Archives for April 2014

Bible Study: 5 Easter (A)

May 18, 2014

Christine HavensSeminary of the Southwest

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Acts 7:55-60Psalm 31:1-5, 15-161 Peter 2:2-10John 14:1-14

Acts 7:55-60

For the Fifth Sunday of Easter, we hear or read the five verses that are the culmination of Stephen’s ministry and his life. Luke’s description is shocking and disturbing, and amazing, especially when read within the entirety of Stephen’s story. Take a few moments to read it all, starting with Acts 6:1 and continuing through 8:3. How does this change your understanding of Stephen’s death?

How does it change your understanding of Paul? According to Luke Timothy Johnson, in his “Sacra Pagina” series commentary on Acts (Liturgical Press, 1992), the witnesses’ laying of their cloaks at Saul’s feet indicates their “recognition of Paul as a leader of those opposed to Stephen” (p. 140). Verse 8:1 says, “And Saul approved of their killing him.”

“But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.” All I can imagine here is of a group of men putting their fingers in their ears and vehemently going, “la-la-la-la-la-la,” as people – not just children – do when they want to make it clear that they do not want to hear the words, when they do not want the ideas getting through. This gesture is comical at best and annoyingly childish at worst. For Stephen, it signaled his death.

At what times in your life have you done this, either physically or metaphorically? What effect might it have had on your hearing what the Spirit is trying to say to you? What effect might it have had on those who were trying to speak to you?

Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

A pair of jugglers with fake French accents, were always my favorite performers at a Renaissance festival near Pittsburgh. One was the tall, smart straight man, and the other was the goofy, short jokester. At one point in the routine, the straight man uses an analogy that goes right over the jokester’s head; the jokester goes for the literal interpretation. This annoys the straight man, who explains that it was a metaphor, to which the jokester replies, “I never met a phor I didn’t like.” I laughed at the corny joke the first time, the tenth time, and still chuckle at the memory of it. Obviously, it still enters my head when encountering metaphors within a text, as in today’s psalm. Metaphors allow for such expression in human narrative, both through humor and through seriousness.

What are the metaphors in these verses from the psalm? Reflect on each one, and take a few minutes to draw a picture of each. How do you, as a Christian living in the 21st century, relate to God through these metaphors? Which speaks to you personally? Why?

What metaphor or metaphors do you prefer for your relationship with God? Why?

1 Peter 2:2-10

“Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

What words come to mind when you attempt to describe a stone? Is “living” the first? The second? How far down the list? What is your list? Hard? Cold? Smooth? Rough?

How do we, as biological creatures, fit into Peter’s metaphor of living stones? What does it mean to be a “living stone”? How are we to imitate Christ, who is the living cornerstone of our faith, in this way? How can we be built into a spiritual house?

As you consider how to respond, keep these ideas in mind. According to Donald P. Senior, in the “Sacra Pagina” series commentary on Peter (Liturgical Press, 2003), lithos (Greek for “stone”) may mean a common stone, but more frequently connotes “a dressed or specially cut stone suitable for building.” In addition, the Greek word oikos not only translates as “house,” but also as “household”; in other words, the people within the house.

John 14:1-14

How do we feel when we say farewell to a friend, or when he or she says farewell to us? Someone with whom you have been living in close community for say, two or three years? How do you feel with the realization that you will not hear this person’s voice on a daily basis any longer, nor will his or her simple physical presence have a place in your daily routine? Is this not what the disciples felt? Can’t you hear it as the disciples ask their questions? “What will we do without you here?”

“Serve God, love me, and mend,
This is not the end,
Live un-bruised, we are friends”

These are lyrics from a popular Mumford & Sons song, “Sigh No More,” which embodies well today’s gospel lesson, echoing Jesus’ response to the anguish of his disciples.

Today we experience part of Jesus’ farewell to the disciples; all that it means for Peter, Philip, Thomas and the others – and for Christians today. Scholars and theologians have long debated the meaning of Jesus’ words, such as “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” and whether John’s work teaches “realized eschatology” (the end has come in the person of Jesus) or “future eschatology” (the end will come at a future time). Both are important theological concepts; however, as I prepare to graduate from a community so important in my life and spiritual growth, it is the saying of farewell between teacher and disciples, between friends, that calls out to me from this reading. The end is now and not now, as we all move into the future.

