bodies to become naked spirits, but that “we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” II Corinthians 5:4. God is even now working the miracle of this transformation in our bodies giving us manifestations of God’s Spirit within the church as a guarantee of all that is to come. II Corinthians 5:5.

Knowing this, Paul is confident in his ministry. He is well aware that some in the Corinthian Church are critical of his personal appearance and what they judge to be his deficiencies as a public speaker. II Corinthians 10:10. There is also a suggestion that some in the congregation believe Paul to be mentally unstable. Vs. 13. Paul does not waste his breath disputing any of this. “I may stutter, I may be uglier than a baboon’s butt and mad as a hatter,” says Paul (highly paraphrased). “But it’s all for your sake that we do what we do.” Vs. 13. Paul is motivated by the love of Christ who died for all. Knowing that, it is impossible for Paul to view or judge anyone from a purely human perspective. Vs. 16. Paul once judged Jesus from just that perspective, but having encountered him as the one God raised from the dead, Paul cannot view him anymore as just another misguided teacher with some radical notions who came to a bad end. Vs. 16. Neither can Paul view women as subordinates, slaves as mere property or gentiles as unclean. Galatians 3:28. The resurrection is a game changer. Seen through the lens of Jesus’ resurrection, creation is altogether new. Vs. 17.

Sadly, the lectionary moves on next week to chapter 6 of II Corinthians passing over what I believe to be one of the most powerful articulations of the church’s mission to be found in the New Testament, namely, II Corinthians 5:16-21. I invite you to read it and reflect on it as it follows directly from what Paul has just told us in today’s lesson and explains what follows in next week’s reading.

Mark 4:26-34

The first of these two parables of God’s kingdom follows upon the Parable of the Sower told in Mark 4:3-9. This parable is not an allegory, though Jesus later resorts to allegory in order to explain it to his clueless disciples. Mark 4:10-20. The kingdom of God is to be seen in the totality of the circumstances: the sower who spreads his precious seed indiscriminately over soil both receptive and resistant; the varying degrees of response to that sowing and the resulting fruitfulness. Building on the same imagery, the parable of the planting, growth and harvest in verses 26-29 illuminate the kingdom from a different angle. The sower, though powerless to make the seed sprout, grow and mature nevertheless takes an active role in the process. The sower both plants and takes in the harvest. But that is the extent of the sower’s power to act. Growth comes of itself without the sower’s activity. For all that takes place between planting and harvest, the sower can only patiently wait.

So is Jesus intimating that the kingdom may be a long time in coming and that his disciples must sow the seeds of their ministry and wait patiently for growth? (Weiss, J., Das Markusevenelium (in Die Schriften des Neuen Testaments, Vol. I, 3rd ed. Revised by W. Bousset, c. 1917) cited by Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to Mark, Second ed., Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor) p. 266)). Or is he saying in effect that the time of growth is over and the day of harvest has arrived? (Schweitzer, A., The Quest for the Historical Jesus(c. 1906 by W. Montgomery, English Translation) cited by Taylor, supra.); Cranfield, The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 by Cambridge University Press) p. 167; Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 142. That the reference to the harvest has strong eschatological overtones (e.g. Joel 3:1-13) suggests that the interpretation favored by the weight of scholarly authority is in fact the better view. The conviction that the time for harvest has already come comports with Jesus’ inaugural declaration that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” Mark 1:15. Nevertheless, it is appropriate to recognize the parable’s emphasis on the growth and maturing of the crop as beyond the control of the planter. As Mark will make clear to us, the disciples’ understanding of Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims is laden with misconceptions and clouded by self-interest. Nevertheless, that kingdom is erupting into the world under their very noses and the opportunities for harvest are plentiful but as yet unseen.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed in verses 30-32 should likewise be understood against the backdrop of Jesus’ declaration that the kingdom of God has drawn near. Just as the parable of the planter concludes with an allusion to the final judgment pronounced by the Prophet Joel, so too this parable concludes by echoing the messianic proclamation in our lesson from Ezekiel. Yet there is a striking difference between the Parable of the Mustard Seed and Ezekiel’s prophetic oracle about the miraculous growth of the great cedar. Unlike the stately cedar, mustard is an invasive plant that can readily take over a field cultivated for more profitable crops. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a weed. Whereas Matthew and Luke dignify the parable by characterizing the mustard plant as a tree (Matthew 13:31-32Luke 13:18-19), Mark is content to call it what it is-a bush.

However one wishes to characterize the mustard plant, there is an obvious contrast between its seed which is proverbially small and the grown plant. Moreover, mustard is a fast growing plant that is highly disruptive. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) p. 136. Thus, it is unlikely that the parable is stressing the need for patience as the disciples wait for the gradual, progressive evolution of God’s kingdom through the institutions of democratic societies. The seed carries in it the immanent incursion of God’s reign into the well-ordered imperial garden. Be afraid, Caesar. Be very afraid!

 

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Sabbath and Memorial Day; a benediction; and the lessons for Sunday, June 3, 2018

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SECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Deuteronomy 5:12-15
Psalm 81:1-10
2 Corinthians 4:5-12
Mark 2:23—3:6

PRAYER OF THE DAY

Almighty and ever-living God, throughout time you free the oppressed, heal the sick, and make whole all that you have made. Look with compassion on the world wounded by sin, and by your power restore us to wholeness of life, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Today is Memorial Day and I spent it the same way I have done for the the last decade. I attended and delivered the benediction at the annual Memorial Day observance in front of the town hall of Bogota, New Jersey. About one hundred of us stood under the dark pewter sky as the names of all our town’s fallen soldiers from the First World War to the present were read. There were speeches, readings, placement of wreaths and, of course, the playing of Taps. At the end of it all comes my part-the benediction.

I am never sure exactly what to say at a time like this. No brief word of comfort or hope spoken by me can heal the gaping wounds represented by the names just read. So I pray for peace. That is, after all, the hope for which these soldiers died. If anything can give meaning to the senselessness of war, it is a final end to war. If there is any comfort to be given the families of the slain, it is our God’s promise that one day all will live in the peace for which their loved ones died. That promise is encapsulated and given expression in the commandment to observe the Sabbath. For Israel, the holy day was not chiefly about worship, but about rest, refreshment and the restoration of wellbeing. Grounded as it is in God’s own rest on the seventh day after creation, the Sabbath points to a time when God’s peace will prevail. This peace is more than mere cessation of conflict. God’s peace, God’s “shalom” envisions a harmonious state of existence in which there is no hostility, competitiveness or strife. It represents the life we long for without knowing it. If I can perhaps touch that hope with my words and make an opening for God’s word that promises to vindicate it, that is at least something.

Here is my benediction for Memorial Day:

Almighty God, you make wars cease to the end of the earth; you break the bow and shatter the spear; you burn the chariots with fire and bid us be still and know that you are God. Be exalted, O God, among the nations. Be exalted in the earth. And may we, your people, learn the ways of peace; teach us to beat our swords into plowshares, our spears into pruning hooks and to learn war no more.

Bless our remembrance of these lives that have been so generously given in the cause of peace and justice. May their deaths inspire us to live in the peace for which they died. May their sacrifice move us to generosity toward our nation, toward one another and to all among us in need. May their selfless commitment to duty remind us of the sacred duty each of us has to love our neighbor as ourself. May their courage inspire us to give all in seeking to become the nation of justice, equality and freedom for which our ancestors have struggled over the generations.

And now may the God of all nations bless us and keep us, make his face to shine upon us and be gracious to us; lift up his favor upon us and give us peace. In Jesus name. Amen.

Deuteronomy 5:12-15

Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the “Pentateuch,” the first five books of the Bible traditionally attributed to Moses. It should be understood that, even from this traditional perspective, authorship was not understood as it is today. Modern biblical research has led to a general consensus that the Pentateuch is the product of four sources and perhaps several editors. For a brief outline of the history for the Pentateuch’s composition, see my post for January 7th. For a more thorough discussion, see this article on the Documentary Hypothesis.

The Book of Deuteronomy is thought to have originated with the reform movement undertaken during the reign of King Josiah. See II Kings 22-23. Though reportedly triggered by the rediscovery of “the book of the law” during the course of renovating Jerusalem’s temple (II Kings 22:8-13), the teachings of Deuteronomy reflect much of the preaching against idolatry and injustice found in the writings of the prophets. The Book of Deuteronomy itself therefore represents more than whatever might have been discovered in the temple. It is, in addition, a reinterpretation of the ancient Mosaic covenant with Israel in light of centuries of prophetic preaching and bitter experience of Israel’s failure to live faithfully within that covenant under the pressures and temptations of nationhood.

The decline of Assyrian influence in the near east at the end of the 7th Century gave the Southern Kingdom of Judah breathing room to rebuild and re-assert its independence from imperial control. The writers and editors of Deuteronomy saw this geopolitical development as Judah’s opportunity for a fresh start and a new beginning. Drawing upon the wisdom of the Mosaic covenant, they retold Israel’s story in such a way as to inspire hope for the dawn of this new day and to warn of the temptations they knew were lying ahead. The Book of Deuteronomy as we have it today relates Moses’ final word to the people of Israel as they are encamped on the borders of the Promised Land. Life is about to change for the people of Israel. They will no longer have Moses to lead them. Moses, of course, has been leading the people for half a century. He confronted Pharaoh, King of Egypt on their behalf speaking God’s demand for Israel’s release from slavery. He led Israel out of Egypt and to the brink of the Red Sea where God defeated Pharaoh’s armies decisively. Moses was God’s spokesperson bringing down from Mt. Sinai the words of the covenant that would shape Israel’s new life of freedom. He was with the people throughout their wanderings in the wilderness. Now Moses addresses the people for one last time before they reach their long awaited destination.

As might be expected, a recitation of the Ten Commandments is found at the beginning of Moses’ oration. These commands constitute a clarion call for a kind of human existence that is radically different from the slave culture of Egypt and the surrounding Canaanite city states. For more on that, see my  post of February 26, 2018. This Sunday’s reading contains the commandment to observe the Sabbath which, along with the commandments against covetousness and bearing false witness, are largely neglected. Sabbath observance in the protestant tradition has long been confused with worship which, in my own humble opinion, belongs under the commandment to honor God’s name. In reality, Sabbath has less to do with worship than it does with justice for working people, humane treatment of animals and preservation of the earth from exploitation. The commandment against work on the Sabbath gave all people, including servants and beasts of burden, a much needed opportunity for rest and refreshment. The season of rest to be given cultivated land every seventh year mirrors this requirement. The Sabbath, it should be remembered, was the very first commandment God instituted at the dawn of creation. To emphasize the importance of observing this day of rest, God rested on the seventh day following the completion of creation. So tell me again about how your work is so important and pressing that you just can’t find time to take a break!

