Bible Study: 5 Lent (B)

March 22, 2015

Jason Poling, General Theological Seminary

“Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’” (John 12:23-25)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Few passages in the Old Testament are as important – or as difficult to understand – as Jeremiah’s prophecy about the “new covenant.” The writer of Hebrews cites this passage not once but twice (Chapters 8-10), a dense passage describing his/her understanding of the relationship between the old covenant with Israel and the new covenant with the church. Certainly this passage haunts Paul’s consideration of the matter in Romans 9:11. And according to many important manuscripts, which our Prayer Book follows, our Lord Jesus Christ himself alluded to it in what we know as the “Words of Institution” from Matthew 26:28.

The major challenge for us as Christians is to understand how God may institute a new covenant while not abrogating the old one. Certainly what Jeremiah is describing here – what Jeremiah says the Lord is describing here – is a new covenant in radical continuity with the old one. It, too, is with God’s people, their unfaithfulness notwithstanding. Yet what we read about here has important elements of discontinuity as well.

What are the elements of continuity and discontinuity between the old and new covenants, as described in this passage and the verses around it?

The succeeding verses (35-37) seem to indicate that God’s promises are permanent. How may we understand this to be true if God is replacing an old covenant with a new one?

Psalm 51:1-13 and Psalm 119:9-16

The two psalms that may be read this week complement each other like a hand in a glove – or a broken leg in a cast. The epigraph for Psalm 51 states that David composed this psalm when his prophet Nathan enabled him to see the gravity of his sin in committing adultery with Bathsheba and arranging the murder of husband Uriah to cover up his crime (2 Samuel 11:1-12:15). But all of us can relate to this psalm, even if our sins are less impressive. Who of us hasn’t had the experience of waking up – literally or figuratively – to the awareness that we have offended God, violated our own conscience, harmed others and sowed chaos in the world we live in?

In Form One of the rite of the Reconciliation of a Penitent in our Prayer Book, after confessing his/her sins to God, the church and the priest, the penitent person states, “I firmly intend amendment of life” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 447). Our passage in Psalm 119 offers welcome guidance for the person Jesus has picked up and dusted off. We are seldom so interested in keeping our way pure than we are after seeing the mess we’ve made of it by our sin. The author of this psalm describes God’s word not as something he accepts grudgingly, or in the absence of better options – no, God’s word is something in which he delights. What’s being described here is not what Dallas Willard has called “the gospel of sin management” (“The Divine Conspiracy,” HarperCollins, 1997); the psalmist is talking about living well, and about how God’s guidance enables rather than frustrates that valid human desire. That’s what Jesus’ uncle Zechariah celebrated in his song: “that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (Luke 1:74-75).

Be honest: When you pick up the Bible, do you think of it as a source for living life well? If you do, did you always think so? If not, did you ever?

Are there times when, like the psalmist, you have delighted in reading scripture? Can you imagine that ever being the case for you?

Hebrews 5:5-10

Here the author of Hebrews has three high priests in mind: Melchizedek, the high priest described in Torah, and Jesus. Most of his hearers – people from a Jewish background who had come to recognize Jesus as Israel’s Messiah – would naturally have been thinking of the high priest Moses described as the person who would make atonement for God’s people on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. But the writer of Hebrews stretches back to some of the earliest stories in the Bible (Genesis 14:18-20) to recall the shadowy Melchizedek, described there as both King of Salem (in Hebrew, Shalem) and a priest of God Most High (in Hebrew, ’El ‘Elyon) to whom Abraham brought a tithe of the spoils from his victorious rescue of his hapless nephew Lot. The writer then says that Jesus is a high priest “according to the order of Melchizedek” (verse 6; see also Psalm 110:4), bringing together nearly the entire sweep of biblical history in this claim about Jesus’ ministry.

Read Psalm 110. How would it have been understood by the people who first sang it? How do you understand it in light of what the author of Hebrews says in our passage? What’s similar? What’s different?

A few verses before our passage, the author of Hebrews says that because Jesus is the sort of high priest that he is, he is “able to deal gently” (verse 2) with us. How does verse 8 of our passage illuminate that statement?

John 12:20-33

A friend of mine who is a Presbyterian pastor has the second verse of this passage in the old King James translation inscribed on her pulpit, facing the preacher: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” (At my church we have inscribed John 13:27: “What you are about to do, do quickly.”) Her inscription is a good reminder to any preacher or teacher that ultimately, what draws any person to Jesus’ disciples is nothing other than Jesus himself.

In this passage we have gentiles who feared the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob coming to Philip not to see him, or Andrew, or any of the other disciples, but Jesus. To the degree we lead people to Jesus, we are his disciples. To the degree we fail to, we are simply indulging in religious exercises for our own sake.

Think about your congregation’s programming. How is it designed to lead people to Jesus himself? How might it be failing to do so because it only leads people to your congregation’s programming?

Bible Study: 4 Lent (B)

March 15, 2015

Michael Toy, Princeton Theological Seminary

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

Numbers 21:4-9

This passage finds the people of Israel after they have left Egypt and journeyed through the wilderness. Bullied by the Edomites, the Israelites become impatient on the circuitous route and repeat their malcontented refrain: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” God responds by sending poisonous snakes among the people, killing many. The people come to Moses and ask for him to intercede on their behalf. The serpents were themselves the affliction, and in an act of ironic salvation, the Lord uses a serpent of bronze to become the instrument of healing for those bitten.