What calls out to you in today’s gospel? How do you, as a Christian, find hope and celebration in endings?

Bible Study: 4 Easter (A)

May 11, 2014

Charlotte LaForestBerkeley Divinity School at Yale

“So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.’” (John 10:7)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Acts 2:42-47Psalm 231 Peter 2:19-25John 10:1-10

Acts 1:42-47

Have you ever imagined what it would have been like to be a member of the church in its foundational stages, as described here in the Book of Acts? The stories you would hear would not be ones that had been handed down across millennia, but they would be stories told by people who had actually been with Jesus, seen the miracles, heard his voice. The church wasn’t an institution yet; it didn’t have its liturgies or doctrine figured out. There were no dioceses or deaneries holding together groups of people. It was something much more basic: People were in awe of the risen Christ and the miracles worked in his name, and they felt drawn to gather together in celebration of this.

Have you ever experienced this awe because of Christ and wanted to share this experience with other people?

Now before we allow our imaginations to run wistfully wild, imagining how much better it must have been in the early church, let’s take a moment to imagine some of these gatherings. I mentioned that there were no liturgies or doctrines figured out. That may seem freeing, but it also means there was a lot to argue about! These were still opinionated human beings coming together at these gatherings. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation used in the Episcopal lectionary says they “devoted themselves” to teaching and fellowship, but I actually like other translations better that say they “persevered in” teaching and fellowship, because I think it acknowledges that this was work. But the joy of the risen Lord was present among them and helped them persevere.

How can the joy of Christ permeate and transform your life and your community?

Psalm 23

We encounter a familiar psalm in this morning’s readings. I would wager that even if you never memorized scripture verses in Sunday school, many of you will have bits of this psalm rumbling around somewhere in your memory. We generally think of it as a comforting psalm – green pastures, still waters, dwelling in the Lord’s house – and we imagine ourselves in the position of the speaker in the psalm. But have you ever noticed how much is demanded of us if we do so? Just as soon as we settle into our sunny patch of grass, we’re hoisted up to walk along the water. We make our way onto pathways, which lead us through a terrifying valley, just to end up at a table with people we’d rather avoid.

Have you ever felt angry or frustrated when it seemed you were being forced out of a place of comfort into somewhere new and frightening?

But we’re not alone through any of it. The gentle shepherd is with us in the peaceful meadow and the dark valley, sitting next to us at the table, and eventually welcoming us into his home.

1 Peter 2:19-25

This is a difficult passage of scripture, one that has been used to justify and glorify suffering. Yet this view is in direct conflict with the words of this morning’s gospel reading: “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). How is it possible to reconcile encouragement to suffer with abundant life?

If you look at this passage in its context in 1 Peter, you’ll see that the lectionary has actually removed the first verse of the passage, v. 18, which indicates that this passage is specifically addressed to servants and slaves. This is not a general appeal to all Christians that they should suffer, but a specific address to those who already find themselves in circumstances of extreme suffering. Thus, it is a reminder that God is with them in their suffering and a call to remain faithful despite their circumstances, not an instruction to seek out more suffering for themselves.

The passage reminds those who are suffering that Christ also suffered and died for their sins, reminds them that they have already been welcomed back into the fold under the care of the shepherd.

Does awareness of Christ’s suffering provide solace in our times of suffering? How does a call to alleviate the suffering of others fit with this perspective?

John 10:1-10

There is yet another shepherd in the gospel reading for today, one who enters by the gate and calls his sheep by name. The metaphor may seem clear in the first section of the text: Jesus is the shepherd who knows and tends to his sheep. But Jesus does not make that parallel in the passage before us. Jesus does identify himself as the Good Shepherd in verse 11, but our text stops at verse 10, leaving us with the identification: “I am the gate for the sheep.” This requires us to suspend our automatic connection between Jesus and the shepherd to consider how Jesus might be the gate.

How might you understand Jesus to be the gate in this passage?

We are not the first to ask this question, and numerous theories and approaches exist. One common interpretation is the idea of Jesus as the gate to salvation. For me, the most powerful meaning of Jesus as the gate is in connection with his will for all to have abundant life. Jesus as the gate stands between us and the thieves and bandits who would kill and destroy. But Jesus as the gate takes the full force of this threat, creating a safe pasture in which we might attain abundant life.

