Posts Tagged Psalms
FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
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
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 Verdad—Leela.
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.
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.
“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 Robertson, Frank 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.
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:
I got out of bed on
two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
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.
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.
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 89:8-9; Psalm 93:1-4; Psalm 106:8-9; Psalm 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 69:1-2; Psalm 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 43:2; Psalm 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 3:23-24; Psalm 4:8; Psalm 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.
FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
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.
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.
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 23:5-6; Zechariah 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 4:1-4; Isaiah 2:1-4; Psalm 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, 14; Ezekiel 7:4, 9, 27; Ezekiel 12:15; Ezekiel 13:23; Ezekiel 14:8; Ezekiel 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!
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 23:24-25. Ibid. 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.
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.
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 13:31-32; Luke 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!
Hope in the shadow of the bomb; a poem by Thomas Centolella; and the lessons for Sunday, June 10, 2018
THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: All-powerful God, in Jesus Christ you turned death into life and defeat into victory. Increase our faith and trust in him, that we may triumph over all evil in the strength of the same Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.” Psalm 130:5-6
I am just old enough to remember the “duck and cover” drills to which kids were subjected in elementary school during the height of the cold war. The sirens would go off and we would be instructed to crawl under our desks and crouch face down covering our heads with our hands. Our teachers would rush about drawing the heavy curtains across the windows, closing the doors and turning off the lights. All this took place throughout my first and second grade years. I recall hearing adults talking in hushed tones about “the bomb” and that the Russians had it and might use it against us at any time. Of course, I understood very little about who the Russians were, what the bomb was or why the Russians would want to use it against us. But I knew enough to realize that “the bomb” and Russians represented dangers sufficient to frighten the adults in my life. That alone made it very terrifying to me. If the grownups are afraid, where can a kid turn for comfort and security?
The psalmist responds to that very expression of existential terror with a call to wait for the Lord in hope. What else can you do when the grownups entrusted with custody of the bomb are calling each other names, drawing lines in the sand like playground rivals and threatening each other with “fire and fury?” What concerns me most is not the bellicose rhetoric of our leaders. I’ve seen that before. What disturbs me is the seeming lack of concern expressed by the public, the discussion in high places of a “military option” for dealing with North Korea-as though a nuclear war were actually winnable-and the naïve assumption that, at any rate, it will all play out “over there.” I worry that, to a generation that has never known selective service, has no living memory of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and experiences war as something that is handled by someone else’s children on the other side of the world, the very real dangers posed by the current situation might appear distant and abstract. So to all you millennials out there who might be thinking this does not affect your lives and futures, be warned: Our leaders are playing Russian roulette with your lives.
I pray for and am hopeful for the success of the upcoming summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Yes, I am well aware of the odds against any substantially positive outcome for this event. I am aware of all the dangers involved. My hope for this summit might reasonably be characterized as foolish. But my hope is not finally in these leaders, their diplomatic teams or their good intentions. My hope, like that of the psalmist, is in the Lord.
Sometimes witnesses and workers for peace have names like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Oscar Romero. But often the instruments of peace turn out to have names like Mao, Nixon and, yes, Un and Trump. As for the latter grouping, I do not suggest that there is anything to be admired in their characters or that their crimes should be overlooked. I am only pointing out that, what human beings in their smallness of heart intend for evil, God somehow engineers for good. See Genesis 50:20. God is the hidden and often overlooked ingredient in the mix of political, social and religious forces that seem to be driving history. For that reason, the future continues to elude our most erudite predictions and frequently produces outcomes that surpass our expectations and prove our fears to have been baseless. For that reason, too, when I’ve done all I think I can and the world seems still to be careening toward the abyss, I find it possible to “wait for the morning” in hope.
Here is a poem about hope by Thomas Centolella.
The Hope I know
doesn’t come with feathers.
It lives in flip-flops and, in cold weather,
a hooded sweatshirt, like a heavyweight
in training, or a monk who has taken
a half-hearted vow of perseverance.
It only has half a heart, the hope I know.
The other half it flings to every stalking hurt.
It wears a poker face, quietly reciting
the laws of probability, and gladly
takes a back seat to faith and love,
it’s that many times removed
from when it had youth on its side
and beauty. Half the world wishes
to stay as it is, half to become
whatever it can dream,
while the hope I know struggles
to keep its eyes open and its mind
from combing an unpeopled beach.
Congregations sway and croon,
constituents vote across their party line,
rescue parties wait for a break
in the weather. And who goes to sleep
with a prayer on the lips or half a smile
knows some kind of hope.
Though not the hope I know,
which slinks from dream to dream
without ID or ally, traveling best at night,
keeping to the back roads and the shadows,
approaching the radiant city
without ever quite arriving.
