Season After Pentecost (Proper 10[15]) – The Epistle Passage: Paul’s preaching style

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” (Ephesians 1:3 – 4)

One of the things I learned early on with Paul is that sometimes it takes breath power to read his epistles out loud. Paul tends to pack a lot into one verse/sentence. I assume that it is enthusiasm for spreading the word of the Lord and not wanting to leave out a detail or aspect. But just as it takes breath power to read Paul, it takes thinking power to unpack all that he says. Because he packs a lot of theology into his writings as well.

“He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” (Verses 5 – 6)

I have tried at times – when writing, commenting, and pondering – to explain the different theological, religious, spiritual teaching and thinking that goes into these epistles. Usually I end up running out of steam. And/or, starting to ramble on in long sentences myself!

“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Verses 7 – 10)

Paul also uses a great many punctuation marks to tie together his thoughts and reflections. Or probably more precisely (and actually more fair & even handed to Paul) it is the translators who marshal together the words and phrases in tight ranks and rows, trying to capture and herd together everything that Paul has to say. And it is they who have translated and transcribed the sentences that embrace a world of meaning.

“In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.” (Verses 11 – 12)

Unless some occasion or need arose, Paul only wrote one letter to the congregations that he started and nurtured. So it makes sense that he would try as much as he could to pack in one letter everything that he could. And maybe the congregations that received the letter (and passed them on to other churches) studied the letter slowly and carefully. As we do, actually, in our modern times.

“In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.” (Verses 13 – 14)

When one sits back and contemplates that Paul wrote all of these letters filled to overflowing with theology, Christian philosophy, spirituality, redemption, and salvationyet all of the letters centered on the topic of following Jesus Christ and our Lord God – one can appreciate how massive an undertaking it is to follow the Divine. There is so much to consider and keep in mind. It seems like a daunting task. And Paul lays it all out so eloquently and so well.

But that’s thing, beloved reader, and that is Paul’s exact preaching style. Making each movement and action in the Christian life so profound and deep. And Christianity is not always like that. As much as I admire Paul (and I do, really) it takes a lot of breath power and energy to live out a Christian life according to Paul.

There are other ways though. And we may yet explore those this week. Shalom for your day, beloved reader.

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Season After Pentecost (Proper 25 [30]): The Epistle Passage – Paul also was willing to lay down his life

You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.” (1 Thessalonians 2:1 – 2)

There is, it must be conceded, a note of martyrdom in Paul’s writings that is sometimes unattractive and grating on the ear; at least that is how it seemed to me when I first sat down to write on this passage. And if unattractive, perhaps that is because we are separated in time and geography from Paul; and we do not know him well as his audience does. If you are not sure what I mean, consider all the times you (or I for that matter) have read a tragic account of something in the news and have NOT stopped in our tracks aghast that it has happened to someone that we might have known, if our lives and their lives had connected.

My point, beloved reader, is that terrible and tragic things happen to people everyday all over the world, and the human head and heart cannot encompass that much global pain. So we tend to hear news and then move on. (The Lord God, the Divine, however hears such news and stops to weep as Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died.) So we take in this news, as modern readers, that Paul suffered but persevered. And we move on.

“For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.” (Verses 3 – 4)

With this declaration of having suffered for the sake of the gospel, Paul makes the case that he is not trying to fool or dope anyone into believing things that are not true. His message is and always was based on the truth and entrusted to him by the Lord God. The belief of others never benefited Paul; and while Paul was pleased to see new believers, he truly believed that new believers in God were the ones who received eternal benefit.

“As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.” (Verses 5 – 8)

And as I think about Paul in this way, and remembering Moses from yesterday, I can’t help think there is a good bit of similarity between the two men. Being willing to travel for the Lord’s sake, placing one’s life at risk, spreading good news to those who needed good news, and establishing a people of God. Yes, Paul did not perform any wondrous signs as Moses did (and the book of Deuteronomy tells us); but some of the scrapes and situations Paul found himself in and survived were pretty wondrous themselves. So maybe we should pause and give ear to Paul when he says he suffered mightily for the Lord’s sake. The fact that his letters survived to our modern day is pretty amazing too.

May you, beloved reader, survive all that is set before you and persevere in what the Lord has called you to. Selah!

Season after Pentecost (Proper 6 [11]) : The Gospel Passage – Spreading the Word

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.” (Matthew 9:35)

According to the gospel of Matthew, Jesus had just completed a series of healings, and was setting out to see and spread his ministry to the people of that area – the writer of Matthew has does not name specific places.

“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Verse 36)

Not having studied animal husbandry, I am forced to assume that sheep do not do well without someone to make sure they have access to good food and clean water.

“Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Verse 38)

Now this is interesting. From the way this verse/sentence is constructed you would almost think that “laborers” are going to come out from buildings, or something, and go out to do the harvesting that is the Lord’s. But these “laborers” do not come from an outside source, but are the disciples that are supposedly traveling with Jesus. And it strikes me this is an unusual way to maneuver someone or a group into doing something. Yet, it is also familiar – this leading with already set intention. Like a subliminal motivation instead of an overt instruction.

“Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.” (Chap 10: 1 – 4)

And I have to conclude, since it is obvious that this was written after Jesus’ ministry was over, that there was some purpose in phrasing the suggestion for laborers to go out. It reminds me somewhat of the theological perspective that we, as God’s called and chosen people, are the ones who bear the responsibility for spreading the word and message of God. In fact, the end of the book of Matthew ends with such a directed purpose.

“These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.” (Verses 5 – 8)

You can be sure, beloved reader, when I post this I will most certainly put it under the tags of “Mission” , “Missiology”, and “Missional”. And I want to remind you that mission can be done close at hand. Jesus, in essence, told his disciples not wander far but to stay close to home and close by in the land of Israel.

The lectionary, while noting the verses that follow verse eight, do not include verses nine to twenty-three.

“Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” (Verses 9 – 23)

I am not too surprised at this, for two reasons. Number one, the verses are pretty prophetic and predictive about what happens after Jesus’ death. We can see that in the last section of verse 23 that seems more “end of the world-ish” than one would expect. Number two, the theme this year is new believers coming to faith. Stopping at verse eight leaves the emphasis on ministering and converting new believers. The verses that follow have less to do with new believers and more to do with those believers who are heading out to do missional work.

Do not think it too unusual, beloved reader, that the RCL crafts what verses and passages are presented and when. Just as Jesus (according to the writer of the gospel of Matthew) arranged for this disciples to be laborers in the Lord’s harvest, so does the RCL seek to present scripture in such a way that it supports a theme and a purpose. In the same way, do not doubt that I have a theme and purpose in what I write and I. But rest assured, my purposes are good and to aid you on your Christian journey. Selah!

Seventh Sunday of Easter: The Gospel Passage – Jesus prays, and we are drawn in

After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.” (John 17:1-5)

The New Revised Standard Version tells me, through section headings, that Jesus is praying this for himself in verses one to five. The next section of verses, six to eleven is part of the larger section where Jesus prays for his disciples. According to the writer of the gospel of John, Jesus prayed this at the conclusion of the Passover Supper/Last Supper. Since the gospel of John does not have the ascension of the Lord, it is as close to a sending off of the disciples as we get in this gospel.

This first section is interesting, in that it reveals what position vis a vis Jesus felt he had with God. Jesus identifies (again) that he came from God and had authority to do all the things he did – preaching/teaching and miracles. But it also identifies that Jesus had the same glory that God has, and will have the glory again. Which is probably why it is used for the Sunday closest to the Day of Ascension of the Lord. It also brings sharply into focus the aim of the writer of the gospel of John, establishing Jesus’ Divinity. You may wonder, beloved reader, why I sometimes use the noun “Divine” at times when referring to the Lord God. At the times when I used that term, I am trying to sum up all that the triune aspects (and other aspects) of the Lord God are. And to incorporate more than just a strictly narrowly-defined Christian view of the Lord God.

Jesus was not a Christian – he was Christ. Strictly speaking, the Jews who believed in him and came to believe in him during the time of the early Christian church were not Christians either. It was the people who came from other faiths that embraced belief in Christ who could be termed Christians. Christianity, and by implication Christendom, was established by subsequent generations. And those believers can be and are included in the prayer that the NRSV says were prayed for Jesus’ disciples.

I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.” (Verses 6 – 9)

The world, as it would have been understood then (and remember that this prayer comes to us by way of a person writing within the context of those times) would be “pagans” who it was assumed would never give up their “pagan” beliefs nor hear about Jesus the Messiah because they were at too much of a distance. The assumption was, those who were “given to” Jesus were very close at hand and with the conceptual distance that the disciples had.

“All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (Verses 10 – 11)

This passage of prayers goes on for eight more verses, as Jesus asks the Lord for blessing and protection on the disciples. A final passage, verses twenty to twenty-six ask a blessing on all believers – specifically those who will come to faith because of the disciple’s ministry efforts. But remember, the writer of the gospel of John could not foresee the length of time and the impact that Jesus’ life would have.

I could go on, beloved reader, describing the expanding circle of those who came to believe, and how. In part, that is what the book of Acts and the Epistle passages of the New Testament are. Tracing the progression, the impact, and the teachings of the apostles. Remember too, that there is much evidence that the early church thought not more than one or two generations would pass before Jesus would return. But here we are, 21st Century Christians who have kept (more or less) a Christian faith based on what was set down by Christ. The disciples/apostles could not envision that. But Jesus Christ could and did. So, when Jesus prayed for his “apostles” – that could be us. And when Jesus prayed for all other believers, that is us too.

I am reminded that the theme of the lectionary this year is believers coming to new/renewed faith. According to the celebration days of the church, Jesus has ascended. And the Lord God and Jesus Christ continue to welcome believers and minister to them. Selah!

