Archives for September 2012

Bible Study: 20 Pentecost, Proper 23 (B) – Oct. 14, 2012

Discussion Leader: Brian Pinter, General Theological Seminary

“Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’” (Mark 10:23-25)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Job 23:1-9, 16-17 and Psalm 22:1-15 (or Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 and Psalm 90:12-17); Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

 

Job 23:1-9, 16-17

As the story of Job unfolds, Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, have come to sit with Job in his suffering, and to convince him that his fate is deserved. They represent the voices of traditional theology and piety. They insist that the old explanations must hold true, evil deeds are always punished, good is always rewarded. In this matrix, Job should simply admit his fault and acknowledge that God is just. At this point in the text, Job is becoming tired of hearing the harangues of the three, and is now shifting to a sense of longing for God’s presence. Job feels remote from God, drowning in the brutality of God’s silence and inaccessibility. This is a dark night of the soul.

Dark nights are a reality of mature faith and spirituality. The author of Job courageously presents such an experience here in dramatic prose. The darkness of deep desolation oozes through the expressions of searching for God everywhere; finding God nowhere. The inclusion of such a searing and honest text in the biblical canon validates the experience of spiritual darkness for all generations, offering a hand in solidarity across the centuries between the author of Job’s own time and ours.

Which word or phrase from Job’s speech in today’s text resonate the most with you?

How does your own spiritual/faith experience mirror today’s reading from Job?

Psalm 22:1-15

This psalm of lament, so well know because Jesus’ quotes it, according to Mark’s Passion narrative, is cast in two parts. Our text today holds the first complaint, interspersed with words of hope, and fond remembrance of a former time of the Lord’s closeness. Like the reading from Job, this psalm speaks of darkness and longing for God’s presence. The tone is one of desperation; the psalmist has become pitifully poor in the sense that there is nowhere else to turn but God, and God cannot be found. The text illustrates that the Israelites were not above trying to shame or cajole God into acting. Desperate, dramatic pleas were not beyond the pale in attempts to evoke a compassionate response from the Lord.

Because the psalms were written to be sung in the Temple, lamenting God’s absence and publicly voicing feelings of desperation which accompany spiritual darkness had a place in the Israelite religious imagination. Might there be a place for such ritualized expression in our contemporary church? Most faithful believers pass through times of dryness, feeling nothing but longing, frustration, and an emptiness of soul. Are such people given sufficient pastoral support? We are encouraged, of course, to have a strong, warm personal relationship with God and we hear plenty of testimony from those who experience this. But this psalm, like the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, speak to the reality of those who suffer in the dark and wonder why God remains silent.

How might we be more pastorally supportive of those who experiencing times of spiritual darkness?

Hebrews 4:12-16

Our reading from Hebrews today covers a transition in the text– from a final statement about the power of God’s word to an exhortation that we should be confident in approaching God because Jesus, our brother, who sympathizes with us (verse 15), has passed through the heavens to be with God. The humanity of Jesus is underscored once again, but in the context of his exalted divinity. Most significantly, the author teaches that we have an advocate and an understanding ear in Jesus, although he is in a realm far removed from us. And we are invited to move forward toward him – an image which will become prominent in the remainder of the epistle. Hebrews has an engaging way of holding the paradox of Jesus’ humanity and divinity. Using vivid imagery of Jesus ascending through the numerous heavens (a reflection of the Israelite belief of the time), he remains connected to us, in solidarity with us, attentive to our hopes and concerns, despite his role as heavenly high priest. The author also emphasizes Jesus’ role as the Son of God (verse 14). This implies special access that a child has to a parent, and invites one to ponder and imagine the mercy, compassion and patience that a child can draw from his/her parents, for one’s self and for others. These few verses lead us toward such an imagining, and a sense of confidence that God, through Jesus, invites us to share in the closeness that he, our brother, enjoys.

Is there a particular phrase or image from this passage that resonates with you?

How does this text nourish your image of Jesus as a brother?