Later on in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament, the Sabbath took on an eschatological dimension symbolizing the rest all creation will one day experience when God ushers in a new heaven and a new earth. One example can be found in the Letter to the Hebrews 4:6-10.

“Since therefore it remains open for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he sets a certain day—‘today’—saying through David much later, in the words already quoted,
‘Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.’
For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later about another day. So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his.”

The consequences of neglecting this commandment are obvious. Work is claiming increasingly more of our lives as more people are finding it necessary to work multiple jobs in order to earn sufficient incomes. E-mail, texts and cellular phones allow the office to invade what little time we have to spend with our families, in worship and at recreation. All of this places increasing stress on our personal health, the wellbeing of our marriages and our commitments to church and community. Our ruthless exploitation of the environment has pushed us to the brink of a global crisis. The commandment pleads with us to make room in our lives, in our communities and on the face of our planet for rest; for the cessation of relentless, dehumanizing and misdirected labor that is crushing us.

Psalm 81:1-10

Psalm 81 consists of two parts. The first, which constitutes the reading for Sunday, is a call to worship (vss 1-5) followed by an address from the Almighty reciting the story of Israel’s liberation from Egypt, God’s protection and provision for her during her journey through the wilderness to the Promised land (vss 6-7) and an admonition to continue trusting in the Lord and to forsake idol worship. Vss. 8-10. The remaining verses 11-16 (not included in our reading) constitute a lament by God over Israel’s stubborn refusal to listen to these admonitions and her insistence on following her own counsels.

The psalm is likely a cultic hymn used in the feast of booths. This feast, also known as “Sukkot,” is the seventh and last festival on the biblical calendar, as recorded in Leviticus 23. Israelites observed this festival by living in temporary shelters for seven days as a reminder that, when their ancestors were in the wilderness, God provided them booths in which to dwell. Although this psalm and the festival of which it is a part harkens back to the past, it is forward looking in that it includes a promise on God’s part to fill the mouths of the people. The image here is of a mother bird placing food into the open mouths of her hungry nestlings. This is a powerful and moving image of Israel’s utter dependence on God’s motherly provision.

As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 81 in its entirety.

2 Corinthians 4:5-12

Paul’s relationship with the church at Corinth deteriorated significantly between the writing of I Corinthians and II Corinthians. It appears that there were some individuals or groups within the church at Corinth that were challenging Paul’s apostolic authority, undermining his leadership and questioning his fitness as a preacher. Following his first letter, Paul made what he describes as a “painful visit” to the church. II Corinthians 2:1. This visit did not accomplish whatever it was he had intended. Not wanting to make another such visit, Paul wrote a “severe letter” to the church in Corinth out of “much affliction and anguish of heart.” II Corinthians 2:4. Though we cannot be certain, many commentators believe that at least part of this “severe” letter is contained in II Corinthians 10-13. E.g., Godspeed, Edgar J., An Introduction to the New Testament, (c. 1937 by University of Chicago Press) pp. 61-62. Whatever the case may be, it is evident that Paul was concerned about the effect his letter would have upon the church and so sent his associate, Titus, to Corinth in order to deal with the fallout. (It is also possible that Paul sent the letter along with Titus). Paul became so preoccupied with the problems at Corinth and the potential impact of his letter that he cut short a preaching tour in Troas and traveled to Macedonia in search of Titus. There Paul finally caught up with his associate who brought him a very favorable report from Corinth. II Corinthians 7:5-13. Paul’s severe letter had evidently done its work. The congregation gave its full support to Paul. Paul’s opponents were disciplined by the congregation so severely that Paul had to write and urge the church to reach out to them with forgiveness and “reaffirm” their love for these errant members. II Corinthians 2:5-11. It is this third letter from Paul to Corinth from which our lesson comes.

Paul makes the point in our lesson that the ministry of the gospel is not all about him-or any of us who minister in the name of Jesus. It is about witnessing to Jesus as Lord. The Greek word translated “Lord” is “kurios” which, in turn, translates into the Hebrew name for God, “YHWH.” Moreover, the term “kurios” in the Roman world was ordinarily reserved for the emperor, Caesar. Thus, the simple declaration, “Jesus is Lord” constituted a powerful claim under the Hebrew Scriptures as well as a seditious utterance under Roman law. Small wonder, then, Paul insists that only by the power of the Holy Spirit can one dare to make such a claim! I Corinthians 12:3.

Paul makes clear, as he does throughout his letters, that the message he preaches is grounded in the “knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Vs. 6. Paul did not concoct the good news he proclaims. It was revealed to him. This is a reminder to all preachers and ministers that, again, it is not about us. I have been asked over the years by people skeptical of the church and its ministry what makes me think I have the right to stand up on a Sunday morning and tell other people how they ought to live their lives. The only response I can give is that I have no such right. I have been entrusted by the community to proclaim the life to which Jesus calls us. What Jesus promises and commands has its origins in the apostolic faith that is no less binding on me than the church as a whole. The minute I depart from that faith and begin pontificating on my own, I betray my calling.

Paul describes the church and its ministers as “clay vessels” in which the treasure of the gospel resides. A lifetime of ministry in the church has only confirmed that reality for me. Ministers (yours truly included) are an egotistical lot. It is difficult to handle the holy day in and day out without letting it go to your head. With our higher degree of theological education and pastoral training, we tend to become dismissive of the rest of the church to which the ministry actually belongs. We have a tendency to forget that the Holy Spirit speaks through all members of Christ’s Body and frequently through the lips of those we regard as the most bothersome.

Churches are frail communities made up of broken, flawed and sinful people. We have to come clean with people and stop leading them to believe that we are a utopian community where everyone is treated with equal dignity and all share a common commitment to the reign of God. We need to stop peddling the idea that the church is that warm, safe family where you can be accepted and loved the way you have always longed. The church is not a place to go for care, comfort and coddling. We have spas and yoga weekends in the Poconos for that. The church does sanctification. It is where you go to have the mind of Christ formed in you. That does not happen in a relaxed setting where all your perceived needs are met. It happens in a community of people who would not otherwise choose to be together, who might not get along very well and who may not even like each other very much. That is the setting in which patience, humility, forgiveness and genuine love are cultivated. Church is not for whimps.

Mark 2:23—3:6

The gospel complements our reading from the Deuteronomy which gave us the commandment to keep the Sabbath. Jesus is criticized on two separate occasions for violating the Sabbath. We protestants have often misused these stories to dismiss the Sabbath as belonging to the “old covenant” between God and Israel. As Christians, we are free to disregard the burdensome regulations governing the seventh day and do as we please. But this is nothing close to what Jesus is saying. So far from dispensing with Sabbath observance, Jesus calls his disciples to a deeper and more profound recognition of the holy day. He does that by calling his opponents back to the reason behind the commandment.

In the first instance, the disciples are passing through a field of grain. Being hungry, they take some of the grain to shill and eat. Taking grain sufficient to satisfy one’s immediate hunger from the field of another was not considered theft. But doing so technically constituted “harvesting” which was forbidden on the Sabbath day. On the face of things, there is no question but that Jesus’ disciples were violating the requirements for Sabbath observance. Yet the Sabbath was given to ensure that human beings receive rest, refreshment and renewal. It is nearly impossible for that to occur when one his hungry. Though one might ordinarily avoid such hunger by preparing food ahead of time, that is difficult for intinereant preachers who are always on the road. Thus, this technical violation of Sabbath law opened the door for the disciples to truly enjoy their Sabbath rest.

So, too, in the second example Jesus is called out for performing an act of healing on the Sabbath. Again, healing would have been considered work that ought to be set aside during the Sabbath. But how much rest can you get with a hand that is withered, useless and probably in pain? Jesus’ act of healing opened up the possibility of true Sabbath rest for a man who for too long had known no rest from illness and deformity.

The bottom line for Jesus is that the Sabbath, like all the commandments, is never an end in itself. The law was given to serve the needs of human beings, to create an environment in which human life can flourish. But when the law is being used to frustrate human health and wellbeing, it becomes a burdensome chain rather than an instrument of liberation. When the law is so interpreted, it is being distorted no matter how technically correct its application might be. Jesus points out that Sabbath observance is not done to please God. God is not impressed with how scrupulous we are in keeping the commandments. The commandments were given to aid us in serving one another. Thus, they cannot be interpreted or enforced in such a way as to harm a neighbor or place an obstacle in the way of God’s intent to bless him or her.

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Don’t dumb down the Trinity; a poem by Michael J. Bugeja; and the lessons for Sunday, May 27, 2018

See the source imageTHE HOLY TRINITY

Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 29
Romans 8:12-17
John 3:1-17

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty Creator and ever-living God: we worship your glory, eternal Three-in-One, and we praise your power, majestic One-in-Three. Keep us steadfast in this faith, defend us in all adversity, and bring us at last into your presence, where you live in endless joy and love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Why all these academic arguments about the Trinity? It doesn’t make sense to us believers who just want a simple faith in Jesus.” So said a participant in a recent ecumenical gathering following an articulate address on the subject by a prominent theologian. I hear similar complaints all the time on all manner of doctrinal issues from devout Christians of all backgrounds who are concerned about the rise of racism, the ongoing scourge of world hunger, global warming and who wonder how, in the face of all this, theologians can still be obsessed with doctrinal questions from the distant past.

There is some merit to this objection. Nonetheless, I would like to put in a good word for the doctrine of the Trinity-and perhaps dogma generally. And let me start by admitting that the doctrine of the Trinity is subtle, complex and difficult to understand. So is every human language; so is physics; so is anything that is worth learning. Worship that does not include the full engagement of your mind is beneath you. Suppose your daughter or son came home with a failing report card in mathematics and told you, “Gee, I can add, subtract, multiply and divide. That’s enough math. Who needs equations and geometry?” I am guessing you would definitely not be OK with that. So, if you don’t accept stupidity and intellectual laziness when it comes to math, why should it be tolerated in learning about what defines the core of who we are? Face it, there is no virtue in superficiality-particularly when it comes to faith, worship and discipleship.

The God we worship is no less complex than the cosmos God created. And that cosmos is complex indeed! Every new discovery in the realm of science reveals to us new levels of complexity, new patterns of relatedness and new entities that force us to re-think all we thought we knew, re-evaluate our past conclusions and revise our theories. Should it surprise us that God is at least as complex and filled with surprises as is God’s universe? Rightly understood, the doctrine of the Trinity is not the last word on God’s being. It represents, rather, the outer limits of what is knowable, the platform on which we stand to view a mystery that is finally incomprehensible. Yet because it is the platform, it needs to be securely established. In short, we cannot say everything there is to be said or know everything that can be known about God. But what we do know and what we do say matters.

