Bible Study, Easter 5 (B) – April 29, 2018

[RCL]: Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:24-30; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

Acts 8:26-40 

In this passage from Acts, we hear of a eunuch from Ethiopia making a pilgrimage from his homeland to Jerusalem. The audience of the book of Acts would have been curious about this figure. A person from a distant land whose appearance was different from theirs would have intrigued the audience. As a court official in charge of the Ethiopian queen’s treasury, the eunuch is a powerful individual. We observe that he does not display his power in this conversation, but instead humbles himself before Philip, inviting him to sit with him and explain the text from Isaiah. While we do not know his religious background, we do know he came to Jerusalem to worship and was curious about the Hebrew scriptures. The eunuch’s desire for baptism unfolds through his illumination by scripture and Philip’s proclamation. The passage reveals the inclusive nature of baptism; regardless of one’s national origin or position, all are invited into the baptism of Christ. Furthermore, we see the power of the Good News in Christ evoke joy within him.

  • How might God be inviting us to illuminate scriptures for people in our lives?
  • How do we see Christ unfolding in the lives of people whom we encounter who are from cultures, backgrounds, or countries different from our own?

Psalm 22:24-30

This section of Psalm 22 reveals a people who are devoted to loving and praising God. They recognize God’s faithfulness, which evokes a desire to live for God. This devotion is not lived in isolation, but rather expressed in community. In fact, the Psalm describes, “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall bow before him” (v. 26).

  • How does praising God in your faith community shape the culture and experience of the community?
  • How does praising God in your faith community shape its relationship with God?

1 John 4:7-21

This reading from John is a beautiful and moving description of God’s love. The love revealed in and through us is one of many ways God’s love is manifested in the world. As followers of Jesus, we are exhorted to express God’s love not simply in emotions or attitudes, but also through concrete and visible deeds and actions.

There is no question as to whether or not God loves us – God does. A question we are invited to ponder is: To what extent do we reveal God’s love by loving one another? When we love each other, God’s love is being perfected within and among us. This is true not only of our individual interactions, but also of our corporate actions in our parish, in our diocese, in the Episcopal Church, in the Anglican Communion, and in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church we profess in the Nicene Creed.

  • What actions might God be inviting us to undertake, individually and corporately, to more fully reveal God’s love to one another, in our communities, and throughout the world?

John 15:1-8

Today’s Gospel reading centers around a conversation between Jesus and the disciples. Jesus describes for them how to be sustained in life – by abiding in him. Just as the life of a branch is sustained by being connected with the vine, our lives are sustained through our relationship with Christ. We are already in union with Christ; we are encouraged to draw our attention to abiding within that union.

The passage also describes how the vinegrower periodically prunes the branches so that they can bear more fruit. Like a branch being pruned, there may be times in one’s life when one’s circumstances cause a person to let go of a commitment, habit, or some other aspect of life in order to eventually live more fully and fruitfully. By drawing one’s attention to abiding in Christ, a person can be brought to a greater sense of peace and be better prepared to discern, navigate, and embrace seasons of pruning and flourishing.

  • What practices draw your awareness to abiding in Christ?
  • How has a period of pruning in your life eventually brought you to a place of living a more flourishing, fruitful life?

The Reverend Denise Muller is a transitional deacon, canonically resident in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. She will complete a Diploma of Anglican Studies at the Seminary of the Southwest in May 2018. She received a Master of Arts in Theology and Biblical Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary and a Master of Public Health from Loma Linda University. She completed a Certificate of Spiritual Direction through Christian Formation and Direction Ministries and a Certificate of Supervision of Spiritual Directors through Mercy Center. She is a spiritual director and has served as the Arizona Field Director for a national prison ministry organization. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, reading, and visiting art museums.

Download the Bible study for Easter 5 (B).

Bible Study, Easter 4 (B) – April 22, 2018

[RCL:] Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

Acts 4:5-12

“The stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone” (verse 11).

As is often the case, the context of this passage is set in the portion of the text that is not included in the reading. Here, the situation is that Peter and John were preaching and rejoicing in the glory of the resurrected Christ. They had been healing the sick and doing “good deeds.” This really annoyed the priest of the temple (and, as we are told, the Sadducees). So, they were arrested. The next day all the good ol’ boys got together and asked, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” The question belies the fact that they already know the power and the name. What they wanted to know is if Peter and John made the same messianic claim. Peter and John replied that the deeds had been done in the name of Jesus Christ – the stone the Jews had rejected. A sort of “in your face!” to the Jewish establishment.

Often we read this passage focusing on the passage about the rejected stone cited above. But I would like for us to focus for a moment on our sources of power.

  • How often in our own lives do we appeal to an outside authority for an excuse to explain what we are not capable of doing ourselves?
  • While Peter and John had the name of the resurrected Christ to support them, how much do we delight in invoking the name of someone else in order to fill our own needs to be appreciated?
  • When do we call on the power of the resurrected Lord to fill us with the joy and glee of the Holy Spirit?

