Archives for April 2013

Bible Study: 7 Easter (C)

May 12, 2013

Steven King, Virginia Theological Seminary

“The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:22-23)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Acts 16:16-34; Psalm 97; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17:20-26

Acts 16:16-34

Immediately upon reading this story from the book of Acts, I am struck by the language of the apostles in this story. The apostles encounter a woman who is in a sort of trance-like state and speak to the spirit that is in her, commanding it to come out of her. They are then accused of upsetting Roman society and customs and disturbing the city. This sounds a lot like Jesus’ ministry, doesn’t it? Those who have been commissioned by Christ to go out and make disciples are now taking on the very things Jesus did – even speaking to spirits! We, too, as followers of Christ are given the commission to follow Christ and spread the Good News to the world. We may not be able to speak to spirits, but we certainly have our own gifts that can help draw others to God.

What are your spiritual gifts? How can you use them to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ?

What are the things that enhance and hinder you in doing this?

Psalm 97

This psalm is full of grand and spectacular language for God. “His lightnings light up the world. … The mountains melt like wax before the Lord” (v. 4-5). These incredible images for God and God’s power are awe inspiring. They are hard to even imagine. And yet, the most incredible aspect of all of these images is that God still knows each of us individually and loves us. Yes, God is all powerful and ruler of both heaven and earth, even mountains fall down before the Lord. And, also, God knows us personally and loves us incomprehensibly. Let us all rejoice in this love!

How do you experience both the power and the love of God?

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

The book of Revelation was addressed to seven churches throughout Asia Minor as they faced persecution for their faith. It can be read as encouragement in the faith and to rest in the Lord, who is both the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega. Verse 17 reads, “Let everyone who is thirsty come.”

This is the last Sunday of Easter, and as we move into the season of Pentecost, let us remember that Christ has defeated death and raised us to new life with him. My prayer is that in the season of Pentecost, even when it becomes difficult in the face of evil and suffering, I will draw on the power of the Risen Lord to not only know more fully the source of the Living Water but also to draw all who are thirsty to that source.

What practices or prayers sustain you in your faith journey?

What do you hold onto in the face of evil and/or suffering that helps you remember the power of the Resurrected Christ?

John 17:20-26

There are many striking portions of this passage. First, Jesus prays to the Father on behalf of the disciples. And not only that, Jesus prays that those who believe in him may be one. In this prayer, Jesus asks that we all be one in order that the world might know him and know that God loves them. This is a powerful call. It seems like a daunting task to unify all to God, but the fact of the matter is that we can all work toward this. We do this work because in Christ, God has first loved us, and in drawing all to each other and God we can further show that love to a world in need of it.

What work can we do to unite us all to each other and God?

How can this unifying work show God’s love to the world?

Bible Study: 6 Easter (C)

May 5, 2013

Josh Hosler, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29

Acts 16:9-15

My wife and I once enjoyed a relaxing weekend in Port Townsend, Washington. As we roamed the town, we came upon an outdoor yard sale at the house of four young adults who lived together. The next thing we knew, we were playing croquet with them; we stayed for several hours! Had we not had a hotel room to return to, we might have woken the next morning on their couch. To this day, I hold these young people up as a model of hospitality to which I still aspire.

How open is your home? Have you ever made an instant connection with someone, of the kind that might lead to such hospitality? Lydia of Thyatira had just such an experience that day by the river when she met Paul and his companions. She could have listened with interest and then moved on, grateful for the momentary food for thought. But instead, she was inspired to open her home to them and feed them back. Through this show of hospitality, Lydia opened herself to receive God’s hospitality as well.

As a dealer in purple dye, which was only used by the well to do, Lydia no doubt had ample resources to share with her new friends. Perhaps your home isn’t amenable to such a possibility. What are some other ways you can be ready to stretch your comfort level and extend hospitality to the stranger God places in your path?

Psalm 67

Lately I’ve been reading the Bible to my 7-year-old daughter at bedtime. Occasionally we’ll come across the word “awesome,” and she’ll laugh at what seems to her a colloquial expression. Even I, in my youth, was distracted in church by the word “awesome,” a word my friends and I used to refer to just about anything we liked.