One of the earliest and nearly triumphant heresies rejected by the church was “Arianism.” Named for its alleged propagator, Arias of Alexandria, this teaching in all of its various forms subordinated God the Son to God the Father, thereby reducing the Son to a creation or secondary emanation of God the Father. There is something intuitively attractive about this notion. Hierarchy is inherent in human relationships. Our households, governments and even our churches are hierarchical to a degree and perhaps necessarily so. Good order seems to depend on someone being in charge. It is hard to imagine a kindergarten class without a teacher. So why shouldn’t the same hierarchy of rank be found within the Trinitarian Godhead? There is no such hierarchy in God, however. The Son is “eternally begotten of the Father,” which means that there never was a time when the Son did not exist and that the Son’s eternal relationship to the Father is essential to God’s being. The Spirit of mutual and reciprocal love between Father and Son is God’s very self.

It is for this reason that hierarchies of every kind, though perhaps necessary for the time being, are contingent, temporary and destined to be dissolved when the Spirit of love that is the glue holding the Trinity together unites all people in Christ just as Christ is united to the Father. Accordingly, we cannot ever speak of any hierarchy as divinely ordained or eternally established. A robust understanding of the Trinity will not allow for divinizing the “traditional family,” any form of church order or the governing structures of any nation state. At best, these forms of hierarchy serve as scaffolding destined to come down when the building is complete. There will be no subordination of anyone when Christ is “all in all.”

There is no Sunday of the church year during which more heresy is preached than on Holy Trinity. I believe this is the consequence of well meaning, but misguided efforts to make the mystery easily comprehensible. I cringe when I see a preacher calling the children of the congregation forward on Trinity Sunday and producing an apple because I know what is coming next. The apple will be pealed, sliced and cored. Just as the one apple has three parts, so the Trinity has three persons. Then there is the water analogy: Water can be gaseous, liquid or solid, but it’s all still water. Worst of all is the woman who is a doctor, a mother and a wife. (That last one gets more air time than it should from preachers who really should know better.)

All of the above analogies suffer from the same basic flaw the ancient church names “modalism.” In this distorted view of things, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are simply alternative “modes” in which God makes God’s self known. In the case of the apple, God is a three headed monster. The water analogy loses the three persons altogether leaving only a single actor with three costumes. The Doctor analogy fails because at any point the doctor might divorce her husband, lose her license to practice medicine or suffer the loss of her children. Nevertheless, she would still essentially be the same person without these relationships which, however important and formative, are nonetheless exterior to her being. Furthermore, defining the persons of the Trinity in terms of God’s relationships to creation runs amok when you consider that the relationship is peculiar to its object. Thus, the relationship the doctor has with her husband clearly would be improper toward her patients. Similarly, if her husband or children needed medical care, it would be professionally improper for her to provide it to them. Finally, there is no necessity that the doctor be “triune” even in the erroneous sense in which we are speaking. In addition to the three relationships we have discussed, the doctor might also be a fierce competitor on the squash court and a passionate representative of her political district in government. All of these relationships might tell us something about what the doctor values and prioritizes, but they do not tell us anything about her essential being. Modalism thus suggests that the persons of the Trinity are merely disguises worn by a God about whom we can really know nothing and that there might as well be as many gods as there are people.

Trinitarian teaching rejects this understanding and asserts that the essence of God can be known because God reveals that essence in the person of God’s Son. God is the one who loves and has been loved from the beginning. God is the one who gives the object of God’s love to the world in the hope that the love between God the Father and God the Son may be poured out upon God’s creation, binding as one all things in Jesus Christ. The essence of this God is perfect love that heals the cracks and fault lines threatening to fracture the cosmos. The divine glue that binds the Trinity and holds the universe together is stronger than all the forces bent on ripping it apart. That is a lot to get one’s head around, but it’s incredibly good news-too good to be dumbed down.

Here is a poem by Michael J. Bugeja that gives the doctrine of the Trinity its due.

Trinity 

I God

You have distinct dimensions. They are we:
Encyclopedias and alphabets
Of the Big Bang, exobiology,
Inhabitants on multitudes of planets.

Our light cannot escape your gravity.
The soul is linked to yours, a diode
Through which we must return as energy
Until we flare like red suns, and explode:

We try to reconstruct you with an ode
Or explicate your essence line by line.
We canonize commandments like a code
Etched within the DNA. If we’re divine,

Composing simple poems, making rhymes,
Then what are others in this paradigm?

II Son

Then what are others in this paradigm
If not superior? We’re grains of sand.
You have a billion planets to command
With technologies that attained their prime
Before we left the alluvial slime
For land and land for trees and trees for land
Again. These chosen beings went beyond
The boundaries and laws of space and time
To greater meccas. What miracles do
They require? How many stars, their Magi?
Who, their Pilot? When, their Armageddon?
Were we made in God’s image and they too?
Do you save sinners on Alpha Centauri,
All the nebular rosaries of heaven?

III. Spirit

All the nebular roasries of heaven
Are bounded by the lace of your cosmic string.
The unifying force, interwoven
In the clockwork of space-time, is a spring:

One moment we live here and the next, there.
The universe has edges off of which
No one will fall. Because you’re everywhere,
Its seam appears the same from every stitch:

The father sparks the singularity.
We breed like godseed in the firmament.
The Son forgives so that eternity,
Your sole domain, becomes self-evident:

Together you complete the trinity.
You have distinct dimensions: they are we.

Source: Poetry, March 1994 pp. 316-317. Michael J. Bugeja was born in Hackensack, New Jersey and received his B. A. from St. Peter’s College. He earned his M.S. from South Dakota State University and a Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University. He currently teaches magazine writing and ethics at Ohio University at Athens, Ohio. He has published several collections of poetry and was a recipient of the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for Fiction. He was also named honorary chancellor of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies. You can learn more about Michael J. Bugeia at this Amazon link and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Isaiah 6:1-8

King Uzziah’s fifty-two year reign over Judah (783 B.C.E.-742 B.C.E.) was generally one of peace and prosperity. Under the king’s leadership, Judah rose up from a state of near collapse to economic expansion, military might and international prestige. But, as always, there was a price to be paid. Greater national security required the expansion of royal power. Entrance into international commercial commerce bred a new merchant class and an economy hostile to subsistence farmers. Land that had for centuries been passed down from generation to generation within tribal clans was now being bought up at fire sale prices leaving the traditional owners destitute. This injustice did not escape the prophet’s notice:

“Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are mad to dwell alone in the midst of the land.” Isaiah 5:8.

As might be expected, the death of Uzziah unleased a great deal of sorrow and anxiety. That was normal, of course, for near eastern monarchies where the passing of the king frequently led to fierce struggles for power within the royal family for succession to the throne, sometimes resulting in civil war. But there was more at stake than political stability. The age of petty kingdoms such as Judah was coming to an end. The age of empires was dawning. Already the ascendant Assyrian Empire was beginning to cast its shadow over the region. Uzziah’s son and successor, Jotham, followed the path of neutrality and isolationism in order to spare his country from war. His grandson, Ahaz, would not have the luxury of this option. Isaiah saw perhaps more clearly than any of his contemporaries the change that was coming over the world. Yet in his vision, he is reminded that the true throne is the one occupied by the Lord of Hosts. So the real issue is not who will sit upon the throne of Judah now that Uzziah has died, but who occupies the throne in heaven and whose glory truly fills the earth. The God of Israel, the Lord of Hosts is the only true king. Vs. 5.

This passage is the only scriptural reference to “seraphim.” They are described as six-winged creatures who attend the Lord of Hosts and intone his praises. It is interesting to note that the fiery serpents sent to punish Israel’s faithless complaining in the wilderness are called “seraphs.” Numbers 21:4-9. This has led some scholars to identify them with a six winged demonic figure holding a serpent in either hand portrayed at an archeological site at Tell Halaf. Gaster, T.H., Angel, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1 (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) p. 132. The fiery bite of the serpents in the Numbers account leads to death unless resort is made to the bonze replica of these creatures fashioned by Moses. Here, too, the seraphim touch the prophet’s mouth with a burning coal from the altar which by all rights should inflict severe pain and injury, but instead cleanses him of sin and emboldens him to speak. Vs. 8.

The prophet’s response to his vision reflects the very heart of his calling: “Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.” Vs. 5. The prophet does not stand above his/her people hurling righteous condemnation. To the contrary, s/he stands with his/her people, knowing that s/he shares their sin. The judgment s/he proclaims will be on his/her own head also and so is uttered with tears. The prophet can speak only because his/her “unclean lips” have been cleansed. Vs. 7.

Although this vision unfolds in the temple, it is much too big for any such architectural setting. The Lord of hosts is “high and lifted up.” His train alone fills the entire temple. Vs. 1. When the Lord speaks, “the foundations of the thresholds shook.” Vs. 4. The fragileness of the temple and, by extension, the kingdom of Judah and the rest of the world in the presence of such a Being is hard to miss. While God might honor the temple with God’s self-revelation, there can be no containing God there!

I cannot see any reason for including this wonderful text in the lectionary for Trinity Sunday other than the seraphims’ cry of “Holy, Holy, Holy” which evidently inspired the Trinity Sunday hymn by that name. Nonetheless, as is evident throughout the prophetic books, the word of God is sent to God’s people through the mouth of the prophet, a word that is as much action as speech and thus an extension of God’s self. The word sent to Israel by the prophets is, according to the New Testament witness, the Word made flesh and the Son who is sent into the world for the life of the world by the Father. Thus, it is quite possible to move from this text to a discussion of the Trinity.

Psalm 29

I have commented on this psalm before, most recently in my post of post of Sunday, January 11, 2015. For my thoughts on textual, formal and interpretive issues, you might want to revisit it.

As I read this psalm through the lens of Trinity Sunday, I am struck by the attribution of so much activity to the “voice” of the Lord. Again, ours is a God who speaks. Yet much of what God has to say through natural phenomenon like storms is unintelligible unless proclaimed through the lips of human witnesses. What, for example, do we glean from witnessing a hurricane? Power, to be sure. But raw power is an attribute shared by every tyrant, bully and thug. That God has more of it than anyone else is hardly comforting if that is all we know. The psalm must therefore be read in the context of the canonical narrative. This God of the storm is the God who used the might of his arm to liberate a people from slavery and bring them up into freedom. This thundering God is the God who made a covenant with the earth promising never to use divine might to annihilate it. This psalm testifies not only that God is powerful, but that God can be trusted to use power to redeem, sanctify and heal.

That probably does not answer all of the questions we might have about God’s will and purpose in the wake of a devastating hurricane, tornado or earthquake. But it assures us that God is at work in such horrific events turning them to God’s own redemptive purposes. The word that goes out from God is always the Word made flesh, the Son sent into the world for the life of the world.