Psalm 23

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want” (verse 1).

I cannot think of a better-known psalm, one that is recounted by heart. In the Book of Common Prayer, we have the opportunity to recite this psalm in the Daily Devotion (p. 143), at Maundy Thursday (p. 274), on Good Friday (p. 276), at Holy Baptism (p. 313), at the Thanksgiving for a Child (p. 443), in our Ministration to the Sick (p. 454), and perhaps the best known occassion, at Burial (pp. 476, 490).

This psalm calms the spirit and revives the soul with the assurance that the Lord our God walks with us in all our daily life, through joy and travails.

  • With all of the quiet confidence afforded by this psalm, are we comfortable reciting it not thinking about our eventual walk with God?
  • Is there greater meaning to be found in this psalm beyond considering the end of our lives?

1 John 3:16-24

“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (verse 16).

First John was written to a community apparently besieged by antichrists; but the overall message of this epistle is one of love and that God is love. In the first part of this chapter, we are reminded that we are children of God and that even though we sin, we are loved and redeemed. The passage for today is directly linked to the gospel reading. It declares that Jesus laid down his life for us, and we should be willing to do the same for each other.

  • Love, belief, and sacrifice are the themes. How prepared are we to believe without seeing; to love without knowing; and to sacrifice without losing?

John 10:11-18

Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (verse 11).

The passage leading into this text speaks of the difference between the shepherd who enters by the gate and the thief who enters the sheepfold by another route. Here he reiterates that the shepherd knows his sheep and the sheep know their shepherd. In the text for today, Jesus juxtaposes the “good shepherd” against the “hired hand.” The difference is not in their capacity to take care of sheep – although that may be an important issue. The difference is in ownership. The good shepherd owns the sheep; they are his and he is theirs. The hired hand is self-interested. As long as the interests of the sheep are aligned with the interests of the hired hand, everything is great. When interests diverge, however, it is clear: The hired hand looks out for his own wellbeing while the good shepherd takes care of his sheep. Jesus reminds us that he came to lay down his life for us, that we are his and he is ours. Again, a central theme running through this text is the love of God expressed through the gift of the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

  • When are we able to feel the comfort of knowing the one who enters by the gate to the sheepfold?
  • How do we know we are loved? By our friends and family? By our God?
  • Are you able to accept that God knows you and loves you – that we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand?

This Bible study, written by David Marker of the Bishop Kemper School for Ministry, originally ran for Easter 4 (B) on April 26, 2015.

Download the Bible study for Easter 4 (B).

Bible Study, Easter 3 (B) – April 15, 2018

[RCL]: Acts 3:12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48

Acts 3:12-19

My first thought in this problematic passage is, “Oh dear, Peter goes from calling attention to the healed man to blaming this Jewish audience for Jesus’ death.” Living in a post-Holocaust era, we know where the evil of anti-Semitism can lead. We ask, why does Peter make that inappropriate—even offensive—leap when he says, “You killed the Author of life”?

To help take the edge off, we should remember that Peter himself is a Jew, testifying to other Jews about “the God of [their] ancestors,” the Jewish God. He is pointing out that it is not “by our own power or piety” that the lame man is healed, but by the man’s “faith that is through Jesus.” When Peter says, “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out,” this applies to anyone who doesn’t see God’s sovereign power in the person of Jesus Christ. That could be us, depending on the day or the hour! We have the opportunity to see this as Peter’s invitation, even if shrouded in accusatory language, to continually recognize the power of Jesus.

  • How often do you need reminding of the power of Jesus? What scripture, music, liturgies, and stories most bring you back, helping you to repent as Peter invites?

Psalm 4

I can’t think of anything more relevant to these latter days than verse 6: “Many are saying, ‘Oh, that we might see better times!’ Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O Lord.” As the above reading from Acts suggests, so often we’re not thinking about God’s power, but rather about our own power. This psalm refocuses us, helping us start to process the reality that, were it not for divine protection, we would surely be lost. In today’s world of constant danger and instability, we hear the words of the psalmist with a special poignancy: “[F]or only you, Lord, make me dwell in safety.”

  • What are the “dumb idols” and “false gods” you notice in modern life? Which are the most tempting for you?
  • Can you think of a time when the Lord answered you? Was it the answer you expected?

1 John 3:1-7

This epistle elaborates on what happens when we reaffirm our adoption into God’s family as “children of God.” Of course, Jesus is the key to that adoption. When we recognize Jesus as the one “revealed to take away sins,” we are counted among those who can “purify themselves.” Without Jesus, our sins lay unredeemed – as the epistle-writer suggests, they’re a kind of “lawlessness” that has self-evident consequences. Hinduism and Buddhism have a well-known name for the cause-and-effect nature of these consequences: karma. But Jesus allows us to transcend that since by turning to him, we are putting our faith in God made flesh, who has the authority to take away sins.