Source: Almost Human, Centolella, Thomas (c. Thomas Centolella, 2017, pub. by Tupelo Press, 2017). Thomas Centolella is an American poet and author of four books of poetry. He is a recipient of the Lannan Literary Award, the American Book Award, the California Book Award and the Northern California Book Award. He is also Wallace Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University and lives in the San Francisco Bay area. You can read more about Thomas Centolella and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
To get the full impact of this encounter between God and God’s human creatures, we need to go back a chapter to where God, determining that it is “not good” for the “Adam” (“earth creature”) to be alone, draws from Adam a partner. Here for the first time Adam is referred to as “man” or “ish” in contrast to the “isha” or woman. Significantly, they are at this time both naked and unashamed of their nakedness. Genesis 2:25. We are told that the serpent was more cunning than all the other creatures God had made. Genesis 3:1. There is a clever play on words here that gets lost in translation. The Hebrew words for “naked” and “cunning” are “arumim” and “arum” respectively. Thus, the knowledge offered through the cunning (arum) of the serpent manifests itself first by revealing to Adam and Eve that they are naked (arumim). Genesis 3:7.
Our understanding of this text is clouded by our cultural association of nudity with sexual immorality. The eye opening shock experienced by Adam and Eve had less to do with sex and more to do with the sheer terror of exposure, a terror that could not exist if all indeed were clearly exposed. But I suspect that Adam is even now concocting his plan to throw Eve under the bus when confronted by God over the matter of the forbidden tree. Eve, too, is formulating her defense and would prefer to keep that strategy to herself. This new “knowledge” Adam and Eve have obtained discloses in a poignant way how little they can know of each other, which is truly terrifying given their growing lack of trust.
What we see in this story is a reflection of relationships in general as well as of marriages in particular. “There are no secrets between us,” I often here couples say. But of course that is never the case. I doubt most couples share between them all of their fantasies and daydreams. Most of us have experiences in our past we prefer to keep secret. We tell small, inconsequential lies to one another in order to bring comfort or avoid hurt. So too with less intimate relationships. We weigh how much to share with any given friend, keeping back those things we think might cause him/her to think less of us. In social settings we steer conversation away from topics that we think might give rise to argument, awkwardness or embarrassment. We develop “filters” to prevent us from speaking all that is on our mind because we know how destructive that can be to our relationships.
The portrayal of God in this story is quite remarkable. God comes not as the unbearable presence atop the fiery mountain in Sinai, nor as the overwhelming presence enthroned in the heavens we met in last week’s lesson from Isaiah. God comes strolling onto the scene enjoying the evening breeze just as any one of us might do in the cool of the evening. Adam and Eve are nowhere to be seen. Vs. 8. God must call them out of hiding. Vs. 9. God interrogates his creatures on their odd behavior. “Why ever would you hide from me?” Vs. 10. Of course, God knows what is wrong. God’s creatures now have secrets from God (or so they think). They don’t want to be naked in front of God anymore than they want to be naked before each other. There can be but one explanation for their unusual conduct: “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” vs. 11.
Now it is clear that the humans cannot hide their nakedness any longer-at least not from God. Rather than giving God a straightforward “yes” to the inquiry about the tree, Adam moves immediately to his defense. “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Vs. 12. The woman explains, “The serpent [whom you made and put in the garden] tricked me, and I ate.” Vs. 13. If the serpent had an excuse, we don’t get a chance to hear it. God evidently feels he has taken enough evidence to enter judgment on this case.
Judgment is first pronounced upon the serpent. Henceforth, the serpent will be cursed even within the animal world, doomed to crawl on its belly eating dust for the rest of its days. Vs. 14. Furthermore, there will be enmity between the serpent and humanity that will continue throughout the generations to come. Vs. 15. In my opinion, we read too much into this text when we construe the “crushing” of the serpent’s head in this verse as the victory of Christ over Satan. The serpent is not a demonic figure in this narrative. It is one of God’s good creations. Though “cunning,” it is not inherently evil. Yet its presence in the garden and the role it plays in this story tells us that there is an element of randomness in God’s good creation. God made a world loaded with potential for good, but the potential for tragic and unintended consequences exists as well.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty I have found in preaching this text is the baggage it has accumulated over the last century in the still active campaign of “creationists” to defend their interpretation of this text as an historical, geological, astronomical and biological account of origins in the face of all we have learned from the sciences. Even our own theological language characterizing this story as “the Fall” mischaracterizes the narrative truth. This is not the story of a pristine beginning spoiled by a stolen apple. When the text is read in that way, we are left with a host of imponderables. Who is the serpent? Where did he come from? Why did God put him in the garden to begin with? It does not help to identify the serpent with the devil. That only kicks the metaphysical can further out into the cosmos. For now we must ask where the devil came from.
This creation story is best understood as descriptive of what now is rather than an explanation for why it is. To the extent that there is a “why” lurking in the narrative, it consists only in acknowledging that God creates a world filled with creatures loaded with potential. Human inquisitiveness, cunning essential to survival, knowledge that is both promising and dangerous are all woven into the fabric of creation. The creation of the “earth creature” or what we might call the emergence of self-consciousness and differentiation from the animal world is a good development, enabling the human to serve as God’s steward and gardener for the earth. Yet this same development brings with it the temptation to exploit, dominate and control. In a sense, each generation is Adam and Eve. We are born into a world with certain givens. There is inherent randomness. We inherit a history of violence, injustice and cruelty that continues to make itself felt. It is in this sense that we can speak of what is often (and inaptly) called “original sin.” Yet there are endless opportunities also for enacting compassion, justice and peace.
