Archives for December 2013

Bible Study: 1 Epiphany (A)

January 12, 2014

Christine HavensSeminary of the Southwest

“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” (Matthew 3:16)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 42:1-9Psalm 29Acts 10:34-43Matthew 3:13-17

Isaiah 42:1-9

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” Arguably, Juliet’s words about Romeo in the famous balcony scene from Shakespeare’s play are among the most frequently quoted in Western culture. She speaks aloud, unaware that he is below in the garden, listening. Juliet wonders why the man she loves must bear the name of the family with whom her family is in a blood feud; she reflects on the properties of names and their relationship to the things they represent. Not only do Shakespeare’s works exemplify the limitations of names and of language itself, but also our creaturely ability and freedom to play within those limits.

The poetry of Isaiah in today’s reading embodies this also, and serves to help Christians today ask Juliet’s question and then ask more questions: What is in a name? What is in God’s name? What is our relationship with God? What is in a word? What in a word prompts action? What in God’s Word prompts action?

Follow this link to Act II, Scene II of “Romeo and Juliet” and read lines 40-143. Then re-read Isaiah 42:1-9. What words stand out in both? What theological themes come to mind as you read each? Are the ideas of name and covenant connected in each piece? If so, how? Are names important? If so, how? How is this reflected in action, for example, in God’s actions? In the actions of Christians?

Psalm 29

Doxology. I love “logy” words, the “speaking of” words. These words, such as psychology, sociology, biology and even theology, abound in contemporary American language. James Luther Mays, in his commentary on the Psalms, states that “our tendency is to see the world as a complex to be explained and exploited.” We are so conscious of being, conscious of our world that often our “poetic and mythological vision is dimmed” (“Interpretation: A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching,” John Knox Press, 1994, p. 138).

The “ologies” attempt to be scientific and objective, and attempt to make ideas manageable. Perhaps these words are among the best examples of our creatureliness. This is why I particularly love “doxology,” which is the “speaking of praise” to God. This makes it the perfect word for Psalm 29; we use a word that is all about “the speaking of praise” to God in order to describe a song that is all about sound and voice; Qowl, the Hebrew word for voice, sound, noise, appears nine times within five of the song’s verses. And yet, this one word, with its quiet, lyrical sound, cannot contain the psalm.

Praise God whose powerful voice cannot be contained in a few words, but whose glory and action in our lives we yet can celebrate with our voices, our words.

Acts 10:34-43

In today’s reading, Peter asks, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (v. 47).

Luke’s relating of Peter’s experiences prior to this statement, from his vision of the clean and unclean on the sheet and his encounter with the gentile centurion, Cornelius, in Chapter 10, suggest that perhaps the apostle might be on the path to truly trusting in Jesus and in God, rather than in earthly things. We are all familiar with the Peter of the gospels, who is afraid, lacking trust, who denies not only Jesus’ assertions about what is to come in Jerusalem but also denies even knowing Christ. That Peter appears to have all but disappeared in this story. Though he is “puzzled” by the vision sent by God, he does not hesitate to obey the Spirit’s instructions when the Spirit says to go with Cornelius’ men.

Peter’s growing trust mirrors his growing understanding. His trust in God allows Peter to articulate his belief to those present, which translates itself into the action of baptism and sharing. Then he is able to articulate the same to those in Jerusalem who questioned his actions regarding the gentiles. They, in turn, trust this revelation through Peter, which leads to praise of God and to the forming of a community greater than any of the apostles thought possible.

What implications does trust or lack thereof have for Christian community?

Have there been times in your own life when you heard the Spirit’s words and trusted to act upon them? Have there been times when you have not trusted to act upon the Spirit’s words?

Matthew 3:13-17

Take a moment and read the part of Eucharistic Prayer C (Book of Common Prayer, p. 372), which asks for “deliverance from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.” How might this prayer be related to today’s gospel reading?

Jesus approaches John in order to be baptized, yet the gospel’s writer shows John as not recognizing the gift of service that he could provide to his cousin. How do we, as Christians, enact service? How do we enact our relationship with Jesus as God’s Son, “the Beloved”? How do we receive the gifts offered to us through the Spirit, whether they be in the form of friends, family or the offer of fulfilling our needs?

Bible Study: 2 Christmas (A)

January 5, 2014

Rod Clark, Seminary of the Southwest

“On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

Jeremiah 31:7-14 

The Old Testament reading for today is another in a series of promises that God delivers through his prophet, to the scattered people of Israel. Jeremiah has to be pleased with today’s selected reading. After all, he finally gets to relent from lamenting.