Mark 10:17-31

Many of Jesus’ teachings speak of the paradoxical way to the kingdom of God –something must be lost in order for the kingdom to be gained. Here Jesus speaks of losing wealth and even family in order to gain. The wisdom of Jesus, and the paradox of Christian faith, is that one must make downward journey, not one of ascent. The wisdom of the world teaches the opposite – we will find happiness in the gain of wealth, power, notoriety, perfection (in work, in family, in social status, in looks, in one’s spouse/partner). But Jesus often speaks about losing, taking a different path that only leads to shedding things, embracing a spirit of poverty (which sometimes might mean actual financial poverty). It is hard to preach and model such ideas in our culture today; most people don’t want to hear it. But there comes a point in life, if one is fortunate, when we begin to see the truth in what Jesus is saying, that there is little wisdom and grace to be gained in success, especially as one enters midlife; that authentic transformation and growth comes from failure, from giving up, from letting go of expectations we set for ourselves, from letting go of control, and letting God’s wisdom lead the way. It is only then that Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel becomes good news, when we are willing to let God do something unexpected, make what seems impossible and paradoxical possible (cf v. 31).

Discuss Jesus’ call to a path of descent, of letting go, of giving up. What does this mean for the Christian of the twenty-first century?

Bible Study: 19 Pentecost, Proper 22 (B) – Oct. 7, 2012

Discussion Leader: Brian Pinter, General Theological Seminary

“The Pharisees said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce his wife.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.’” (Mark 10:4-5)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Job 1:1, 2:1-10 and Psalm 26 (or Genesis 2:18-24 and Psalm 8); Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

Job 1:1; 2:1-10

It has been said that the Book of Job is where the Bible runs off a cliff! The text probes the mystery of suffering, but ultimately yields no satisfactory answer. The great contribution of Job lies in its realistic assessment of the explanations that traditional theology often provides for suffering. Those traditions held that the recipient deserves suffering, that God wills it, that there is always a reason. This masterpiece of literature is in touch with a deep reality of the human experience – that sometimes suffering is inexplicable.

In our passage today, let’s focus on the response of Job’s wife. “Do you persist in your integrity? Curse God and die” (Job 2:9). We anticipate that Job would say this, but he does not. In fact, we are in only the second chapter of the book and God has already been vindicated in his exchange with the Satan – Job does not curse God, just as God predicted. Job’s wife, however, has something to teach us. When faced with this tragedy that she cannot understand, she becomes angry and rages. This is an easy route to take; such feelings come to all us quite naturally. Job, however, does not follow her. Instead, he chooses to make the journey into his woundedness, wrestling with his hurt, wrestling with God, spending those days and nights in the ashes, facing the stark reality of his pain. Job, like Jesus, teaches us that we must be willing to enter into the dark mystery of suffering and our deepest wounds if we are to see them be transformed.

Discuss Job’s response to his suffering vis-à-vis that of his wife.

How might a journey into our deepest wounds and hurts allow God to transform them into something sacred and life giving?

Psalm 8

This psalm presents a paradox – the same Creator who made things as wondrous as the moon and stars cares deeply about human beings. Carefully echoing the theology, themes and vocabulary of Genesis Chapter 1, this psalm underscores the juxtaposition of God’s majesty with human insignificance. The psalmist also wonders at the beauty and diversity of creation, while exhibiting a keen awareness of the relationship humanity has with other creatures. Like Genesis 1, the psalmist evokes the idea of “dominion” – “You give him mastery over the works of your hands; you put all things under his feet” to describe the place of humanity in the created order – a concept that implies stewardship, care and concern. This psalm links the theme of human beings crowned with honor and glory with our responsibility to other creatures. As those made in the image and likeness of God, we are to act as the image and likeness of God (i.e., as God’s viceroys). This requires a attitude of stewardship, protection and attentiveness on our part, not exploitation, marginalization or abuse of the created order.

Why did the psalmist link the idea of humanity having “mastery” over creation with the Lord’s name as being “glorious over all the earth” (v. 10)? What are the implications of this for Christian living?

Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

The Epistle to the Hebrews is not really a letter but more of an extended sermon that seeks to make three points:  Jesus is the word of God; Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross atones for sin; Jesus has special insight into the heavenly world of God (The Collegeville Bible Commentary, p. 1249). In these opening verses, Jesus is recognized as the fullness of God’s communication, and the author of the epistle establishes a very “high” understanding of Jesus by noting Jesus’ heavenly seat, and superiority to the angels. For some time in Christian contemplation of Jesus, there has been a great emphasis on what is called “high Christology”, i.e., Jesus’ divine attributes. In more recent years, Jesus scholarship has reoriented the focus toward his humanity. Today’s text reminds us to remain aware of both: Jesus did indeed serve as the fullness of God’s communication to humanity, and in human form; but there is also the mystical, unknowable dimension of Jesus that is his divinity. This is a paradox to be contemplated.