If you were to read further in the chapter, you would discover that judgment is not the last word in this story. Though the consequences of their transgression are not reversible, God nevertheless sends Adam and Eve from the garden with clothing made by God’s own hand, covering the nakedness that so terrifies them. Genesis 3:21. God has not given up on the human creatures. There is more to this story which is only beginning to unfold.
This psalm is one of seven “penitential psalms” (the others being Psalm 6; Psalm 32; Psalm 38; Psalm 51; Psalm 102; and Psalm 143) so named by Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, a statesman, writer and scholar of the sixth century. It is characterized by Hebrew Scripture scholars as a “lament” containing all of the essential elements of its type:
- Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-2.
- Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 3-4
- Expression of confidence, vss. 5-6
- Witness of praise to the community, vss. 7-8.
See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. The Hebrew word “mimmaamkym” “From out of the depths” is a term that is equated with “sheol” or the abode of the dead. For the Israelite there was no “after life.” The concept of resurrection from death came only much later in Israel’s thinking. Consequently, death was the end of any meaningful life. To be in sheol was to be separated from the realm of life and therefore from the Lord of Life. There is no praise of Israel’s God in sheol. Consequently, the psalmist must have been in very deep distress, though we cannot tell what his or her specific complaints were.
According to Anderson, supra, the “word ‘depths’ [mimmaamkym] reverberates with mythical overtones of the abyss of watery chaos, the realm of the powers of confusion, darkness and death that are arrayed against the sovereign power of God.” Ibid. Perhaps, but the point seems to be that the psalmist feels as utterly distant from God who is “enthroned upon the cherubim” (Psalm 99:1) as any creature can be. This distance is due, in part at least, to the psalmist’s sin. Though clearly in some sort of deep trouble, the psalmist knows that s/he is in no position to claim God’s help and salvation. Nevertheless, the psalmist is able to “hope in the Lord” and encourages all Israel to do the same because, “there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.” Vs. 4. It is worth repeating here that the New Testament did not invent forgiveness. God has always been and always will be forgiving toward his people Israel and toward his people engrafted into the covenant with Israel through baptism into Jesus Christ. If that were not the case, if God did in fact “mark iniquities” (vs. 3), there would be no point in prayers such as this.
The psalmist is resolved to “wait for the Lord.” Vs. 5. S/he knows that answers to prayer are not instantaneous. Prayer requires a willingness to wait and watch for the answer. Jesus also told his disciples “Ask, and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Matthew 7:7-8. Thus, asking is only the beginning. One must then seek the answer and be willing to knock on what appears to be a closed door.
“My soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen for the morning.” Vs. 6. This is a striking image. In Jerusalem, watchmen took their post after sunset to keep a look out for approaching enemies. They were the ancient world’s equivalent of early warning systems. It was a tedious job on a long winter’s night and one can well imagine the watchman, who had no clock or wrist watch, scrutinizing the horizon for signs of the sunrise signaling that his lonely vigil was finally coming to an end.
In verses 7-8 the focus changes from the psalmist’s personal prayer to an admonition directed to all Israel to hope in the Lord. As we saw in Psalm 51, Israel frequently took ancient prayers of individuals and adapted them for use in public worship as prayers for the whole people. In this case, an Israelite who lived after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem may well have found in this individual’s plea for personal help a reflection of Israel’s post exilic distress. Having lost the line of David, the Temple, and her land, Israel was likewise “crying out from the depths.” Like the individual, Israel turned to the Word of the Lord and God’s promises for comfort and hope, knowing that with her God was forgiveness. Vs. 4.
For a brief but thorough introduction to Paul’s Second Letter to the Church in Corinth, see the Summary Articleby Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. In short, 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.
Our reading begins with Paul’s lose citation to Psalm 116:10: “I kept faith, even when I said, ‘I am greatly afflicted.’” To make sense of this, you need to go back and read II Corinthians 4:7-12 where Paul speaks about the afflictions he has endured as a missionary of the gospel of Jesus Christ. These include being “persecuted” and “struck down.” Notwithstanding these afflictions, the Spirit continues to give Paul the courage to “speak out.” Vs. 13. Paul is convinced that, though he is always “carrying in the body the death of Jesus” (II Corinthians 4:10), the God who “raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.” Vs. 14.
For this reason, says Paul, “we do not lose heart.” Vs. 16. Even though our “outer nature” is wasting away, “our inner nature is being renewed every day.” Vs. 16. The former is evident. We experience the aging process that diminishes our bodily health and strength. We see our achievements fade into insignificance. Our friends move away, die or become estranged through time and circumstance. The universe, we are told, is expanding and doomed to run out of steam. The latter is not evident. Based solely on the empirical evidence, no one can assert that we are being renewed even as we are in the process of dying or that this expanding universe is being transformed into a new heaven and earth. This reality is only illuminated by the resurrection of Jesus from death. It is for that reason we dare to believe God is at work bending each subatomic particle of the universe and turning all of its energies toward redemption. In the words of Rick Barger, president of Trinity Lutheran Seminary, “If the tomb had not been empty on Easter Sunday, we’d have nothing to talk about.”
