Season After Pentecost (Proper 26[31]) – The Epistle Passage: The value of commitment, love, and sacrifice

But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!” (Hebrews 9:11-14)

Granted that the writer of Hebrews (Paul) is trying to make a point of how Jesus Christ is the perfect high priest and worthy to be the Messiah – but I am trying to make a point too. Jesus did not shed his blood so that he could be seen as the perfect Messiah; he did it because of unconditional love, and a commitment achieve redemption and salvation for all of creation. And I guess that really says all that needs to be said. Selah!

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Season After Pentecost (Proper 25[30]) – The Epistles Passage: Our rescuer the Lord God Jesus Christ

Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (Hebrews 7:23 – 25)

The writer of the book of Hebrews (scholars are not sure it was Paul) wrote to persuade his audience that Jesus was worthy of the role of Messiah. In this section he makes his argument that Jesus Christ the Messiah makes a better high priest than the priests who served the Jewish people down through time. The writer of the book of Hebrews carefully lays out an argument as to why Jesus was better. The first point made is that there is little continuity in the line and lineage of high priests. Yes, they may have been in one line from stemming back to Levi but the skills and abilities of those in the line of Levi varied greatly.

“For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.” (Verses 26 – 28)

While there was variation in commitment and skill, each of the high priests had the same fault – they were sinners. And in order to offer a sacrifice to sanctify the congregation, the high priests had to first sanctify themselves – over and over again.

Quite honestly beloved reader, in our modern times, it is a superfluous argument. Firstly, we no longer make sacrifices, or at least not ones that are burnt on an altar. Yes, we offer up ourselves and our personal human agenda in order to accept the calling Christianity and the life it requires. But the concept of a “high priest” is one we do not necessarily ascribe to.

It may be true that Catholicism does hold on to that hierarchy; however, the flaws in that system are quite evident. In fact . . . . as I think about it, there is a line of commonality between Judaism and Catholicism in that regard. Which is quite ironic since the Roman Catholic faith and the Jewish faith many times are at odds. Set aside for a moment that the Roman Catholic church is based on the believe in Jesus Christ and the Lord God. In both faith traditions there is one person who heads up the circle of faith – the Pope/the High Priest. Then there are levels of priests/Levites & Jewish leaders. All of these people (okay, let’s admit the reality, they are all men) are sinners and before they can atone for the sins of their congregations, they need to appease for their own sins. Protestant and other non-Catholic faith traditions (I am thinking of my own faith system, Anabaptist) do not have such leadership . . . per se.

Maybe I was too quick to disavow the whole “high priest” concept for our modern times. But my point still stands – we do not rest our salvation and sanctity on the shoulders of another human being. How ever we make our way up the chain of faith, the Lord God Jesus Christ is on the upper most level. And to the Divine we submit our pleas for confession, forgiveness, salvation, and restoration (to name just a few of the supplications to the Lord God).

I feel like I have traveled a good bit from where this passage had is starting point and the bulk of its content. The point that was being made was that Jesus Christ is best suited to absolve our sins and to be the means of forgiveness and appeasement. And that no matter what attributes and characteristics that our religious leaders (and other types of leaders) might have, they fall far short of being the means of redemption. Maybe that is a good thing to remember in our modern day. Selah!

Season After Pentecost (Proper 23[28]) – The Epistle Passage: The gospel according to Paul in the book of Hebrews, from a medical/theological standpoint

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)

Yesterday I floated the idea that sinfulness might be seen as a type of illness – perhaps the type of illness that Amos the prophet saw in some of the Jewish people of his time. Or the type of illness that Job’s friends thought he had – a punishment for not living a holy and Godly enough life. Paul, being a Jew, saw a divide between the soul – that is the body life and existence – from the spirit – the immortal and everlasting which remains after physical death and which we define as soul. Illness would directly impact the Jewish concept of soul, the living force that makes our body function. To a lessor extent illness might affect the spirit, what Jesus came to save through his crucifixion. Sin would more directly affect the spirit as the Jews would see it, but they also believed that sin could affect the soul, that is the physical body. It is much easier in our modern times when we believe the body and soul are vitally connected. However, that makes the “word of God” much sharper than even as Paul presents it. Paul continues.