Romans 8:12-17

For my take on Paul’s letter to the Romans generally, see my post for Sunday, June 22, 2014. Here Paul is contrasting the life of faith in Jesus Christ with the life of bondage under “law.” It is critical to understand here that Paul is not speaking of law as “Torah,” or the totality of God’s covenant relationship with Israel. It cannot be overemphasized that Israel’s covenant with God was emphatically based upon God’s mercy, compassion and grace. Paul is using the term “law” to characterize the quality of one’s relationship with God apart from grace. If the Torah is understood not as God’s gift, but rather a tool by which to win God’s approval or a source for boasting of one’s special status before God, it leads only to death and condemnation. For both Jewish and Gentile believers, adoption as God’s people is based on God’s election and God’s mercy alone.

In sum, “law” as Paul uses it here represents an attitude of entitlement before God based on one’s lineage or accomplishments. Even the good news of Jesus Christ can become “law” if it is preached as a demand, requirement or condition of God’s mercy, i.e., “You have to believe in Jesus to be saved.” Such preaching makes faith a condition that we must satisfy to placate God rather than a gift of the Holy Spirit that sets us free from the need for such placation. Faith is not a condition of salvation, but the thankful response of a forgiven heart to the good news about what Jesus has done for it. For Paul, faith comes through the preaching of the good news about Jesus and is inseparable from that preaching. Romans 10:5-17. Life in the Spirit of God is the very antithesis of life in bondage to “law,” however conceived. The requirement to “measure up,” is gone. The struggle is no longer to become worthy of adoption as God’s children, but rather to conform our lives to the ways of the holy people God has already declared us to be.

Paul contrasts “slavery” with “sonship” to distinguish these two ways of living. A slave has no legal standing in the household. S/he is merely property of his/her master that may be sold at any time. Thus, if a slave desires to remain in the household, s/he must constantly be demonstrating his/her worth and value to the master. The life of a slave is one of fear, anxiety and uncertainty. A son, however, belongs to the household and can address the father fearlessly with the intimate term “Abba.” Vs. 15. Of course, the son or daughter owes his/her father obedience and respect. But that is far different than the servile need of a slave to please his/her master to remain in his/her good graces. The son or daughter is already in the father’s good graces and has no need to earn his love.

The “Spirit” of which Paul speaks is the source of that confidence a believer has to address God as “Abba.” Just as Augustine would say that the Holy Spirit is the love binding the Father and the Son, Paul I think would say that the Spirit is the love binding the believer to God in Christ Jesus. It is the desire of God to share with us the Trinitarian life of love experienced between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

John 3:1-17

Again, my formal, textual and interpretive comments on this text can be found in my post of Sunday, March 16, 2014. You might want to revisit these.

Focusing on this passage from the standpoint of Trinity Sunday, I am drawn to verses 16-17. Our God is the God who speaks. God is known because God makes God’s self known to us. The sending of the Son is but the intensification of God’s speaking God’s word, so much so that this “Word” became flesh in order to dwell or sojourn among us. John 1:14. God is not merely as good as God’s word. God is God’s Word.

Jesus’ words about the Spirit are elusive for Nicodemus, but that is precisely because his words are unintelligible apart from the Spirit. As last week’s reading informed us, it is the role of the Spirit to lead us into all the truth. John 16:13. It is the Spirit that takes what belongs to Jesus-which is “all” that the Father has-and imparts it to the disciples. John 16:13-14. Although Nicodemus says he knows that Jesus is a “teacher” come from God, he is light years away from knowing or understanding that Jesus is the Son sent from the Father. To obtain such understanding, Nicodemus must be born from above, that is, born of God. Vs. 3. Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus, thinking that he is speaking of some sort of human rebirth. Naturally, then, when Jesus begins speaking to him about the Spirit, he cannot follow. Nicodemus is literally chasing after wind.

We never discover whether Nicodemus ever understood Jesus’ final word to him, namely, that God so loved the world that God sent his Son into the world to save it. Indeed, until we reach the Farewell Discourses it will not become clear to us as readers that the sending of the Son is the outpouring of the Father’s love for him (the Spirit) upon the world. John 17. God desires to draw us into the very love that is the life of the Trinity:  “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” John 17:25-26. That Nicodemus felt the pull of that love is evidenced by his defense of Jesus before the council of religious leaders in Jerusalem and his participation in the burial of Jesus. John 7:50-52John 19:38-42.

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What is “eternal life?” A poem by May Swenson; and the lessons for Sunday, May 13, 2017

See the source imageSEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER/ASCENSION OF OUR LORD

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Psalm 1
1 John 5:9-13
John 17:6-19

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Gracious and glorious God, you have chosen us as your own, and by the powerful name of Christ you protect us from evil. By your Spirit transform us and your beloved world, that we may find our joy in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” I John 5:11.

In common parlance, “eternal life” is taken to mean life that never ends. But that is misleading on a couple of fronts. In the first place, no life that has a beginning can be considered eternal, even if stretches on indefinitely. Life that is eternal has no beginning just as it has no end. Thus, even assuming that we could somehow achieve immortality, we would not be in possession of eternal life.

Second, life that is merely an extension of our present existence is not “life” in the sense John uses it here. The “life” which is eternal is more than mere existence. It is life in God’s Son. The previous chapters of John’s letter and the parallel readings from John’s gospel have been emphasizing the relationship between “abiding” in Jesus and the commandment for the disciples to love one another. The two are actually one in the same. One knows love through the self-giving of Jesus who first loves us. I John 4:10. Reciprocal love for God on our part is expressed toward our sisters and brothers. I John 4:11-12. This love is eternal because it is grounded in the Trinitarian life of love between Father and Son. John 17:21. To have this eternal life is to abide in Jesus. In sum, it is quality, not quantity that distinguishes eternal life from life that is not eternal.

Eternal life does not lie somewhere in the distant future. It is present in the here and now where self-giving love is practiced among disciples within the church and beyond as those disciples are consecrated and “sent” into the world just as Jesus was consecrated and sent into the world. John 17:21. It is through the death and resurrection of Jesus that Trinitarian love is released into the world and abides there through the church and its mission. When we live in the confidence of God’s love and forgiveness, we are living eternally. When we pour out our lives in service to our neighbors, we conform our existence to the eternal nature of God, which is love. I John 4:8.

None of this is to say that eternal life lacks a future dimension. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s pledge that life in him cannot finally be extinguished. Yet precisely because the “fruit that lasts” grows from life rooted in Jesus Christ (John 16:16), it is critical that each moment be lived in relation to Jesus. Otherwise, it is eternally lost. Thus, a robust belief in eternal life does not produce indifference toward the present in favor of “pie in the sky.” To the contrary, it impresses upon us with ever greater urgency the eternal significance of the present moment. To “have eternal life” is to be acutely focused on what matters eternally, that is, love.

Once again, the love of which the evangelist speaks is not to be confused with mushy sentimentality or a generalized good will toward humanity in the abstract. Love takes the concrete shape of our neighbor’s need, not our own craving for affection. Such love can be difficult, painful and disappointing. Sometimes it requires sacrifice. It might even require the surrender of life itself. But love is never wasted, even when it does not appear to produce results. Even when unrequited, genuine love brings joy because it unites us to the eternal nature of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. Love, it turns out, is the one thing that matters.

Here is a poem by May Swenson about what matters.

What Matters

It may be that it doesn’t matter
who or what or why you love.
(Maybe it matters when, and for how long.)
Of course, what matters is how strong.

Maybe the forbidden, the unbelievable,
or what doesn’t respond—
what grabs all and gives nothing—
what is ghoul or ghost,
what proves you a fool,
shrinks you, shortens your life,
if you love it, it doesn’t matter.
Only the love matters—
the stubbornness, or the helplessness.

At a certain chemical instant
in early youth, love’s trigger is cocked.
Whatever moves into focus
behind the cross hairs, magnifies,
is marked for target, injected with
magic shot. But the target doesn’t matter.

Source: Poetry, February 1988. May Swenson (1913-1990) was born in Logan, Utah. She attended Utah State University, Logan, and received a bachelor’s degree in 1934. In 1935 she relocated to New York, where she remained for most of her life. Swenson has authored dozens of poetry collections for adults and children. Her honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim, Ford, Rockefeller, and MacArthur Foundations, as well as a National Endowment for the Arts grant. She was honored with the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Bollingen Prize from Yale University, and an Award in Literature from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. You can read more about May Swenson and sample more of her work at the Poetry Foundation Website and Poets.org.

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

For those of you who will be celebrating the Ascension of our Lord this coming Sunday, I refer you to my post of June 1, 2014 for the appointed texts and my comments on them.

How does the church go about selecting an apostolic leader? The method chosen for the replacement of Judas appears to be a combination of communal judgment and a coin toss. Two capable leaders, Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas, were put forward, presumably after some deliberation. But rather than choosing one of these two men by vote, the disciples proceed by casting lots. There is, of course, precedent for this means of deciding matters in the Hebrew Scriptures. See Leviticus 16:8Number 26:55. Still, I find its use puzzling in this context. If God can be trusted to choose between the two finalists, why can’t God be trusted to select the right leader in the first instance? Why not place the names of all the disciples in a hat and hold a drawing? That would give God a much wider selection.

I suppose this episode reflects the uncertainty that is always involved with making choices like these. In the first instance, we make our best judgment. But judgment only takes you so far. A friend of mine who is involved in admissions for a fairly prestigious college once confided in me her discomfort with the selection process. “It’s easy to spot the truly brilliant applicants,” she said. “It’s also easy to weed out the bad apples. But after that, you are left with a large stack of applicants with high SAT scores, good grades and glowing recommendations. We can accept maybe a fourth of them. At this point, the selection process is pretty arbitrary.”

So it is for the church. I do my best to identify young people who I think might be called to ministry in the church. Seminaries and credentialing committees do their best to assist aspiring ministers in discerning their calls and to screen out persons clearly unfit for leadership in ministry. Congregations and pastors struggle in the call process to determine whether there is in fact a call to ministry for a particular individual to a particular church at a given point in time. But when all is said and done, we don’t really know what we are doing. The process can become arbitrary and sometimes grossly unfair. I have seen some promising leaders rejected by credentialing committees and congregational call committees that have gone off the rails. Similarly, I have seen more than a few persons sail through the process with flying colors only to crash and burn in ministry settings. When it comes to selecting our spiritual leaders, we have not come very far since the selection of Matthias to replace Judas.

We don’t hear anything about Matthias in the New Testament after he was enrolled with the apostles. The traditions about him are scarce, conflicting and, in my view, unreliable. That is unfortunate because I would love to know how he made out. Was he accepted as a full partner? Or was he treated as a second class apostle, given that he was not actually selected by Jesus himself? Where did he go and what did he do? Was he the “right” choice? Or would the disciples have done better selecting Joseph Barsabbas?

