Archives for March 2015

Bible Study: 2 Easter (B)

April 12, 2015

Broderick Greer, Virginia 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. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” (John 20:21-23)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

Acts 4:32-35

For the author of the Acts of the Apostles, Holy Week and the Triduum (the three days between Maundy Thursday and Easter Day) are not isolated events. For him, Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection and ascension have cosmic implications for the baptized community the Lord leaves behind. A community that rejects private ownership practices (verse 32), testifies to the resurrection of Jesus (verse 33) and eliminates impoverishment in their midst (verses 34-35).

The actions of this early community of Jesus says it had a vested interest in embodying the divine realities that have recently played themselves out in and around Jerusalem. “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (verse 33) was not something the first disciples did in word only. In deed, they recalled that the resurrection of Jesus ushers in a new society; one in which mutuality and generosity, not selfishness and greed, are normative.

Reading this passage might ignite visions of failed Utopian projects. But instead of allowing ourselves to be fooled into exalting human ingenuity, this passage invites us to focus on the ingenuity of the Holy Spirit, the driving agent of chaos, conversion and community. Nothing in the cosmos could convene such a disparate band of people than God the Holy Spirit. Nothing but the Holy Spirit could have the capacity to hold people of varying languages, ethnicities, cultural traditions and myth-worlds in one body: the body of Christ. Which brings contemporary Christians into conversation with a God who is deeply interested in cultivating cultures centered in the restorative life of Christ.

In what ways does your worshiping community embody the spirit of the Acts 4 church?

Psalm 133

It is difficult to believe that the Acts 4 church could have voiced this psalm without thinking of its own unity; how the various images depicted are joyful glimpses of the sensation of camaraderie felt in the midst of a praying assembly. “It is like fine oil upon the head that runs down upon the beard, upon the beard of Aaron, and runs down upon the collar of his robe” (verses 2-3). And while that imagery certainly resonated with first-century people of Jewish heritage, it is worth the modern reader’s time to construct contemporary equivalents of that psalmist’s soothing tropes. Unity is like a hot shower after a long day of labor in the garden. Unity is like a substantive conversation with a familiar friend. Unity is like watching a toddler eat her first helping of mint chocolate-chip ice cream.

This psalm challenges the church in our own time to make unity – not uniformity – a serious priority. This means giving ourselves over to practicing honesty and hospitality as we relate to our neighbors. It means weighing which hot-button religious and political issues are worth tabling in the heat of the moment. It means valuing our relationships over our objective rightness. In this sense, unity is like a deep breath after being held under water by forces greater than ourselves. And that breath, that gasping for air, for unity of lung and untamed wind is the glory of the Christian life.

What metaphors would you use in regards to unity? What does it feel like? What doesn’t it feel like?

1 John 1:1-2:2

“We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us” (verse 3a). Integral to the Christian story is that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, took on human flesh. In the Incarnation, Jesus opens up new ways of relating to God, namely in materiality (what later theologians would come to call “sacraments”).

The writer of this epistle is reminding his original audience of the compelling nature of their faith: that they can enjoy fellowship – or radical sharing – and that God has become human in Christ. Fellowship is not warm feelings among acquaintances. Rather, it is the tangible reality of communion in Jesus. It is the flesh and blood relationships that are formed in the transformative waters of baptism and the oil of anointing shared at the bedsides of the ill and dying.

In our flesh-and-blood encounters, God seeks to heal and restore God’s image within us. This process is a sort of casting out of the darkness by light (verses 6-8). A part of this casting out of darkness is confessing our sins, those ways – privately or publicly – in which we have obscured the image of God in ourselves, our neighbors or in creation. Christ, in his power as the Incarnate God, mends the fragmented pieces of this delicate ecosystem of redemption through his life-giving blood on the cross (verses 9-10). And when the violent shards of sin become the shattered glass of our lives, we recall that, ultimately, God is not our opponent, receiving pleasure from our clumsiness and shame; but that in Christ, God is our advocate, seeking to make us one with one another and all of creation (verses 2:1-2).

What is the “word of life” (verse 1:1)?