“And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” (Verse 13)

When we talk about the physical body and illness, we are placing our understanding of how our brain – our intellect – affects our body. Paul may not have had that nuanced understanding. However, his statement still holds true; the Divine does see all the connections and interconnections of our total body and the God-breathed-in life force that continues after our body ceases. And what ever your understanding, beloved reader, of the body/soul/spirit, each of us must account for how and what we did with all that we are. [The verses that follow seem to move us away from the discussion of sinfulness and illness, but let us seen where it might pop up.]

“Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Verses 14 – 16)

Did Jesus ever get physically ill? We know Jesus never sinned; but did his body come down with a fever? Did he ever get a headache? Did he ever have an upset stomach? We are not told. We ARE told that Jesus was tested as we are. And if physical illness tests us, might it have tested Jesus?

Maybe my tenacity in trying to hold to the theme I started the week with is leading me down thought paths that seem new and unique. Or maybe my own health struggles are providing me with a different type of lens to see scripture. All I know is that I am coming up with more ponderings than sureties. Paul assumes that our needs are to do with not sinning and living faithfully. But the human experience is more than that. Our bodies provide us with temptations and weaknesses, and Paul would readily agree to that. But we cannot always control what our body does – how it reacts to a contagion or illness. What we do when the human body is ill and not under our psyche’s control. Jesus, during his ministry on earth, healed the people who he encountered that were ill – especially when the illness resulted in deviate behavior. So if “ no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare” to the eyes of the Divine, that might not necessarily be a scary thing. I love believing that the Divine sees my illnesses and has mercy on me, forgiving me where my weaknesses have left me vulnerable. It is a hope that I know others who are gravely ill hope for. And I do not see the Divine withholding that from us. Selah!

Season After Pentecost (Proper 21[26]) – The Epistles Passage: The divide between the health of the soul/spirit and the health of the body/psyche

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. “ (James 5:13)

Why is it that sometimes the best advice also sounds like the most trite and shallow advise? Indeed if someone is suffering, prayer is a good thing. But prayer does not always relieve suffering. It is not like a bandage that suddenly turns the suffering into “everything being okay.” It is not that simple. And what makes the first piece of advice son “flighty” is the admonition that those who are cheerful should “sing songs of praise.” It just seems like superficial advise.

“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” (Verses 14 – 15)

And if the “prayer of faith” does not “save” them – does not heal them? Then what? And why is forgiveness of sins tied in with being sick? I am suspicious that Old Testament thinking about the body is behind some of the writer of James’ suggestions. Being one who has physical ailments, and is educated in ailments of the mind & the spirit/soul, I dislike very much improper and harmful cause-and-effect theories concerning all three.

Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” (Verse 16)

I consulted with the commentary by Albert Barnes, and as usual his careful discussion and analysis helped me see this passage from a different perspective. Perhaps Barnes’ analysis is not exactly what the writer of the book of James meant; but I am not questioning that. What Barnes helped me see is that it is very possible that the writer of the book of James is giving a quick reminder to his readers who would have understand his brief exhortations are under girded with a much longer preaching at another time/in another place. The writer of the book of James lightly touches on what has a much broader and deeper consideration behind it.

“Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.” (Verses 17 – 18)

If one compares the admonition to pray, praise, and confess with Elijah’s devotion and depth of faith, it comes much closer to what I would have expected in the first place.