Jeremiah’s prophecy of hope for Israel stands in stark contrast to most of his other writings. He even lamented having to lament (20: 7-9).

So, Chapter 31 takes on special significance because it is a fulfilling of long desires on two levels. First, it is a promise that the people of Israel will be released from captivity and exile. Their journey home will be one without obstacles or want for comfort. Jeremiah tells them that God “will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble” (31:9). And they are promised to have cause for celebration and dance (31:13).

On another level, it fulfills Jeremiah’s desire, not only for Israel’s release from captivity, but the promise also of Israel’s repentance. And of course, there is Jeremiah’s desire to relent from lamenting. He finally gets to bring good news.

Have you experienced a time when you have had hopes and promises fulfilled? How might that fulfillment have been working in more ways than one?

Psalm 84

This psalm is a song of longing to be in the Holy City. The Temple is the spiritual home of all Israelites, and this psalm sings praises to it.

Psalm 84 is also a pilgrim song. It begins with words of longing to be in the House of the Lord. Throughout the text there are motifs of pilgrimage: a sparrow finding a home, highways to Zion within the hearts of the faithful, a specific reference to traveling through the valley of Baca. The theme of pilgrimage also reveals the double-entendre of verse 11. For “those who walk uprightly” can be both pilgrims going up to the Temple, as well as those who follow the Torah and lead a faithful and moral life.

Making pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem was not supposed to be a singular event in the life of faith. In fact, making sacrifice at the Temple was an important aspect of Jewish life. Where do you see pilgrimage in your daily/ordinary life?

How might you incorporate pilgrimage into your spiritual disciplines?

Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a 

Unlike some of the other letters attributed to Paul, it is not clear whether the letter to the Ephesians focuses in on a single community or was circulated among several communities. Instead of resolving differences or writing to specific issues, the letter to the Ephesians is general in its exhortation and teaching.

The major theme of the letter is the unity between Jews and gentiles within the church. And this unity is part of God’s vision for salvation. In His Kingdom, we are all heirs.

Today’s reading reminds us of this truth with words of adoption and inheritance. The unifying aspect of this kinship to the Father comes through Christ, and it was part of his purpose in creation. We were chosen before the formation of the world. Before there was free or slave, Greek or Jew, male or female, we were all one in Christ.

Soteriology (the study of salvation) comes in many flavors. One of which is “Universal Salvation.” In this form of soteriology, God saves all people, whether they are Christian, Muslim, Atheist or Buddhist. Some of the readings from the lectionary seem to support such a view of salvation. Yet there are other passages of scripture that seem to refute such a view. “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6) is one such passage. How can we hold the tension between texts of such variance?

How do you hope God’s salvation works?

Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

The gospel reading from Matthew continues our themes of unity, salvation and pilgrimage.

It seems that Jesus’ very being is already redemptive for those who were considered “outside.” His safety is assured by returning to the land in which the people of Israel were once enslaved. As a baby he made no conscious choice to go to Egypt, but God’s plan for salvation includes all of us – the Holy Family is already caught up in this redemptive movement of the Spirit.

Likewise, the departure of the wise men in today’s reading further develops the idea of unity in Christ. The wise men were not Jewish kings, they were gentiles. So, their visitation is significant, not only as a marker of God’s Kingdom and Christ’s reign, but it gives new meaning to “God’s chosen people.” So, the prophet’s words and God’s plan come to fruition in a chain of events.

We can also see how pilgrimage continues to be a part of God’s plan. Joseph, Mary and the Christ child have not been at home since the Incarnation project began. The family is forced to go on a long journey and is taken to a foreign country for safety. And just when things are looking as if they might settle down and the family can come home, Joseph has another dream. We know how the rest of the story goes, and it seems that Jesus’ ministry will mimic the nomadic reality of his childhood years: on the move, working out God’s plan of salvation for us all.

We often read about how Christ and his actions fulfilled scriptures or words spoken by the prophets. But how does Christ continue to fulfill the promise of salvation, resurrection and justice today? What other points of contact do you see between today’s gospel reading and the other selections from today’s lectionary? How are those points of contact significant to you in your current circumstance?

Bible Study: 1 Christmas (A)

December 29, 2013

Perry Mullins, Seminary of the Southwest

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147 or 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

This passage is made up of two poetic tracts written about Israel’s deliverance from exile. As a “finale” in the body of Isaiah’s prophecies, it focuses on Israel’s ultimate redemption and restoration as a nation that will once again stand “before all nations.”