John 20:19-31

It would be easy to read this passage and condemn St. Thomas for a “lack of faith.” But a closer reading of this text paints the incredulous apostle as a giant in faithfulness. Even though he missed Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples (verse 24), this does not stifle his desire to encounter the risen Christ in sight and touch (and smell, since scent is a powerful gateway to memory recovery). His demand to “see the mark of the nails in [Jesus’] hands” and to feel “the mark of the nails and my hand in his side” (verse 25) are telling components to the visceral nature of Jesus’ resurrection. In upending the potency of death, Jesus also upends every expectation of control, manipulation and power. His resurrection leaves his disciples – us included – in vulnerable places, asking for encounters we don’t actually think are possible. And yet, the risen Christ comes to us, not on our terms, but on his, delivering us from dead-end narratives and defeat.

Like St. Thomas, Jesus appears in our locked rooms, announcing peace, inviting us to “see with our eyes” and “touch with our hands” (1 John 1:1). And as we experience Jesus’ risen life, a community of surprised disciples forms, experiencing a unity that only metaphors can describe (Psalm 133:1-3), a unity that compels us to eliminate poverty in our midst (Acts 4:34). In one gesture of healthy doubt, St. Thomas embodies the courage to forge a new way forward, a way forward not based on certitude and facts, but on the reality that a new day has dawned because of the puzzling emptiness of a borrowed garden tomb. And yet, Jesus commends us as the courageous ones, for we trust in him, even without seeing, touching or smelling him.

Why did Christ retain the scars of his crucifixion, post-resurrection?

Bible Study: Easter Day (B)

April 5, 2015

Jessie Gutgsell, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher).” (John 20:15-16)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; John 20:1-18

Acts 10:34-43

This passage from Acts is situated at a crucial point in the story of the Acts of the Apostles. The first account of Paul’s conversion comes in Chapter 9, and then Paul’s three missionary journeys are detailed in the chapters after our selection for this week. One might expect that the beginning of the gentile mission would begin with Paul’s leadership, but surprisingly, Peter is the one to preach this sermon and begin the gentile mission here in Chapter 10.

Paul begins his message with a phrase that will appear familiar to those who know the Old Testament: “God shows no partiality.” As “The Harper Collins Study Bible”(HarperCollins, 2006) tells us, that phrase typically referred to God not favoring the rich or the poor. (See Leviticus 19:15 and Deuteronomy 10:17-18, for example.) But here in Acts 10:34, the phrase takes on a radical new meaning. Peter uses it in connection with the gentile mission. There are no social barriers between rich and poor, or gentiles and Jews.

Peter goes on in the sermon to summarize the gospel as he believes it. His interpretive emphasis is on the fact that God has appointed the apostles (and gentiles) to be witnesses to Christ. (See verse 41.)

The last verse of this passage, 10:43, summarizes key Lukan themes (it’s commonly believed that Luke wrote Acts) that “The Harper Collins Study Bible” helps to elaborate. Some of those themes include the witness of the apostles as mentioned above, but also the death and resurrection of Jesus, Jesus’ post resurrection appearances to the apostles, prophetic witness, the Spirit’s presence in Jesus, and the forgiveness of sins.

Verse 34 includes the phrase “God shows no partiality.” Peter reinterpreted this phrase to apply to the relationship between the Jews and gentiles. Is there a group of people you need to apply this same passage to? Consider praying with this verse, knowing that God truly shows no partiality.

In verse 39, Paul makes the claim that “we are witnesses to all that he did, both in Judea and in Jerusalem.” How are you a witness to Christ? Do you live your life believing that you are a witness? If not, why not? If so, how?

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

This psalm comes alive when considering its original context as a processional song of victory that begins as an individual praising God and continues with a collective praising of God. This context of victory becomes all the more powerful when considering the victory that Christ has won over death in His resurrection.

The context of a procession is particularly evident in verses 19 and 21. As “The Harper Collins Study Bible” tells us, the previous verses in the psalm can be read as an individual processing to the gates of the temple. In verse 19, the individual asks for entry. In verse 20, we learn the qualification for entry, and finally, in verse 21, we see that the person has been welcomed into the sanctuary.

The last quoted verses of the psalm selected for today reflect the voices of many people in the temple praising God and expressing their victory. Of particular note is verse 22, which is found in all the gospels and in Acts (See Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11.)

This psalm is a call to praise, both from the vantage point of an individual and a community. Consider taking this invitation and joining with the voices of the generations in a song of praise yourself. For what do you have to give thanks? What has God helped you to win victory over in your life?

