Archives for March 2013

Bible Study: 3 Easter (C)

April 14, 2013

Chelsea Page-CollongeEpiscopal Divinity School

“Jesus said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’” (John 21:17)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20); Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

Acts 9:1-20

The blended character of the early Christian church, as a movement of both Jews and gentiles that challenged religious and social distinctions of the day, owes its existence not only to Jesus’ inclusive teachings, but largely to the work of a person who never met Jesus. The story of Saul of Tarsus in the Acts of the Apostles reveals that the risen and ascended Christ intimately touched Paul and concretely transformed his life, from one organized around death and repression to one organized around creativity and new life.

This is the same and only Christ we ourselves can know, as followers of Jesus who never met him in the flesh. This account in Acts is remarkable for its transformation not only of Paul’s hatred of the Christian movement, but also Ananias’ fear of Paul, his community’s oppressor (verse 13). This courageous act mediates God’s forgiveness and restores Paul’s ability to function, healing his despair and completing his conversion (verse 9, verses 18-19). Jesus acts in our lives as a divine vision of restored relationship, and acts to restore our human vision, our ability to see others. The living Christ reaches out to touch us to demand that we reach out to one another.

Who has acted as God’s agent of change and healing in your life?

Have you ever received a call from God that knocked you flat, or seen that happen to someone else?

Psalm 30

Psalm 30 declares that our purpose for existing is to praise God, so much so that the psalmist implies that God will sustain his life only for that purpose (verse 10). While affirming that God listens for our cries of need, this psalm portrays God as having a special ear for our songs of thanks and praise.

The lived experience of people who suffer from injustice, such as the Hebrews in exile, is that sometimes God seems absent (verse 8). Our God does not intervene in suffering by exercising unilateral, top-down power over the way human communities treat each other. Rather, God listens for our assertions of the glory for which we are created, which challenge the suffering created by human-made structures of injustice. To steadfastly declare God’s faithfulness and remember God’s justice is to cling to a vision of a better world, of how things could and should be.

When does your heart sing to God? Has this ever happened during a time of hardship, or only in hindsight?

Can you think of examples of people clinging to God’s goodness during oppression and thereby holding open a space for justice to be won?

Revelation 5:11-14

In Chapters 4 and 5 of the book of Revelation, John of Patmos paints a vision, rich in political symbols, of God seated on a throne, surrounded by 24 elders and four creatures that Christian tradition now associates with the four gospel writers. They are then approached by a slaughtered yet living lamb, representing Jesus. Before the Lamb’s appearance on the scene, John despaired that no one in heaven or earth would be able to open the seven-sealed scroll. But now that Jesus has appeared to read the tremendous divine message, every one in heaven and earth is able to participate in joyous communication with God (verse 13).

Their praise directed to “the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb” sees God and Jesus as two figures, yet our affirmation that Jesus and God are one affirms that the throne and the cross are one. Despite the triumphalist tone of the book of Revelation, John was critiquing the Roman Empire’s concept of enthroned might by placing suffering, humility and abjection at the heart of God’s power.

What comes to your mind as you contemplate the image of Jesus as a slaughtered lamb?

John 21:1-19

In this last resurrection account of the Gospel of John, a group of the disciples have gone back to their old way of life, practicing their trade and readjusting to normal life. Jesus comes to them as a stranger, disrupting their self-reliance and nourishing them with his own abundant provision, evocative of the time he inspired strangers to multiply and share their loaves and fishes. This image of the risen Lord of the universe cooking a humble campfire breakfast on the beach is surely one of the most appealing images of the resurrected Christ.

After breakfast, Jesus gives Peter the opportunity to undo his three-fold denial of Christ during the Passion, by soliciting a three-fold affirmation of Peter’s love (verse 17). At the same time, Jesus makes clear that Peter’s restored relationship with him is also a command to provide and care for others, to once again leave his nets of self-reliance and follow Christ into selfless participation in community.

How do you experience God both challenging and nurturing you during this Easter season?

Bible Study: 2 Easter (C)

April 7, 2013

Alan Cowart, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Jesus said to Thomas, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’” (John 20:29)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 118:14-29 or Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

Acts 5:27-32

The chief priests are trying to silence the apostles’ preaching and the growing movement of Christ’s followers. The apostles have suddenly and miraculously been liberated from prison by an angel of God (Acts 5:17-26). Now they stand once again before the priests, who don’t get it. “We gave you strict orders … yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching,” the high priest says (5:28).

The teaching of God is not a stoppable thing. It does not listen to human voices. It moves out in spite of any attempts to stop it. The apostles can’t avoid speaking about it.