I have tried to explain to my daughter that the kind of “awe” we hear of in the Bible is a bit like fear, a bit like amazement, and a bit like gratitude. In today’s psalm, we pray, “May all the ends of the earth stand in awe of him.” In a secular world in which people are as likely to chalk positive occurrences up to luck, karma or science as to God, it’s easy to forget what that “awesome” feeling is like.

Yet I think we have all felt it. We may have felt it while standing under a huge sky full of stars, or while on a boat in the middle of the ocean, or at the top of a canyon. We may have experienced it at the birth of our child, or when much-needed money appeared just in time, or when we have fallen in love. As people of faith, we credit God as the originator of all good gifts. This week, keep an eye out for those things in your life that are truly “awesome.”

Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

One morning when I was about 12 years old, I woke from the most amazing dream of my life. Inspired by C. S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia,” I dreamed I had died, along with my entire family, and that I found myself in a beautiful, sunny land with green, rolling hills. All my friends were there, and new friends as well. My brother and some other boys were playing together, had a disagreement, and got into a fight. But they found that their blows did nothing to harm each other, so they shrugged and stopped fighting. The great lion Aslan was there, too: he divided us into groups and had us sit down on the grass to eat together. We reached into our pockets and drew out as much food as we wanted. There were games and fun, and there were deep, important conversations. Above all, there was a growing realization that this was forever: that we would never have to be parted or miss anybody ever again, and that death was only a memory.

This dream felt like a promise, and it has sustained me ever since. I think this passage from the Revelation to John is intended to be a promise as well. In John’s vision, the very cosmos is changed: not only is there no need of a temple, but there is not even need of the moon or sun, for light pervades everything. There is no more war or fighting, for the very leaves of the trees are able to heal broken nations. The tree of life, which God prevented Adam and Eve from touching when he banished them from the garden, is now available to everyone. A river waters everything all around; perhaps it flows with the waters of baptism. In this place, we are all marked and sealed on our foreheads as God’s own forever. Today, rest in this promise and know that it is for you, too.

John 14:23-29

“Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” These words are common on the lips of Jesus and of angels throughout the Bible: “Be not afraid.” But why on earth not? Am I not allowed to own my feelings? Life is terribly uncertain, and I have plenty to be afraid of! Jesus, would you deny me this honest experience?

Yet here is peace – peace of a kind the world does not and cannot give. Do you know what it is like, this peace that passes understanding? We may be tempted to wonder, “How can I attain this peace?” However, Jesus assures us that this peace is already in our possession. Perhaps the problem is in denying it is there.

The key seems to be keeping Jesus’ word. What does that mean? In the course of John’s gospel, it means following the new commandment that we “love one another” as Christ has loved us. When we live in love and for love, our actions unlock the very peace that we were not able to see in our fearfulness. “Perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). So which will you do first today: stop fearing, or start loving? Whichever you choose, Jesus tells us that one naturally leads to the other.

Bible Study: 5 Easter (C)

April 28, 2013

Susan Butterworth, Episcopal Divinity School

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

Acts 11:1-18

The Acts of the Apostles depicts Jesus’ early followers as observant Jews and the beginnings of the church as rooted within Judaism, yet is concerned with the expansion of the church from those origins to a movement spread throughout the Roman Empire.

In the first part of today’s passage, verses 1-3, Peter’s fellow apostles and the Jewish believers in Jesus (the circumcised believers) confront Peter as he returns to Jerusalem from baptizing the Roman centurion Cornelius in Caesarea. They demand an explanation for why he has broken the Jewish law by entering a gentile house and eating unclean food.

In verses 4-17, Peter repeats the events of Chapter 10, a device that Luke uses for emphasis. As Peter explains the vision in which God has informed him emphatically and repeatedly that what God had cleansed he was not to regard as unclean, he affirms the point that the Holy Spirit had directed the conversion of the gentiles by recounting a simultaneous vision on Cornelius’ part that he should send to Joppa for Peter. When Peter arrives at the house, he begins to proclaim the gospel, but the Holy Spirit falls upon Cornelius’ household just as it had upon the Apostles on the day of Pentecost. Peter remembers God’s words and gifts on that day, and understands that it is God’s will that the gentiles be saved.

In the final verse, 18, the Apostles and Jewish believers are silenced. They too understand that the gentiles have been given salvation through belief in Jesus, and praise God.

The passage is pivotal in the spread of the gospel from the Jewish followers to the wider world of the gentile Roman Empire. It also makes the distinction between baptism by water, a human act, and baptism by the Holy Spirit, an act of God.