This passage is incredibly good news for social workers who spend their energies helping people crawl out of horrible situations only to fall back in again. It is good news for teachers struggling to provide a quality education to underprivileged children in underfunded, poorly run and neglected schools. It is good news for pastors of churches that continue to struggle notwithstanding their enormous efforts to build them up. We do not look only to what is seen in the light of the status quo. We view everything in the light of Jesus’ resurrection which demonstrates that the universe is bent toward the kingdom of God and that life in conformity with that kingdom is eternal.
What would you do if you learned that your adult son was acting erratically, not eating properly and getting himself into trouble with the authorities? Upon hearing these very reports about Jesus, his mother and brothers did what I believe any loving family would do. They organized an intervention. It was their intent to “seize” Jesus and take him home by force if necessary. They might have succeeded but for the crowd around Jesus they could not penetrate. Failing to reach Jesus, they send word that they desire to speak with him. His response must have been a blow to their hearts, particularly to his mother. “Who are my mother and brothers?” Vs. 33. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” Vs. 35.
As I have noted in previous posts, there is no shortage of organizations under the Christian franchise devoted to preserving the “traditional family.” One such organization is Focus on the Family whose self described mission is “to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with as many people as possible by nurturing and defending the God-ordained institution of the family and promoting biblical truths worldwide.” Of course I think sharing the Gospel is critical and know well that success on that score requires cooperation with the Holy Spirit. I am not necessarily opposed to promoting biblical truths either, though I suspect I might not agree with Focus on what those truths are. The real sticking point, though, is the “God-ordained institution of the family.” According to Focus, the ideal family is “one man and one woman committed to each other for life, raising their children in a loving, supportive home.” That, however, is not what Jesus just told us. Marriage is not the foundation of family and blood lineage does not define its boundaries. Baptism is the foundation of family and trumps all other relationships, including marriage. See Luke 18:29-30. For disciples of Jesus, water is thicker than blood. Church is the only “God ordained” family there is. Focus on the Family is therefore focusing on the wrong family.
That is not to say that families and households are not important. To the contrary, they are. I agree with Focus that “our culture increasingly disparages family life,” though I believe poverty, inadequate wages, increasing demands for employee productivity, requirements for worker mobility, lack of job security, lack of access to adequate health care and erosion of quality educational opportunities have a lot more to do with that than marriage equality-the culprit blamed by Focus. Does anyone really believe that marriage of the gay couple across the street poses a greater threat to his/her family’s well-being than losing a job or health care coverage? If Focus is truly committed to the welfare of families, I would recommend to its board of directors a campaign against late stage capitalism. Somehow, I don’t think that would fly.
Sandwiched in between the two ends of this episode with Jesus’ family is the allegation of the scribes that Jesus is possessed by Beelzebul who enables him to cast out demons. Jesus responds by pointing out the faulty reasoning of the scribes. Vs. 22. Why would Satan give Jesus power over his own legions? If in fact “Satan is cast[ing] out Satan,” his kingdom is imploding. That can only mean the Kingdom of God is at hand-just as Jesus has been saying. Vss. 23-25. Jesus goes on to say that no one can plunder a strong man’s house unless he first binds the strong man. Thus, Jesus can only do what he is doing because he has, in fact, bound Satan. Vs. 28.
Finally, we have that ever troublesome verse about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit for which one “never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” Vs. 28-29. That verse has been a torment to many people over the centuries, not the least of whom was the father of Soren Kierkegaard who confided to his son that he once cursed God for the dreariness of his life while living as an impoverished serf. What does it mean to blaspheme the Holy Spirit? In the first place, it is important to note that this admonition is not addressed to the public but to the specific scribes who equated Jesus’ exorcism of demons with the work of demons. Unable to deny that Jesus has truly freed people from the power of Satan and unwilling to ascribe any good to Jesus whatever the evidence might show, they resort to nonsensical arguments in order to discredit Jesus. These particular scribes are hardened in their opposition to Jesus. They are not doubters, skeptics or even indifferent to Jesus. They have made up their minds and formed their opinions about Jesus. They refuse to allow the facts to confuse the issue.
To the few folks I have met over the years (and there have been a few) concerned about whether they might have committed the unforgivable sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit, I have simply told them that their concern in that regard is a pretty clear indication that they have not. I am fairly convinced that the persons (if any) who are actually guilty of this sin don’t much care and never lose a night’s sleep over it. In sum, if you are worried about having committed this unforgivable sin, you haven’t. If you have committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, you are not the least bit worried about it and you are probably not reading this blog anyway.
SECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
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 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 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.
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.
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.
THE HOLY TRINITY
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 7:50-52; John 19:38-42.
Praying for the peace of Jerusalem; a poem by Harriet Monroe; and the lessons for Sunday, May 20, 2018
DAY OF PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Mighty God, you breathe life into our bones, and your Spirit brings truth to the world. Send us this Spirit, transform us by your truth, and give us language to proclaim your gospel, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Today the United States officially moves its embassy in Israel to the city of Jerusalem amidst protests, violent military strikes and almost unanimous condemnation by world leaders, including allies of the United States. According to Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, in so doing, President Donald Trump has fulfilled biblical prophecy. In comments on the network and in a column on the Fox News website, Pirro said:
″[Trump], like King Cyrus before him, fulfilled the biblical prophecies of the gods [sic] worshipped by Jews, Christians and, yes, Muslims, that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish state and that the Jewish people finally deserve a righteous, free and sovereign Israel.”