The difference between the apostles of Acts and the disciples of the gospels is a different kind of encounter with Christ. Resurrection has to change you. It is not static. In each experience of the resurrected, risen Christ, there is a change. There is a movement outward. We move from death into life; from life into victory; from hope into certainty.

From what have you been freed?

What have you been freed to do?

Psalm 118:14-29

Reading this psalm, we recall the words we recite every Sunday and also what Jesus heard upon entering Jerusalem: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (118: 25-26). Jesus came to his ultimate victory through the avenue of death, yet entered Jerusalem through the prayers and songs of the people.

It is right, in this time of resurrection, to remember that what has been done is not just a moment of history.

This is the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes.
On this day the Lord has acted;
we will rejoice and be glad in it (118:23, 24)

Today is the day of our victory. Today, God reigns and we can put down our arms and our struggles. We can give thanks to God not only because of the victory, but because of God’s goodness, and because “his mercy endures for ever” (118:29). We can celebrate because God has not only seen us through, but has carried us. Again and again we are rescued.

And again, there is movement. We move from resting “in the tents of the righteous” (118:15) to a festal procession for the glory of God. We shout, “Hosanna!” because of God’s righteousness, because of God’s victory. And because of that victory – through that victory – we “shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord” (118:17). Hallelujah!

Where can you rest today in something God has already done?

Where in your life can you look for a victory from God?

How will you celebrate?

Revelation 1:4-8

Even though there are authorship questions concerning the Revelation to John, we can’t help but think about the opening lines of the similarly named gospel, which talks about Jesus’ existence before creation. Jesus was both before and after the world, and was both before and after the Incarnation of God-in-Christ. Jesus, having been raised from the dead, is both before and after our own lifetimes – the Alpha and Omega.

We remember, with John, the faithful witness who is and was and is to come. There is an ultimate vision of Jesus yet to be revealed. Like the “this day” in today’s psalm (118:24), Jesus of the Revelation is of all time. The victory Christ brings over life and death in his resurrection is just a taste of the ultimate-ness of this person we claim to follow, of this God who sent his Son. And yet the person of Christ is the same, the one who is and the one who was and the one who is to come. That is the meaning of “almighty.”

How might we act differently because God has freed us?

What difference does it make that Jesus is “coming with the clouds” (1:7)?

John 20:19-31

There is a transformation in those who encounter Jesus. In this case the disciples (originally from the Greek for “pupil”) are transformed into apostles, not only having seen the risen Christ, but also “sent out” (from which we get “apostle”). Belief is different from fear.

The disciples have just buried Jesus a few days earlier, or rather, they likely hid as others buried Jesus. Hours earlier, they heard from Mary Magdelene that Jesus was gone, risen. There was confusion, fear and probably not a little unbelief and doubt.

And then, there he is. This is a different version of resurrection. Jesus is there. No one mistakes him for the gardener (John 20:15). He is with the same followers who ran away earlier. Jesus comes to them. Jesus wants to restore the relationship.

This is an amazing thing. And then it happens again! This time, Thomas is with the others. We put a lot of our own doubt onto Thomas. But it is important to remember that he does not doubt here. He questions someone else’s claim, but in his encounter with Jesus, he believes. Thomas moves toward belief and proclaims the truth about Christ. This is what an encounter with the risen Christ does: It takes us from doubt to belief to proclamation.

How does your faith proceed out of you?

Where is God relentlessly showing up in your life?

What doors do you lock to keep God out?

Bible Study: Easter Day (C)

March 31, 2013

Susan Sevier, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” (Luke 24:5)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:

Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24;  Acts 10:34-43John 20:1-18

Isaiah 65:17-25

Our four readings from the lectionary for this Easter Day carry throughout the themes of victory, joy, gratitude and responsibility – all important lessons on this day when we celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord, and the passage from Isaiah sets the tone for the day. The reading comes from what is often labeled the Third Book of Isaiah (Chapters 56-66) and is roughly placed in the early period after the return of some of the exiled Israelites from Babylon, probably during the first century of the rule of Persia in the land of Israel. Nothing on the ground is as they expected it; and yet the writer of Isaiah paints a glorious picture of the new Jerusalem that will be.

One interesting quality of this text is the ways in which it draws on pre-Exilic traditions. For example, in verse 17, when the author quotes God, saying, “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth,” the Hebrew word for “create” (barah) is the same that is used in Genesis 1; in fact the same as the very first word of the Bible itself. The author could have used other words, such as “made” (asah), for example. Why was this an important word choice and what does it mean to start the description of this new world in Isaiah 65 just as the story of creation begins?