Upon a first reading, this punishment hardly seems to fit the crime the Israelites commit. But this event is not an isolated incident. The people have complained before, and in fact, they refused to enter into the Promised Land for fear of its occupants. How is this story harmonious or dissonant with your conception of God’s justice? Is all suffering some kind of divine discipline or punishment?

Though the people of Israel are unhappy with Moses and God, the one thing that is never in doubt is God’s presence among the people. When the people complain against God, the Lord hears. When the people repent, God hears and responds with healing and relief from suffering.

Can you think of a time you felt that God led you to a place of wilderness?

In what ways has God delivered you from bondage as God delivered the Israelites from Egypt?

Wherever you are on your life journey – whether feeling the joy of healing and wholeness or in the miserable trek through wilderness – how and where do you see God accompanying you?

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

This psalm of thanksgiving recounts the deliverances of Israel by the Lord. The refrain in this psalm is “Let them give thanks to the Lord for his mercy, and the wonders he does for his children.” Though the people of Israel were perennially disobedient and rebellious, when they turned to God, the Lord had mercy and saved them. The actions of God elicits a response from the psalmist, who commands the people of Israel to give thanks to the Lord and to “tell of his acts with shouts of joy.” For the psalmist, there is no way to repay God’s mercy, but the response is thanksgiving and proclamation of God’s actions.

In what ways has God done wonders for you?

What are the “foes” from which you have been redeemed?

How can you follow the instruction of the psalmist and proclaim these blessings and grace?

Ephesians 2:1-10

The author of Ephesians eloquently paints a picture of death and renewal in this passage. Before there was death, but now, through Christ, there is life. Before “we were by nature children of wrath,” but now we are seated in the heavenly places with God’s own son. All of this is accomplished through God’s grace, not out of any human work. This passage is often quoted to emphasize that humans do nothing to earn God’s love or grace, yet at the end of the passage the author states that we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works.”

There is nothing that humans do to earn God’s love, grace or mercy, but that does not mean that good works are irrelevant. It is a matter of order. First and primary is our identity in Christ Jesus. Second, stemming from our identity is the way of life that God has prepared for us. The reason that Christians do good works is not in order to earn God’s love or mercy but rather in response to God’s action. Our good works are not in pursuit of a reward, for we have already received the immeasurable riches of God’s grace.

What does it mean to you to be a recipient of God’s grace?

Identities such as parent, child, spouse, employee or employer come with certain duties. How does your identity in Christ bring new or different duties?

Though our identity as Christians has shifted from death to life, that hardly means Christians are now perfected. In what ways do you recognize a movement from pursuing “the desires of flesh and senses” to the way of life that God has prepared?

John 3:14-21

One of the Jewish religious leaders, Nicodemus, meets with Jesus at night for fear of his peers’ judgment. It is in this conversation that we find perhaps the most well-known Bible verse of all time, John 3:16. This statement of God’s love and promise of eternal life in Jesus is tied by John to the serpents in today’s reading from Numbers 21. Just as the instrument of affliction became the instrument for healing to the people of Israel, so through Jesus death itself becomes the vehicle for imperishability. Death, the very enemy of life, has become the portal into eternal life.

In each of these passages, we see the people of the Lord have been delivered from death and brought into life. The merciful and salvific actions of God were never in response to the good works of the people, but rather stem from God’s identity and God’s grace. Now the Christian’s identity is that of one saved by grace from the grave, from affliction and the desires of the senses. From that identity, we live into the way of life God intended, doing good and proclaiming God’s goodness.

Nicodemus came to Jesus at night for fear of his peers. But as it is written in this chapter, those who do what is true have no reason to hide in darkness but to come to the light. It is not easy proclaiming God’s goodness in a modern world that has little value for religion. Yet we are commanded to proclaim God’s goodness in thankfulness through word or good deeds.

In what situations or circumstances are we likely to mute our proclamation, whether through word or deed? In the workplace? In our social circles?

How can we find the strength to live into our identity as the people of God?

Death is still a frightening force in the world. What about death scares you?

What strength do we find in the Gospel of John that those who believe in God’s Son will not perish but will have eternal life?

Bible Study: 3 Lent (B)

March 8, 2015

Christine Havens, Seminary of the Southwest

“In the temple Jesus found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’” (John 2:14-16)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

Exodus 20:1-17

This week’s Old Testament reading is the first instance in the narrative of the exodus of Israelites from Egypt in which the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) appears. It appears again in Exodus 34, immediately following the making of the golden calf, when Moses carries the tablets down from the mountain.

In this narrative, the people are privy to God’s voice, are present for the thunder and sounding of trumpets that herald the Lord’s approach; Moses brings the people to meet God (verses 17-20). After God has spoken the ordinances, which might be a better word than “commandments,” the people decide that they want Moses to act as mediator between themselves and the Lord (verses 18-19), because direct contact with God and his voice is too awesome, too overwhelming. The sign was both a gift and a test designed to help them keep from sin.

The Decalogue is not an everyday occurrence in our liturgy; it appears as an optional opening to the Liturgy of the Word in the Book of Common Prayer (p. 324). When was the last time you recited the Decalogue? Perhaps as part of the liturgy on the First Sunday in Lent?

Exodus does not record any response of the people as they heard God’s words; do you consider the Decalogue a conversation? Why or why not?