Well, hate to burst your bubble Jeanine, but that isn’t anything close to what the Bible says or what Persian Emperor, Cyrus the Great, actually did. First off, understand that the earth is the Lord’s and whatever claim we have to it is provisional, contingent and temporary. Psalm 24:1. This is so for the State of Israel no less than any other nation state. What the people of Israel (as distinct from the nation state by that name) learned and the church has had to learn over and over again is that the minute we start thinking of anything in our hands as a permanent entitlement, we are tempting the Almighty to take it away from us. Speak to the prophet Jeremiah about that. Second, Cyrus did not give back Judah and Jerusalem to the Jews returning from exile in Babylon as the capital of a “free and sovereign Israel.” Not by a long shot. Palestine under Cyrus was one of many satraps governed by local Persian rulers. Reoccupying the land of Israel was for the newly liberated exiles a privilege granted by the empire, not a right. Living faithfully in the land does not require and certainly does not entitle one to control and monopolize it.
Indeed, the Bible states fairly clearly that, just as Israel is given as a covenant to the nations (Isaiah 49:6), so Jerusalem is a city belonging to all peoples. Consider, for example,
“Among those who know me I mention Rahab [Egypt] and Babylon; behold, Philista and Tyre, with Ethiopia-‘This one was born there,’ they say. And of Zion it shall be said, ‘This one and that one were born in her;” for the Most High himself will establish her, The Lord records as he registers the peoples, ‘This one was born there.’” Psalm 87:4-6.
“It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’” Isaiah 2:2-3.
“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.” Isaiah 56:6-7.
These passages all testify to Jerusalem as a center of worship and prayer open to all peoples. Turning this holy city into the capital of a modern nation state controlling and limiting access flies in the face of all that Jerusalem signifies in the scriptures. Only in the weird and wacky world of right wing pre-millennialism, a faith cooked up by sectarians in the late 19th Century, does nationalizing Jerusalem make theological sense. For more on that, see my post of Sunday, June 11, 2017.,The scriptures offer not one single straw in support of nationalizing the Holy City.
The story of Pentecost gives us much needed perspective here. The breaking down of linguistic barriers among Jews on the morning of Pentecost prefigures the breakdown of racial, gender and cultural barriers between peoples the church will encounter on its mission “to the ends of the earth.” What Jesus declared to the Samaritan woman is fulfilled in the church’s mission spawning faithful communities of worshipers throughout the greko roman world. True worship of God is tied not to any geographic place, temple or shrine, but occurs wherever two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name. That does not mean, however, that Christians have no stake in the city of Jerusalem. According to the Book of Acts, Jerusalem is the birthplace of the church of Jesus Christ and the temple was the first place of worship for his disciples. Jerusalem will always be critical to the church’s narrative as the place where Jesus died and was raised, the place where the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the church and the place from which the church’s mission to the world was launched. So, too, Jerusalem will always be central to the faith and self-understanding Israel. For Muslims the Holy City is no less holy. Jerusalem, as Jesus and the prophets declare, is a house of prayer for all nations. Can we find a way to let it be so? Can we find a way to acknowledge Jerusalem as a city holy to the God we all claim to worship, a city open and welcome to all, shared and cared for by all, but owned and controlled by none? Would not such a Jerusalem testify to the prophetic hope we all share for a united humanity?
Here is a poem about Jerusalem by Harriot Monroe suggesting that the mere endurance of the Holy City against a violent history of aggression is a source of inspiration and hope.
Who am I, Jerusalem, that I should climb your streets,
Erect on your sharp knee-wounding stones?
Who am I that I should reflect and reject
Here where so many pilgrims have accepted all?
The Holy Sepulchre, the three orifices for the crosses,
The deep-down tomb of Lazarus where he lay three days,
These are morticed to the truth with blood and tears.
Time has seeded your shrines with beauty-they bloom like
The myths grow little flowers of faith.
None can conquer you-not the Egyptian, nor the
Babylonian, nor the Roman.
They battered down your walls and burnt your towers
Till not one stone was left upon another,
Yet your rose again.
The Philistine took you, the Moslem, the Crusader,
And General Allenby walked in triumph through your
Yet here you stand on your hill,
Stronger than mountains are your foundations,
And loftier than stars your towers.