In the Christian life, sin leads to a temporary blindness, which makes it possible to say that “no one who sins has either seen him or known him,” severe as it sounds. But when we turn away from sin and do what is right, we ourselves become “righteous, just as he is righteous.” It’s all about repentance.

  • What is your understanding of salvation? Does it help you to think about other religions, like Hinduism or Buddhism, in order to make sense of the uniqueness of Christ’s identity?
  • Do you see a danger inherent in the idea that “no one who abides in [Christ] sins”?

Luke 24:36b-48

How funny that we end our Bible study with this passage, since we’ve been talking so much about having faith in Jesus—and here, the disciples are caught off guard, “disbelieving and still wondering” whether this resurrection appearance is really happening. Even in their joy, they are having trouble coming to faith at that moment, since Jesus’ physical presence among them is so unbelievable. And in his love for them, Jesus decides to prove it to them by eating a piece of fish. He didn’t have to do that!

This final appearance of Jesus comes nearly at the end of Luke’s Gospel, right before Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Here, an early understanding of Jesus’ identity is being summarized and rehearsed, almost as if it’s just been crystallized by the community for which this gospel was made: “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” We are heirs to this very same teaching.

  • Is there a moment you remember when everything about the Christian faith came together and made sense, almost as if Jesus were instructing you, like in this passage? Or was your journey in faith more gradual?

Zachary (Zak) Fletcher is a third-year Master of Divinity candidate at Yale Divinity School, where he is affiliated jointly with Berkeley Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music. Zak is a seminary intern at Christ Church, New Haven, and is discerning a call to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church in Connecticut (ECCT). Zak received his bachelor’s degree in 2015 from Harvard University, where he studied classics (Latin & Greek) with a minor in historical linguistics. His life in the church began with music, both at Trinity on the Green, New Haven (2001-2002), and Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, New York (2002-2007), where he spent time as a chorister. When not involved in seminarian duties, Zak continues to sing in choirs, including Yale Schola Cantorum, a group dedicated to the performance of sacred music.

Download the Bible study for Easter 3 (B).

Bible Study, Easter 2 (B) – April 8, 2018

[RCL]: Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

Acts 4:32-35

In my front yard, I have a plaque that states simply, “You are standing on Sacred Ground.” I put it there as a reminder to myself that, by virtue of God’s speaking into creation, all ground is sacred. But this week’s reading in Acts demonstrates what truly sacred ground might look like. It’s at the feet of the apostles who are giving their testimony of the Resurrection. This speech creates a space for outrageous acts of giving and receiving. It’s also a great show of unity and togetherness—they are “of one heart and soul”—that gives hope to the nascent church and, across the centuries, to us as we step together into our Easter journey.

  • Where do you find sacred spaces in your life? In your church?
  • What might complete unity and togetherness look like in your life? In your congregation? In society as a whole?

Psalm 133

This week’s short psalm keeps with the message of unity and togetherness from the very start. After proclaiming how good and pleasant unity is, the psalmist then describes it in some ways that may seem puzzling or uncomfortable, especially to the modern reader. First, we have the image of great quantities of oil pouring down Aaron’s beard and onto his robe (and we can imagine that, as high priest, Aaron maintained a pretty significant beard). This may have some thinking of skincare routines or robe cleaning, but it’s meant as an overwhelming image of great well-being and welcome. Aaron reaches across the centuries to welcome us into this show of unity. The second image—of dew in Mount Hermon falling on Zion—presents a geographical puzzle: Hermon is in south Lebanon, a country away from Zion. It’s an image that shows that, when we are in unity and peace, things of great unpredictability can happen.

  • Where have you seen unity and togetherness create unpredictable, even unimaginable outcomes?
  • What other images of great well-being and welcome, like Aaron and the oil, might we create in our lives?

1 John 1:1-2:2

Coming only a week after the celebration of Easter and the Resurrection, this week’s epistle and its apparent emphasis on sin and darkness might seem misplaced, like it would be more suitable for a penitential Lenten Sunday, than in the light of Easter. But its emphatic opening declaration is a message of hope that reads like a transcript of the apostles’ testimony of the Resurrection mentioned in Acts.

John is writing near the end of the first century C.E., and the opening kicks off a message of perseverance and focus to an embattled group of believers who might be starting to have some questions. They may also find themselves failing in their day-to-day lives to lead a life without sin. These doubts and shortcomings probably feel very familiar to our readers today. John sets the boundaries of a life without sin—one in right relationship with God—and then acknowledges the inevitability of our failures. It’s only in our advocate Jesus Christ and his atoning sacrifice of Good Friday that we can hope to get back to—and stay in—right relationship with God.