The Book of Common Prayer adds a response for the people (p. 317); read it and discuss whether this changes the “commandments.”

Psalm 19

Psalm 19 seems to be a work of contrasts, two discrete pieces, according to some scholars. The first six verses are labeled as a hymn to the sun; the remainder of the verses are devoted to torah (not only meaning “Law,” but also “instruction” and “learning”), having no clear connection to the beginning.

Have you ever read one of Shakespeare’s sonnets? Here are the first lines of Sonnet 116, one of his most familiar, and often encountered at weddings:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

One feature of the Shakespearean sonnet is that the final two lines (the couplet) take an unexpected turn from the first verses.

Read the psalm and then read the sonnet; consider the form of each. How are the two similar in form? Is there a turn in the psalm? If so, where does it come, and why might the psalm’s writer use such a turn?

Reread today’s Old Testament reading. Does the Decalogue share anything in common with Psalm 19? If so, what?

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

My church is located on the border of the University of Texas campus. This year, we celebrated Mardi Gras with a lawn party, complete with a live zydeco band. I volunteered to hand out beads to passing students and others, inviting them to not only to receive ashes with us the following day, but to come and join us for homemade gumbo and grilled sausage, free – no strings attached.

I’m a nerd, but like many, worry about making a fool out of myself, being considered weird, and thus being ostracized because of that perception. However, I jumped at the chance to wear green, gold and purple clothing, don my pinstripe blazer decorated with moons and stars, and grab my mask and drape my many beads around my neck.

As I began to ask passing people if they would like some beads, I was quiet and still, but as the afternoon wore on, I began to dance to the music, wave at passing cars and those on the opposite side of the street – reveling in the joy of it as people smiled, even though some of those smiles were the “I’m embarrassed for you” type of smile. And many passersby crossed the street or deliberately did not disengage from their cell phones. I handed out beads for three hours and felt more exhilarated as time passed – foolishness held no fear for me as the momentary community ebbed and flowed. Those who were “wise,” who considered those who believe to be “fools,” missed something precious.

And so, in the midst of the solemn season of Lent, as we read Paul’s words about human wisdom and God’s wisdom, ask yourself, “Where is the foolishness of the cross in my life?”

John 2:13-22

Today’s gospel is the Johannine version of Jesus’ interaction with the moneychangers and sacrifice sellers within the Temple in Jerusalem. Unlike the three synoptic gospels, John’s christology places the event early in the narrative, right after the Wedding at Cana, where Jesus performs the changing of water into wine, the first sign.

Jesus’ zealous actions provoke the Jews present to ask for a sign “for doing this.” What gives him authority, in other words? Are they looking for a miraculous sign? Would they have heard about his actions in Cana?

Is it wise or foolish to look for signs as proof, as a reason to believe, to have faith in God or in Jesus? You might consider this a foolish question, but think about your own spiritual journey. Was there a moment or a time in your life when you turned away, when you doubted? What brought you back to God? A physical experience? Something you saw? Words from scripture? Something you heard?

Bible Study: 2 Lent (B)

March 1, 2015

Jessie Gutgsell, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’” (Mark 8:31-33)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

This story of God giving Abraham the covenant is the second time readers hear of this same covenant-granting process. The first account of the Abrahamic Covenant can be found in Genesis 15. Scholars determined that these two accounts are from two different sources for the Hebrew Bible (the J and P sources, respectively). This duplication is common in the Old Testament. (See the creation story, and Noah and the Ark, for example). In this case, both Genesis 15 and 17 agree on the general framework of the story, but they argue over some details.

The Abrahamic Covenant is the second of the major covenants that God gives in the Old Testament. The first is the Noahic Covenant (Genesis 9), and the Sinaitic/Mosaic Covenant will follow, with the giving of the Ten Commandments (beginning in Exodus 19). All of these covenants have different signs to bind them, and different people they are intended for. The Abrahamic Covenant in the passage for today promises that all those who bless Abraham will be blessed and given the gift of the Promised Land. The sign of the covenant is the name change of Abram and Sarai, and also circumcision. In Genesis 17’s account of the covenant, the reader is told that the covenant will be eternal (17:7). However, this does not mean that Abraham and the generations to come do not have work to do. This captures one of the many paradoxes of faith: Abraham is given an eternal, not conditional, promise, but he still has responsibilities.

Some significant notes about this covenant in particular are that God initiates the covenant. Not only that, but scholars have determined that, based on the covenant structure, God is the one who is actually bound by this covenant, not Abraham. In this way, it almost seems as if God is the one who is taking the risk in initiating this promise with Abraham. This is a humbling thought indeed!

Consider the covenants you have made in your life (baptismal, marriage, ordination, etc.). Who initiated those covenants? What work do you do to nurture and respect those covenants?

Has there ever been a moment in your life when something so profound happened to you that it could’ve been (or was) marked with a change to your first name? Imagine what it must have been like for Abraham and Sarah to have their names changed, especially in their old age.

Psalm 22:22-30

When reading the assigned portion of the psalm for today, it can be easy to think, “Oh, this is just another nice psalm about praise.” It can read as a fairly typical psalm, nothing really out of the ordinary. What makes this psalm extraordinary, though, is looking at it in context of the entire psalm, not just verses 22-30.

