Archives for May 2014

Bible Study: 2 Pentecost, Proper 7 (A)

June 22, 2014

Jordan TrumbleBerkeley Divinity School at Yale

“I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother.” (Matthew 10:35)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

Genesis 21:8-21

It seems that every night on the news, there is some story involving religion, often a story involving religious intolerance or persecution by one group or another; these stories are a steady reminder that even if most of our friends and family are part of our own faith tradition, the world is filled with many who are part of myriad other religious traditions. This lesson from Genesis, in which we hear the story of Abraham’s slave Hagar and their son Ishmael who would go on to be a forefather of Islam, reminds us that the conflicts we read about in the newspapers and hear about on our evening news are not simply modern conflicts, but rather ancient conflicts. And so, when we consider difficult passages such as this one, we must remember that it is not just a moment in history we are reading about, but rather part of an ancient struggle that continues to this day.

Yet, despite how difficult this story can be when we consider its broader implications, it is also filled with hope, as God hears and responds to the cries of Hagar. Although she and her son were cast out by Abraham, God was listening and provided the wellspring that sustained Hagar and Ishmael.

In times of hardship, how do you interact with God? Do you call out to God in your pain, or do you quietly rest in your sorrow alone? The next time you are struggling or you feel as though God may be distant, remember Hagar, and consider setting aside a few extra minutes to talk through your hardships with God.

Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17

This week’s psalm reminds us that having a relationship with God cannot be limited to only petition or only praise, but rather must be a balance of these two acts. The psalmist’s petitions for God to “bow down,” “keep watch,” “be merciful” and “gladden the soul” are followed by the statement that “You, O Lord, are good and forgiving, and great is your love toward all who call upon you” (v. 5). This back-and-forth of petition and praise continues throughout the psalm and concludes, fittingly, with the statement that God has already acted, as the psalmist notes, “You, O Lord, have helped me and comforted me” (v. 17).

How do you understand the relationship between petition and praise? In your own prayer life, are petition and praise an either/or proposition for you, or do you understand them as a both/and entity?

This psalm wonderfully complements the reading from Genesis and, in a sense, seems to give voice to the cries of Hagar we read about earlier. As you are studying this week’s lessons, consider revisiting the Genesis text after studying this psalm and imagining Hagar’s situation as though the pleas from the psalmist are her words. By giving word to Hagar’s cries, is your experience of this story changed?

Romans 6:1b-11

At first glance, this lesson from Romans can feel a little heavy. With seven references to sin and five references to death, this just does not seem like a pleasant or happy little passage. Yet, in this passage, Paul is explaining how, through Christ, our lives are not limited to sin and death. Rather, through the grace of God, we may be united with Christ and escape the bonds of sin and death.

While it may seem like the answer (be united with Jesus) is simple enough, it can be harder to tell what this passage is talking about. Must we literally die to sin in order to be united with Christ? Are our old selves actually crucified, with a cross and nails just as Jesus experienced?

Buried amidst all these references to sin and death, though, is one brief but important statement: “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (v.4).

For Paul, baptism is the answer to all the confusing questions that this passage may raise for us. It is through baptism that we are united with Christ and come to share in the joy of the resurrection, but also how we come to participate in Christ’s death. Unlike Christ’s death, however, the death that we encounter through baptism is not a literal, physical death, but rather a death to our old selves. Baptism marks new life, new beginnings and a transformation of the self, a transformation that is only possible through the grace of God.

In this passage, we hear that we are united with Christ through baptism, but what does baptism mean to you? If you are baptized, does baptism play a role in your identity? How has baptism played a part in your life so far?

Matthew 10:24-39

If anyone has an idea of Jesus being meek or mild, this week’s lesson from the Gospel of Matthew must surely disabuse him or her of that notion. In what is another difficult lesson, we encounter Jesus preaching what could almost be considered a rallying cry against unity, or so it seems. Indeed, we hear Jesus proclaim, “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household” (vv. 35-36).