The remaining verses are an interpretation of Jesus in light of Psalm 8. In Chapter One of Hebrews, Jesus was extolled because he is the son of God; here because he is a human being. We see quite clearly how the ancient writer is using the psalm to serve interpretative ends. The psalm is cast as a reference to Jesus, not humanity as a whole. But Jesus does stand in solidarity with human beings during the time when he was made “lower than the angels” (v. 9) because he shared the experience of death and because we all share the same Creator parent (v. 11). Even though Jesus is now enthroned in heavenly glory, he is still our brother (v.11).

How do we, as Christians, understand Jesus as the definitive word of God in the context of our post-modern, pluralistic society?

How do you interpret and contemplate the paradox that Jesus, the divine Messiah now gloriously enthroned in heaven is our “brother” who shares our humanity?

Mark 10:2-16

In the culture of Jesus, marriage was not primarily a joining of two people, but two families. And the ideal marriage partner was a man’s father’s brother’s daughter. Cousin marriages were and to some extent still remain the norm in Middle Eastern culture. A divorce then was a major family trauma, involving dynamics of honor and shame. Perhaps Jesus saw the pain and even violence that could result from rent families, and is here exhorting his audience to avoid such circumstances. The church has not taken Jesus’ teaching literally. In fact, this is one of a few direct, unambiguous teaching of Jesus that we do not follow. (Another, for example, is Jesus instruction not to swear oaths, see Matthew 5:33-37.) Contemporary pastoral theology views Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel as an ideal, but we accept that it is an ideal that will not always be reached, and we act with compassion toward those who divorce.

Jesus also teaches that one must become like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven. Some have interpreted this passage to mean that Jesus is saying that we must become simple in mind and obedient as children are. An alternative, more mature way of seeing this text is to recognize that children accept every moment with a sense of joy, wonder, innocence and trust in the goodness of life. They are deeply present in the moment, free from anxiety about the future, holding no regret about the past, basking in the peace and contentment of the moment. Perhaps Jesus is inviting his audience to a similar way of embracing the world – the place where his Father’s kingdom is to come.

How do you interpret Jesus’ teaching regarding divorce?

Discuss Jesus’ instruction that one must receive the kingdom of God like a child. What does this mean for a mature adult of the modern church?

Bible Study: 18 Pentecost, Proper 21 (B) – Sept. 30, 2012

Discussion Leader: Brian Pinter, General Theological Seminary

“Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” (Mark 9:50)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 and Psalm 124 (or Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 and Psalm 19:7-14); James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

Today’s reading from the book of Numbers interweaves three themes – the peoples’ frustration with their situation of wandering in the desert with little to eat, Moses’ frustration with the heavy responsibilities he has been given, and the independence of the prophetic office from priestly control. The vacillation of both the Israelites and Moses in their trust in God’s guidance and protection is a matter that has received a great deal of reflection. In much preaching and catechesis, both Moses and the people are held up as negative examples, portraits of divided hearts, lacking in trust. (Jesus, in turn, is characterized as the model of faithfulness, as opposed to the unfaithful Israel.) But it might be helpful to allow ourselves to identify for a moment with both the people and Moses. Are there not times when we shake our fists at God, asking, “Why have you done this?” or “Why have you placed this burden upon me?” One who is spiritually mature inevitably passes through such times. Like Moses, we might bring these feelings of grievance to God, admitting our hurt, and allowing for the possibility that God will respond.

The final section of this reading deals with the gift of prophecy. The “elders” represent institutional leadership. Some of these leaders are given the gift of prophecy, but not all. Two other men, Eldad and Medad, were also given the gift of prophecy and were exercising it outside the leadership’s control. Moses, in an act of great wisdom, approves, wishing that all of God’s people might be so blessed with this gift. This passage is a warning to all who occupy positions of leadership in institutional churches – the Spirit will blow where she wills; the Spirit cannot and will not be confined to institutions and their leaders. Don’t try to obstruct her!

Have you had an experience analogous to the ancient Israelites,  a time that compelled you to complain to God, questioning God’s ways and plans? How did you navigate this spiritual crisis?

Do you see modern examples of the gift of prophecy being exercised beyond the confines of institutional religion? Conversely, do you see examples of institutions trying to muzzle prophets?

Psalm 19:7-14

The Law, the themes of these verses of Psalm 19, was seen by the Israelites as a gift of God. Because God loved them so, God taught them how to live harmonious and holy lives through the giving of the Law. But God’s Law was more than the 613 precepts of the Torah. It also included the wisdom of God. The books of the Wisdom canon, which include Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, the Canticle, Wisdom, and Sirach, were reflections upon God’s teaching revealed in the everyday ebb and flow of life. When discerned, these “laws” led to the “good life” – peace, justice, genuine neighborliness.