The first verse of the Psalm 22 is “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These are the words that Jesus speaks on the cross in both Matthew and Mark. Directly before the point where our psalm begins for today, we find the verses “They cast lots for my clothing” (22:18), “But you, O Lord, do not be far away!” (22:19).

Read in the shadow of verses 1-21, the assigned portion of the psalm today almost explodes with meaning and praise. It’s all the more intense to offer such a resounding expression of praise, based strongly in a community, given the context of what came before. As the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary put it, this psalm effectively articulates the meaning of both the cross (“My God, my God…”) and the resurrection (“May your hearts live forever,” v. 26).

Reflect on a time in your life when you experienced deep sorrow, disappointment or grief. Perhaps that time is now. Have you been able to experience and articulate joy and hope in those times? Perhaps this psalm can serve as a model for this kind of praise.

Reading this psalm in its larger context completely changed the interpretation of the psalm. What in your life do you need to consider in its full context? What are you missing by not looking at the whole picture? This could be a personal relationship, a situation at work, an issue in your faith life or something else.

Romans 4:13-25

This dense passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans is in direct conversation with our Old Testament reading for today. Paul is emphasizing here that we are all children of Abraham and Sarah (verse 16), so the covenant is thus available to Jews and gentiles.

A major theme of this passage is the importance of a certain kind of faith (the faith of Abraham), over strict adherence to the Law. (See verse 15, for example.) This is the kind of arguing that Martin Luther picked up on in the Reformation when he was arguing against the Catholic notion of works-righteousness.

Paul is insisting on a strict imitation of the faith of Abraham. What most characterized Abraham’s faith? It was his trust, as can be seen in verse 20. Abraham was an old man, “already as good as dead” (verse 19), but he remained trusting of God.

All of this – our parenthood with Abraham and Sarah, and the strong need for trust rather than strict adherence to the Law – is tied up and made complete with a faith in Christ (verses 23-25). We all have a part to play in this great salvation history.

How much do you emphasize trust in your faith life? What does that or would that look like for you? How can you have the trust of Abraham and Sarah?

When is the last time you considered what it would be like to live more focused on your life of faith than strict adherence to law and rules? Even if you don’t follow Torah, what other parts of our society do you allow to guide your decisions and life? How can you live a life more directed by your faith?

Mark 8:31-38

This Passion prediction from Mark is one of the most crucial passages in Mark’s entire gospel. The same story also appears in Matthew, but in Mark, it serves to solidify some major themes of Mark’s message. Mark emphasizes that Jesus must be the suffering Son of Man (verse 31). Crucially, though, Mark did not see this suffering as a spectator activity for Jesus’ followers. Rather, as the challenging words of verses 35-38 say, Jesus’ followers must also make sacrifices and suffer. Jesus adds at the end that his followers should not be ashamed of their faith or the Son of Man, or they will be ashamed when the Son of Man returns to earth.

The Jesus presented in this passage is often not the Jesus people feel most comfortable with. He is blunt, speaking openly (verse 32), and he’s harsh to Peter after Peter’s rebuke of him (verse 33). While Matthew also includes this story, Jesus’ language and actions here are especially characteristic of Mark’s gospel. Mark was known for presenting a less “cuddly” Jesus than many would like to find. All in all, this Passion prediction challenged the people of Jesus’ time, and it continues to challenge modern readers in uncomfortable ways today.

What is your reaction to the actions and speech of Jesus in this passage? Is this a familiar image of the Jesus you’ve been taught about in your faith life?

Re-read verse 38. Have you ever been ashamed of your faith and hidden it from your friends or family? What caused you to do this? Are you seeking to strengthen your faith and relationships so this does not have to be the case again?

Bible Study: 1 Lent (B)

February 22, 2015

Steven M. Balke, Jr.Virginia Theological Seminary

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” (Mark 1:9-11)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

Genesis 9:8-17

As human beings, we seek to make sense of our world and our existence in it. We love to find explanations and bring meaning to what is happening around us. Early civilizations fashioned stories about why it rains long before the science of precipitation was understood, because we just had to know why it was happening.

Part of what makes wilderness intimidating is that it is full of the unknown. In a world where we so often want assurance and certainty, the wilderness is teeming with the uncontrollable and the unexpected. In Lent we are asked to embrace the wilderness in the hope that it will bring us closer to God, but exactly what is it about a wilderness discipline that brings us closer to God?

One answer is trust. To truly be close to God, we need to be able to trust in God, and one cannot exercise trust when one is only ever surrounded by certainty. The doubts with which we struggle in our lives – each one is like a rainstorm that could last for 40 days and 40 nights. God has promised us that they won’t, but the proof of the rainbow doesn’t appear before the storm. Lent is a chance to be aware of the doubts and unknowns that trouble us and to see them as an opportunity to trust in God’s promises to us.

When do you find it easy to face the unknown?

When do you find it difficult?

How do you practice placing your trust in God?

Psalm 25:1-9

Trying to trust God not only in certainty but also in the midst of doubt is a fitting Lenten discipline. This is especially true if one is struggling with self-doubt. Growing into a deeper, more trusting relationship with God means being able to trust God with the things that we find distasteful, shameful and unlovable about ourselves and trusting in God to love us anyway.