Ultimately, this passage teaches us that following Christ and living a life of faith will not always be easy and that, sometimes, doing what is right may cause conflict or damage relationships. Yet, ultimately, we will be rewarded for doing what is right and be acknowledged before God (v. 32).

Consider times in your own life when you have been faced with conflict or with a situation in which you had to take a stand against family or friends. How did you handle the situation, and how did you feel?

In times of conflict, taking a stand is one matter, but ensuring you are engaging conflict in a loving and respectful way can be particularly difficult. How does God shape these difficult interactions in your life and provide guidance for your relationships?

Bible Study: Trinity Sunday (A)

June 15, 2014

Sarah TaylorVirginia Theological Seminary

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 1:1-2:4aPsalm 82 Corinthians 13:11-13Matthew 28:16-20

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

The text today is commonly thought to be written in the Priestly tradition, most likely addressed to a community in exile. The story of creation focuses on God, who carves out order in the realms of time and space, pushing back the waters of chaos and creating light, dark, sea, sky, creatures (even sea monsters) and finally, humankind, Adam.

The repetitive text begins to take on a rhythm throughout the seven days. God speaks, and suddenly creation is. Then God sees that it is good – seven times over. The Hebrew Bible mentions the number seven more than 500 times; it is a symbol of wholeness and completeness. God’s creation is good and whole.

We learn much about God from this text. From Genesis 1:1, we know that God creates. We also know that God speaks, which is intricately tied to his act of creation. It is that much more important to notice, then, the sudden divine plural when God comes to the creation of humans. Previously he said, “Let there be,” and there was. Now, God says “let us make humankind in our image.” Finally, God blesses, telling both animal and humankind, “be fruitful and multiply,” granting humans dominion over the rest of creation.

How is humankind God’s unique creation in the story? What special responsibilities were humans granted, and how have we done in upholding the goodness of God’s creation?

Psalm 8

The psalmist bursts out in a song of praise of God, building on the theology encountered in Genesis 1:26-28. In 8:4 he wonders how a God who created the heavens, moon and stars, could “remember” and “visit” humans, and even establish them as royal regents in his kingdom. In the theology of this psalm, God is the divine cosmic monarch who has put the human race in the status of king. Humanity’s dominion over “all things” is emphasized in this psalm, but in his Bible commentary, James Mays reminds us that dominion can become domination when humans forget that they are subordinate to God. We must remember that there are many different strands of theology represented in the Bible. When we read canonically, we can compare Psalm 8 to Psalm 104, another psalm of praise to God, which celebrates God’s creation, but scarcely mentions the role of humans in the order of creation. The second creation story, which begins in Genesis 2:4, also sets a different vision of humans as co-laborers with God.

What differences do you see between Psalm 8 and Psalm 104? What do the conversations among various authors of our Holy Scripture tell us about how God reveals himself to us?

2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Paul concludes his second letter to the Corinthians using a standard form. He gives a farewell, final exhortation, sends greetings from the “all the saints” who are with him and ends with a blessing. Yet we can learn much about the community to whom he wrote from Paul’s exhortations. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates Paul’s words as “put things in order,” but it could also mean “may your ways be mended”; furthermore, “listen to my appeal” could mean, “encourage one another.” Both suggest that the community needs to be strengthened, especially since they are followed by recommendations to “agree with one another” and “live in peace.” Paul promises that God will help heal the community’s divisions with his love and peace; they will not have to do it alone. We do not know the community’s specific struggles, but all of us have experienced division, quarrels and disagreements within community. We know how difficult it is to encourage one another at these times.

Might we be strengthened, knowing that even the earliest Christian communities also struggled with one another? Greeting with a kiss was a common practice amongst family members. Do we consider our Christian community to be family? If so, how might that change our communal and individual practices?