My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” (Verses 19 – 20)

If then illness comes from having a sinful nature or by what ever means falling into sin where previously there was no sin, then the turning back from that will be an event for great rejoicing. And if we are to bundle together sin and ill health, then the saving from sin will also return one to health. It is, however, bile on my tongue to lump the two together. I would rather commend the concerned believer who leads a fellow believer back from the edge of sin; or extol a believer who has turned someone from a sinful life to a being a true believer. It makes me uncomfortable to intermingle health and faith belief. Perhaps in that far off (or not so far off) day when I have a chance to discuss such theological issues, I can better see what thinking went into such passages. Or maybe, having been informed of the divide that there is, biblical writers might revise their theology. For now, beloved reader, let us work towards health in both spheres of human experience. Selah!

Season After Pentecost (Proper 17[22]) – The Psalm Passage Gospel Passage: Praise and the Beloved Believer of the Lord God

My heart overflows with a goodly theme; I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe. You are the most handsome of men; grace is poured upon your lips; therefore God has blessed you forever.” (Psalm 45:1- 2)

I’m up against in, beloved reader. Commentator after commentator insists that this psalm speaks of the Messiah, the Son and Sent of the Divine. So of course it should be filled with superlatives, praising the Lord God and the Triune Lord on all aspects of the Divine. Except . . . there is one or two little problems. First, it is introduced as a “wedding song” and concerns the sons of Korah. Second, the psalms exhorts the warrior to strap a sword onto his thigh. The portion chosen for the lectionary excludes that, as it does verse 10 where the psalm addresses the lady of the couple. The commentators so artfully discern this as directing women to focus on the Lord God as their spouse and not think of human relationships. This makes sense if we cast the Song of Solomon as a love ballad concerning believers and the Lord God. Which actually I did several days ago. But, oh beloved reader, it rubs my strictness of biblical interpretation to allow this psalm to be other than what the psalmist wrote about.

It is filled with praise for the Lord God.

Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever. Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity; you love righteousness and hate wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions; your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia. From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad; . . .” (Verses 6 – 8)

It truly was my intention to let this psalm stand as a praise of the Lord God, lifted up by devoted believers. But I still chafe at some of the verses being so . . . . re-appropriated!

“. . . daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor; at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.” (Verse 9)

It is easier to just move on to the next psalms passage, the one attached to the previous Old Testament passage, Deuteronomy chapter four. Here I feel on more solid ground.

O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?
Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors; in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the LORD; who stand by their oath even to their hurt; who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent. Those who do these things shall never be moved.” (Psalm 15)

But this is less praise of the Lord God and more a description of those who love and follow the Lord.

Back at the beginning of the week, the thrust of my comments centered on how the Lord God instructs us, what type of language the Divine uses to woo us into belief. There was the compassionate passionate invitation to faith from a loving committed God. And there was the stern commands of an authoritative God. And I posed the question, which type of invitation from the Divine would most draw you in? Because, beloved reader, the way you are drawn into the Lord often determines the way you praise the Lord. Do you see yourself in a Lover/Beloved relationship the Divine that has all the outward signs of commitment and matrimony? Or do you see yourself as worthy of being in relationship with the Divine because you have passed all the tests of character that have been given to you? I have to wonder and ponder what your answer might be. Shalom!

Season After Pentecost (Proper 15[20]) – The Gospel Passage: “Eating” and “Drinking” with good sense and judgment

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:51 – 52)

You know, beloved reader, it occurred to me that we have a unique view of this passage because we know what happens to Jesus. We know the story of the Last Supper. We know the motif that Jesus will fulfill at the end of his life. Here, as far as the disputing Jews are concerned Jesus is proposing something totally outside of their understanding, and extremely disdainful considering their dietary laws. Surely at some point the disputing Jesus must have figured out that Jesus was making a metaphor concerning full and total acceptance of what he was preaching.

“So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” (Verses 53 – 55)

So we pass from the disconcerting image of eating human flesh and blood to idea that what Jesus was preaching about had impact for life and death, and an existence beyond this world. And that Jesus was not just a mortal person but something beyond that.