I suppose that, at the end of the day, we are always standing at the precipice of our ability to discern the will of God. When push comes to shove, we can only do our best and trust the Spirit to guide us and help us clean up the mess when we misread the signals. Thankfully, the Spirit has done that for us faithfully and well. The church has often chosen fools and scoundrels to lead us and has sometimes passed over fine and gifted people who might have contributed much. Nonetheless, the church has muddled along over the centuries managing to preach good news to a broken world and care for the souls of the faithful. That is comforting for me, particularly on those days when I doubt my own calling and wonder whether I am really where I belong. At times like that, it is good to know that I can pray, “Lord, I might be ill equipped, wrongly motivated and unsuited for ministry in this parish. But somehow or another, I wound up here and until you replace me, I’m all you’ve got. So help me out here!”

Psalm 1

Scholars disagree as to whether or not this psalm was specifically composed as an introduction to the Psalter. In either case, it serves that purpose well. Teachings such as the blessedness of the godly life, the futility of wickedness, the faithfulness of God to all who trust in him and the joy of meditating on the scriptures reflected in the first Psalm find further expression and amplification throughout the rest of the Psalter. This psalm is classified as a “wisdom psalm” and as such makes the bold assertion that both righteousness and wickedness find their proper reward within the parameters of a human lifetime. The assertion is as problematic as it is bold and requires numerous qualifications, explanations and, above all, faith in the goodness of God when God seems altogether absent from the scene. For now, though, you stand at the beginning “with a faith to suit you well.” “Borning Cry,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 732. As life becomes more complex, nuanced and layered, so will God’s faithful presence in the next one hundred forty-nine psalms.

Beatitude begins with answering God’s call to come out from among the wicked. The call to Abram in Genesis 12:1-3 is echoed in this opening verse of Psalm 1. The implication, then, is that Israel’s call to be separate from the nations is precisely for the purpose of being a light to the nations. Rather than taking her cues from the wicked, the righteous person’s delight is in the Torah. Meditation on the covenant guides her life course and, as a result, she is firmly grounded and well cared for as a tree planted next to a river. Rooted as it is near a perpetual source of water, this tree symbolizing the righteous person is unaffected by drought.

By contrast, the wicked are characterized as “chaff,” empty husks that are blown away by the wind in the threshing process. They are of no value and their works have no permanence. They cannot stand “in the judgment.” Though the original author of the psalm may only have understood “judgment” in a purely temporal, “this worldly” sense, later Judaism and the early church began to see in this assertion a reference to God’s final judgment. Though God is always judging, purifying and sanctifying “the congregation of the righteous” (vs. 5), there must finally be a day when that congregation is fully cleansed from all wickedness. That day will come, however, in God’s own good time. For now, the righteous must be content to live among if not in the counsel of the wicked. As Jesus points out, one ought not to become impatient and exercise judgment before the appointed day. Matthew 13:24-30.

Ascension faith asserts that God accomplishes judgment through Jesus, who is God’s right hand. Consequently, we must reinterpret the nature and meaning of divine Judgment through the lens of Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection. To employ Johanine terminology, the promised Holy Spirit “will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”  John 16:8-11. It is impossible to understand what sin is apart from the world’s rejection of Jesus. So too, it is impossible to know the heart of the Father without recognizing that this rejected one is the one sent by the Father to give life to the world. The “ruler of this world” or Satan is overcome through the forgiveness of a God that will not be sucked into the vortex of retributive justice.

1 John 5:9-13

The Greek word for “testimony” found throughout this passage is “martyria,” from which we get our word “martyr.” From very early in the church’s history, testimony to Jesus as Lord included a willingness to die for such loyalty. Martyrdom in the early church demonstrated the depth of a disciple’s commitment to Jesus and so lent credence to his/her witness. Thus, if the community is strengthened by the witness of its own who have suffered for their testimony, how much more should the community be strengthened by the witness of God in the suffering and death of Jesus. It is in the sending of the Son and the Son’s willingness to die that God “witnesses” or “testifies” to the depth of God’s love for us. Our own suffering as a consequence of our witness is but a pale reflection of God’s sacrificial love. Yet in so testifying to Jesus, the believer “has the testimony in himself.” Vs. 10. Disbelief in the testimony of God to Jesus is not simply the denial of a doctrinal principle. It is a refusal to believe in God’s faithfulness to God’s promises and God’s deep love for the world. Such refusal makes God a “liar” and God’s promises unworthy of our trust. Vs. 10.

“This is the testimony, that God gives us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” Vs. 11. Again, “eternal life” refers to more than just life’s duration. Life that is eternal is based on love grounded in the unity of the Trinity. It is as much qualitative as it is quantitative. Consequently, the disciples who live together in love such as the Father has for the Son are already experiencing “eternal life.” It bears repeating that such love is not an abstract principle or an inward disposition. It is expressed concretely in the person of Jesus-so much so that one who is without the Son is without eternal life. Vs. 12. Jesus is not an illustration, metaphor or example of eternal life or love. He is eternal life and love.

The whole point of John’s letter is to make his readers “know” that they have eternal life. Vs. 13. This “knowing” is relational. It has to do with knowing Jesus rather than knowing and accepting doctrines about him, though the latter have their place. It is finally through our relationships that we are shaped and transformed. To “abide” in Jesus is to know Jesus, to be a “friend” of Jesus as our lesson from the gospel would have it. According to John, we are ever “living into” Jesus, deepening our trust in him and our understanding of his very simple yet demanding command to love one another.

John 17:6-19

To get the full impact of this passage, it is essential that you read all of John 17. This chapter comes at the conclusion of Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse” in John 13-17. Beginning with the washing of his disciples’ feet, Jesus instructs his disciples how they are to live together in the same Trinitarian love that exists between the Father and the Son. This love that will animate the community of disciples is the Holy Spirit, the presence of the resurrected Christ within the church. Chapter 17 concludes this discourse with a prayer that this Trinitarian unity will find expression in the disciples’ love for each other. Jesus prays that they may be one “even as we [Father and Son] are one.” Vs. 11.

Some might object to my use of the term “Trinity” in commenting on this text. But if I seem to be imposing Augustinian Trinitarianism on the text, it is because I think Augustine got this right. It is so that the disciples might know the unity of the Father with the Son that Jesus was sent into the world. Vs. 11. The Spirit, which is sent to bind the community together and draw the disciples deeper into their relationship with Jesus and love for one another, does no less than offer to the disciples “all” that was given to Jesus by the Father which, in turn, is “all” that the Father has. John 16:13-15. The gift of eternal life to a dying world is the Spirit, the love that binds the Father to the Son and unites the community of disciples. It is through this unifying Trinitarian love that the world will come to know that the Father loves the Son who was sent into the world. John 17:21. Moreover, the world will finally understand the depth of God’s love for it when it witnesses the continued sending of the Son into the world through the disciples’ ministry, notwithstanding the world’s rejection.

The disciple’s loyalty to Jesus will provoke the same hostility that Jesus himself provoked:

“This community of Christians will be hated by the world, but Jesus does not wish to have them spared this hostility. So that the depth of his love might become apparent, Jesus himself could not leave the world without facing the hostility of its Prince (xiv 30-31). Similarly each of his followers must face the Evil One (xvii 15; cf. I John ii 15-17 on the allurements of the world) if eventually he is to be with Jesus.” Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, The Anchor Bible Commentary (c. 1970 by Doubleday) p. 764.

Many commentators suggest that this anticipated hostility reflects the growing animosity between the Jesus movement and the Jewish Sanhedrin constituted at the end of the First Century:

“Thus the Fourth Gospel affords us a picture of a Jewish community at a point not far removed from the end of the first century. As we get a glimpse of it, this community has been shaken by the introduction of a newly formulated means for detecting those Jews who want to hold a dual allegiance to Moses and to Jesus as Messiah. Even against the will of some of the synagogue leaders, the Heretic Benediction is now employed in order formally and irretrievably to separate such Jews from the synagogue.” Martyn, J. Louis, History & Theology in the Fourth Gospel, 2nd Ed. (c. 1979 by J. Louis Martyn, pub. by Abingdon) p. 62.

However that might be, I believe that John understood the opposition faced by Jesus to be grounded not merely in the church’s dispute with the synagogue, but in a larger struggle against “the ruler of this world.” John 16:11. What transpires within the Jewish community is simply a microcosm of the cosmic battle with the evil one who coopts not merely the religious leadership but the imperial authorities as well. It is “the world” that finally rejects the Word by which it was made and that Word’s incarnation as the Son who is sent to give it life. It is the world also that is the ultimate beneficiary of the Son.

These lessons from John can help us focus on the significance of Jesus’ being at God’s right hand or, even better, being the right hand of God. We can dispel the notion that Jesus has gone away somewhere beyond the blue to return only in the distant future by pointing out that Jesus’ ascension makes him more intimately present to his church. Jesus is now God’s way of being in, dealing with and reigning over the world. The Incarnation is irreversible. God is and will ever remain human so that we might be made genuinely human.

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Seeing the Parent in the child; a poem by Juan Felipe Herrera; and the lessons for Sunday, May 6, 2018

See the source imageSIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 10:44-48
Psalm 98
1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you have prepared for those who love you joys beyond understanding. Pour into our hearts such love for you that, loving you above all things, we may obtain your promises, which exceed all we can desire; through Jesus Christ, your Son and our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.” I John 5:1.

One of the many memories that haunts and accuses me took place in the middle school lunch room on a cold, dreary spring day like this one. I was sitting alone at the opposite end of a long table from Candice. Candice was a short, shy, withdrawn girl who was more than just a little chubby. We had gone through elementary school together so I knew her well enough at least to say hello when I passed her and she would sometimes smile faintly and wave. On this particular day, a group of 8th Grade girls stopped by to inform Candice that she was ugly, fat, would never have a boyfriend and unloaded lots of other mean girl stuff besides. Candice was used to this sort of thing. She went on with her lunch as though her tormentors were not even present, though I am sure she was crying inside. Failing to get a response out of Candice, the girls lost interest and moved on. I remember watching all this through my twelve year old eyes, my stomach in knots, knowing I should be doing something to help, but not quite sure what. I felt much the same way watching comedian Michelle Wolf making fun of Sarah Huckabee Sander’s appearance at the White House correspondents’ dinner as Ms Sanders sat in full view of the audience just a few feet away.

Yes, I understand that there is a distinction to be made between Candice, who wanted only to be left alone to eat her lunch in peace, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, an intelligent, articulate and attractive women who voluntarily thrust herself into the public eye. Nobody put a gun to Sanders’ head and compelled her to become the public face of Donald Trump. Understand that I don’t pity her for being criticized, mocked and lampooned for bobbing, weaving and feinting before the press. I have little sympathy for the loss of credibility she has suffered from defending the most indefensible statements and conduct of her boss. She knew very well what she was getting herself into when she signed on with the Donald. But it seems to me that mocking her personal appearance goes well beyond legitimate criticism and even political satire. That’s personal. It is designed to insult, hurt and humiliate. These remarks made about Sarah Huckabee Sanders in Ms. Wolf’s performance should be beneath us all. That Ms. Sanders has defended far more egregious and offensive remarks made by her boss and his cronies does not mitigate my view one wit. The high road is still the high road no matter how deep into the cesspool the low road might take you.