Matthew 28:16-20

On a mountain again, the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples one last time. In the Gospel of Matthew, mountains are where important things happen: the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ final temptation, the Transfiguration and now the Great Commission. Earlier, in Matthew 10:5, the disciples were commanded specifically to proclaim the Good News only to “lost sheep of the house of Israel,” not to the gentiles. Now that God’s saving mission is complete through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the commission is expanded to the gentiles. The disciples’ task is to make disciples, baptize and teach all that Jesus has already commanded them. That commission extends to us today. Churches tend to focus on at least one of the three commands: They are good at teaching, or expanding the flock by baptizing members, or nurturing lives of faith through discipleship. It is much harder to do all three.

In which, if any, of the three commands does your church excel, and why do you think so? In what ways might your church grow or be enriched if you focused on the other commands? What are the challenges in making disciples, baptizing and teaching?

Bible Study: Day of Pentecost (A)

June 8, 2014

Steven BalkeVirginia Theological Seminary

“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (John 20:21-22)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23

Acts 2:1-21

The Holy Spirit empowers people in many different ways, but these gifts carry with them a responsibility to share them with others. By the grace of God, the Holy Spirit gives some the ability to withstand great trials and adversity (look at the Judges) and others inspiration to see great truths (see the Prophets), and here the Holy Spirit gave Jesus’ disciples the ability to speak to and be understood by the people of scattered nations and languages – a kind of reversal of the Tower of Babel story.

But if the disciples or anyone else takes their gifts and keeps them to themselves, they are wasted. The Good News that God has given us is likewise wasted if we do not then share it with others and welcome them into finding the love of each other and love of God to which we are all called.

It is not enough, however, to share God’s Word with those who are like us, think the way we think, and speak the way we speak. God’s Holy Spirit at Pentecost points to our responsibility to share our gifts and our love with those who are different from us. The Holy Spirit gave the disciples the power to literally speak to others in their own language, but we can also approach people where they are in life. We cannot place the burden on others to cross cultural, social, and language barriers to find us – God empowers us to stand up and bring the gifts of the Spirit to them.

Where are the barriers that keep you from loving others?

In what ways are you empowered to go out into the world and love others?

Psalm 104:25-35

Looking for God’s presence and God’s love in the world around us can be a great habit to form. Noticing God in the world is just like exercising: It is an easy habit to pick up if you commit to it, and it adds to your life; but it is an easy habit to fall out of in a world where it is easy to just let it get away from you. It is easy to get trapped into thinking about God only when God is being explicitly mentioned, and fall into a habit of not thinking about God while you are out in the everydayness of our world full of pressing concerns.

As with exercising, do not start out too ambitiously and turn it into a dreaded chore. It really only takes a small moment to recognize God in something: the beauty and majesty of the sea, the breath on your lips, a smile from someone at the store. In time, these small moments become a habit and you will automatically start noticing God in the world around you. It is not that God has become more present, but that you have been recognizing what has been there all along.

The times that are the most difficult in life are the times you will appreciate having developed the habit of seeing God in your life, because it is in times of great crisis when we are the least prepared to start the work of seeing God’s presence and love, and yet it is then we need to see it most of all.

Where have you noticed God’s presence or God’s love out in the world today?

Ask yourself tomorrow where you notice God’s presence or God’s love.

1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

We live in a world that often prizes individualism more than community. People will tell you that you should be more proud of an accomplishment if you did it without the help of others – that somehow going it alone makes the work superior. This can, unfortunately, lead to an impression that needing help is a bad thing and, also unfortunately, leads people not to ask for help when they need it.

There is more work that needs to be done in this world than any of us can do alone. That should not be taken as a sign of our inadequacy as human beings, but as a sign that God intended us to be in community with one another, deeply living into our relationships with God and with each other. That we are all gifted in different ways is no accident, because we are less beneficial to people who are like us than to people who are different from us; we can help overcome each other’s challenges and empower each other’s strengths – and in so doing the entire community can become a stronger body of people.