What are some of the differences and similarities between water baptism and spirit baptism? Which comes first? Is one more public than another?

Even though the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles at Pentecost, they are slow to understand God’s purpose and command that the gospel be preached to everyone. Not all of the Apostles come to this understanding at the same time. Can you think of other examples of times, either in the Bible or in your own experience, when understanding God’s call comes as a process as well as a specific moment of enlightenment?

Psalm 148

Psalm 148 is a hymn of praise. A cast of all the created are called upon to praise God the creator of all the universe. In verses 1-6, the inhabitants of the heavens are exhorted to praise their creator. In verses 7-14, the elements of the earth are called to praise God’s glory. God is the exalted and splendid creator of heaven and earth, and the children of Israel, his loyal servants, are especially near to him.

Today’s passage from Acts ends with the Apostles praising God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).

What parts of Psalm 148 might the Apostles have included in their praise? Try writing some additional verses that the Apostles might have prayed in an extemporaneous outpouring of praise in response to Peter’s explanation of events in Acts 11:1-18.

Revelation 21:1-6

This passage describes the revelation of heavenly Jerusalem. A revelation or apocalypse is generally a first-person narrative in which the writer relates one or more visions about the future and/or the heavenly world. The writer of the Revelation to John is both an oral prophet in the tradition of Daniel, Ezekiel and Isaiah, and a scribe whose written words claim the authority of coming directly from God, the one who was seated on the throne.

In the Revelation to John, particularly in today’s passage, we have an example of Christian visionary literature built on the foundations of Jewish apocalypses. The image of the divine throne and the precise layout of the heavenly city contain echoes of Ezekiel 1 and Ezekiel 40-42, while the new heaven and a new earth and the absence of weeping and crying are echoes of Isaiah 65.

Indeed, even the reference to the holy city Jerusalem supports an essentially Jewish frame of reference. References to the testimony of Jesus Christ and the seven churches of Asia suggest that the writer was a Christian prophet of Jewish origin. His historical context may have included both the destruction and loss of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E., and persecution of the Jewish followers of Jesus. Some of the text of the Revelation to John is built on graphic images of destruction. Yet the text as a whole is a glorious act of worship, telling a story of God’s enduring presence in the salvation offered by Jesus Christ. The vision ends on a note of hope and faith.

The beautiful language of the King James version of this passage contains the words: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, And there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain, for the former things are passed away.” Meditate on this poetry for a few moments. What do these words mean for you? How might you use them in a pastoral context?

John 13:31-35

This passage introduces what is commonly called the “farewell discourse,” in which Jesus announces his impending death to his disciplines and offers both comfort and instructions for how they should behave when he is gone.

In verses 31-33, he emphasizes glorification: the enduring and mystical relationship between the Son and God the father. He calls the disciples “little children,” highlighting his oneness with the Father. At the same time, this term of endearment expresses his love for them. Here he turns to two additional themes of his ministry: the commandment to love one another and the Father’s presence in the disciples. “You will look for me,” he says, possibly to tell them of new ways in which they will find him after his departure.

He refers to the Jews, in contrast to his disciples, the Jewish followers of Jesus, and emphasizes how his own followers shall be known: by their love for him, which mirrors his love for them. It is essential that the community of followers of Jesus demonstrate God’s love as a shining light for the world to see.

Glorification can mean either giving praise or the manifestation of that which is worthy of praise. Read verses 31 and 32 carefully. The words “glorify” and “glorified” appear five times. What does Jesus mean by the word? Does the word “now” change or clarify Jesus’ meaning?

This passage contains the famous words: “I give you a new commandment.” What is new about the commandment to love one another? What is radically new about the way that God has shown his love for us in Jesus? What does it mean to be a disciple under this new commandment?

Bible Study: 4 Easter (C)

April 21, 2013

Will Prosser, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

Acts 9:36-43

Although this passage appears to be about individuals, it is about community. While the focus may, on the surface, appear to be on Peter, that misses the depth of the story. Peter willingly comes to the city from which Jonah left on his mission to the gentiles of Nineveh in order to give Tabitha her life back. As Richard Pervo points out in “Acts: A Commentary” (Fortress Press, 2008), this is not a resurrection in the manner that Jesus experiences, for Tabitha is restored to her old life, not a new one. However, Peter’s actions affect the whole community, not merely Tabitha.