The psalmist extols the Law in a way that implies more than literal observance of its precepts. The gaining of wisdom is also underscored (verse 7), and the happiness one gains through living the spirit of the Law is sweet (verse 10). Verse 11 speaks of a great reward. Contemporary Christians might be inclined to view this in a simplistic, reward/punishment matrix: the reward will come in the form of admission to heaven. But at this point in Israelite religion, belief in an afterlife was not a part of the religious imagination. If reward were to come at all, it would be in this life. And the prize for following the laws of Wisdom would be fullness of life here and now.

How do you understand the concept of God’s Law? Is it more than written decrees? Does it include the teaching of Wisdom discerned through everyday living? How might we integrate those two conceptions of law – written decrees and Wisdom teaching?

How do you interpret verse 11 – “in keeping them there is great reward”? Do you view the reward as a deferred dividend we receive in heaven, or as the fullness of life here and now? What implications, good and bad, might these two different interpretations have as we seek to live as disciples today?

James 5:13-20

These are the closing verses of the letter of James, a text attributed to Jesus’ brother, written possibly as early as 60 CE. James exhorts his readers to integrate their faith into every aspect of their lives, and resist faith being reduced to the acceptance of theory and ideas.

The author’s final thoughts deal with prayer and ritual. Notice James’ instruction to call for the elders to pray over the sick, using oil in the name of the Lord. This ritual most certainly was a forerunner of the sacrament of anointing. We also note James’ teaching that we should confess our sins to one another – a possible prototype of sacramental confession. What is most significant is that James commends prayer and ritual. One could easily argue that the ill should pray directly, and only to the Lord for healing, and confess sins only to God. James recognizes the need for human contact through ritualized gestures/actions, things that are rapidly disappearing from our contemporary western culture.

James concludes by underscoring his major theme – faith in action. Christians, in James’ teaching, must do more than hear the word. They must act. The author’s reference to death in verse 20 does not refer to physical death or damnation in the afterlife, but rather separation from the community. Faith in action, then, is faith that works for the building up and preservation of the community. Although individual members of a community might be sinners, the good work to maintain the unity of the group serves to counteract, to “cover a multitude of sins” (v. 20).

Why are ritual prayers and gestures important in the practice of Christian faith?

When have such rituals been especially significant in your experience?

Mark 9:38-50

This gospel text has the potential to raise serious questions for our Christian communities; questions that most likely will not have clear answers. After echoing the teaching and example of Moses as we studied earlier (i.e., that the work of God/the Spirit will not always be under institutional control – or not under the immediate control of Jesus and his disciples, in this context), Jesus employs a common ancient literary device to teach another point: the body metaphor. The body was often used to symbolize the community. (See also 1 Cor. 12.) Jesus is here addressing the issue of scandal – if a member of the community is leading others astray, that member should be removed, before the whole body is damaged. Jesus’ language here is strong. His concluding proverb about salt is not innocuous. Salt was used in the ancient Near East as a catalyst to start fires. He is telling his audience to be confrontational at times. Verse 50 could be interpreted to mean that troublemakers should be confronted so that the community can have peace. In the context of our modern church communities, we struggle to find a balance between protecting the integrity of the community and being compassionate toward the wayward, and we must also be aware of those who would abuse Jesus teaching about dealing with scandalous members.

How are we to address the issue of “scandal” in our church communities?

How might we be “salt,” as Jesus instructs, but still be compassionate toward others?

Bible Study: 17 Pentecost, Proper 20 (B) – Sept. 23, 2012

Discussion Leader: Paula Toland, Episcopal Divinity School

“He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’” (Mark 9:35)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Proverbs 31:10-31 and Psalm 1 (or Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22 or Jeremiah 11:18-20 and Psalm 54); James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

Proverbs 31:10-31

This, to me, is a challenging passage. It is difficult to look beyond the immediate visceral reaction to the patriarchal assumptions about a woman’s life and worth being connected to her husband – thus the description of the “capable wife.” These assumptions would have been expected and accepted when Proverbs was written. And we know that passages such as these continue to be used to relegate women around the world to second-class status. As difficult as it may be, I urge you to look further, to read more deeply, because this passage says much about the woman’s independence, her strength, her skills, and her ability to execute life-giving choices for herself, her family, and the poor and needy. Although vulnerable in the society, she is clothed in strength and dignity and is recognized for speaking with wisdom and kindness. As I read this passage more deeply, I imaging the “capable wife” in conversation with the Lord she fears, letting God know that she making the best use of the gifts God has given her while holding society’s assumptions and expectations lightly, as she “laughs at the time to come” when God’s vision will be the reality for all.

