Epiphany 2019: The Epistle Passage – Paul, messenger to “others”

This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles– for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. “ (Ephesians 3:1 – 4)

Jesus preached not only to his fellow Jews but to others who lived in the area of Galilee. Several times his disciples were astonished that he cared and preached to non-Jews. There acceptance of “others” who were not them/like them is mirrored very much in our current society. The fact that Jesus was for not only the Jews, but Gentiles (read non-believers) is a fact that our current society needs to be reminded of. The stranger and foreigner is to be as welcomed as those who are more familiar to us. In fact, the Jews historically the Jews were to welcome foreigners also, as they themselves were once foreigners in a strange land. Paul puts in gently . . . .

“In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Verses 5 – 6)

What had been the “called and chosen people” (as I have named them) are now called from all nations and all ethnicities. It is “jostling” to me that this mystery was only now made known. The Hebrews/Israelites were to be a light to the nations. However, thinking and looking back over the history of the Israelites and Judahites I can see where the light might have dimmed a little.

“Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.” (Verses 7 – 12)

It is one of the ironies of the Divine that a man so determined to uphold Jewish standards that he would plan and carry out the killing of those who grated against and defied his belief system – would now be given the calling and mission to carry and preach the news of Jesus to those completely outside his historical faith circle. If the Magi were the first hint that Jesus the Christ was for all people, then Paul is the crowning confirmation of that fact.

Yesterday I asked the question and set forth the challenge as to what you will be doing this year, beloved reader, and whether they will be positive things. One positive thing would be to spread the new of Jesus, and spread it to all who express interest. Of an even more positive nature would be to accept other people, no matter they faith beliefs and ethnicity. You know, the way Jesus did. Selah!

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Season After Pentecost (Proper 28[33]) – The Epistle Passage: Reflecting further on Jesus Christ as the Perfect High Priest

And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.” For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” (Hebrews 10: 11 – 14)

I think you know already, beloved reader, that I am feeling that Paul is reiterating on a theme that I feel has already been well examined and described. It could be that Paul is being/just being over thorough. Or it could be that his audience really was a “tough sell”. I want to give that allowance because I know there are people who have heard the gospel many times but still do not embrace it as a model for their lives. So maybe Paul does need to speak at great expanse on this topic.

“And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,” he also adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.” (Verses 15 – 16)

As I think about Paul’s efforts to distill and present the gospel (as he understands it) to his readers, I am reminded of a modern-day occupation that is much like this – a technical writer. That is someone who writes at great length and detail as to how an object works or operates. I have at times in my life included technical writing or instruction book/manual writing in my job. And it is a long tedious process. You have to understand each step and sub-step, test out for yourself that it does/will work that way, and describe each step and movement in a clear and precise way. It can be maddening.

Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Verses 19 – 25)

I can imagine Paul looking at each step and increment of faith in Jesus Christ, examining it from the perspective of his listening/reading audience, and striving to be sure he has covered every aspect and possible question. I imagine it was quite maddening for him too, going over and over each step and aspect of faith to make sure he had in correct and had placed in within the context of his reader so it would be understandable. And then sending it off with every hope and prayerful confidence that it would be received well. It seems to me, beloved reader, that if Paul took such time and effort to write this, I (and you) should take the time to read it and study it. Selah!

Season After Pentecost (Proper 27[32]) – The Epistle Passage: The Lord provides!

For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Hebrews 9:24-28)

Paul was working very hard, and was really “working it”, in writing to the Hebrews about Jesus position and attributes as the Christ/ the Messiah. Until reading this long series of excerpts from the book of Hebrews I did not realize how long/much Paul wrote on this theme. Of course it may be that because the excerpts from Hebrews in the lectionary are spaced out over several weeks it seems like a long time. Sometimes it seems like Paul gets so few kudos from me, I will account it to his diligence in conveying his message.

The question pops into my mind – what does this mean for us?

For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands . . . “ This means that the redemption, forgiveness, grace, mercy etc that comes from the Lord God Jesus Christ is not confined to any one religion or faith tradition, but is available to all who believe in it and the Divine.

“. . . but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf . . .” This means that Jesus did not just do this as a “mere” mortal but as a gesture undertaken and completed by the Divine.

Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own . . . “ In many faith traditions it is customary to confess and ask for forgiveness over and over; sometimes because the tenets of faith dictate it and sometimes because we need forgiveness anew and again. But Christ completed it for us for all times because of the purity of his sacrifice. WE may need to “confess, repent, repeat” but Christ accomplished it first time out – so actually, now that I think of it, we can “confess, repent, repeat”!

And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” Now here Paul gets theological (if he has not already that is!) and rules out some possible faith beliefs. No reincarnation. Each of us will face our judgment day after our earthly life is over. The return of the Lord God Jesus Christ will signal the end of the age – not, make note, to judge. But together up those who still live and believe. In this passage Paul is silent about those who still live but do not believe. Personally I find that lack of comment ominous! Shalom!

Season After Pentecost (Proper 16[21]) – The Epistle Passage: Paul “builds” a Christian

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.” (Ephesians 6:10)

I must tell you, beloved reader, I am really enjoying titling these post blogs lately. The themes of the titles just seem to appear; at first I had wondered if it would continue to be this way. But now I just trust that the themes will keep popping up. It really does seem as if Paul is building a Christian, or at least clothing one. I do think, however, “build” is the better term because Paul is so descriptive as to how he believes these items will function in the Christian life.

“Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.” (Verses 11 – 13)

In fact this is not the only passage where Paul is very prescriptive of what he thinks a Christian should be like. I have “interacted” with other such passages asking whether the view the Paul has of Christians during is lifetime is a view that is workable in our lifetime. I also have to wonder if “battle” motifs are good images for Christianity.

“Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.” (Verse 14)

It does seem as if Paul considers living the Christian life as hand-to-hand combat with evil. Maybe in his time it was a struggle to live as a Christian. And maybe in our modern times we do not appreciate the struggle it was then, and may still be for some believers. But then I think about the emphasis of peace in living an authentic Christian life, and wish another motif could be used.

“As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (Verses 15 – 17)

As I think about it, Paul is a throwback to the prophets of old, the Old Testament that is. When the Divine was seen as an angry and vengeful God. And that the Lord God needed to be appeased by sacrifice, which is now our well, and our thoughts, needs, and actions.

“Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.” (Verses 18 – 20)

I do wonder if Paul clothed and clad himself in the same “armor” he is advising here. Protection from evil, truth & righteousness, ability & endurance to travel, faith, salvation, the word of God, and prayer – yes, those are the building blocks of Paul’s belief system, and the tools of his ministry. These traits are clues and insights into Paul. But beloved believer, they do not need to be motifs and metaphors of physical might and strength. I hope and pray that you may develop these treats, but have also a spirit of gentleness and compassion . . . and peace! Selah!

Season After Pentecost (Proper 13[18]) – The Epistle Passage: Life choices and vocations of all shapes and sizes

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:1 – 6)

I am aware that Paul is emphasizing a great deal of “one.” And it is true, when looking at Christianity from a dogmatic perspective, one either chooses for or against Jesus Christ and the Lord God. And Paul most definitely chose one way, and then changed to the other. However, there are many ways to live out an authentic Christian life.

“But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)” (Verses 7 – 10)

I puzzled over this one for a while, beloved reader. Consulted several translations, read a few commentaries, and what I determined is this – the “lower parts of the earth”, that is us. Humanity. Creation. With all of our flaws and sins. I guess, looking back of the less than admirable Israelites and Judahites, Paul thought it had been a pretty motley bunch. Thankfully Paul prefaces his critique with the belief that each of us – then, now and in the future – was given grace. So buoyed up with that life preserver of salvation, let us read on.

“The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Verses 11 – 13)

Those are lofty goals, “maturity . . . . full stature of Christ”, that Paul is setting up. Life long pursuits. Some days I look at the world (myself included) and wonder if we will ever attain that. But then I remember, that is why apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers were called forth. The thing to remember is that we are learning from each other. No one, not even Paul, has the “full measure of the full stature of Christ” except for Christ!

“We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” (Verses 14 – 16)

I entitled this pondering as choices and vocations; vocations because all of us have a task and calling in the overall ministry that Christ calls us to. Some it is a career calling, others the way they live their lives as an example to others. And that is where the “choice” comes it. Because as I said earlier, it is a choice. Not just for or against Jesus Christ and the Lord God – that is a simple and dogmatic perspective. No, there are shades of following the Divine. We differentiate between those who formally enter ministry and those who just seem to be “good” Christian people.

There are also subtle ways of living a Christian life, most of which depend on how one defines Christian. Paul has set down a pretty unwavering standard. We are, however, a long time and space away from Paul. And from the days of the early Christian church. The history of Christianity has been a long and bumpy road. Good choices and bad choices, vocations that have helped and hindered the message of Christ. Be careful how you chose, beloved reader, be careful. Selah!

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.

Season After Pentecost (Proper 9[14]) – The Epistles Passage: The Story of his life – Paul has his turn

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven–whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person–whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows– was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.” (II Corinthians 12: 2 – 5)

You need to watch the bouncing third-person pronoun here beloved reader, because Paul is speaking of himself. Or at least that is what the commentators and my seminary professor has told me. I not hold it against Paul nor think his hubris is showing. There are three reasons for this. First, it was not through Paul’s own ability or devotion that he was “caught up” – it was the power of the Divine. Second, Paul does try to distance himself from what ever positive attributes would result from this experience.

“But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.” (Verses 6 – 7)

And third, Paul does a very good job of revealing his weakness; not the very specific weakness, but reveals enough so that we might know there is nothing in his human make up to boast about.

“Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” (Verses 8 – 9)

Over the years I have talked about my ill health (in fact it was very recently that I made it a theme of one of my blogs) and the issue of asking the Divine for healing. Or more precisely, not asking for healing. I think on a subconscious level I have always accepted the position that Paul took some time to get to. That my own personal strength is of a lessor consideration than the Divine’s presence in my life. And if the Lord God can be content to dwell in a body such as mine that falls to pieces regularly, than who am I to ask for an update or reboot? So I say with Paul . . . .

“Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (Verse 10)

So this is Paul, in brief. Called and blessed by the Lord; but very aware of his weaknesses and shortfalls. And I have to contrast this with Saul, King Saul that is, who was proclaimed as being a very handsome man, and mighty in battle. But was not able to sustain his commitment to following and honoring the Lord God. And King David who was ruddy and fair to look upon. And who was closer to God’s heart and will; but also made some serious missteps. As I concluded yesterday, beloved reader, I do not think power and might, good looks and having something to boast about necessarily makes one a loyal follower of the Lord God. Remember Paul as Saul thought it had it figured out and that the followers of Jesus were in the wrong. Saul as Paul say his error, confessed it and accepted God’s calling not minding if there was “insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities”.

May you, beloved reader, seek the heart and will of the Divine. Selah!