Verses 15 and 16 likely quote an ancient victory song. Read these verses again and imagine what it might feel like to repeat words that people have been saying for centuries to proclaim victory in a battle.

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians is a pastoral letter written by Paul to the people of the cosmopolitan port city of Corinth. This letter includes the oft-quoted “Love is patient, love is kind,” but it also introduces a key metaphor of the church as the Body of Christ. The overall message of the letter is calling for unity and the building up of the church.

Chapter 15 is the second-to-last chapter of this letter, exhorting the Corinthians to unity and order. In this chapter, Paul turns to address his last major topic: resurrection. The very fact that Paul has to include this chapter leads the reader to understand that there was some doubt among the Corinthians about whether the Resurrection was to be believed. This context helps to understand why Paul opens the chapter the ways he does, reminding people of their faith, challenging them by saying, “unless you have come to believe in vain.” From that verse on, he explains how the truth of the resurrection is central to his whole belief structure, and it’s not an invention of his own. (See verse 3.)

In verse 8, Paul turns to address his own apostolic authority, explaining that his authority comes from having seen Christ when he reappeared after his death. In this defense of his authority, he alludes to his former life before his conversion, when he himself persecuted the church (verse 9). Paul ends the passage by saying that it doesn’t matter who the Corinthians hear the truth of the gospel and resurrection from, “Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe” (15:11).

Turn to verse 10 to read this beautiful statement by Paul: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace has not been in vain.” Consider saying this verse to yourself, particularly if you feeling like you need to be gentler with yourself. God has made you how you are, and it was not a mistake!

If you are like me and so many other Christians, you, too, have struggled to understand the truth and gospel of the Resurrection. Perhaps try reading Paul’s passage as if it were addressed to you as a doubter. Does that make you doubt more or less? What was your experience?

John 20:1-18

All four gospels have an account of the Resurrection (although of varying lengths). John’s account, detailed here, is unique in its emphasis on individual and personal relationship and intimacy with Christ. Another unique aspect is the prominence of Mary Magdalene in this resurrection account. Mary Magdalene is the first to discover the empty tomb (verse 1) and she is the one who stays at the tomb and see Jesus (mistaking him for a gardener). Mary Magdalene was also with Jesus at his crucifixion the chapter prior. Her role is not to be diminished!

But there is also another unique character in John’s account of this story. The “Beloved Disciple,” or “The disciple whom Jesus loved,” plays a crucial role in the first part of this story (verses 2-10). No one knows exactly who the Beloved Disciple was or what his exact relationship to Christ was, although there’s been much written about his identity. (See Raymond Brown’s “Introduction to the New Testament,” Yale University Press, 1997, for a good summary.) In this story, the Beloved Disciple is the first believer in Jesus’ resurrection when he outruns Simon Peter to see the linen shrouds that Jesus had worn (verse 8).

The second part of this passage (verses 11-18) explain Mary’s encounter with Jesus when she stayed weeping at the tomb after the disciples returned home. She saw two angels in the tomb and then saw Jesus himself, although she did not recognize him (verse 15). After Mary thinks Jesus is a gardener, Jesus evokes the good shepherd motif of John 10:3-4, calling her by name. The account ends with Jesus telling Mary to go carry the message to the disciples (verses 17-18).

What are some of your reactions to the role of the Beloved Disciple? One theory people have is that the Beloved Disciple is there to get the reader to engage more deeply in the text. Can you read yourself into that role? Why or why not?

Consider the prominent role of Mary Magdalene in this account. Consider her faith and loyalty in staying at the tomb to weep. Do you think you could take on this mourning and faithful role with Christ this Easter season?

Have you ever felt that Christ has called you by name as he called Mary? What would such recognition feel like? Where in your life and communities are you most thoroughly known?

Bible Study: Palm Sunday (B)

March 29, 2015

Steven M. Balke, Jr.Virginia Theological Seminary

“Pilate asked Jesus, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You say so.’” (Mark 15:2)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47

Isaiah 50:4-9a

Palm Sunday is the transition point between Lent and Holy Week, making it a particularly fitting time to reflect upon one’s relationship with God. The prophet Isaiah beseeched the people of God again and again to attend to their relationship with God, yet throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites struggled. They struggled because they were constantly drawn away from prioritizing God in their lives in favor of material wealth or power. The lure of worldly distractions chipped away at their relationship with God until disaster befell them, after which they would return to God once again. The prophet served as a reminder in people’s lives to prioritize God even when the world is trying to take priority instead.