Our goal in life should not be to become self-sufficient and not need others. Instead, our goal in life should be to recognize what gifts we have to offer the world and also, importantly, to recognize what gifts we have in those around us. The sharing of everyone’s gifts of the Spirit knits together the Body of Christ.

What of yourself can you offer those around you today?

How are you receiving someone else’s gifts of the Spirit offered to you?

John 20:19-23

We are all subject to doubt sometimes. The story that follows John 20:19-23 is the story of “Doubting Thomas,” where Jesus implores Thomas not to let doubt get the better of him. Carefully look at today’s story, though. Notice that the other disciples also have trouble believing in Christ’s return. It is not until they actually get to see Christ’s wounds that they believe what they are seeing, rejoice, and really see Jesus (v. 20). Even after all the miracles they witnessed – the healings, the walking on water, the raising of Lazarus from the dead – they still struggled with doubt.

The question, then, is not whether or not we are going to be subject to doubt, but instead, what we are going to do about it. Jesus tells his disciples to go out into the world, challenging them not to let their doubts get the better of them. When we are going out into the world and forgiving others – loving others and spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ – we are not letting doubts get the better of us. God knows that it is hard to do sometimes, which is why we have had the Holy Spirit breathed upon us. We have been empowered to struggle with doubts and still be the loving, rejoicing, forgiving, disciples Christ called us to be.

Where are doubts stopping you from loving or forgiving others?

Where can you find strength to keep loving and forgiving despite those doubts?

Bible Study: 7 Easter (A)

June 1, 2014

Brian PinterGeneral Theological Seminary

“All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.” (John 17:10)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Acts 1:6-14Psalm 68:1-10, 33-361 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11John 17:1-11

Acts 1:6-14

This text from the Acts of the Apostles serves several purposes. First, the disciples of Jesus are not to occupy themselves with trying to decipher the time of Jesus’ return. Second, the nature of the Kingdom of God that Jesus had preached in his earthly ministry is clarified. Third, a “table of contents” for the remainder of the book of Acts is established here to prepare the reader for how the narrative will unfold.

The most significant lesson lies with Luke’s first point. A peculiar form of Christianity has developed over the centuries that is obsessed with predicting when and how the end of the world will occur. The most recent and perhaps most notable manifestation of this was the late Harold Camping’s failed rapture prediction for May 21, 2011. This kind of Christianity is a diversion, and Luke was wise to warn us off it. Ultimately, doomsday predictions distract us from doing the hard work of the Kingdom – caring for the poor, working for a just social order, reconciling the estranged and doing our own spiritual work. Three times in Luke’s writing he addresses this problem: here; Luke 17:20-37; and Luke 21:7-9. We are better served by listening to the advice of the two interpreting angels who tell us not to worry – when Jesus returns, we’ll know it.

What are diversions you face, from within and without, in your efforts to do the work of the Kingdom of God?

Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36

This psalm has long posed challenges to interpreters – is it a collection of fragments or a unity? The text might have been a processional psalm utilized in Temple liturgical procession. Through the first 10 verses, we imagine the assembly gathering behind the sacred ark as it is carried to the holy place. The power of God’s presence is tangible in the quaking of the earth and the pouring down of the rain (v. 8).

Notice also that the themes of justice remain foremost in the mind of the people as they experience the awesome presence of God – father of orphans and protectors of widows; the God who liberates prisoners; the God who provides for the needy (vv. 5,6,10). It is not by accident that poetry crafted for a liturgical procession strikes these themes.

Our ancestors in faith understood, as the best of the Christian tradition has held, that the reflective action that is the substance of our daily living should flow out of liturgy; it is not something separate from it. In other words, attendance at a worship service cannot be compartmentalized. If our daily patterns of living and the choices we make do not reflect an ethos of biblically based justice, then that worship is false. Ultimately, liturgy must serve as a conduit of divine nourishment for all of life; a way that God’s grace comes to “give power and strength” to God’s people (v. 35).

How have you experience liturgy as nourishment for Christian living?