  • Where do we find ourselves “out of synch” with God’s desire for us?
  • How might our church community be a model of fellowship with each other and God?

John 20:19-31

The term “belief” appears frequently in John’s Gospel. To us, it can read like a statement of affirmation, like when we say, “We believe in one God,” in the Nicene Creed. But belief, to John, is an action verb. It is an ongoing act of doing something—of being obedient to Jesus Christ. Jesus’ invitation to Thomas to touch his wounds is the physical act that Thomas needs to kick off his ongoing act of believing—of obedience. And that invitation extends to all those who believe without needing to touch that have come thereafter.

It is emphasized in the reading that the risen Christ enters twice through doors that are either locked or closed. It is both a testament to his ability to be with the disciples despite physical impediments and as a reminder, a metaphor, of Christ’s ability to reach us no matter what barriers we may put up—like when we, too, yearn for a physical sign or think we don’t need Christ’s help. This gospel reminds us that he is always there, and always speaking, “Peace be with you.”

  • How might the idea of an ongoing act of believing and obeying change our life outside of the church? Within the church?
  • When has Christ broken through your barriers to reach you? How might his invitation to touch his wounds help during a difficult time?

Gregory Warren came to the Seminary of the Southwest following a long career in advertising. He is grateful and blessed to be on this path. He hails from the Diocese of Arkansas and is looking forward to returning soon. 

Download the Bible study for Easter 2 (B).

Bible Study, Easter Day (B) – April 1, 2018

[RCL] Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; John 20:1-18 

Acts 10:34-43

Peter visits Cornelius’ home in response to a vision that convinces him of the expansiveness of God’s message, a message that he now understands to be intended for Jew and Gentile alike. Cornelius is a centurion and a Gentile, and thus not someone with whom a pious Jew would ordinarily interact. But Peter visits anyway. Upon arrival, Peter proclaims the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection with the authority of one who witnessed all that occurred.

In the passage immediately following today’s reading, the Holy Spirit falls upon the people to whom Peter is speaking, and they are baptized. Peter asks, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” There is an echo here of the story of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 who asks, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” In both passages, the outsider is welcomed in.

Peter’s testimony of the Easter story to outsiders underscores the universality of the Gospel message. It is to be proclaimed to all.

  • Are there ways in which we limit the message of the Gospel in our own time? Are there people to whom we fail to preach?
  • What might we learn if we were to see ourselves not as Peter but as Cornelius, not as the confident witness to Jesus’s life and resurrection, but as the outsider seeking to understand God’s ways?

Psalm 118:1-2, 14:24

Psalm 118 is a song of rejoicing and a proclamation of victory—a victory that is God’s doing. “The right hand of the Lord has triumphed!” “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

The psalm is a song of victory—but notice that it is a surprising and unexpected victory. “The same stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” God’s victory turns on that which is rejected and cast aside.

  • Where do you see God acting in unexpected ways, making use of the stone which the builders have rejected?
  • What would it take for us to pray with the simple joy of the psalmist, “On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it”?

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

In what is perhaps Paul’s clearest statement of the Easter story, he reminds the Corinthians of what they already know—that Christ died, was buried, and was raised. On Easter Sunday, we remind ourselves of the same thing yet again.

Pride mingles with humility as Paul describes himself as “the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle.” But apostle he is. And through the grace of God, he has worked harder than any of the other witnesses to the Resurrection to share the good news. Nonetheless, it is more important that the Gospel story be shared than that he be the one to share it.

  • What do we need to remind ourselves of on this Easter Sunday? What old story do we need to hear again?
  • How might we join with Paul in reminding ourselves and others of the truth of the Resurrection?

John 20:1-18

It is a familiar story. Indeed, it is the central story of the Christian faith. And yet it is a story that still has the power to shock. Christ is risen. And all is changed.

In John’s telling of Easter morning, Mary Magdalene arrives to discover the empty tomb and immediately imagines that Jesus’s body has been stolen away. She runs to find Peter and the other disciple “whom Jesus loved.” They come to investigate, but do not fully understand, and they return to their homes. It is Mary who remains at the tomb long enough to speak to the man she supposes to be the gardener.

It is only when Jesus says Mary’s name that she recognizes him for who he is.

A name is a powerful thing. We are told elsewhere in the scriptures that the God who created us and formed us also calls us by name (cf. Isaiah 43:1). When Jesus calls Mary’s name, she knows him as her teacher, and seeks to hold on to him. And he sends her out to proclaim the news of his resurrection.

  • Have you ever experienced Christ’s presence in an unexpected face?
  • Jesus calls Mary’s name and she recognizes him in that instant. How can we recognize the moments when God calls our own names?

Margaret McGhee is a third-year student at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and is a candidate for the priesthood in the Diocese of New York. Prior to seminary, she worked as a lawyer and as a technology consultant.