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” (Verses 56 – 57)

Let us step back for a moment and consider this. Believing in what Jesus is saying is a choice. I find it interesting that the writer of the gospel of John says the Jews were disputing amongst themselves – it does not say disputing with Jesus. But amongst their own group. Can we take this to mean that some of them understood what Jesus was trying to explain to them? That perhaps some of the believed? I would like to hold out the possibility that some did understand the message that Jesus was giving them. That they understood in the same way that Ezekiel ate the scroll offered to him, that they taken in and absorb the ways and wisdom of Jesus.

It also occurs to me that it does not take the wisdom of Solomon to know enough to follow Jesus. As I alluded to before, Solomon offered sacrifices in the “high places” meaning the places where offering to other deities were done. Jesus, looking back over the ancestral Jews, commented that they made choices that did not give them eternal life. And that for the traditions and rituals that the Jews of Jesus’ time abided by would not save them at the last day. Jesus was offering them the only thing that would redeem them and make them acceptable to the Divine.

“This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” (Verse 58)

I said last time we talked, I am optimistic that the majority of people in the world are kind and caring, making choices that reflect concern and undertaking for others. Choices, and more over balanced choices, are they way to make our way through the world and come out at a place where there is eternal life and a world to come. What we choice to believe has consequences, as does how we live out our beliefs. Consider carefully, beloved reader, and make good choices. Selah!

Season After Pentecost (Proper 14[19]) – The Epistle Passage: When sins are deep

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.
Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.
Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.
Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.” (Ephesians 4:25 – 30)

Lying, sinful rage, stealing, evil talk – that is quite a list that Paul has started here. While I do not like reading a list of all the terrible things a person can do, what I do appreciate (if that is a sentiment that fits with this topic) is that all of these sins are ones that start with our thoughts and attitudes. Because if it not the human body that is inherently sinful but the human mind and spirit. Yes, we can direct our bodies to do all sorts of actions; but the starting point is always the intent to be contrary to the law of love. And, as Paul so eloquently puts it, to grieve the Holy Spirit of God. That, I think, is the greatest sin. Know what will displease the Divine and doing it anyway. Unfortunately it is a common trait amongst humanity. We may not at the time or in the moment realize what we have done, but the outcome is the same.

“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” (Verses 31 – 32)

And from grieving the Divine it is a short step to causing pain etc for others. Or it may be that causing upset to others is the first intention, and that what it does to the Divine Spirit is a secondary outcome. Doesn’t really matter which end you start at in sinning – the Divine or your fellow human – the end outcome is the same.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Chapter 5, verses 1 – 2)

It does, but it should not, amaze me how many ways we can go wrong in living in this life. And I am including myself. Even if you think you are following Paul’s good examples and teachings as the above, you can still “grieve the Holy Spirit of God.” Did you think, beloved reader, that if you do as Paul says as above you would be sin free? (I know I am being tough here, but bear with me.) Verses 31 to 32 tells us what should avoid doing. But it is the first two verses of chapter 5 that set the benchmark. We may do all the right things and be caring gracious people, and yet miss the mark of being “imitators of God” and being “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God”. Does that mean we should give up and not try? By no means!!!

Let me tell you, sinning does not take away the “seal for the day of redemption”. And grieving the Holy Spirit of God does not mean we are lost forever. Throughout this passage Paul is talking about what his readers/audience had done. It is not a condemnation, not a “you missed up so all is lost.” It is an exhortation to see what humanity has done and to mend its ways. If we have grieved the Holy Spirit, we can also make the Holy Spirit rejoice when we set ourselves the task of being the best imitator of God that we can be.

Yes, our sins may be deep. But we are not stuck in that depth. We are not condemned to live at a depth of sin so great that we are lost to the Divine. Take courage, beloved reader. Christ loved us enough to give up himself so that we might be saved and redeemed. Even if we have to be re-saved and re-redeemed every day. The depth of the Divine’s love is deeper than the deepest of any sin. Selah!