This psalm features some of the most powerful feelings a person can have: fear of being put to shame, anxiety of being judged unworthy of love, doubt that one’s mistakes can be forgiven, anger at being hurt or betrayed. It can be debilitating to think that we are beyond love, especially God’s love. The person singing this psalm is opening up to God about some of the most vulnerable and private self-doubts, trusting in God to love, teach, lead and extend mercy in response.

This Lent is not only a time to face the wilderness out in the world but – perhaps even harder – the wilderness within us. Engaging in a practice of being vulnerable with God, trusting that God will always respond with love, brings one into closer relationship with the divine.

Do you have fears and doubts that you feel as if you cannot share with anyone?

What does it mean to you that God has promised to unfailingly love you?

1 Peter 3:18-22

This Lent is a fine time to recognize that you and God growing closer together is a two-way street. Just as you work and learn and grow into a deeper relationship with God, God chose to dwell among us as a human to grow into deeper relationship with us. In living as a human, Jesus Christ alongside us, God knows what it is like to be joyous and to be sad, to be enveloped in love and to be in great pain. God knows what it is like to be generous to a stranger, to receive a kind act, and to trust in someone and get hurt. God made the choice to experience the full range of what it is like to be us, so God knows the unknown, the doubts and the fears we face every day. To trust in God is to trust in someone who gets us.

In Lent, we try to take on disciplines that bring us closer to God, but maybe one of the important things to remember is that we are already a lot like God, and God is a lot like us. As we step into the wilderness around us and face our own inner struggles, we are stepping into a wilderness and a struggle that God understands and in which God genuinely dwells with us.

When have you found someone who really understands what you’re going through?

When have you really understood what another person is feeling? Does that make you think about your relationship differently?

Mark 1:9-15

Given all the talk about giving up things for Lent, personal sacrifice, and just trusting in God, it is important to remember that there is a dark side to these things too. It is painfully marginalizing to people who is impoverished to tell them that they need to give things up to grow closer to God. It is terribly harmful to tell a person who is suffering from abuse that personal sacrifice is the answer. Telling someone to just trust in God can do great damage when praying for a sick loved one or a needed miracle fails to deliver. Lent is an important time to embrace living a disciplined life, but Christ did not ask us to harm each other or ourselves to make God happy.

Jesus responded to the gift of the Holy Spirit by going into the wilderness as a way to help prepare him for the work he was called to do. Any Lenten practice should be about looking for God in your life. The wilderness is about empowerment and exploring new parts of this relationship to understand where you and God are together in yet undiscovered ways. It will always involve facing the unknown, but that is because growth always involves the unknown. Lent gives us a chance to step into that unknown with God and come out stronger on the other end as a result.

When have you seen people hurt by well-meaning things people have said?

How can you take advantage of Lent as a chance for growth?

What would you like to accomplish between now and Easter?

Bible Study: Last Sunday After Epiphany (B)

February 15, 2015

Susan ButterworthEpiscopal Divinity School

“Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’” (Mark 9:2-5)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

2 Kings 2:1-12

There are two stories in this beautiful passage from Second Kings. One is the dramatic story of Elijah’s ascent to heaven, rich with imagery of God in the whirlwind, of chariots of fire and waters parting. It is a tale of prophets that connects Elijah with Moses and precipitates speculation about the nature of Elijah and his eventual return. The story within the story is Elisha’s grief: his desire to accompany Elijah on his final journey, even though he knows how the journey will end. Elisha’s determination to stay in the moment with his beloved teacher, against the counsel of the company of prophets who insist that the moment is passing, and his desire to inherit a double share of his teacher’s spirit are both touching and also prophetic. The ecstatic vision of the chariot of fire and the whirlwind subside; the passage ends with Elisha losing sight of Elijah and tearing his clothes in grief.

Many of us have taken or will take this final journey with a loved parent or mentor, or know someone who has. In what ways is the story of Elisha’s companioning Elijah to his ascent to heaven like a scene from hospice care? Consider the characters and their reaction to the situation. Elijah, Elisha, the company of prophets, God in the whirlwind, all have a part to play in the drama.

The prophet Elijah has been associated with the Messiah in both Jewish and Christian traditions. How does the concept of Messiah differ between Jews and Christians? How does Elijah relate to your conception of the Messiah?

Psalm 50:1-6

In these lines from Psalm 50, we hear an image of God as creator and judge. There is a way of thinking about God called “apophatic theology.” Sometimes called “negative theology,” this thinking holds that all of our names for God are inadequate. Since we can never name the unknowable and unnamable, the only way to describe God is by what God is not. Images or names such as Lord, Judge, Shepherd, Comforter or Slayer of the Wicked are all inadequate, only part of the vast greatness of God. The consuming flame and the raging storm in this passage are reminiscent of God’s appearance to Moses in the burning bush in Exodus 3. These images, along with the whirlwind in today’s passage from Second Kings, are considered apophatic images of God.

With your Bible study group, make a list of all of the names and images of God that you can think of from scripture. Add as many names and images as you can from your experience or imagination. In what ways do these names describe God? In what ways do they fail to describe God? Which of your images are concrete (called “cataphatic” in theological terminology)? Which of your images are apophatic?