Bible Study: 3 Easter (A)

May 4, 2014

Susan Butterworth, Episcopal Divinity School

“When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.” (Luke 24:30-31)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Acts 2:14a,36-41; Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

Acts 2:14a, 36-41

This passage, which appears in Acts 2 after the people in Jerusalem have witnessed the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in the speaking of many languages, is the beginning of Peter’s teaching on Pentecost. Peter has explained that scripture, properly understood, foretells that Jesus is the Messiah, whom God has raised from the dead. Repentance is one of the central themes of the Book of Acts. Peter teaches that repentance followed by baptism is the path to the gift of the Holy Spirit. Another essential theme of the Book of Acts is the expansion of the church from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and eventually throughout the Roman Empire. The passage ends with the beginning of that expansion, as 3,000 persons in Jerusalem are baptized.

Repentance, baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit are linked in this passage. Repentance can be defined as turning away from what one has been and done, a renewal. Look at the renewal of baptismal vows found in the Book of Common Prayer. How can the intentional renewal of baptismal vows remind you of the gift of the Holy Spirit within you?

Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17

This psalm of thanksgiving speaks of God’s saving response to the psalmist’s call for help. The psalmist promises to give public witness to God’s salvation. In verse 13 – “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his servants” – the word “precious” should be read in the sense of “costly.” The death of those who are devoted to God is a serious matter. For the Christian, the psalm’s celebration of deliverance from death takes on a new meaning. The images of death and supplication in verses 2 and 3 foretell the suffering of Christ. Salvation and freedom from the bonds of death can then be read as references to Christ’s resurrection.

Imagine that this psalm was a part of Peter’s “many other arguments” in Acts 2:40. How might Peter have used this psalm, familiar to the Jewish pilgrims present in Jerusalem at the Pentecost, to teach how traditional scriptures can be understood as foretelling who Jesus is and how people should respond to him?

1 Peter 1:17-23

These verses of 1 Peter, Chapter 1, are sometimes referred to as “the charge to the baptized.” Peter addresses a church in exile, a community whose status is shaky in the Roman Empire, and alludes to biblical Israel’s exile in Babylon. The community is to live in reverence and faith, knowledge and hope of salvation through Christ’s sacrifice, in obedience to the truth, and in love for one another. This behavior is the only possible response to understanding the gospel’s call to baptism and life in Christ, for “you have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.”

Consider Peter’s instructions for living a faithful life in exile. How do these instructions apply to living a spiritual life in a secular world? Which of these instructions do you find easiest to follow? Which most difficult?

Peter states that we have been born anew through the living and enduring word of God. Some of the meanings of the word of God might be: the spoken word of God that has the power to create, as in Genesis; the word made flesh through the incarnation of God as Jesus; the Bible itself as word of God.

What does the word of God mean to you? Is the word primarily one of the ideas above, or a combination of more than one, or something else?

Luke 24:13-35

This passage, the meeting on the road to Emmaus followed by the supper at Emmaus, is among the most beloved passages in the gospels. The passage describes one of the early resurrection appearances of Jesus after the discovery of the empty tomb. It is a passage of great joy and hope.

The followers of Jesus are deep in gloom and unaware of the salvation that is right around the corner. Jesus walks with them but does not reveal his identity right away; he teaches them the meaning of scripture and then breaks bread with them. Only then do they recognize him and proclaim, “The Lord has risen indeed!”

The meeting on the road is such a beautiful metaphor for what might happen when we meet a stranger on our own journey, a stranger who is able to open our eyes to the grace that we have not imagined or been able to see. The passage is also a beautiful metaphor for what happens during the Eucharist. The service of Holy Eucharist is a walk with Christ. We come from the dusty road of our weekday lives. We greet each other and walk together in community for a time. The scripture is opened to us in the ministry of the word. Then the mystical moment comes when we break the consecrated bread and realize that we are in the presence of the risen Christ. Finally we go out, strengthened and ready to be faithful witnesses.