We have seen plenty of lows since the 2016 presidential campaign. We have seen the election of a man who mocks people with disabilities, makes openly racist remarks, brags about fondling women without their consent and lies with impunity. It is maddening to see day after day scandals that would have felled any president before him make not a single dent in the presidency of Donald Trump. I sometimes want to scream at the top of my lungs: “Are you people all just bloody stupid!” But in fact, as annoying as is Sarah Huckabee Sander’s dogged defense of her boss-who is beyond merely annoying-she is one of God’s children, a sheep for whom Jesus died. “To love the parent is to love the child,” Saint John tells us. This holds true even when the child has a name like Sarah Huckabee Sanders or Donald Trump.

I am not suggesting for one moment that the love of which Saint John speaks requires us to overlook or acquiesce in the evil works a person does. People who practice injustice, violence and cruelty need to be confronted and called to account. How much more those who propagate “lies of tongue and pen,” and “all the easy speeches that comfort cruel men.” “O God of Earth and Altar,” by Gilbert K. Chesterton, Lutheran Book of Worship (c. 1978 by Lutheran Church in America, American Lutheran Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) # 428. Nonetheless, those of us who follow Jesus must know that we cannot afford to lose sight of the humanity of the people whose works we oppose. When we can no longer recognize ourselves and the image of Christ in a person, that person ceases to matter. When we no longer matter to each other, nothing matters, nothing is off limits, nothing is sacred. There is no longer any limit to the cruelty we can inflict on one another or to the lengths to which we can go to achieve a “win.”  We are in danger of being consumed by this new ruthlessness that has infected our politics, our entertainment and, sadly, our religion. We are in danger of becoming the mirror image of what we most hate in one another.

The church is called to be a community recognizing the holiness of persons. Disciples of Jesus know that the only God there is stares at us through the eyes of everyone encounter. Recognizing and serving the neighbor is the only way to honor God. To injure the soul of another human being-any human being-is to blaspheme God. Here is a poem by Juan Felipe Herrera calling upon us to recognize in the midst of these most brutal and unsettled times the humanity of all involved, victim and perpetrator alike.

@ the Crossroads-A Sudden American Poem 

       RIP Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Dallas police
officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith,
Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa—and all
their families. And to all those injured.

Let us celebrate the lives of all

As we reflect & pray & meditate on their brutal deaths

Let us celebrate those who marched at night who spoke of peace

& chanted Black Lives Matter

Let us celebrate the officers dressed in Blues ready to protect

Let us know the departed as we did not know them before—their faces,

Bodies, names—what they loved, their words, the stories they often spoke

Before we return to the usual business of our days, let us know their lives intimately

Let us take this moment & impossible as this may sound—let us find

The beauty in their lives in the midst of their sudden & never imagined vanishing

Let us consider the Dallas shooter—what made him

what happened in Afghanistan

what
flames burned inside

(Who was that man in Baton Rouge with a red shirt selling CDs in the parking lot

Who was that man in Minnesota toppled on the car seat with a perforated arm

& a continent-shaped flood of blood on his white T who was

That man prone & gone by the night pillar of El Centro College in Dallas)

This could be the first step

in the new evaluation of our society    This could be

the first step of all of our lives

Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 10, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets. (c. 2016 by Juan Felipe Herrera.)  Juan Felipe Herrera (b. 1948) was born in Fowler, California. His parents were migrant farmers who lived in trailers or tents along the roads of the San Joaquin Valley as they followed farm work throughout Southern California. Herrera graduated from high school in 1967, and attended UCLA on an Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) scholarship. There received a BA in Social Anthropology. He received a master’s degree in Social Anthropology from Stanford in 1980, and went on to earn an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1990. Herrera is the author of many collections of poetry as well as books of prose for children.He has received fellowships and grants from the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, the California Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Stanford Chicano Fellows Program, and the University of California at Berkeley. In 2015, he received the L.A. Times Book Prize’s Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement. You can find out more about Juan Felipe Herrera and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Acts 10:44-48

This passage is part and parcel of a larger narrative beginning with Peter’s vision in which the Lord speaks to him and commands him to slaughter and eat a host of animals deemed ritually unclean in the Hebrew Scriptures. See Acts 10:1-16. The meaning of this strange vision is not revealed to Peter until he finds himself in the midst of a gentile family, that of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius. There he witnesses the Spirit of God filling them all with faith and inspiring them to confess Jesus as Lord.

The story as a whole reflects the inner struggle of a deeply Jewish church with the positive response of gentiles to the good news about Jesus. Most Jewish disciples, like Peter, harbored serious reservations about receiving gentiles into the church. How could these outsiders possibly have an informed and sincere faith in the Jewish messiah when they knew next to nothing about the Jewish scriptures and practices? What would be the consequences of an influx of these new comers? What conditions, if any, should be placed upon admission of a gentile believer? Must he be circumcised? Should he be required to learn the Hebrew Scriptures? Peter was on solid scriptural grounds with his scruples about eating ritually unclean food and sharing meal fellowship with non-Jews. Jewish believers under the Greek tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes chose to endure torture and to die horrible deaths rather than eat food deemed unclean as demanded of them. I Maccabees 1:62-64. How could Peter go into the home of a Roman oppressor of Israel and eat unclean food at his unclean table? Would this not dishonor the memory of the brave martyrs under Antiochus?

Peter’s scruples are resolved by an act of God filling his gentile hosts with the Holy Spirit enabling them speak in tongues. Vss. 44-46. His seemingly rhetorical question echoes that of the Ethiopian eunuch in or lesson from last Sunday: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Vs. 47; cf. Acts 8:36. A couple of things are noteworthy here. In the first place, the filling of the Holy Spirit precedes rather than follows baptism. Our theology of baptism has it quite the other way around-and rightly so. Baptism is given as God’s pledge that God’s Spirit dwells within us-even when there are no outward manifestations or inward feelings to substantiate it. As such, it is a great source of comfort. Nevertheless, God does not need baptism to impart God’s Spirit. We need baptism to remind us that God’s Holy Spirit dwells within us. Thus, baptism was quite properly administered to these newly Spirit filled believers to serve as God’s witness and vow that the Spirit they had just received would never leave them.

Second, this outpouring of God’s Spirit upon outsiders follows the trajectory established in the first chapter of Acts where the ascending Jesus commissioned the disciples to be his witnesses “in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8. The church, however, seems reluctant to take the good news of Jesus so far so fast. I am sure that the leaders back at synod headquarters would have preferred to conduct a lengthy study into the theological basis for mission to the gentiles followed by a mission viability survey and vote at some subsequent synod assembly. But the Spirit will have none of that. The Spirit continues to push, prod and needle the church into action. Throughout the Book of Acts it seems the church is forever racing frantically to catch up with the Holy Spirit. Then as now, disciples of Jesus are frequently dragged kicking and screaming into God’s future. We are not in charge of the church’s mission-and a good thing that is!

Psalm 98

This is a psalm of praise celebrating a great victory won for Israel by God’s might. This victory might refer to the Exodus, the Return from Babylon or some other great act of salvation experienced in Israel’s history. Rogerson and McKay are probably right in saying that we cannot determine with certainty which of these events is intended, if any of them. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 226. Saint Augustine says of this opening verse to the psalm: “When the whole earth is enjoined to sing a new song, it is meant, that peace singeth a new song.” Augustine, Expositions on the Book of Psalms, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Vol.3 (reprinted 1979, edited by Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D., pub. by WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 480.

“Newness” (as in “Sing a new song” vs. 1) is a recurring theme in the prophets, particularly in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55): “Remember not the former things; behold, I do a new thing…” Isaiah 43:18. So also in the New Testament: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” II Corinthians 5:17; “Behold, I make all things new.” Revelation 21:5. Notice also the refrain of “victory” or “yeshuath” throughout the psalm. Vss. 1-3. The word is actually from the root “yeshua” or “salvation,” root also of Joshua and, of course, Jesus. God’s victory or salvation is for the ends of the earth, not only for Israel. Vss. 4 and 9. Yet Israel is instrumental in proclaiming and making known that victory.

“His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory.” Vs. 2. This is a figurative reference to divine power which alone is responsible for Israel’s victories. Ibid. It is worth remembering that when we confess that Jesus ascended to the right hand of God, we are asserting that Jesus is that power through which God exercises God’s reign. The power of God is God’s patient suffering, refusal to resort to retaliation and determination to love us in the face or our stark rejection.

“[God] will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity.” Vs. 9. As Professor Anderson points out, “[t]he verb ‘judge’ means much more than the English word suggests. It refers to the power to obtain and maintain justice and proper order-power which human rulers should have (“Give us a king to judge us,” I Sam. 8:6) but which, in the biblical view, is vested supremely and ultimately in God.” Anderson, Bernhard, W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c.1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 179.

1 John 5:1-6

Saint John’s argument is maddeningly circular. First he tells us, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” I John 4:12. This week he tells us, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.” Vs. 2. It seems we cannot know and obey God without loving one another and we cannot love one another without loving and obeying God. It is similar to the impossible conundrum faced by so many college graduates: You need experience to get the job; but you also need the job to get experience. This is a lot like trying to shimmy up a greased pole!

Upon further reflection, though, I don’t believe it is a question of the starting point. We don’t necessarily find God in love for one another. A lot of what goes under the name of love is really lust, desire for control, need for self-affirmation and codependency. Most violent crimes occur within the context of domestic abuse. Much of what goes under the rubric of loving our children has more to do with living vicariously through them. Love of one’s own family, tribe or nation often has as its flip side distrust or outright hatred of outsiders. Love, as John points out, is not an abstract principle or mere sentiment. It is concretely exercised by God toward us in the sending of God’s Son. I John 4:10. Jesus is the shape love toward our sisters and brothers in Christ must take. Moreover, this community of love is sent into the word for which Jesus died, just as Jesus himself was sent. John 20:21-22. Thus, the relationship between believing in Jesus and loving your sisters and brothers is dialogical. Love becomes concrete or “incarnate” within the community of disciples, but is refined by the abiding presence of Jesus through whom repentance and forgiveness is freely offered.

The difficulty in preaching this text and that of the gospel which follows lies in the word “love,” a vacuous word in our language. How much meaning can any word have when I can use it interchangeably to describe both my feelings for my wife as well as my fondness for rum raison ice cream? Saint John, as I have said, anchors love in God’s sending of the Son and the Son’s sending of his disciples. This countercultural love transcends and supersedes all other social, familial and nationalist loyalties grounding itself in the One who was sent for the life of the world. In so doing, it undermines all systems of domination, whether tribal, patriarchal or nationalistic. Faith in Jesus thereby “overcomes the world.” Vss. 4-5.