2 Corinthians 4:3-6

In the Second Letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul is defending his authority as an apostle and leader of the church in Corinth against a new group of missionaries who have led some church members to reject Paul’s leadership and message. When Paul describes the gospel as “veiled,” he is referring to the veil that covered Moses’ radiant face when he brought the covenant from God to the people of Israel in Exodus 34:33. Earlier in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul has spoken of his boldness as a proclaimer of God’s word, contrasting himself with Moses who veiled his face. Paul asserts his strong message and style of leadership as a true apostle of Jesus Christ. Using images of light, Paul is direct and unequivocal in his assertion that the glory of God shines through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In what ways is the image of light as a metaphor for God’s teaching like the images of the whirlwind, the consuming flame and the raging storm in today’s lesson from 2 Kings and Psalm 50?

Does Paul connect Jesus with Moses and Elijah? How? Does he connect himself with the line of prophets?

What “god of this world” might blind us from seeing the Good News of Jesus Christ as preached by the apostle Paul?

Mark 9:2-9

In the story of the Transfiguration, Mark describes a mystical experience. Imagine the terror of Peter, James and John as they try to make sense of an experience that is unknowable and unexplainable. Mark clearly links Jesus with Moses and Elijah, those prophets who stand in God’s presence and can communicate God’s word. It is interesting to note that the Gospel of Mark does not include an appearance of Jesus after the tomb is discovered to be empty, so that some scholars consider the Transfiguration to be a resurrection appearance. The voice of God from the cloud and the injunction to “Tell No One” about what they have seen echoes the Elijah’s Ascent-to-Heaven passage from Second Kings that we heard earlier today. God’s faithfulness is a theme of the story; God has never left God’s people without a prophet to lead them, without help or hope.

Have you ever had a mystical experience when you felt that you were in God’s presence? Can you describe the experience? Were you afraid? Did you think of any biblical stories, prophets or images? Or was your experience beyond description?

One interpretation of the Transfiguration is that it is a glimpse of the end time, a promise of a kind of life that we cannot imagine, that is not visible to our earth-bound eyes. How do you imagine the Kingdom of God? What glimpses have you had of the ways in which the Kingdom of God is not comparable to anything in our human experience? What characteristics of the Kingdom of God can translate to earthly life? How?

The experience of the Transfiguration reminds the disciples of the transcendent glory of God. The voice from the cloud bids the disciples to listen to God’s beloved Son, Jesus. How might the apostle Paul have preached on this passage? How does it speak to you?

How does this passage mark a turning point from the liturgical season of Epiphany, with its emphasis on miracles and the Good News of God’s kingdom, and the season of Lent, with its emphasis on Jesus’ journey to suffering and the cross?

Bible Study: 5 Epiphany (B)

February 8, 2015

Susan ButterworthEpiscopal Divinity School

“Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” (Mark 1:30-31)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12, 21c; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

Isaiah 40:21-31

This passage is from Second Isaiah, written toward the end of the Babylonian exile. The prophet promises the people of Israel that deliverance from exile in Babylon is coming soon. The message is of consolation and the greatness of God the king and creator, a powerful God who is in control of history and events. The passage is lyrical, a series of rhetorical questions and images that show the power and wisdom of God the creator. Verses 21-24 describe a powerful maker of the world and its people who also controls their history. Verses 27-31 reassure God’s people that God is aware of their situation and will renew the strength of those who wait faithfully.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Try setting some of the passage to music, as G.F. Handel has famously done for the preceding passage Isaiah 40:1-11. Or try a dramatic reading with several people. Enjoy the language and the message of renewal.

Does God control history? Yes? No? To some extent? How? The incarnational theologians say that God entered history by becoming incarnate in Jesus. How does that idea relate to this passage from Isaiah?

Psalm 147:1-12, 21c

Psalm 147 is a hymn of praise incorporating themes and motifs from Isaiah 40. The emphasis is on God the creator. Praise of God’s power and wisdom is joined with praise of God’s care for the lowly. God’s people are called to sing and make music in praise of God, who loves and cares for creation. We are reminded that God and God’s people are in relationship. The joyful expression of faith brings God delight.

Look for motifs from today’s passage from Isaiah in the psalm. Notice the difference in voice. The passage from Isaiah is spoken from the point of view of a teacher and prophet; the psalm is the voice of the faithful listeners, the people of Israel. Try writing a dialogue or responsive reading based on the two passages.

Write a psalm of praise using your own images of care for creation. You might read your psalm as the Prayers of the People or as a blessing during a worship or prayer service, or for an opening or closing for your Bible study meeting.

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

The passage from the First Letter to the Corinthians expresses Paul’s thoughts on evangelism and on being paid by the church community. Today’s verses and the ones preceding them make it clear that the apostles in the early church expected to be supported by the community (v. 14). When Paul speaks of placing an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ in verse 12, he is worried that the financial burden of his support might prevent some from joining the church community. Paul has two motivations for preaching the gospel – his own free will and commission by God. For a true servant of God, doing God’s will by proclaiming the gospel is its own reward. Paul writes of being all things to all people, speaking to different groups in terms they can understand, so that he can convert more people, win more souls to become members of the community. Thus he proclaims the gospel for the glory of God and to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible.

What are the implications of lines 19-23 for preaching and evangelism in Paul’s time? In our time and place? What does evangelism mean to you?

Do you belong to a church community that supports its clerical leader financially? Does this affect the relationship between the proclaimer of the gospel and the community? Does it affect the way the gospel is proclaimed? Are there other models for support of the clergy? Is it possible or practical to proclaim the gospel with authority without material reward?