Source: Poetry, October 1929. Harriot Monroe (1860-1936) was founder and editor of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. She was born in Chicago and read at an early age. Her father’s large library fed her insatiable curiosity and love for verse. Monroe graduated from the Visitation Academy of Georgetown, D.C., in 1879 and published a number of poems thereafter. In 1912 she convinced one hundred prominent Chicago business leaders to sponsor the magazine Poetry by each committing to fifty dollars a year for a five-year subscription. This money, along with her own funds, launched the publication that continues to this day. Monroe was determined that her publication be a portal for aspiring talent. “Open Door will be the policy of this magazine” she wrote. “…may the great poet we are looking for never find it shut, or half-shut, against his ample genius! To this end the editors . . . desire to print the best English verse which is being written today, regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written.” You can learn more about Harriot Monroe and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
The Book of Acts continues Luke’s story begun in his gospel. Recall that, in the Transfiguration, Luke describes Jesus’ coming suffering, death and resurrection in Jerusalem as his “departure.” Luke 9:31. This word is derived from the term for “Exodus” employed in the Greek Old Testament known as the Septuagint. Luke means to tell us that Jesus is soon to bring about a saving event on a par with Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. Throughout his telling of the story, Luke has sought to demonstrate a history of salvation in the ministry of Jesus and its continuation through the church. This history is told against the backdrop of the Roman Empire that has been lurking in the background from the beginning, takes an interest in Jesus during his ministry in Galilee and moves to crush him as he makes his very determined last trip to Jerusalem. Luke is showing us that history is made not in the capital of Rome, but in the backwaters of the Empire where a homeless couple gives birth to an infant in a barn. The word of God comes not to the Temple in Jerusalem, but to a ragged prophet in the wilderness of Judea. God’s glory is revealed not within the Holy of Holies, but outside the city on a hill overlooking a garbage dump where the vilest of criminals are executed. By way of the resurrection, God makes clear that Caesar is not Lord. Jesus is.
The second chapter of Acts takes us to the next episode of Luke’s salvation history, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. Pentecost, known as the “Feast of Tabernacles” or “Feast of Booths” was intended as a reminiscence of the fragile dwellings in which the Israelites lived during their 40 years of travel through the desert after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. According to the prophet Zechariah, this feast of booths will become a universal festival in the last days during which all the nations will make pilgrimages annually to Jerusalem in celebration. Zechariah 14:16-19. The gathering of many Diaspora Jews in Jerusalem and their receptiveness to the disciples’ preaching indicates that the long awaited messianic age has arrived.
Some scholars have pointed out that later rabbinic teachers understood Pentecost not merely as a harvest festival or reminiscence of the wilderness wanderings, but a commemoration of God’s appearance to Israel upon Sinai and the giving of the law through Moses. Gaster, Theodore H., Festivals of the Jewish Year, (c. New York: Morrow, 1952) cited by Juel, Donald, Luke Acts-The Promise of History, (John Knox Press, c 1983) p. 58. Thus, if Jesus’ ministry culminating in Jerusalem was God’s new Exodus, Pentecost corresponds to God’s descent to Israel on Mount Sinai. The mighty wind and flame reported in Luke bring to mind the Sinai appearance accompanied by fire and storm. Exodus 19:16-25. The speaking of the disciples in multiple languages corresponds to rabbinic legends claiming that the law given to Moses was miraculously translated into every language under heaven. See Juel, supra citing Lake, Kirsopp, “The Gift of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost,” Beginnings of Christianity, 5:114-16.
Pentecost was understood by some Jewish writers as a commemoration of the renewal of God’s covenant with the earth made through Noah. See Jubilees 6:17-18. Such awareness on Luke’s part is entirely consistent with the universal appeal of his gospel. It is also tempting to read the Pentecost story as the undoing of the confusion of tongues imposed by God as a judgment upon the nations at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. I don’t believe that it is necessary to select any of these interpretations of the Pentecost event over all of the others. Luke is not building a ridged typology tying the Church’s story to that of Israel. Rather, he is alluding to episodes in the Hebrew Scriptures that illuminate the new thing God is doing through Jesus. Pentecost can therefore be seen as a new revelation from God poured out upon the disciples and spilling over into the languages of all nations. It can be understood as a revocation of God’s judgment of confusion upon a rebellious people bent on storming the gate of heaven. It is a new event in which God “storms” into the life of the world. Or Pentecost can be seen as an allusion to the coming of the messianic age through the ingathering of God’s people. Whichever emphasis one might wish to give this story, Luke means for us to recognize in it the mission of the church that will take the disciples to “the ends of the earth.”
One final note: the folks gathered here are all “devout Jews.” Though they come from Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean world and speak the languages of the localities in which they reside, they are nonetheless people of Israel. Inclusion of the Gentiles, though hinted at throughout Luke’s gospel, is not yet on the church’s agenda. Nevertheless, the mission to the Gentiles can be seen in embryonic form among these diverse Jews through the languages and cultures they have internalized.
This psalm is a remarkable hymn to God, the Creator. Its focus on God’s sovereignty over the earth, sea and sky reflects a date after the Babylonian Exile where Israel was exposed to and tempted by the creation myths from the religion of her Chaldean captors. The Babylonian Enûma Eliš saga relates how the earth was created out of a civil war between the gods and how humans were created from the divine blood shed in that conflict for the purpose of serving the victorious gods. By contrast, this psalm describes creation as a sovereign act of the one God whose merciful and compassionate care ensures stability and sustenance for all creatures. There is no hint of conflict or struggle in the act of creation. Wind and flame are God’s “ministers” (the same word used for “angels”). Vs 4. The feared sea monster, Leviathan, understood in near eastern mythology to be a fearsome and threatening divine agent, is not a rival god or even God’s enemy in the biblical view of things. It is merely another of God’s creatures in which God takes delight. Vss. 25-26. Everything that lives depends upon God’s Spirit, without which there is no existence. That Spirit is capable not only of giving life, but also restoring it. vs. 30.