1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11

The way of Christian discipleship is the way of the cross. These verses from the first letter of Peter illustrate this essential doctrine of the faith. Apparently, members of the community to which the author wrote were suffering persecution. Historically speaking, these trials were not at the hands of Roman government officials as the persecution of Nero was, but rather it was “pagan” converts who were facing harassment at the hands of their former co-religionists. The affirmation in faith that suffering and trial can be, and will be, transformed by God into something life giving, something glorious, is once again proclaimed.

The second half of our reading from Chapter 5 is a heartfelt and compelling testament of Christian hope and solidarity. The forces of the devil (from the Greek diabolos, related to the word “divide”) are seeking to cut through the disciples of Jesus, both personally and collectively, but do not have the power to ultimately triumph.

These closing exhortations of 1 Peter carry a cogent message for us today. The power of the Spirit bestowed upon us in baptism never leaves us, and stands to support us as we face divisive life trials. Adhering to Jesus and his vision can seem like a constant test, for so often what the world values, how the world tells us to define ourselves, is antithetical to the gospel. And we face these challenges knowing that many other sisters and brothers in faith stand with us, strengthening us in their solidarity.

What are the powers of “division,” diabolos, which you face as you seek to live out your call to Christian discipleship?

John 17:1-11

Chapter 17 marks the culmination of what are known as the Farewell or Last Supper Discourses. Preceding chapters saw Jesus speak to his disciples of the Holy Spirit, the vine and the branches, and the expected hostility they will face in the world. Jesus concludes here with a final prayer. He underscores a consistent theme of John’s gospel; i.e., Jesus has come from God, is God, and is going back to God. As the gospel crescendos to a close, a further theme of the handing of the Spirit is drawn. We see in the scene of Jesus’ death, John 19:30, Jesus’ spirit is “handed over.”

In today’s text, the disciples have been given the “words” of God (v. 8), just as previous chapters have spoken of Jesus bestowing “life,” “water,” and “light.” As the gospel draws to a close, the disciples of Jesus have grown in faith, from partial understanding, to the point of verse 8, “they have believed that you sent me.”

For John, faith has been a journey, inaugurated in the waters of baptism, but only matured through being with Jesus, day after day, and through trial. We see in this how the experience of the first Christians mirrors our own in so many ways.

How does this text serve as a measure of your own journey of faith?

Bible Study: 6 Easter (A)

May 25, 2014

Jessie GutgsellBerkeley Divinity School at Yale

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” (John 14:18)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Acts 17:22-31Psalm 66:7-181 Peter 3:13-22John 14:15-21

Acts 17:22-31 

The Book of Acts marks a shift from the gospel focus on the acts of Jesus to an emphasis on the life of the early church. This passage contains Paul’s speech to the Athenians in which he reveals the identity of the “unknown God.” The context of this speech provides a rich back story. First, the intellectuals and religiously devout of Athens ask Paul to make a speech after he had been arguing with them in the marketplace and city about their idolatrous ways. Verse 21 adds the disclaimer that the Athenians were always looking for and talking about the next big thing, so that’s why they wanted to hear Paul’s story. Does that sound familiar? Isn’t our culture today always looking for the next big thing as well? Paul gives the speech on the Areopagus, otherwise known as Mars Hill, an intellectual and judicial center for the city of Athens.

Paul begins by acknowledging the Athenians for their religiosity. One cannot help wondering if there is a bit of irony or negativity in Paul’s words. Or maybe he is being genuine, and perhaps the take-away is that sometimes the “wrong” kind of religiosity can hinder our faith?

Paul then reveals the identity of the unknown God as the creator of the universe. A particularly beautiful moment in Paul’s speech is when he explains that part of the purpose of humanity is to grope and sometimes find God, even though God is always near. It’s also thought provoking that Paul says God is not made by mortal hands or imagination. This means that we must seek to go beyond the limitations of our mortal minds to conceive of God in more limitless ways. The speech ends with Paul introducing and mandating repentance for all.