Do you find it possible or valuable to dig deeper into those biblical passages that challenge your theology and worldview, perhaps especially with those passages that have been used to silence your voice? Are you able to focus on the wisdom or a vision of God’s kingdom that enables you to hold the challenging bits lightly?

Where in your life are you challenged to look beyond what you first see to what is underneath? Is it with a particular person or group of people? Is it with a particular theology, worldview, or political stance? Are you able to see anything positive with a deeper look?

Psalm 1

Psalm 1 tells us that those who depend on God will be fruitful. When we make God’s will the focus of our lives, that pivotal center from which we derive our strength and abilities, we will prosper. When we allow human will – “the counsel of the wicked” or “the way of sinners” or a “scornful” attitude – to become the source of our values and actions, we lose our ability to live righteously, to live in accordance with God’s will. We become estranged from God. This estrangement leads to the kind of deep unhappiness that can be characterized as despair or hopelessness. As Christians, we understand that God’s will, God’s desire for life-giving relationship with us, is transformative, leading to hopefulness and joy. With hopefulness and joy we are able to live into the unique gifts that God gives to each of us in ways that are fruitful and allow us to prosper God’s kingdom.

Where are the places in your life where you consider yourself less than fruitful? Are those places in which you find it more difficult to follow God’s will?

What would it take to let go of human will and desires and allow God’s will to become the focus of that part of your life?

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

James’ epistle continues the theme of dependence on God in all that we are and do. James extends the ideas of God’s will and wisdom beyond the individual to relationships in community. In much the same way that reliance on human will leads to estrangement from God and despair and hopelessness for the person, reliance on “earthly, unspiritual, devilish” wisdom leads to discord in the community. We are rendered unable to live peaceably with each other because we are focused on the ways in which we feel slighted or deprived. When we are focused in this way we cannot see all that God has given us and is doing in and through us. We no longer consider ourselves blessed to be created in God’s image, as each of us is, and crave those things that are not born of the pure love that is God’s love for God’s creation. We lose sight of ourselves as God’s own. We lose our ability to ask of God what is God’s will for us and become vulnerable to wickedness and sin. James tells us to submit ourselves to God, to be vulnerable to the full experience of God’s will in our lives, because in that vulnerability we will experience God’s grace and mercy.

If you think about the places of discord and conflict in your life, are those places in which you feel you have been slighted or deprived somehow? Are those places in which you feel vulnerable to another person?

Where are the places in your life in which it is easier to experience or recognize God’s grace and mercy? Would you say that in those places you have allowed yourself to be vulnerable to God?

Is there a place that you would like to be more vulnerable, to draw nearer to God so that you might know God’s presence more fully in your life?

Mark 9:30-37

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples what it is like to be vulnerable. Jesus talks about his willingness to be vulnerable to the wickedness of the humanity that will crucify him because of his willingness to be vulnerable to the pure love of God, to the full experience of God’s grace and mercy. The disciples are confused, they argue amongst themselves about who is greatest, completely missing the point of Jesus’ message. They want to be recognized as great in human terms when the real gift is to be recognized as one of God’s own on God’s terms. In an example that might be confusing to those of us who live in a society and culture in which children are loved and nurtured, Jesus holds up the example of a child as the epitome of righteous vulnerability. In Jesus’ time a child would have been barely noticed and certainly would not have been a priority recipient of the community’s resources, because a child had little or no economic value, and even less voice. Jesus is telling the disciples and us that God sees us fully in our vulnerability. When we acknowledge that about ourselves and each other, we experience God’s presence more deeply in our lives.

Where are the places in your life in which you struggle to be seen and heard and recognized? Are those places in which you might feel differently about yourself and the world if you focused on welcoming yourself as a child before God?

Where are the places in your life in which you are better able to be vulnerable before God and are aware of the presence of God’s grace and mercy? What is it about those places that makes that possible? Is there something happening there that you might replicate in the places of struggle?