Mark 1:29-39

At this point in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has been the talk of the town. News of his healing and exorcism has spread from Capernaum throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. He is in great demand, having healed the mother-in-law of his friends Simon and Andrew, and has cured many diseases and cast out many demons for the people who have gathered to ask for his help.

Remember that when Jesus and his companions arrived at the synagogue in Capernaum in last week’s reading, Jesus taught with authority, proclaiming the Good News of God’s kingdom on earth, before he got sidetracked into healing and exorcism. The next morning, after praying by himself, Jesus’ sense of purpose is renewed. When the disciples come to tell him that everyone is looking for him, he tells them that it is time to move on to the neighboring towns to proclaim the message “for that is what I came out to do.” Jesus’ mission is to proclaim the message of the Kingdom of God.

What is the relationship between proclaiming the message and casting out demons? Is one more important than the other? Should Jesus stay in Capernaum and continue to heal and exorcise? Or is that a distraction from his mission? Can you think of a contemporary scenario similar to Jesus’ dilemma?

What is Jesus’ mission? Refer to Mark 1:1, Matthew 4:23-25 and Luke 4:42-44. Consider the irony that Mark’s readers and we know Jesus’ significance while his disciples do not. How does knowing his identity change your response to his decision to move on from healing in Capernaum to proclaim his message?

Bible Study: 4 Epiphany (B)

February 1, 2015

Susan ButterworthEpiscopal Divinity School

“Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him” (Mark 1:23-26)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

This passage defines the nature of a true prophet. A prophet is a gift from God. A true prophet is obliged to speak God’s truth – good news or bad – and must be heard and heeded by the people of God. A true prophet may not speak in the name of other gods, nor speak in God’s name what God has not commanded. In this sermon to the people of Israel, Moses reports God’s promise to raise up for them a prophet like him from among their own people. Christians have long interpreted Jesus to be this prophet – the “one like me from among their own people” – as is evidenced in the Gospel of Matthew’s strong identification of Jesus with Moses. In Acts 3: 22-23 ff, Peter reminds the congregation in Jerusalem of this promise, specifically naming Jesus as the appointed prophet and Messiah. He also reminds the congregation of their roots as people of Israel: “You are the descendants of the prophets and of the covenant that God gave to your ancestors” (Acts 3: 25).

In the name of what other gods might a false prophet speak? How can we distinguish between God’s commands and what God has not commanded?

Can you think of any prophets in our times? Someone you know or someone you’ve encountered in books, the news, social media?

How does the description of a true versus false prophet apply to the qualifications and trustworthiness of our community and religious leaders?

Psalm 111

Imagine this psalm as a response to the excerpt from Moses’ sermon that we read in today’s passage from Deuteronomy. The gathered people respond as a congregation with thanks and praise to God. In the opening verses, the people are thankful for God’s work and deeds, and for the gift of studying God’s word. On this day, they are especially thankful for God’s covenant with them, for the justice and steadfastness of God’s commandments, and for the fulfillment of God’s promises. Finally, they are ever mindful of the eternity of God. God’s righteousness and praise endure forever.

How does reading and meditating on this psalm connect worshipers here and now with the worshipers who might have heard Moses speaking in ancient times?

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

This passage from First Corinthians offers a fascinating glimpse into Paul’s first-century Christian community. The earliest Christians were Jewish followers of Jesus. In most cases, they followed the Jewish Law. It was the Jewish custom to refrain from eating the meat that was sold in the marketplace, because of the possibility that it had been used in pagan sacrifice. Paul’s mission was to bring the Good News of Christ to the gentiles. This is not the only time in his letters when he addresses whether or not a gentile (or pagan or Greek) must conform to Jewish practices in order to be a part of the community of followers of Jesus. Paul says those who possess the knowledge of Christ’s salvation understand that food has no bearing on one’s relationship to God. However, it is best not to cause discomfort to those who are offended by eating food sacrificed to idols. So do not sin against Christ by wounding the consciences of others. Later in the letter (1 Corinthians 10:32) Paul is quite specific in his instruction to his mixed community of Jews and gentiles: Do not offend the Jewish believers by what you eat.

What does this passage say to you about dietary laws, respect and religious tolerance? Are there specific examples from your campus community, workplace or multi-faith community that apply to this discussion?

Do you think Paul is advocating an inclusive tolerance within the Christian community at Corinth? Why or why not? What are the implications for multicultural intra- and inter-religious relations today?

Mark 1:21-28

Today’s passage from Mark returns to the question raised in Deuteronomy 18:15-20: How can we recognize a true prophet? While the people gathered in the synagogue in Capernaum react with surprise and wonder to Jesus’ teaching, the unclean spirit recognizes him immediately: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” The title Holy One of God is a reference to the prophet and healer Elisha (2 Kings 4:9). True to form as one who works and teaches in the tradition of the most honored prophets of the Jewish people, Jesus has authority to direct the power of God’s kingdom against the power of evil. “Be silent, and come out of him!” Jesus commands, and the spirit obeys. While the scribes depend on their knowledge of Torah and tradition for their authority, Jesus preaches and heals with the authority of one sent by God. As his fame spread throughout Galilee, might the people have wondered: Is this the prophet from among their own that God promised in his covenant with the people of Israel?

Imagine a conversation between two witnesses to this day’s events in the synagogue. One is struck with awe and wonder: Surely this is the prophet promised by God in Deuteronomy! The other is a skeptic and warns against being taken in by folk healers and false prophets. Try role-playing or a debate between these two points of view.