John 15:9-17

The gospel reading builds on the lesson from the First Letter of John. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” Vs. 9. Love is grounded in the Trinity. The love binding the community of faith together is not based on common interests, family ties or cultural heritage. It is the love that is the unity of the Trinity. God’s love for the Son is bound up with the sending of the Son, the beloved. So deeply did God love the world. John 3:16. The disciples are now invited to abide in that same Trinitarian love.

It is the nature of Trinitarian love that it “goes out” from itself. As the hymn has it, “The universe of space and time did not arise by chance, but as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.” “Come Join the Dance of Trinity,” Lutheran Worship,(c. 2006 by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, pub. by Augsburg Fortress) Hymn # 412. Just as love made room for the universe of space and time, so the sending of the Son makes space within the universe for that same pulsating Triune love. Love is not merely a human emotion or a humanly discerned philosophical/moral concept. It is the defining characteristic of the Holy Trinity pre-existing time itself. The same cannot be said of hatred, prejudice, jealousy, greed or any other vice. In fact, it cannot really be said of any other virtue either.

Trinitarian love is not hierarchical. Though I am hardly a student of doctrinal history, it seems to me that most, if not all, the heretical understandings of the Trinity rejected by the church have at least one thing in common: they created a hierarchy within the Trinity. It is surprising to me that a church that had become so rigidly hierarchical and so thoroughly patriarchal nevertheless rejected so many doctrinal models of the Triune God that subordinated the Son and/or Spirit to the Father in some way. Given the influence of the Empire over the Trinitarian disputes, this outcome is all the more remarkable. Perhaps we must simply attribute the church’s insistence on the unity and coequality within the Trinity to the working of the Holy Spirit in spite of rather than because of the church! Jesus makes clear that his relationship to his church is not a master/slave arrangement. It is through friendship that Jesus exercises his lordship over his disciples and will one day exercise it over all creation. To use Paul’s language, we are God’s ambassadors of reconciliation extending friendship with God to the world. II Corinthians 5:20. This is the “fruit that will last” about which John speaks. Vs. 16.

“…so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.” vs. 16. Taken out of context, this promise is problematic. God does not give us everything for which we ask-nor should he. Half the time we don’t have any idea about what we really want. Seldom do we have the sense or courage to ask for what we need. If God were to start writing blank checks in response to prayer, I suspect we would very soon find ourselves living in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Nothing is more dangerous to us than our desires. It is therefore critical to read this promise in light of Jesus’ commission to “bear fruit that lasts.” Jesus assures his disciples that God will give them all they need to bear faithful witness to the reconciling love of God in their midst and for the world.

Finally, Jesus’ admonition in verse 17 is worth raising up. “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” Much of the time the church has gotten that directive backwards. Rather than putting the commandments in the service of love, we have made our love and acceptance of people contingent on compliance with the rules. While the commandments are to be observed and obeyed, obedience to any single commandment is shaped by the greatest commandment to love one another.

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The Bible on Earth Day; a poem by Jane Yolen; and the lessons for Sunday, April 29, 2018

See the source imageFIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:25-31
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you give us your Son as the vine apart from whom we cannot live. Nourish our life in his resurrection, that we may bear the fruit of love and know the fullness of your joy, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

In addition to being the fourth Sunday of Easter, yesterday was Earth Day. This international observance began when I was in the 8th Grade. I recall vividly my science teacher, Mr. Freeze, writing the word “ecology” on the blackboard and asking us if we knew what it meant. None of us did. Of course, everybody now knows (or should) that ecology is the branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. The word is actually a combination of two very biblical words, οἶκος, meaning “house, household or sanctuary” and λογos which means “word or message.” If you go back to chapter 14 of John’s gospel, you discover that when Jesus promises his disciples that “In my father’s house are many rooms” (John 14:2), the Greek word οἶκος is used. Jesus uses the word to describe the temple in Jerusalem in John 2:16. Of course, λογos appears in John’s prologue as the “Word” which was in the beginning with God and…was God…and became flesh.” John 1:1-14. This week’s gospel further describes the οἶκος of God as a grape plant for which Jesus is the sustaining vine and God the Father is the tender of the vine and master of the household who prunes the branches in order that they may grow and produce fruit. The well-being of the branches depends on their connection to the vine and the care of the gardener.

Jesus frequently employs metaphors from agriculture and the natural world to speak about the mysteries of the kingdom. Such use presumes a solid understanding on the part of Jesus’ audience of the interrelatedness and interdependence of living things with their environment. The importance of this balance is reflected in Genesis where the first and only job given to the newly created earth creature, Adam, is that of tending God’s garden. Genesis 2:15. “The earth is the Lord’s,” declares the psalmist. Psalm 24:1. We are just the gardeners. Though the command given to the human race in Genesis to “fill the earth and subdue it” has been the source of much mischief, we need to recall that the Hebrew word “CABASH” translated in Genesis 1:28 as “subdue” is the same word employed in God’s command for Israel to subdue the land of Canaan. Numbers 32:22; Numbers 32:29; Joshua 18:1. The subjugation of the land meant more than merely driving out Israel’s enemies. Very specific commands were given to Israel directing the people to care for the land and its non-human inhabitants. For example, trees were to be spared from the ravages of war. Deuteronomy 20:19-20. Egg producing birds were to be spared from slaughter. Deuteronomy 22:6-7. The sabbath rest mandated for all human beings, from king to servant, extended also to animals. Exodus 23:12. Moreover, the land itself was to be given a year’s sabbath rest from cultivation every seven years. Exodus 23:10-11. God was worshiped not only as the provider for human beings, but for all living creatures. Psalm 104:10-23. The Bible is big on ecology. In fact, insofar as the New Testament declares that God’s goal for the universe is the reconciliation of the world in Christ (II Corinthians 5:19), you could say that the Bible is all about ecology.

Ironically, the 19th Century, which gave us Darwin’s theory of evolution and ought to have made us even more sensitive to our interrelatedness and interdependence with all living things, brought instead a promethean confidence in technology to overcome any such dependence. The industrial revolution led to communities increasingly distanced from agriculture and segregated from the rest of the natural world. The earth came to be viewed as a ball of limited resources pitched against our unlimited thirst for greater wealth, power and control. Animals came to fall into three categories: food, pets and pests. Forests were felled to make way for civilization. Christian hope consisted in the salvation of one’s immaterial soul from the unnatural ravages of aging and death. The consequences of this disconnect were first recognized by a few lone voices in the mid 20th Century like those of Rachel Carson:

“Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species-man-acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.

During the past quarter century this power has not only increased to one of disturbing magnitude but it has changed in character. The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and lethal materials. This pollution is for the most part irrecoverable; the chain of evil it initiates not only in the world that must support life but in living tissues is for the most part irreversible. In this now universal contamination of the environment, chemicals are the sinister and little recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world-the very nature of its life.” Carson, Rachel, Silent Spring, (c. 1962 by Houghton Mifflin Company) pp. 5-6.

Since the publication of Ms. Carson’s groundbreaking book, Silent Spring, the extent of environmental pollution has only increased across the face of our planet even as the danger it poses has become better understood. We find ourselves unable collectively to take the actions we know are necessary to avert future catastrophe. We are caught in a vortex of consumption driven by the profit motive of late stage capitalism. In the language of our liturgy, “We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” More than ever before, the Bible’s message of ecological redemption needs to be proclaimed. As Saint Paul points out, the creation waits with eager longing for the “revealing of the children of God.” Only so can it be set free from its bondage to decay imposed by human rebellion. Romans 8:19-25. Salvation in Jesus Christ is cosmic and inclusive of all creation or it is not really salvation at all.

Here is an earth day poem by Jane Yolen:

Earth Day

I am the Earth
And the Earth is me.
Each blade of grass,
Each honey tree,
Each bit of mud,
And stick and stone
Is blood and muscle,
Skin and bone.

And just as I
Need every bit
Of me to make
My body fit,
So Earth needs
Grass and stone and tree
And things that grow here
Naturally.

That’s why we
Celebrate this day.
That’s why across
The world we say:
As long as life,
As dear, as free,
I am the Earth
And the Earth is me.

Source: The Three Bears Holiday Rhyme Book. (c. 1995 by Jane Yolen, pub. by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Jane Yolen (b. 1939) is a poet and writer of science fiction, fantasy and children’s literature. She was born in New York City. Yolen earned her bachelor’s degree at Smith College and a master’s in education at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.  She has honorary doctorates from Smith College, Keene State College, and the College of Our Lady of the Elms. Her work has been translated into almost two dozen languages. You can find out more about Jane Yolen and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Acts 8:26-40

In our first lesson for this morning, Philip is instructed to “go toward the south…from Jerusalem to Gaza.” Vs. 26. This fits nicely with Luke’s overall story of the gospel’s spread from “Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8. Having begun in Jerusalem and having spread north to Samaria, the good news of Jesus Christ now travels south to meet a representative from the southern “ends of the earth,” namely, Ethiopia. As is common throughout Luke-Acts, this instruction to Philip comes from an angel of the Lord. Vs. 26. (See also, Luke 1:11-28Luke 2:8-21Acts 5:17-21Acts 12:6-17).

The Ethiopian Eunuch poses a seemingly simple question to Philip: “What is to prevent my being baptized?” Vs. 36. But it’s not such a simple question at all. There are plenty of arguments to be made against baptism in this case. In the first place, this man is a eunuch. His testicles have been cut off, probably at birth, to make him fit for government office under the monarchy. That was a big problem for baptizing this Ethiopian into the renewed, Israel, the Body of Jesus. According to the scriptures, “He whose testicles are crushed or whose male member is cut off shall not enter the assembly of the LORD.” So says Deuteronomy 23:1. So there you have it. This Ethiopian fellow is a sexual deviant. He is an “abomination” and must be excluded. That the Ethiopian probably did not choose to be a eunuch is beside the point. The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it.

Of course, the Bible has more to say about eunuchs. The Book of the Prophet Isaiah declares:

“Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant,  I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.”Isaiah 56:3-8.

Clearly, the Bible demonstrates changing views on “uncleanness,” “abomination” and who is included among God’s people. I cannot overemphasize that the Bible is a collection of many words, many voices and many perspectives. One cannot simply cherry pick the voice one fancies and ignore all the others. Moreover, the authoritative voice for disciples of Jesus is that of their master. Jesus Christ is the lens through which Scripture is read in order to hear properly God’s Word to us in the here and now.

The other obstacle to baptism is that this fellow is an outsider. Though he probably is of Jewish heritage (he wouldn’t be reading the Jewish scriptures if he weren’t), he was one of those “Diaspora” Jews, an ancestor of one of the thousands who fled Palestine after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. His ancestors were not among those who left everything in order to return to Palestine when the opportunity arose following the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great. His family was not among those who made the dangerous trek across what is now the Iraqi desert to resettle a land that was still in ruins and occupied by hostile, warring tribes. This Ethiopian’s lineage was not represented among those Jews who fought a fierce and bloody war for survival and independence against the armies of Antiochus Epiphanes in the 2nd Century B.C.E. He did not live in Jerusalem or pay the exorbitant taxes required to support the temple and its priesthood. He only came to worship on high feast days like Passover and Pentecost.