Seventh Sunday of Easter: The Substituted Acts Passage – A time for pondering and a time for acting

I know a secret. This week is the Day of the Ascension of the Lord. It is a minor big deal in the life of the church. Not quite Pentecost, but right up there – as it were. The time after Jesus’ resurrection and before his ascension is the interval of time when Jesus gave some final instructions to his disciples. Some of the gospels chronicle that time, and others quickly move to Jesus being taken up to heaven.

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts 1:6 – 9)

I have spoken/written on numerous occasions about the expectations of the disciples concerning Jesus’ return. That they way they lived and the way the early church was set up was based on this expectation. And how the early church changed to accommodate the “wait time” for Jesus’ return. I have also talked about what we, as authentic Christians, ought to do while we wait.

While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” (Verses 10 – 14)

Do you, beloved reader, gaze up into the sky wondering when Jesus will return in the same way as he went into heaven? No, I don’t think you do. Because we as a called people of the Lord have learned that our mission and calling is here amongst humanity. That Jesus’ Spirit and Presence is here in ways we only understand in part. Prayer is good – prayer is essential! But prayer is not all there is to living out a Christian life. There is acting as Jesus acted. Caring as the Lord cares for us. Teaching and guiding as Jesus taught and guided his disciples. And, continuing to learn about the Lord and Jesus Christ our Savior. It is a busy time, this waiting for Jesus to return. Set aside some time to gaze into the sky, and communion with the Lord. Then return to the work you are called to. Selah!

Fourth Sunday of Easter: The Substituted Old Testament Passage – Wonders & Signs being performed

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.” (Acts 2:42- 43)

“Wonders and signs” – I dearly wish I knew what the writer of Acts meant by that. I (or you) can look it up in the Greek, but that does not tell us what exactly is meant by it. Were they “wonders and signs” that “merely” confirmed faith in God – what I mean by that is words and acts of a vital faith. Or was it miraculous, out of ordinary human experience that even in our modern times would elicit awe? But is wondrous to our modern times is what follows in the writer of Acts description.

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Verses 44 – 47)

The early Christians were a vital and cohesive community. They lived and worked together in harmony and common cause. What one needed, another provided without hesitancy or thought for self – at least as it is described. And if that were true, that would be a “wonder & a sign” that something extraordinary was going on. It would be very attractive to those on the outside who were living in need and isolation. You have to understand, beloved reader, these were times when want and need were rampant, and very few people undertook for each other. Such radical community and care was rare and valuable.

The other thing to remember is that it did not last. Yes, perhaps for a healthy span of years, but eventually human willfulness eroded away the community. Thinking of self gradually became more of the norm than thinking of others. If you have doubts of this, read some of the letters that were written to the early Christian communities. The early church was a model of community and care, but that type of community without end. Certainly an example to succeeding generations but not easily replicated. For a time, a tiny slice of heaven but that eroded like fog on a warming day. The “heat” of the self-centered human heart can dissipate too easily the warming cloud of caring intent. So yes, it was a wonder and sign that the early Christians came together in such a community, and a hope that will true Christian intent we can replicate IF we keep Christ and our Lord God at the center of all our efforts. Selah!

First Sunday After Epiphany: The Gospel and Psalm Passage – Grounded in God and Praising the Lord

Finishing what seems like a very long week. In real time, that is the actual dates I sit down to write, it is almost a week before you are reading this beloved reader. Working that out on the calendar, it is the first day of the New Year as I sit in contemplation about the verses for the second Sunday of the New Year, and the first Sunday after Epiphany which was just yesterday. At times I do not know if I am coming or going. However, I feel like the passage from the gospel is very grounding. And it affirms and confirms my appreciation for Peter.

“Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ–he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.
We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.
He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:34-43)

Peter was speaking to his fellow believers on the issue of Gentiles believing in God. And following God. It is a good passage to follow up the Epiphany of Jesus and his baptism. In looking back it foretells what Jesus’s ministry will be like, as we begin again to travel the road with Jesus as the story again unfolds. This year the theme is calling new converts to faith. And for those of us who are old in our faith, it invites to reaffirm what we know and learn further. It will be a good year – I hope and pray!

Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.” (Psalm 29:1)

Another good way to ground one’s self is to praise God. We may not have all that we need to to cope with and survive what has been and is our lot in life. I have heard it said that God “does not give more than what we can bear.” Well, I am not sure how much truth there is to that. What I do know is that there is nothing that God cannot bear or overcome. And if we are attached to God, grounded in God and believing in God – then God will bear and overcome what we cannot not. And that is worth praising God about!

“Ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name; worship the LORD in holy splendor.
The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters.
The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.
The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.
May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace!” (Verses 2 to 11)

May you, beloved reader, be grounded in God and ready with the Lord’s support and help to meet and overcome all that the New Year will bring! Selah!