Download the Bible study for Easter (B).

Bible Study, Palm Sunday (B) – March 25, 2018

[RCL]: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47 

Isaiah 50:4-9a

As we begin Holy Week, this passage in Isaiah reminds us of God’s help in times of distress. This passage was likely written during the time of Babylonian exile in the 6th Century BC—a time of great suffering and disorientation for the Israelites. Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion would have been similarly devastating for the disciples. The Israelites experienced the destruction of their temple and physical exile to a foreign land; the disciples faced the death of their teacher and the fear and uncertainty of what the future might hold. This passage assures us that even in times of persecution and doubt, God is our help. Isaiah finds strength from God both in confronting his adversaries and in comforting those in need. We, too, can find sustenance from God this week and in our own moments of exile, pain, or uncertainty.

  • Isaiah writes, “The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (v. 50:4). How have you been comforted by the words of others? How has God helped you to speak words of comfort to those in need?

Psalm 31:9-16

Psalm 31 is a particularly visceral depiction of the author’s pain and suffering. The author’s entire body—his eye, throat, belly, and bones—are consumed by affliction. The Psalmist also conveys a deep sense of loneliness, abandonment, and self-loathing. He writes, “I am forgotten like a dead man,” and “I am as useless as a broken pot” (v. 31:12).

At times, we may find ourselves in a similar state to this psalmist. We may know what it is like to feel as though our bodies and minds are completely overtaken by sadness and fear. Yet the Psalmist does not lose sight of God’s goodness, even in the midst of his pain. He calls on God to save him by God’s “loving kindness.” He affirms his trust in God and asks for God to rescue him.

  • How do you find comfort and strength in times of sadness? What feelings—physical or emotional—does this Psalm bring up for you?

Philippians 2:5-11

Holy Week is an opportunity for us to confront the tension between Jesus’ humanity and his Lordship. In this passage, Paul reminds us that Jesus chose to journey alongside humanity. As part of that journey, he endured the worst of human suffering, even to the point of death. This week, we will imagine what it was like for Jesus and the disciples in his final days; some of us will reenact aspects of Jesus’ last acts on earth through foot washing, overnight vigils, and dramatic passion narratives. At the same time, we will anticipate the joy of Easter and the hope of the Resurrection that affirms our faith in Jesus, the Messiah.

Paul implores us to take on the “same mind” as Christ. We are asked to embrace humanity in its fullness and to appreciate the paradoxical proximity of humanity to God: the more we empty and humble ourselves, the closer we draw to experiencing the glory of God.

  • How do you relate to Jesus during Holy Week? Which parts of Jesus’ final days on earth capture your heart and imagination the most?

Mark 15:1-47

When we read the Passion in our services on Palm Sunday, we ask the congregation to identify with the “crowd” (v. 15:8). The congregation shouts, “Crucify him!” when Pilate offers to release Jesus. It makes sense that we would cast the congregation in this role—after all, it offers the congregation a speaking part and it gives us an opportunity to imagine that we might be responsible, in some way, for the brokenness of the world—but there are many other players in this narrative with whom we might identify. In the final verses of Mark’s passion narrative, we learn that the women who have followed and provided for Jesus throughout his ministry were watching his crucifixion from a distance. The scripture does not tell us about the whereabouts of the male disciples; they seem to be absent from the whole scene, but several women have stayed to watch Jesus die and to see what will become of his body.

  • Imagine what it would have been like to be one of the women who followed Jesus. Why do you think the women stayed after all the other disciples left? 

Anne Marie Witchger is a candidate for ordination in the Episcopal Church. She received a B.A. in Religion from Earlham College, a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary, and will complete a Master of Arts in Ministry from General Theological Seminary in 2018. Anne Marie currently works as the Outreach Coordinator and Chief of Staff at the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Manhattan. In her free time, Anne Marie loves to bake, write, ride her bike, and brew kombucha with her husband, Joshua.

Download the Bible study for the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday (B).

Bible Study, Lent 5 (B) – March 18, 2018

[RCL] Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

Jeremiah 31:31-34

The prophet Jeremiah was active in the final years of the kingdom of Judah, leading up to the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the Temple in 586 BC and the Jewish people’s exile in Babylon. In the face of this impending destruction, he nevertheless foresaw a restored life for the people, one in which they would be even closer to God than before. God promised to maintain a covenantal relationship with the people, just as he had after the Exodus—but instead of a law written on stone tablets, God would write the law of the new covenant on their hearts. Later Christian interpreters would see themselves as the recipients of this “new covenant” or, in one Latin translation, Novum Testamentum, from which we get the term “New Testament.”

  • Have you ever felt comforted by a promise during a difficult time?
  • What would it look like for God to write his law on your heart? Has your Lenten practice helped you move toward this vision?