This psalm has theological affinities with the creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:3, also composed during the period of Israel’s exile in Babylon. Here, too, everything is brought into existence by the sovereign word of God that declares everything made to be “good.” Human beings are created not from the blood of conflict, but from the dust of the earth and in God’s image. They have not been made to serve as a race of slaves, but to be fruitful, multiply and rule over the good world God has made. The sun, moon and stars are not magical entities whose movements and alignments control the fate of people and nations. Rather, they are luminaries created to provide light for the benefit of God’s creatures. This is not a world of haunted horrors in which humans are at best slaves and at worst collateral damage in an ongoing struggle between gods and demons. It is a good world ruled by a generous and compassionate Creator.
While Babylonian religion has long since faded into the dead zone of history, I still believe that in this so called “post-modern” era we are confronted with a secularized paganism. Babylonian religion portrayed a world ruled by warring gods, each having its own sphere of influence and all of which needed to be placated by human beings living at their mercy. So also I believe for us contemporaries, the world seems a soulless place at the mercy of corporate economic interests, nationalist military conflicts and societal expectations for conformity exercising tyrannical power over us. Humans are viewed as “cheap labor,” “voting blocks,” “collateral damage,” “demographic groups,” and categorized by other dehumanizing labels. The earth is viewed as a ball of resources to be used up freely and without limitation by anyone having the power to control and exploit them. Unlike the Babylonian and post-modern visions, the Bible does not view the world either as a haunted house inhabited by warring demons or as the battleground for competing national, commercial and tribal interests. This psalm testifies to the beauty, goodness and holiness of the earth as God’s beloved creation.
The church at Corinth was a congregation only the Apostle Paul could love. It had every conceivable problem a church could have. It had divisive factions; power struggles; sex scandals; doctrinal disputes; arguments over worship practices; and, of course, money issues. Yet remarkably, Paul can say to this messed up, dysfunctional congregation, “Now you are the Body of Christ.” I Corinthians 12:27. He does not say, “You should be the Body of Christ!” or “You could be the Body of Christ if you would just get your act together!” No, Paul is emphatic that the church at Corinth is the Body of Christ even now, with all its warts and blemishes. This is no metaphor. Paul means for the church to understand that it is Jesus’ resurrected Body. Nothing Paul says makes any sense until you get that.
In this Sunday’s lesson the issue is spiritual gifts. Understand that Paul is not using the term “spiritual” in the wishy washy new age sense that we so often hear it today-i.e., “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” (Whatever that means.) When Paul speaks of the spiritual, he is speaking explicitly about the Spirit of Jesus. That Spirit can be experienced only through the intimate knowing of Jesus. Jesus is known through communion with his Body, the church. Thus, it is impossible to speak of obedience to Jesus apart from communion with his Body. The church is the Body of Jesus precisely because it is animated by the Spirit of Jesus. Therefore, every ethical decision, every doctrinal teaching, every matter of church administration, every aspect of worship boils down to what does or does not build up the unity and health of Christ’s Body.
The reading begins with the assertion that “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Vs. 3. We need to be mindful of the political implications of this claim. The mantra of the Roman world was “Caesar is Lord.” Because there is room for only one divine emperor, asserting that anyone other than Caesar is Lord constitutes de facto treason. At best, you earn ridicule from the pagan community for making such a claim. In the worst case scenario, the confession of Jesus as Lord might be treated as a criminal offense. The assertion was equally problematic within the Jewish community. According to Deuteronomy 21:22-23, a person put to death by hanging on a tree is cursed. Consequently, confessing a crucified criminal as Israel’s Messiah could be regarded as blasphemy. In sum, making the confession “Jesus is Lord” could result in ostracism from your religious community, mockery from your pagan neighbors and possibly conviction of a capital crime. Quite understandably, then, Paul insists that making this bold confession and living by it requires the support of God’s Spirit.
In the first part of verse 3 (not included in our reading) Paul states that no one can say “Jesus be cursed” by the Spirit of God. I Corinthians 12:3. This might seem obvious. One would not expect such an exclamation from within the church community. Given the hostile environment in which the church found itself, however, it is not inconceivable that a weak member of the church might be tempted to curse the name of Jesus in order to conceal his or her affiliation from family, religious or civil authorities. Some commentators suggest that Paul is referring to the Roman practice of requiring suspected Christians to revile the name of Christ in order to clear themselves of any accusation. Fitzmyer, Joseph A., First Corinthians, The Anchor Bible Commentary, Vol. 32, (c. 2008 by Yale University) p. 456. This approach to the church was evidently taken in Asia Minor as evidenced by correspondence from Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan in 110 C.E. Though this conclusion is plausible and tempting, I rather doubt that Paul had anything so specific in mind. The church was still a tiny sect within and indistinguishable from Judaism in the mid First Century when Paul was active. It is therefore unlikely that the Roman authorities in Corinth during this period would have recognized it or singled it out for any such specialized policy of enforcement.