The empty tomb might represent your own discouraged heart. When a moment of grace appears, you may be so lost in your despair that you may not recognize it right away. Can you think of a time when a stranger appeared who was able to walk with you and help open your eyes to grace?

“Be known to us, Lord Jesus, in the breaking of the bread.” What do the words of this antiphon mean to you in your personal devotions? What do they mean in the context of this passage from Luke? What do they mean in the context of worshiping in community?

Bible Study: 2 Easter (A)

April 27, 2014

Jordan Trumble, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’” (John 20:27)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Acts 2:14a,22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

Acts 2:14a, 22-32

This lesson from Acts is a portion of Peter’s speech to early followers of Jesus and echoes the words of Psalm 16, making use of a prophecy/fulfillment motif. Just as the psalmist David wrote of resurrection, Jesus is an example of that promise being fulfilled. But the words and story of David, used by Peter to preach to the Israelites, also remind us that there is a great cloud of faithful witnesses who have gone before us, embodying faithfulness and speaking to the power of God and God’s plans for us. As we journey along, discerning God’s plan for us and movement in our own lives, we can look not only to God but also to this cloud of witnesses for examples of faithfulness that can help shape our faith lives.

This passage reminds us that God has a plan for each of us, but how do you understand the idea of God having a plan for your life? Is this a passive event that will unfold before you, or does it require action from you? And what can you do in your daily life to actively participate in God’s plan for you?

Psalm 16

In Psalm 16, we hear the hopeful words and praise of the psalmist, “I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand I shall not fall” (v. 8), words that are echoed in today’s reading from Acts. And like the reading from 1 Peter that preaches resurrection in spite of trials, we are reminded that God is faithful, accompanying us on our journey, promising life and resurrection with these words: “For you will not abandon me to the grave, nor let your holy one see the Pit” (v. 10). The psalmist embodies a deeply attentive and abiding faith, providing a model for both his original audience and our modern communities.

The psalmist writes, “I will bless the Lord who gives me counsel; my heart teaches me, night after night” (v.7). What does it mean for you to listen to God and listen for God’s counsel? What practices in your life help you hear God’s voice? And if you do not have any of those practices, what ways could you incorporate them into your routine?

1 Peter 1:3-9

Few things in life follow a clear either/or dichotomy, and today’s epistle reminds us of just that. In this opening reading from 1 Peter, we encounter the good news of the risen Christ, but are also made aware that the community receiving this epistle is one that is enduring trials.

As we celebrate Christ’s resurrection today in 2014, we, too, are in the midst of trials or are witnessing trials, whether in our personal lives or in the world outside our doors. Yet despite trials, whether those trials are feuds with family and friends, career woes, natural disasters, or international conflict, we also are living with the resurrected Christ. We are not an either/or people; we are a both/and people. We are living not with either trials or the good news of resurrection, but we are living both with trials and this hope. Easter happened, but only after the pain of Good Friday; the tomb was discovered empty, but only because those mourning Jesus went to visit.

In the midst of trials, how can you be attentive to the resurrection and new life surrounding you?

For the rest of the season of Easter, the time when we celebrate the resurrection of Christ, challenge yourself to take a few moments each day to notice something hopeful, some form of new life or resurrection.

John 20:19-31

Theologian Paul Tillich once wrote that doubt is not the opposite of faith but is, rather, an element of faith. When we read today’s gospel lesson, though, it sounds like Jesus and Paul Tillich might disagree. Today we hear the story of Thomas, often called “Doubting Thomas,” the disciple who, when told of the resurrection of Christ, said he wouldn’t believe until his hands had touched the marks in Jesus’ hands and side, and we hear the admonishment from Jesus that those who believe without seeing will be blessed.

Yet, when we read this story and shake our heads at Doubting Thomas, we are quick to forget that Thomas isn’t the only disciple who needed to see to believe; rather, each of the other disciples had already had the opportunity to see! What is striking about this passage is the unwillingness to believe the witness of the other disciples who had first seen.

This passage reminds us that, although we may not be able to physically see Jesus, we are still able to witness to Christ and that it is this witness that enables us to both see Jesus and to show Jesus to others.

How do you understand the relationship of doubt with your own personal faith? Do you have space for doubt within your life of faith or are the two mutually exclusive?

How can you, in your daily life, show people Jesus?