Psalm 51:1-13

The Church has long recognized Psalm 51 as a central psalm of penitence and contrition; it is a major part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, where its penitential tone sets the stage for Lent. The editors of the Psalms described it as “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba,” linking its general themes of sin and repentance to a specific instance of sin. The words of the psalm, when lifted out of the context of this story, can apply to almost any human life. The psalm’s great power comes from the potential each person has to find herself or himself in it.

  • We frequently confess our sins against God and our neighbor, but the psalm claims that, “Against you only have I sinned” (v. 4). In what sense are sins against neighbors sins against God?
  • The psalm builds toward a prayer for a “clean heart” and a “right spirit,” for the joy and sustenance of the Holy Spirit. Have you ever felt refreshed or renewed by confessing where you’ve gone wrong?

Hebrews 5:5-10

The curious figure of Melchizedek appears twice in the Old Testament. Melchizedek, whose name means “King of Righteousness,” is called the “King of Salem” (that is, Jerusalem) and a “priest of God Most High” in Genesis 14, where he offers bread and wine and blesses Abram. Psalm 110 addresses the king in a royal psalm, saying, as Hebrews quotes here, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

In ancient Judaism, priests regularly offered sacrifices of many kinds in the Temple, which was the main form of worship. The high priest played the key role of cleansing the Temple of impurity on the annual Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. In this passage, Hebrews combines these and other images from Scripture to describe Jesus: Son of God, righteous king, high priest, suffering servant, obedient follower.

  • What are some of the images that help you understand Jesus? Righteous King? Royal priest? Shepherd? Brother? How do these different names change the way you see him?

John 12:20-33

This “passion prediction” is one of the instances in the gospels in which Jesus says something suggesting the way he will die, and what effect his death will have. This passage is only about halfway through the gospel, continuing a series of sayings beginning in the earliest chapters of John, in which Jesus proclaims the saving power of his coming death. After hearing that “some Greeks” have come to see him, Jesus promises that he will “draw all people” to himself. “Greeks” here likely means “people who are not Jews,” as it does elsewhere in the New Testament, rather than people from what we would now call Greece. The idea that Greeks are coming to Jesus is therefore a physical embodiment of his relationship with “all people.”

  • How has Jesus drawn you to himself? Has his death on the cross been an important part of that attraction? Why or why not?
  • What does it mean in the 21st century that Jesus will draw “all people” to himself? Do you have a part to play in that process?

Greg Johnston is a third-year student at Berkeley Divinity School and a candidate for ordination to the priesthood in the Diocese of Massachusetts. He has served the Church in urban parishes, campus ministry, and community organizing, in Massachusetts and Connecticut. He currently lives in New Haven with his wife Alice Kenney, and he spends most of his free time running, cooking, or reading mystery novels.

Download the Bible study for Lent 5 (B).

Bible Study, Lent 4 (B) – March 11, 2018

[RCL] Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

Numbers 21:4-9

Earlier this year, I made my first transatlantic flight from the United States to Italy. When I first received my plane ticket, I took note of the fact that I would be on an airplane for close to ten hours, but I didn’t fully grasp what it would be like to be confined to such a small space for such a long period of time. Only a few short hours into the flight and I found myself obsessively checking the “flight tracker” on the screen on the back of the seat in front of me. I was overcome with impatience, yet I was powerless to change anything about my situation. Knowing from my own experience that patience is a rare virtue, I can’t blame the Israelites for growing restless as they wandered in the desert. If you or I were in their place, chances are we would have reacted in a similar way. Perhaps then the lesson we may learn from this passage is not that we should be able to remain perfectly patient at all times, but that we should not allow our impatience to cause us to lose sight of the God who calls us out, journeys with us, and will not abandon us in the wilderness.

  • Imagining your life as a journey, to what destination are you currently traveling?
  • In moments where you have felt lost, how have you been reminded of the presence of God in your life?

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

“[The Lord’s] mercy endures for ever.” Forever? Forever is a long time—unfathomable even at the limits of our imagination. We struggle to comprehend how anything could last forever, because all of our life is defined by limitations and boundaries. We are born and soon after we discover that this life, as we currently know it, will not last forever. For this reason and if we are wise, we seek to make the most of our lives—living fully into each moment. Still, even in our knowing that this life will not last forever, we fail. We make mistakes and we fall short of the plans we make to become the best version of our selves. Today—in our Psalm, we are reminded that it is in our limitedness that we find reason to give thanks to the Lord, for we have been redeemed and his mercy endures forever, extending beyond the limits of our wildest imagination and the boundaries of this temporal life.

  • As we contemplate the everlasting mercy of God, in what ways do you feel challenged to be more merciful to others in your life?