So now we come down to the specific issue at hand: “spiritual gifts” given to individual members of the Body of Christ for the building up of that Body. There is no hierarchy in the church for Paul. The issue is never “who is in charge.” Jesus is the Head of the church. He alone is in charge. The rest of us are all members of the body. A little finger might not seem to be particularly important-until you try using a keyboard without it or it gets slammed in the car door. Suddenly, the least important part of the body is commanding center stage! So also in the Body of Christ, the prominence of any person’s gift at any particular time depends upon what is happening. When determining the short term management of a large monetary gift to the church, someone with administrative skill in managing funds is critical. Such persons know how to transfer property quickly, efficiently and without loss to a place where it can appreciate in value as the church decides how to use it. But, when it comes to long range management of these funds, different gifts are required. The mission of the church is not to maximize income on its investments, but to use its resources to build up the Body of Christ and witness to the reign of God. To make faithful use of the church’s resources to these ends, the gift of prophetic vision is required. The gift of discernment is necessary also to evaluate such visions and find within them the call and command of Jesus. When all members of the church work together using their unique gifts to build up the Body of Christ, the gifts complement each other.
Unfortunately, such harmony was not the prevailing mood at Corinth. Certain individuals were convinced that their gifts conferred upon them greater status and authority. They were using their gifts and abilities to advance their own interests instead of building up the church. So Paul begins in these verses an extended discussion about the proper use of the gifts the Holy Spirit gives to each member of the Body of Christ. In the first place, all members of the Body are gifted and their gifts are necessary to the proper functioning of that Body. Vs. 4. So the church must constantly ask itself whether it is recognizing the gifts among its members. Second, it matters not which gift a person has, but how the gift is used. Paul makes clear that all gifts must be used for the common good of the whole church. Vs. 7. In the example of the monetary gift, a short term manager who loses sight of the big picture and is concerned only with maximizing returns on investment rather than growing the ministry of the church is no longer serving the Body. So also the visionary with great plans for the church’s resources, but who is unwilling to submit his or her vision to the ministry of discernment within the Body is no longer building up the Body. Third, there is no hierarchy of gifts. Hierarchy is antithetical to the well-being of the church. Sadly, it seems today that we lack the imagination, creativity and vision to function without hierarchy. But don’t get me started on that.
John’s Pentecost story is out of step with that of Luke (or the other way around if you prefer). John has Jesus breathing the life giving Spirit into his disciples on the morning of his resurrection. More than any other witness, John identifies the Holy Spirit with the presence of the resurrected Christ in his church. Of course, Saint Paul makes the same identification in referring consistently to the Church as Christ’s Body. Similarly, the Book of Acts makes clear that the mission of the church is in many respects the continuation of Jesus’ ministry of healing, feeding the hungry and preaching good news to the poor. So I believe that the New Testament witness is consistent in anchoring the outpouring of the Spirit with the continued presence of Jesus in the church. Hence, I side with the Western church on the matter of the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed, namely, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. For the perspective of the Eastern Church which rejects this clause such that the Creed affirms the procession of the Spirit from the Father only, check out this link.
Luke and John are entirely on the same page in their identification of the Spirit with the commissioning of the disciples. In the very same breath (pun intended) that Jesus says “receive the Holy Spirit,” he then says “as the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” Vss. 22-23. So also in Luke’s understanding. The Spirit is given so that the disciples can become Jesus’ “witnesses” to “the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8. In John’s account, Jesus goes on to tell his disciples that “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Vs. 23. Exactly what does this mean? According to Luther’s Small Catechism, this verse refers to the “Office of the Keys” through which the church, through its public ministry, absolves penitent sinners and withholds this benefit from the unrepentant. Luther’s Small Catechism, Part V. But is that really what John had in mind here? In my view, the context makes that interpretation extremely doubtful. The focus is not upon the internal workings of the community of disciples but upon the disciples’ mission to the world. Undoubtedly, the two are related in this gospel. It is through the disciples’ love for one another that they will be identified as followers of Jesus. John 13:35. But the principal emphasis is on the disciples’ witness to the world, not to their relationship with one another. So what can it mean to “retain” sins?
I believe that John is emphasizing the importance of the commission that Jesus has just given to his disciples. It is through them that the life giving Word of forgiveness is to be made known to the world. It is “in” them that the Spirit now resides. If the disciples of Jesus do not make known God’s forgiveness of sin, the world will remain in the grip of sin. Those sins will be retained. But if the Word is spoken, it will be accompanied by the Spirit of God that inspires faith and breaks the bondage of sin. I believe that is what commentator Raymond Brown is saying in the following quote:
“In summary, we doubt that there is sufficient evidence to confirm the power of forgiving and holding of sin, granted in John 20:23 to a specific exercise of power in the Christian community, whether that be admission to Baptism or forgiveness in Penance. These are but partial manifestations of a much larger power, namely, the power to isolate, repel, and negate evil and sin, a power given to Jesus in his mission by the Father and given in turn by Jesus through the Spirit to those whom he commissions. It is an effective, not merely declaratory, power against sin, a power that touches new and old followers of Christ, a power that challenges those who refuse to believe. John does not tell us how or by whom this power was exercised in the community for whom he wrote, but the very fact that he mentions it shows that it was exercised.” Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John, XIII-XXI, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 29a, (Doubleday, c. 1970) p. 1044.
SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER/ASCENSION OF OUR LORD
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.
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.
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 16:8; Number 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!”
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.
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.
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.