Before entering the room, the widows, the poor and needy of the community, show Peter the sustenance that Tabitha provided them. Once in the room, he sends everyone out, and after he prays, Peter turns to Tabitha. Pervo notes that the verb used here for “turn,” epistréfei, is the same word used for “conversion.” After Peter reveals the newly risen Tabitha to the community, there are many who believe and are converted.

This is a story of responsibilities expected of believers in the world of a resurrected Jesus. Tabitha’s rising is a harbinger of things to come. In this way, Peter brings the Good News of the resurrected Christ to the community in Joppa.

This story also reminds us that everyone should be privy to this news. Tabitha’s name is given in both Aramaic and Greek, for this story was probably meant for both audiences, and Peter, in the last verse, resides with a tanner. A tanner is someone who works with the blood and offal of animals, and as Robert Wall notes in “The New Interpreter’s Bible” (Abingdon Press, 2002), this would most definitely be considered unclean for those following Jewish law. This is no longer a message for certain individuals or communities. We are meant to bring the gospel to everyone.

What are some ways in which we can show the gospel, rather than just telling of it to different communities?

What is Christian responsibility, and how do you attempt to fulfill it?

Psalm 23

This is one of the most beloved psalms in Christianity and Judaism, and often even those who are not of those faiths know of this psalm, which begins “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” While this is a psalm of comfort that we will often whip out for funerals, this is by no means a depiction of an idyllic reality. The person who wrote this psalm is not untroubled because there is no darkness, but because the Lord is present with him in the darkness. The writer is untroubled because he has faith in his shepherd in the darkness.

However, we must honestly wrestle with the sixth verse when the writer claims that goodness and mercy will follow him always. The analysis of this psalm in “Feasting on the Word,” (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) informs us that the Hebrew verb for “follow” can also mean “to pursue”; so the verse could be saying that no matter what choices the writer makes, the goodness and mercy of his host’s, the Lord’s, table will pursue him.

How would you articulate your faith? What kind of psalm would you write?

Revelation 7:9-17

This vision from the Apocalypse of John shows our reward. Just as the crowds greeted Jesus with palm branches upon his entrance into Jerusalem, he is praised with palm branches in his victory in heaven. In “The New Interpreter’s Bible” (Abingdon Press, 1998), Christopher Rowland points out the irony that in the Gospel of John, the Pharisees complain that the whole world followed after Jesus, and that is certainly what we see here.

Of course, one of the great paradoxes of the early Christian church is how robes can be made white by pouring scarlet blood on them. I think that this is symbolism of the life of Jesus. There is no rational understanding of how God could be both God and a human, but it happened. And there is no rational understanding of how one man’s sacrifice and resurrection would give eternal life to the world, but it happened. If these things happened, then why couldn’t robes be washed in blood and be made white? However, to gain that promise, to reach the life when God will wipe away all tears and abolish hunger and thirst, we must come through “the great ordeal” that represents our lives.

How do you feel about this vision? Are there things that make you uncomfortable? What are the things that give you hope?

How would you bring this hope to others?

John 10:22-30

In her analysis of this text in “The New Interpreter’s Bible” (Abingdon Press, 1996), Gail O’Day brings up an important point of clarification: The Jews in this story refers to the Jewish religious establishment. Likely, the majority of people involved in this story were Jewish. And this reading is the only time in the Gospel of John when Jesus is asked directly if he is the Messiah. The Samaritan woman questions Jesus’ possible identity as the Messiah, and Martha proclaims that Jesus is, but this is the only time in this gospel when Jesus is asked directly.

Notice, however, that Jesus does not claim in his answer that he is the Messiah, for his answer shows that he is much more than just the anointed one. Instead, as Ernst Haenchen explains in “John 2” (Fortress Press, 1984), Jesus goes on to discuss the nature of his relationship with God, how he and God are unified in purpose and goal. This is how Jesus and God are “one.”

Much in the same way that “goodness and mercy” will always pursue the writer of Psalm 23, Jesus says that his sheep will never be snatched out of his hand. The resurrected Christ gives us the blessing of eternal life, and once it is given, we can never lose it.

What do you do with this confidence? How does it appear in your life and church?

How would you instill this confidence into your community?