Bible Study: 16 Pentecost, Proper 19 (B) – Sept. 16, 2012

Discussion Leader: Jeannie BabbSewanee

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8:35-36)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Proverbs 1:20-33 and Psalm 19 or Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1 (or Isaiah 50:4-9a and Psalm 116:1-8); James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

Proverbs 1:20-33

In this poem, wisdom is personified as a female prophet preaching in the streets. Her message is not delivered behind closed doors or reserved for a king or other privileged person, but is offered publicly to all. Her message is thus portrayed as common sense, not special knowledge revealed only to a few. In fact, the voice of wisdom is so loud and so plain that whoever rejects her must do so consciously.

Sophia (wisdom personified) is more than a poetic device for instruction. She appears in Proverbs, the Wisdom of Solomon, and the gospels. Her resilience across time testifies to a following. In some traditions she was associated with the Holy Spirit. Some scholars claim Q 7:31-35 (reflected in Matthew 11:16-19 and Luke 7:31-35) presents Jesus and John the Baptizer as prophets of Sophia. By the second century, gnostic Christians considered Sophia part of the godhead.

The poem depicts wisdom laughing at those who fail to listen to instruction. The image of the panic-stricken person crying out in vain is powerful, perhaps reminding us of our own sense of frustration with friends who come crying for comfort and counsel after failing to heed sound advice. The mockery of the fallen is so harsh; it may be one reason we prefer to reduce Sophia to a metaphor rather than understanding her as God.

Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1

This passage is part of a larger protreptic discourse (a Greek form of didactic exhortation that promotes a certain philosophy or lifestyle) extoling the virtues of Sophia, God’s divine wisdom. The longer poem describes her as the breath of divine power that penetrates and pervades the entire world. The use of words like “emanation” in verse 25 sounds gnostic, but the influence may run the other direction. The Wisdom of Solomon was likely written before the end of the first century; the rise of Gnosticism (or its divergence with what we now call orthodox Christianity) is generally dated to the early second century.

Today’s lectionary selection is a little easier for Trinitarians to accept than the full poem, since this piece describes wisdom as a reflection of God’s goodness, entering “all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle” to make them prophets and friends of God. In this passage, wisdom can be understood as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, entering humans to make them holy.

James 3:1-12

In an era of sound bites, YouTube, and gaffes gone viral, James’ admonition to guard the tongue is more relevant than ever. A word spoken can never be retrieved. Careers have been ruined, political elections have been lost, and churches have been divided over poorly chosen words. Someone has said that in politics “I misspoke” is really a euphemism for “Oops, I said something people actually understood.” But often religious and secular leaders alike regret words that could have been more carefully chosen, or that take on new meaning when removed from their context.

Note that James draws a direct contradiction between blessing God and cursing those made in God’s image. Anyone can speak pious words to and about God; our true nature is revealed not in how we talk about God but in how we treat our neighbors.

While James urges perfection, he acknowledges that everyone does make mistakes, especially when choosing words. Words have great power, for good as well as for ill. He suggests that taming one’s tongue is an avenue to discipline in other areas of life.

In a society that looks to pills and products for quick fixes, what disciplines do we still engage? How might one practice taming the tongue?

Mark 8:27-38

I have always loved this passage, because it reveals the spectrum of humanity and divinity in Jesus. His first concern sounds so human, but quickly progress to the divine and the eschatological. “What do people think about me?” he wants to know. “What are they saying?” Most of us want to know, or perhaps are afraid to know, what people think of us. Those who proclaim they do not care what others think betray their past hurt, revealing just how much they do care. Although Jesus uses the question as a jumping off point for a discussion, one can almost hear a very human note of insecurity.

When his disciples answer in positive terms – that people think he is Elijah or John the Baptist or a prophet – Jesus moves in closer with the question, “Who do you say that I am?” This is the crux of the passage; not merely Peter’s confession that Jesus is the messiah, but the immediate description of what it means to be the messiah, coupled with the startling rebuke demonstrating how important this understanding is. Jesus will be the messiah that suffers; Jesus has come as a martyr, not as a victor. The verses that follow prepare the disciples for the reality that they, too, must be willing to suffer and die. The stark reversals that follow (die to live, lose to gain) would serve to galvanize the young church as it faced persecution.

These passages were written down by believers for whom the call to “take up their cross” was literal. Following Christ was a sure way to be ostracized socially, at the least, and might very well lead to actual martyrdom. Consider what it meant, in that culture, to be unashamed of Christ. Consider also how the phrase is used in popular culture today, in a land where Christianity is the dominant religion. How has the connotation changed over time? For example, how might a first-century Christian react to a chain-post on Facebook admonishing users to re-post a photo of Christ with a declaration of being unashamed of Jesus?