The first part of the passage speaks to the salvation and righteousness that God characteristically gives to Israel. The prophecy says that God’s people are clothed with the garments of salvation and describes righteousness as a covering or an adornment. In this analogy, Israel is being acted upon – salvation and righteousness come upon them like clothing.

Isaiah also prophesies that righteousness will spring up from God’s people and grow, using an agricultural metaphor to describe how it will become a part of them and flow out from them to the nations.

The second part of the passage is about the vindication and redemption of Israel. God deeply desires to bring home the outcast and the exile. The “crown of beauty” that Isaiah describes is the vision of a redeemed Israel, through which God will bless the world. The gifts of righteousness and salvation that God gives to His people will bring redemption to all people.

Just as God saves Israel from exile, He characteristically redeems His people through the ages by saving them, teaching them righteousness, and blessing them, in order to be a blessing for the world.

Particularly in this season of Christmas, how has God clothed our communities with the “garments of salvation,” and adorned us with the “robe of righteousness”? What sorts of responsibilities come with God’s gifts?

Psalm 147

Psalm 147 is marked by calls to praise God, specifically pointing to His power and majesty as the Creator of the universe. Recalling the creation narrative in the first chapter of Genesis, it is clear that there is something amazing about God’s creation of humans who respond to their Creator. God simply speaks into being, and the world is – His command makes it so. But He also invites Adam to partner with Him in creation by giving names to the living things on the earth. This call and response of words between Creator and creation marks our relationship with God. He sends out His Word, and we respond.

Verse 16 of the psalm recalls God’s continuing power to act in the life of the world, as the psalmist declares, “He sends out his command to the earth, and his word runs very swiftly.” The psalmist is referring to God’s Word of salvation and re-creation, sent into the world in order to redeem God’s people, who are called to respond to God with words of praise. This psalm is that praise, looking forward to Israel’s redemption.

As we recall God’s redemption of the world through the Incarnate Word this Christmas season, it is important to remember our role by responding to God with praise.

How does your own creativity flow forth through words? How much power do your words have, and what is the result when you use them? Do they offer praise? How does God’s Word redeem the world around us?

Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

St. Paul wrote the Epistle to the Galatians to those who believed that gentile converts must be bound to the entirety of the Law. Paul’s strong and persuasive writing style makes clear that while the Law is important, God will save the world through His Son.

This portion of Chapter 3 begins with a difficult statement that “before faith came … the law was our disciplinarian.” It seems a stretch that Paul would suggest that the people of the Covenant, who were brought out of slavery in Egypt through the Red Sea, did not have faith in God. Instead, he explains that the law guarded faith until God revealed Himself among us. It is imperative that we remember the great importance of the Law throughout the salvation story, in the life of Jesus, and in what it still teaches us today. But Paul’s point is that it was not intended to save – only Jesus Christ does that. While the Law taught us God’s character, faith in Christ restores us as God’s beloved children. Paul is simply describing the unique way that God has brought salvation to the world through His immanent presence and action in His Son.

While the law played an important role in guarding faith, and is with us for our edification, Christ is now present with us for our salvation, and for the salvation of all who faithfully look to God as their Father.

How can we guard and reclaim the spirit of the Law in our Christian beliefs? How has God’s unique action in the Incarnation brought us to new faith? What does God’s spirit of Fatherhood show us about our relationship to Him?

John 1:1-18

The prologue to John’s gospel is arguably one of the most eloquent and beautiful pieces of poetry in the entire canon of scripture. Its use of the word logos, translated in English as, “Word,” repurposes an analogy used throughout Hebrew poetry to refer to the divine will and the revelation of God. The Word, in creation, is the expression of God through an ordered universe united with its creator. In redemption, according to John, the Word is the expression of God through Jesus Christ in order to reunite creation with Creator once again. It is by God’s Word that all things were created, and it is also by His Word that God continues to act in the world today, reconciling all things to Himself. John uses this deep truth as the basis for his gospel, that Jesus is the logos or Word of God, the revelation of God to the world, and the One by whom the world is reconciled to the Father. John begins and ends his poetic passage with the statement that God and His logos are united as one, in order to explain how the Son “gave power to become children of God.” Jesus became man in order to give mankind the ability to become children of God. This is the thesis of John’s gospel, and the whole prologue points to God’s desire, through Jesus Christ, to reunite creation with Himself.