Everything about the Isaiah passage resonates with our Christian view of the Kingdom of Heaven, and in practice, much of the writing of Isaiah is often claimed as a foretelling of the coming of Jesus, his ministry, his death and his resurrection. However, keeping in mind the context in which our passage was written, what universal emotions does this passage evoke? Hope? Joy? What else do you see here that might bring comfort to the afflicted?

Again, the writings of Isaiah are often used as prophetic tellings about the coming of Jesus. But this passage in particular doesn’t talk about the coming of a person, it describes the coming of a new world. Jerusalem is a character in our story. Why Jerusalem? Take a minute and compare this text to the writing in Revelation 22; the important cultural symbolism of the city of Jerusalem is clearly shared by both Judaism and the Christian faith that sprang from it. What influence does this sacred view of Jerusalem have on us in our own time?

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

Our psalter for the day contains one of those often-quoted texts, the kind that even people who do not regularly study the Bible know: “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (verse 24). The writer of Isaiah speaks the words of God, painting a beautiful picture of the new world to come through God’s grace and love, while the psalmist expresses the response of the receiver of that grace.

Psalm 118 is, in the liturgy of Passover, the last psalm sung. It is often called a song of deliverance (or thanksgiving), and in the days of the Temple was used as part of festival worship by the whole community on a day not unlike today in our own tradition. While the lectionary removes the verses recounting the troubles of the psalmist before their deliverance (verses 2-13), even these recitations are in the past tense, not an immediate cry for help.

What specific ways did the Lord deliver our psalmist in Psalm 118? How do those saving acts relate back to the promises in the Isaiah passage?

Take a look at the text and see if you can find the “liturgical” elements in our psalm. Imagine the text sung or repeated during a procession. What parts might be said outside the gate? Does any part of the psalm look like a song that might be sung on its own, like a doxology? Why would we as a Christians read this psalm today as part of our Easter worship?

Acts 10:34-43

We have heard the glories of the coming kingdom in our Isaiah passage; we have offered our praise and thanksgiving with a psalm; and now, in Acts, we learn of our responsibility to bear witness to this message: “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” (verse 42).

Some Easter services begin with the pastor proclaiming to the crowd: “Christ is risen!” And the congregation knows that the response to that proclamation is, “Christ is risen, indeed!” What does Peter tell us in this passage about the story that we, as disciples, are here to proclaim? Who is to receive this message? Who is to proclaim it? What it important about the message itself? What elements of Jesus’ life and ministry does Peter list as the important parts of that message?

Peter delivered this sermon in the home of one named Cornelius, a gentile, not a Jew. Why is that important to Peter’s message? What does that importance have to say to us today?

John 20:1-18

In our reading from Isaiah, we hear the promises of glory and joy; in the psalm we offer praises and thanksgiving for the deliverance that will bring us to glory and joy; in Acts we learn of our responsibility to others as receivers of that deliverance, and finally, in our gospel lesson, we have an opportunity to live that moment of deliverance, in all its confusion and fear and beauty. This is the moment of metanoia, or turning, that brings each of us in our lives to the kind of discipleship that makes it possible to understand our joy, our gratitude and our responsibility.

John’s account of this moment is different from that encountered in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). In each, the figures present at this moment are different, but it always begins with the women. As much as we might like to take that for a feminist statement on the part of the authors, it is simply a cultural one – it was the job of the female relatives to perform the rituals at the burial site.

Mary finds the tomb’s stone removed (verse 1). What other story in John’s gospel includes a stone rolled away (11:38-41)? And what about the burial clothes in each story? What do we see when we read these stories together?

Why does Mary weep? What happens that lets Mary recognize the figures she sees outside the tomb?

Our passage is all about the kind of confusion that many of us feel as we reach for a life of discipleship. Can I believe what is before my eyes? Why do I weep when the message of the grace and love of the Kingdom of Heaven has been told to me again and again? What must happen in our own lives so that we might truly understand the meaning of this Easter Day?

Bible Study: Palm Sunday (C)

March 24, 2013

Ben Garren, Bexley Hall

“Jesus said to him, ‘Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?’” (Luke 22:48)

The Liturgy of the Word (RCL): Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56

Isaiah 50:4-9a

From the Exile in Babylon comes the voice of a teacher. The teacher is physically beaten, publicly humiliated and left on the ground to be cursed and spat upon. But the teacher is not a victim. These verses present abuse, they present oppression, but they do not present lament. These are verses of conviction.