This Ethiopian is a lot like those members of your church that you only see on Christmas and Easter. They tell you all about how their parents were staunch members of this church, how they were baptized and confirmed in the church and how much their church means to them-and then they disappear for another year. And you want to say to them, “Where were you in November when the rest of us made a pledge of financial commitment to the mission and ministry of this church? Where were you when the council was meeting down in the undercroft until late into the night hammering out a budget for the coming year? Where were you when the basement flooded and we were all bailing like mad? By what right do you call yourself a member? By what right do you claim the cleansing waters of baptism?

I don’t know if questions like these were going through Philip’s mind when the Ethiopian asked him what was there to prevent his being baptized. But the Bible does tell us what Philip and the Ethiopian were talking about as that chariot made its way through the wilderness in Gaza. Philip was telling the Ethiopian the good news about Jesus. Jesus, we know, had no scruples about including among his disciples people on the margins of polite society. Jesus touched lepers. Jesus laid his hands upon unclean corpses. Jesus shared a table with tax collectors and outcasts. So whatever reservations Philip may have had about baptizing this Ethiopian Eunuch, they were overcome by the good news coming from his own lips. At the end of the day, Philip simply could not see any obstacle between Jesus’ love and this man who needed it. The Spirit of Jesus broke the logjam of objections, prejudices, traditions and deeply held beliefs that stood between this Ethiopian outsider and the good news he so much needed to hear.

Psalm 22:25-31

This is a psalm of lament that begins with the words familiar to us from Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” vs. 1; cf. Mark 15:34Matthew 27:46. You would never guess that from our reading, however, which begins at verse 25. Verse 22b marks a transition point in the psalm. Up to this point, the psalmist has been pouring out his or her complaint to God, describing the torment and ridicule s/he experiences at the hands of his or her enemies and crying out for deliverance. Though no such deliverance has yet occurred, the psalmist is confident that God will soon intervene to rescue him or her. So sure is the psalmist of God’s impending salvation that s/he is even now declaring thankfulness, praise and testimony to these saving acts. The psalmist takes delight in knowing that God’s intervention on his or her behalf will bring glory and praise to God from future generations who will learn from his or her experience that God is indeed faithful.

I should add that some commentators have argued that vss. 1-21 and vss. 22-31 constitute two separate psalms, the first being a lament and the second a hymn of thanksgiving. Perhaps that was on the minds of the lectionary makers when they divided the psalm as they did (assuming, of course, that they have minds-something I often question). I am not at all convinced by their arguments, however, which seem to hinge on the dissimilarities of lament versus thanksgiving between the two sections. Psalms of lament frequently contain a component of praise or promise of thanksgiving for anticipated salvation. See, e.g.Psalm 5Psalm 7Psalm 13. Artur Weiser, while maintaining the unity of the psalm, asserts that the psalm was, in whole or in part, composed after the psalmist’s prayer has been answered. Weiser, Artur The Psalms, a Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1962 SCM Press), p. 219. That interpretation does not fit the language of the psalm which speaks of salvation in the future tense. This salvation, though real, is nevertheless an anticipated act of God.

It has been suggested by some commentators that Jesus’ cry from the cross might not have been a cry of dereliction at all, but that the gospel writers meant to say that Jesus was praying this psalm from the cross. Clearly, the body of the psalm reflects at many points precisely what Jesus was experiencing at the hands of his enemies, so much so that New Testament scholars argue over the extent to which the psalm might have influenced the telling of the passion story. However these questions might be resolved, there is obviously a parallel between the psalmist praising God for deliverance s/he cannot yet see and Jesus’ faithful obedience to his heavenly Father even to death on the cross. In both cases, faith looks to salvation in God’s future even when there appears to be no future.

1 John 4:7-21

“God is Love.” John Wesley has noted that “[t]his little sentence brought St. John more sweetness, even in the time he was writing it, than the whole world can bring. God is often styled holy, righteous, wise; but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom in the abstract, as he is said to be love; intimating that this is his darling, his reigning attribute, the attribute that sheds an amiable glory on all his other perfections.” Wesley’s Notes on the BibleChristian Classics Ethereal Library. Indeed, love is the heart of God’s being, the unifying force holding the church together and the power by which the world is overcome. But this love is no abstract principle. As noted by one commentator:

“It is important not to confuse this dynamic of love with the sentimentality that passes for love in our culture. What is affirmed here makes our customary talk of love sound thin and gaseous by comparison. The kind of love initially regarded as sacrificial love (as in John3:16) has assumed awesome dimensions here. For one thing, love is regarded as constitutive for the community of believers. If we do not love, we cannot know God—which is like saying that without oxygen we would not be able to breathe. Having initially drawn breath, though, we are obliged to continue breathing and acting in love. Loving one another is mentioned several times in this text. We recognize it as something we do because we have first been loved by God.” Brusic, Robert M., “A River Ride with 1 John: Texts of the Easter Season,” Word & World, (c. 1997 by Word & World, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN) pp. 217-218.

God’s love is expressed concretely in the sending of his Son to “abide” among us. Vss. 10, 15. That term “abide,” which is critical both for the letters and the gospel of Saint John, makes clear that the sending of the Son was not an event fixed in the past. God has been sending his Son for as long as God has been speaking through the prophets. But when that Word became “enfleshed,” and came to “tabernacle” among us, God’s desire from the foundation of the world became complete. John 1:14. It cannot be over-emphasized that the Incarnation was not a temporary state for God. When God became human, God remained human and henceforth will always be human. Only so can God abide among us such that God is our God and we are God’s people. See Revelation 21:5-8. Though perfected in the age to come, this “abiding” begins even now within the community of disciples whose love for one another reflects the love God has for the Son and the love God demonstrates toward God’s people.

The Gospel of John, and even more John’s letters, have been criticized for their concentration of love within the community of the faithful. The missionary emphasis is lacking, it is claimed. But such a conclusion can only flow from a very superficial reading of John. As we saw from last week’s gospel lesson, Jesus has sheep that do not yet belong to his fold and need to be brought in so that there will be “one flock, one shepherd.” John 10:16. The whole purpose of the oneness of the disciples in love is “so that the world may believe that you [God] have sent me [Jesus].” John 17:23. Disciples of Jesus are called to be a countercultural community that testifies to an alternative way of being human. A community that lives the Sermon on the Mount is far more transformative than one trying to preach it into legislation, social action and reform of the existing order. Saint Augustine also recognized the outward thrust of John’s letters in his homilies: “Extend thy love to them that are nearest, yet do not call this an extending: for it is almost loving thyself, to love them that are close to thee. Extend it to the unknown, who have done thee no ill. Pass even them: reach on to love thine enemies. This at least the Lord commands.” Homily 8, St. Augustine, Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

“Perfect love casts out all fear.” Vs. 18. I would be rich if I had a quarter for every time I heard a preacher say “I fear.” “I fear for our teenagers and the pressures they face…” “I fear for the future of our children…” “I fear for our church in the coming decades…” I am as cognizant as anyone of the dangers we encounter, the temptations in front of us and the challenges we face both as believers and simply as human beings. Prudence and caution are always warranted, but fear must never be part of the equation. Whenever we go into survival mode, we invariably make foolish, faithless and shortsighted decisions that bite us in the end. If the universe is the creation of a God whose determination to bring it to perfection is demonstrated by God’s “putting his own skin in the game,” sending his only begotten Son to abide with us at the cost of his crucifixion, then there is no room for fear. We cannot lose this game. We can only forfeit our opportunity to play on the winning team for fear of getting dirty, beat up and sore.

John 15:1-8

The Hebrew Scriptures frequently employ the “vine” metaphor in speaking about Israel. See Isaiah 5:1-7Isaiah 27:2-6Psalm 80:8-16Jeremiah 2:21Jeremiah 6:9Jeremiah 12:10-13Ezekiel 15:1-8Ezekiel 17:5-10Ezekiel 19:10-14Hosea 10:1-2Hosea 14:7. That being the case, one might expect Jesus to say that “we” or “you” are the vine inasmuch as the community of disciples represents the renewal of Israel. Instead, Jesus employs the “I am” construction seen throughout the gospel calling himself the vine. One might argue, as some commentators have, that the metaphor is problematic because its use is principally associated with judgment upon Israel’s failures. Carson, D.A., The Gospel According to John (c. 1991 by Eerdmans) p. 513. The image fits nicely into John’s incarnational thought, however. “[I]t is a feature of Johannine theology that Jesus applied to himself terms used in the OT for Israel and other parts of the NT for the Christian community.” Brown, Raymond, E., The Gospel According to John XIII –XXI, The Anchor Bible (c. 1970 by Doubleday) p. 670. The indwelling Spirit of the resurrected Christ will animate the community of faith through which the ministry of Jesus will continue. Like the vine to which all branches cling and from which they derive their sustenance, Jesus is the source of life and power to which the disciples must cling.

The disciples are branches whose life and fruit bearing capacity depend on their connection to the vine. Apart from the vine, the branches can do nothing. Vs. 4. Again, the key term “abide” is used to emphasize the indwelling of Jesus among his disciples. Vs. 4. Abiding in Christ is a life and death matter. Branches that do not “abide” in the vine wither, die and must be burned. By contrast, fruitful branches are pruned in order to make them more fruitful still. Vs. 2.

What does Jesus mean by saying that his Father is glorified as the disciples “bear much fruit” and so “prove” that they are his disciples? Clearly, the chief fruit is love among the disciples. Indeed, it is by their love for one another that the disciples will be known as followers of Jesus. John 13:35. This love, however, is not a passive emotion. Because the Spirit of Jesus is at work inspiring love among his disciples, they will do not only the works Jesus has done during his ministry, but even “greater works than these.” John 14:12. As God’s alternative humanity, the church will invariably collide with the old system of loveless domination and exploitation. This is a community that has been sent into the world just as Jesus was sent into the world. John 20:21. Because a servant is not above his master, the disciples can expect the same resistance and rejection Jesus receives. John 15:20. The cross is the shape love invariably takes in the midst of a sinful world.

Stanley Hauerwas has often said that the church is a people whose lives are incomprehensible apart from the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus says much the same thing later on in the chapter.

“If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. 19If you belonged to the world,* the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you.” John 15:18-19.

Of course, the world has many good reasons for hating Christians that have nothing to do with faithfulness to Jesus. The degree to which we are not liked is a poor barometer by which to measure the effectiveness of our witness. Nonetheless, we ought to be somewhat concerned at the ease with which the church has been able to fit into the Americana landscape over the last couple of centuries. If the church’s life and ministry would look just as sensible if we were to dismiss Jesus altogether, something is clearly out of whack.

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