Hopefully Lent has been a time of growing deeper into your relationship with God. Lenten disciplines, done well, can help one prioritize God in one’s life and bring to focus the things that are truly important. The next challenge is to be able to step back into the world post-Lent and face all the distractions in the world that threaten to take priority over your relationship with God once again. Just as Isaiah warned the Israelites, be aware of where your hard work of prioritizing God in your life is being threatened.

Did you find yourself reprioritizing values during Lent?

What in your life threatens to undo those priorities?

What changes can you make to keep your relationship with God a priority?

Psalm 31:9-16

Shame is one of the most powerful forces that can control a person’s life. Few things motivate a person’s behavior like the fear of or experience of shame. The ancient Israelites were deeply immersed in a culture based on honor and shame, and the psalmist vividly expresses what it feels like to be lost in shame: “a horror to my neighbors,” “dread to my acquaintances,” “passed out of mind like one who is dead,” etc.

Shame can be terribly isolating and dehumanizing, yet the psalmist has a glimmer of hope in God’s promise of unending love. Even in the midst of shame, God knows who we are and has promised to love us.

During Lent, many people end up reflecting on mistakes they have made of which they are ashamed. Likewise, Holy Week causes some people to experience great shame surrounding the idea of Christ needing to die for one’s sins. There are no words that can magically make shame disappear, but this is an important place to start: God’s love is steadfast. Christ did not die so that people would feel guilty, but instead, as a sign that nothing we can do will ever stop God from loving us. All of us feel shame sometimes, but God is never ashamed of us.

When have you felt like shame was controlling you?

Do you know someone who feels alone because of shame?

How can you help them see that they are loved?

Philippians 2:5-11

A great deal of the shame that is piled onto people comes from expectations placed on them by the world. Women are made to feel like bad mothers because they spend too much time working and not enough caring for their children, but also find themselves shamed if they do not have a career outside of the home. Schoolchildren face having to pick on another student or else risk being picked on themselves. Employees who tell their bosses they cannot work on Sundays because of church commitments risk being thought of as “one of those Christian fundamentalists.” One’s values are constantly being measured against those of society and judged. The world is a minefield of potential shame.

On Palm Sunday, we celebrate Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his standing up to the leaders. It is important that God chose to do this, because it means that God knows what it is like to be shamed, laughed at, thought of as crazy, mocked and physically punished for his beliefs. Even if no one else in the world understands how you feel, God does.

When society points to the marginalized and scorns them, Christ said the marginalized are worthy of love. For our part, we can rest in knowing that God fundamentally knows us and we are able to take part in looking at the marginalized in the world and judging them worthy of love too.

Have you ever felt alone in the world?

What is it like to know that someone sees you and loves you?

How can you help someone to know that they are not alone either?

Mark 14:1-15:47

The Gospel of Mark highlights the importance of Christ’s sacrifice for the world, so what is the world that Christ was trying to transform? From this gospel, we can see that it is a world where leaders choose to hurt and kill those who disagree with them rather than engaging in discussion (14:1). It is a world where material wealth is valued higher than caring for another person (14:5), where violence is the answer (14:47) and where fear is more powerful than faith (14:50). Christ’s sacrifice was about fundamentally challenging this way of living with one another. We were shown the terrible brokenness that comes from this way of living, to the point where the God who loves us despite anything we may do is put to death.

Yet we know where the story is going. We know that Christ cannot be defeated by a world of materialism, shame and violence. As we enter into Holy Week, we are called to look at how God chose to participate in our world with love – and how we now have the choice to participate in our world with that same love. We can choose to prioritize people over possessions, respect people who disagree with us, and help people see that they are known and loved. Sometimes living in this way is easy and requires no great sacrifice on our parts, but other times it takes a great deal of sacrifice to keep striving to change this world. We can always look to God and each other, however, and know that we are not alone in our work.

Where do you see people suffering in the world?

What things get in the way of making the world a better place?

How can you make a difference because of the choices you make?