If you were in Paul’s shoes, pointing out heresies in the marketplace and then being asked to explain your faith, what would you say?

What is your reaction to the altar inscription of the Athenians, “To an Unknown God”? Do you ever feel like you worship an unknown God? Can you think of a time when someone revealed the identity of the unknown God to you, as Paul did with the Athenians?

Psalm 66:7-18 

This psalm is one of praise and thanksgiving. It opens with general exaltation, but by verse 7 the psalmist launches into a more personal story. I find it comforting that the psalmist begins by assuring us that God, who knows and holds our souls, keeps us secure, no matter what. So naturally, what happens next is we are tested, like “silver is tried.” But we hear in the psalm that we will come through all right to a “place of refreshment.” What follows next is something similar to Paul’s speech to the Athenians. The psalmist says “come and listen … and I will tell you what he has done for me.” I know that I, too, have been moved by praise to explain more what God has done for me and how thankful I am for the gifts I’ve received.

Have you been moved by gratitude to tell about God’s role in your life? If not, perhaps you could try thanking God for something each day for a week, and covenant to tell a friend about those gifts.

The conclusion of the psalm addresses purity of the heart in relation to prayer. How do you guard your heart against evil? Do you ever find that some habits pull you away from God and your prayer life? Do you think purity of heart enhances prayer?

1 Peter 3:13-22 

First Peter is the letter of the apostle Peter in Rome to the Christians suffering for their faith in Asia Minor. The early Christians were being punished for their countercultural ways. Examples of this radical faith can be found in 1 Peter 3:9, when Peter urges them: “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but on the contrary, repay with a blessing.”

Instead of biting back when someone makes a jab, Peter, like Jesus, encourages the people to “turn the other cheek.” I can’t help but find this relevant to a life of faith today. We Christians find ourselves in the minority again. Sometimes I feel like an exile in the land of “nones.” I encourage you to read Peter’s words as though they were addressed to you in this modern time. Often it’s not “cool” or socially advantageous to be a Christian. Sometimes it can be difficult, and sometimes, if we speak up about our faith, we will face some adversity.

Peter invites you to reframe the way you think about your suffering. Be in control of your mind; Don’t let yourself become the victim in every situation. (Although sometimes you need to acknowledge that role, too.) See your suffering through the lens of the light of Christ, not your own ego.

As with the two previous readings, we are told to be ready to make the case for our faith: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.”

Are you ready to make such a defense? Perhaps begin your preparation by sketching out a brief outline of your faith life. What has Christ and Christianity meant to you? What have you given to Christ? How do you account for the hope that is in you?

John 14:15-21 

Jesus’ conditional opening sentence of this passage is positively haunting: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

The implication is one that could fill us with guilt. We must ask the hard question, “Do I love Christ?” If the answer is no, then we also aren’t following His commandments.

After this piercing question, the Holy Spirit becomes the leading figure in Jesus’ speech. The Holy Spirit is referred to as the Advocate, comforter, spirit of truth and even a parent figure when Jesus speaks of not leaving us orphaned. Here it is suggested that the Holy Spirit will come after Christ to remain in the world once Christ has left.

Verse 19 is a poignant announcement that “in a little while the world will no longer see me.” Grief floods my spirit just reading those words. But immediately following are words of hope, that “you will see me; because I live, and you also will live.” Here we are moving beyond literal understandings of the word “live” to a more metaphorical meaning. What does it mean to be “alive” in the spirit of Christ?

This entire passage reflects the intimacy that is the Trinity and our relationship to it: “I am in the Father and you in me and I in you.” I invite you to read these words of closeness with fresh eyes, thanking God for God’s divine indwelling within and among us.

Would you act differently if you truly internalized the message that Jesus is saying here that God is in you?

What is your relationship to the Holy Spirit?

Discuss your relationship to Christ and his commandments. Do you feel like you love Christ and keep his commandments? How can you connect with Christ more deeply?