Ephesians 2:1-10

As we contemplate our futures, it is easy to allow our hearts and minds to become anxious about how our lives will turn out. Will I get the job or promotion I’ve been wanting? Have I saved enough to retire or to help my children get a good education? Have I invested my time and efforts in the right relationships? So often, our anxieties about the future are products of our own desire to earn and control the future we desire. In today’s epistle, we are reminded that our ultimate future is not the product of our own hands and hard work, nor is it based on our own worthiness or our ability to discern the most fruitful decisions. Rather—our future was determined for us when we were most unworthy. God, “who is rich in mercy” chose us while we were yet sinners and gave us the gift of salvation. Today, we give thanks for we are what God made us—created in Christ Jesus for good works.

  • What questions about the future currently keep you up at night?
  • How might attempting to turn these worries over to God, who is “rich in mercy,” help relieve anxiety in your life?

John 3:14-21

Several years ago, in an attempt to live a healthier lifestyle, I took up the hobby of running. Now—even after running several times a week for almost five years, I find that I still learn new things, on a regular basis, that make me a better runner. Last year, for example, I discovered the importance of looking up and beyond my current stride while running. I learned this while jogging up a steep incline with my head down and not noticing a raised edge in the sidewalk just tall enough to catch the toe of my shoe. Suddenly and without warning I lost control of my stride and began to fall—for what seemed like a solid minute of trying to regain my balance. My downfall—no pun intended—was brought on by my stubborn refusal to look up beyond the present moment to see and prepare myself for what was coming next. Similarly—in life, it is tempting to be so fixated on our current circumstances that we can forget to look up and see that God has already lifted up and provided a Savior for all the world—who seeks to redeem and make all things new—even our present circumstance.

  • How might trusting God to provide for your present circumstance free you up to see and prepare for what lies ahead?

Josh Woods is currently an M.Div. student in his senior year at the Seminary of the Southwest. He is also a Chaplain Candidate for the United States Air Force Reserve, preparing for parish ministry and reserve chaplaincy after his ordination. He lives in Austin, Tex., with his wife Laura and their two dogs, Roxie and Ezra.

Download the Bible study for Lent 4 (B).

Bible Study, Lent 3 (B) – March 4, 2018

[RCL] Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

Exodus 20:1-17

The recitation of the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, will likely be familiar to listeners of this week’s Old Testament reading, and many might have images of a technicolor Charlton Heston descending from the mountain, tablets in hand. But what’s striking in this reading is that God—not Moses—is speaking directly to the Israelites. Hearing directly from the Divine would have left quite an impact on these former Egyptian slaves as they made their way through the desert.

There’s an order to the commandments as well—get in right relationship with God (the first four commandments) and then you can be in right relationship with each other (the remaining six). The directives aren’t meant to micro-manage our lives, but to apply constant pressure, the pressure of discipleship and formation, that can continue to guide us toward a life that is in right relationship with God, creation, and each other.

  • Where are some areas where we are individually or collectively out of synch with God’s directives?
  • What are some small practices that we might initiate to help re-form our lives to be in better relationship with God and with each other?

Psalm 19

The psalm opens with what might be imagined as a wondrous cacophony of sound as all creation attests to God’s glory. Each day eagerly shouts to the next, and each night whispers God’s glory above our slumber—yet the sounds aren’t heard (v. 3). One is tempted to hold an ear to the ground to catch even a glimmer of the joyous noise.

It takes God’s laws and decrees—Torah—to help translate the celestial symphony for our ears. By letting ourselves be molded by God’s directives, we can begin to hear and see the glorious celebration going on around us all the time. Finally, as we journey deeper and deeper into our relationship with God—allowing ourselves to be formed and shaped and forgiven—we can humbly submit our own voice to the worship, with the plea: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.” What a joyous noise indeed!

  • Where can we hear the celebration of God’s glory in the world around us? What is it calling us to do in response?

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

When looked at from the outside—as many of the Greeks and Jews of Corinth would have seen them—these Christ believers had an “upside-down” view of reality. Weakness is strength and death is salvation. The Apostle Paul highlights the paradox of the cross and establishes a neat dichotomy to drive unity for the church in Corinth: be among those who are perishing or with those who are living. Who wouldn’t choose life, under the circumstances?

Paul is trying to mend a divided church in Corinth, where the wealthy members, lured by the Corinthian ideal of clever oratory (and possibly disappointed with Paul’s own admitted mumblings) are tempted to segregate from their poorer counterparts and create their own ideal of church. Paul recognizes that they are missing the point. He forces them—and us—to stare directly into the shame and tragedy of the cross and, in so doing, put all humankind on equal footing. None of us is greater than another—no matter what our earthly skills or accomplishments might suggest—and all are far weaker than God’s apparent weakness and more foolish than God’s seeming foolishness.

  • What divisions do we still see that threaten to divide us today? How might a Divine view of things yield solidarity across division?