In the face of abuse and oppression it is exceptionally appropriate to lament. It is in fact necessary for victims of oppression and abuse to recognize that they are the victims of such monstrosities, and cry out before the world and God. It is necessary to lament.

This teacher does not deny this but comes to those who lament, who are facing oppression and abuse, with a lesson: My oppressors and my abusers do not define who I am. The teacher is defined first and foremost by a relationship with God. All other relationships are secondary to this relationship. This means that the teacher can face oppression, abuse and humiliation but not be defined by them.

The teacher’s lesson can be a powerful question: “Do you define yourself first and foremost by your relationship with God?” The victim and the oppressor are both called to stop defining themselves by the relationship of abuse and start defining themselves and each other in relationship to God. This redefinition breaks down the cycle of abuse. It allows an individual to stand with conviction in the face of oppression. It stops a victim from seeking someone to abuse. It forces the oppressor to pause and consider the inherent value and dignity of the other.

Psalm 31:9-16

The poet who composed Psalm 31 presents an interesting juxtaposition. The lectionary focuses only one part of the poem, the middle. In these verses what is found is a person in strife calling out to God for deliverance. Before and after these verses, however, the poet is proclaiming not only a deep faith in God but also a life of joy in the midst of God’s grace. Unraveling this almost chaotic bit of scripture is a bit challenging.

At first glance one might want to put forward an obvious linear progression. An individual proclaims strong faith in God, is tested through abuse and pain yet maintains faith, thus God blesses the individual with prosperity. Yet this reading seems pastorally hollow. Suggesting that a lack of prosperity, that those who suffer abuse and pain, do so because they lack proper faith is reprehensible.

The core of this psalm is that God is in a true relationship with the poet and knowledge of that relationship creates a firm foundation that nothing can overcome. The poet does not deserve suffering, does not deserve abuse, and any abuse and suffering the world presents is naught in comparison to a relationship with God. The poet shares joys and sufferings but more than anything shares a deep surety that God is with us in the midst of both.

Philippians 2:5-11

Paul writes these words from a Roman prison. He is miserable, he is ready to die, he is struggling to find any reason to keep living. His faith in Jesus Christ does not give him a reason to live, in fact it is the sweet call of communion with Christ that prepares him for death. The reason Paul finds to keep living is his servanthood to the Christian community at Philippi. Paul’s servanthood it what sustains him, not his authority.

This is a leader giving up his leadership for servanthood, giving up power for humility, commanding the leaders of a Christian community to do the same. It is Paul reminding the leaders of the church that they do not have the authority of the Father; they have the servanthood of the Son. Paul speaks to the powerful and tells the powerful to become the lowest of the low, worthy of nothing more then the lowest of deaths.

Too often this passage has been used by those in power to maintain authority by forcing servant status on another. Taking on this authority, an authority that belongs to God alone, was exactly what Paul was speaking out against. This is not a passage about the need for Christian servants to remain docile; this is a passage to remind Christian authority that we are to be humble servants to all we meet.

Luke 22:14-23:56

After supper, Jesus has his final conversation with the disciples. He knows that in the next few days his friends, his brothers and sisters, will find their whole world turned upside down with his death. Christ tells them what type of people they are to become in the midst of the chaos, change and transformation that is to follow – the transformation we are asked to enter into in this Holy Week between Palm Sunday and Easter.

Jesus notes that the power and authority given to us as followers of Christ is not to be used to set ourselves above any one but used to be servants of those around us. Jesus includes that “the greatest among you must become like the youngest.” Jesus is calling the elders of the church to be interested foremost in the future, in what is coming next, in the lives, hopes and dreams of the youngest in the community. This is the opposite of a leadership that is interested in maintaining the status quo and forming a younger generation to replace them and perpetuate the elder’s authority.

He then goes on to tell the leaders to appear as thieves and warriors, but be neither. This is a rather confusing instruction but an important one. Jesus is telling them that all that is going to happen is not going to be what it appears to be. This becomes especially important as Jesus then alludes to Isaiah 53:10-12, and gives his followers a way to interpret his death. Jesus knows he is going to his death, but sees in the midst of his anguish a light, and finds some satisfaction in the knowledge of what his agony might bring for others. Jesus asks his followers to enter into this space with him and prepare the stage for what is to come; to allow themselves to be considered – but not to become – thieves and evil by the powers that be if that is what it takes to bring about the kingdom.

The last instructions of Jesus to his disciples are: to use their authority to serve others, not lord over others; to work for the future and the things to come and not attempt to maintain and perpetuate their own authority; and to be worried not about how society perceives you but to be true to Christ and God’s kingdom. These are instructions that the church will be well served never to forget.