Through the Incarnate Word, the eternal revelation of God in Christ, humanity is reconciled and restored to relationship as children of God.

What do you think John means when he uses the term logos as a name for Jesus? How does Jesus, by his birth to a human mother, give us power to be re-born as children of God?

Bible Study: 4 Advent (A)

December 22, 2013

Charlie Bauer, General Theological Seminary

“When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took Mary as his wife.” (Matthew 1:24)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

Isaiah 7:10-17

Our focus during the first three weeks of Advent has been the coming of Jesus and preparing ourselves for that occasion through reflection and repentance. Today, as we anticipate the birth of Christ, we must take this one step further: anticipating the coming of God, we must prepare a place within ourselves to receive the awaited God.

The Old Testament is full of characters who have been given intentionally meaningful names, but the most relevant of these to our Christian faith comes from this passage in Isaiah: “the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). We will hear this echoed by Matthew in the gospel passage, but the name Immanuel, “God is with us,” immediately grabs our Christ-centered attention.

Yet Isaiah is writing here in a historical setting, and while he does so in the context of prophesy, it is much more nearsighted than something as monumental as God dwelling on earth in human form. He writes in a period of war and turmoil. But in an allegorical sense, this passage perfectly describes the human condition. Humanity is in a figurative state of turmoil and rebellion against God, prompting God to come and be with us for our salvation. As Christians, we have a bit of difficulty relating to the essence of this passage – we know what happens hundreds of years after Isaiah wrote this text. Just as the people Isaiah was writing to many centuries ago, we also must find hope in this text.

How can you reconcile the literal and historical interpretations of this passage?

How can you, as today’s collect asks, prepare yourself so that God may “find in us a mansion prepared for himself” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 212)?

Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

“Restore us O God of Hosts, Show us the Light of your countenance and we shall be saved” (Psalm 80:3).

The above passage is so important to the writer of this psalm that it is repeated twice more, in verses 7 and 18. Continuing the theme of salvation in light of pain and unrest in Isaiah, the psalmist repeats this plea to God for relief.

Several verses of this psalm are directly addressed to God, essentially reminding God of part of the Abrahamic covenant: God promised a special relationship with God’s chosen people, and the psalm writer pleads with God to remember that promise. This reminder comes in the form of explaining the hardships and pain that God’s people are facing: “You have fed them with the bread of tears” (Psalm 80:5) and “our enemies laugh us to scorn” (Psalm 80:6). Essentially, the psalmist is being very blunt with God: If we are so special in your sight, why are we suffering so? “Restore us, O God of hosts,” to that special place of covenant between God and chosen people. We are those people. In the form of Jesus, God has indeed affirmed this covenant, but now we are the ones who must be reminded of that special relationship, and this holy season is the time for us to remember that promise.

Think of something you are struggling with in your life. How can you find the Light of Christ to help you with that struggle?

Imagine yourself as Mary (or Joseph), knowing that God will soon be entering the world through the child you are about to bear. How might this psalm speak to you?

Romans 1:1-7

Paul reflects in this text to what God “promised beforehand through his prophets” (Romans 1:2) – so there is little doubt that passages such as that in Isaiah are critical to the understanding of Jesus’ life and mission. What is new here, of course, is the understanding that Christ also calls for the inclusion of gentiles within the faith. This should not be entirely surprising in this specific context; in writing to the Romans, Paul would have expected an audience of gentiles and needed to make it clear from the beginning that they, too, have a part in this story.

In a sense, this is a major contrast to the theme for this day; rather than being inward-looking to find a place within ourselves for Christ, Paul reminds us that we also must be mindful that Christ was born and died for all. These are indeed comforting words: What is asked of us in the coming of Jesus is asked of us all, and we can all share in the reward that is to come.

What does Paul’s message of inclusiveness mean to you?

Matthew 1:18-25

The Gospel of Matthew begins with a long genealogy and other accounts to link Jesus to the God and prophesies of the Old Testament. And just to make the point perfectly clear, we receive a direct quotation – complete with a translation for the name “Emmanuel” – from Isaiah. The writer of this gospel is making a clear connection here – the God of Israel, of Moses and Abraham and Isaiah is not only the same God of our faith, but is the very God that came to be with us on earth. But the gospel here also tells us that this child – Immanuel, Jesus, the Messiah – comes by way of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that is the distinction between the understanding of Isaiah and of Matthew; and it is through that same Spirit that we can find God among us today.

How can we open ourselves to let the Holy Spirit work within us?

The birth of the Christ is almost here. Are you ready?