John 2:13-22

This week’s gospel reading plays with the notion of time in a number of ways. First, Jesus’ disruption at the Temple takes place at the beginning of his mission, not at the end as it appears in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Second, his zeal causes his disciples to reflect back on Psalm 69—“Zeal for your house has eaten me up”—as Jesus unexpectedly turns over tables and throws money on the floor. Finally, there’s what might be called a memory nugget—something said that might not make total sense in the moment but, in hindsight, is clear as day. When asked for a sign, Jesus radically states that the temple, under construction for many years, can be razed and reconstructed in merely three days. One imagines the quizzical looks exchanged by the disciples in the moment, their own disbelief at Jesus’ wild overture. Only in looking back, through the lens of Jesus’ death and resurrection, would the statement make sense. What seemed an impossible claim in the moment would become, in the end, a proof point that Jesus as Christ had replaced the earthly temple once and for all.

  • What memory nuggets in your own formation, in retrospect, serve as proof points for your own faith?
  • What difficult or challenging events or, conversely, times of wonder and awe, still serve to strengthen your faith?

This Bible study was written by Gregory Warren of the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas.

Download the Bible study for Lent 3 (B).

Bible Study, Lent 2 (B) – February 25, 2018

[RCL] Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Although Abraham and Sarah enacted their own solution in response to Sarah being unable to conceive a child (Abram had a child, Ishmael, with Hagar, Sarai’s slave-girl), thirteen years later, God appears and reveals that Sarah will conceive a son, through whom Abraham will “be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” Sarah “will give rise to nations,” and “kings of people will come from her.” Abraham does not rationalize or make excuses for enacting his and Sarah’s solution; he prostrates himself in response to being in the presence of Almighty God.

Reviewing one’s life in the presence of God and identifying areas for correction need not cause shame and guilt; being in the presence of the Divine can evoke awe and humility, whatever one’s present state of being. While one may sense that he or she has lost the way in discerning and following the ways of God, there are repeated invitations to turn back to God. Every day we may come before God to renew our relationship and the course of our lives in response to God’s call.

  • Are there any areas of your life in which God might be inviting you to change course or start anew?

Psalm 22:23-30

The passage from this psalm reveals an invitation to praise God in thanksgiving for God’s acceptance of us. Our praise may take various forms, one of which is gathering for common worship. Gathering with our local communities, as communities of faith gather throughout the world, we are reminded of God’s loving, merciful presence to all peoples. Moreover, our worship of God transcends time and space; through God, we remain connected with those whom we love, but see no longer.

  • How might your praise and worship of God draw you into closer relationship with others?
  • As you consider the people whom you love, but see no longer, how might worshipping God be an experience of being connected with them?

Romans 4:13-25

The themes of God’s justice and righteousness are woven together throughout Paul’s letter to the Romans. Today’s reading explores the righteousness of Abraham, a righteousness bestowed through faith. Some of Paul’s Jewish contemporaries boasted in their covenantal relationship with God as a unique bond between themselves and God—a relationship to which the Gentiles did not have access. Paul, on the contrary, asserted that righteousness ultimately comes through faith. He presents Abraham as the ancestor of all the faithful, Jews and Gentiles alike. One’s righteousness through a covenantal relationship with God extends beyond ethnic identity; it is available to all people. Paul offers a message of unity in a context of division; that context of division is rooted in valuing ethnic identity above common humanity.

  • As we reflect on the relevance of this message today, what conversations are creating divisions in the Church and in the world, and how might we, like the apostle Paul, be messengers of unity?

Mark 8:31-38

This passage from Mark includes an announcement of Jesus’ passion and a statement of conditions of discipleship. The juxtaposition of these two ideas reveals the connection between self-sacrifice and being a follower of Jesus.

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Jesus addresses these challenging words to the crowd and his disciples. We, his present-day disciples, can hear these words addressed to our lives– what we wish to save or preserve, and what we are willing to give up. Being inordinately attached to aspects of one’s “life,” in terms of external attributes and circumstances, can diminish the vitality of one’s interior life, one’s soul. Jesus invites us, as we consider his life and ours, to seek the perspective of God in discerning how to nurture our souls and devote ourselves to living the Gospel in faithful service to Jesus.

  • What areas of your life might God be inviting you to let go of in order to deepen and strengthen your interior life?
  • What might it mean for you to “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus,” in the present circumstances of your life?

The Reverend Denise Muller is a transitional deacon, canonically resident in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. She will complete a Diploma of Anglican Studies at the Seminary of the Southwest in May 2018. She received a Master of Arts in Theology and Biblical Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary and a Master of Public Health from Loma Linda University. She completed a Certificate of Spiritual Direction through Christian Formation and Direction Ministries and a Certificate of Supervision of Spiritual Directors through Mercy Center. She is a spiritual director and has served as the Arizona Field Director for a national prison ministry organization. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, reading, and visiting art museums.

Download the Bible study for Lent 2 (B).