What is the relationship between authority in teaching and the power to exorcise? Why do you think the evangelist Mark chose to introduce the public ministry of Jesus with stories of healing and exorcism?

Try bringing this healing story into the 21st century. What demons might a new prophet need to cast out? How might the Good News of the Kingdom of God have power over such demons?

Bible Study: 3 Epiphany (B)

January 25, 2015

Susan ButterworthEpiscopal Divinity School

“As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’” (Mark 1:16-17)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:6-14; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

The Hebrew prophet Jonah has been sent by God to foretell the destruction of the city of Nineveh. Jonah is reluctant, and tries to escape God’s call. He boards a ship headed in the opposite direction; God sends a storm; the sailors throw Jonah overboard into the sea where he is swallowed by a great fish. In the belly of the fish, Jonah prays; and in his mercy, God delivers him from the great fish and sets him on dry land. Then Jonah answers God’s call and goes to Nineveh. The miracle is that the reluctant prophet is remarkably effective; as a result of his warning, the people repent and God forgives them.

The message of the book of Jonah is uplifting: God is willing to forgive those who repent. The importance of hearing prophets, of repentance and right action is affirmed: We can change God’s mind and save ourselves from calamity. Salvation is possible by our own intention and effort, with God’s grace. Jonah has answered God’s call and the results surprise him.

Can you think of a time when you have turned away from God’s call? Questioned God’s purpose for you? How did the outcome surprise you?

How does the story of the prophet Jonah challenge your assumptions about the God of the Hebrew Bible?

Psalm 62:6-14

This psalm might be called the Song of Jonah, as Jonah rejoices in his renewed trust in God and sense of purpose after he has been delivered from the great fish. The psalmist begins with personal experience; he affirms his trust in God. Then the psalmist’s voice turns to exhortation, urging the listeners to join in and find their safety in God. The psalmist offers a contrast, listing those temptations that interfere with trust in God. The message is that in God alone can we put our trust. The passage ends with a transition to a prayer, addressing God: “Steadfast love is yours.” It is a strong and poetic affirmation of faith.

How does the selection from Psalm 62 look back to the story of Jonah before our Hebrew Bible passage for today? How does the selection look forward to the events of today’s passage? Look for specific passages from the text to guide your answer.

How does the notion of salvation in this selection contrast with the notion of salvation in the passage from Jonah in today’s Hebrew Bible reading? Where do you stand on the issue of salvation by works versus salvation by grace?

1 Corinthians 7:29-31

This poignant passage from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians is a prophecy in the tradition of the Hebrew Bible. Paul calls his readers to right behavior in the face of crisis: Time is growing short; the present form of the world is passing away. For Paul, he and his communities are living in an eschatological era that has been ushered in by Christ’s sacrifice. This passage falls in the middle of a series of directives concerning marriage in the end times. From how those who are married ought to behave – as if they have no wives – he broadens his instructions to those who mourn, those who rejoice, and especially those who deal with the world of possessions. He seems to forecast that the world will be turned upside down, and it is urgent for those who have focused on the things of the world to repent.

Do you find God’s call more urgent in times of crisis? How does your notion of salvation change under stressful, demanding circumstances? How does your notion of Godly behavior change under such circumstances?

What is your reaction to Paul’s injunction that those who mourn should be as if they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as if they were not rejoicing?

How does living as Paul directs in this passage – as if circumstances were not as they are – relate to your sense of call or vocation?

Mark 1:14-20

Jesus’ words in the first chapter of Mark, verse 15 – the time of the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news – echo Paul’s injunctions that we heard in today passage from First Corinthians. More rightly stated, Paul’s words echo those of Jesus, which echo the words of John the Baptist and the Hebrew prophets.

In all today’s readings, we have been urged to repent and believe in the Good News. Simon, Andrew, James and John react to God’s urgent call in the opposite way from Jonah in the Hebrew Bible lesson today. While Jonah responds to God’s call by running away to sea, these four fishermen are compelled by Jesus’ compelling charisma to leave their nets and their boats behind and follow wherever he leads them. Their trust in Jesus as God’s prophet is unconditional. This passage affirms the Good News that God calls each and every one of us to the work of God’s Kingdom, even if the end of the journey – indeed, the next step – is uncertain.

It can be difficult to believe in good news and to respond with trust. When have you responded to good news as Jonah did, by running away? When have you responded as the disciples did, by dropping everything and embracing the news? How did your response affect the outcome?

Look back to the psalm for today, and read it as if you are hearing the four fishermen praying after their encounter with Jesus. Return to the notions of salvation and repentance. Does the Good News of Mark’s gospel change your conversation about salvation by grace and salvation by works?

Bible Study: 2 Epiphany (B)

January 18, 2015

Susan ButterworthEpiscopal Divinity School

“And Jesus said to Nathanael, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’” (John 1:51)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20); Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)

This first half of this Sunday’s passage, the story of God’s call to Samuel, is often left to stand alone. It is made even deeper and more meaningful when read in conjunction with the second half, in which God speaks concerning the punishment of the house of Eli. Eli was the high priest in the temple of Shiloh. The boy Samuel had been promised to God by his mother Hannah, and is an acolyte to Eli. The sons of Eli were behaving badly, taking the best of the meat that was brought for sacrifice for themselves, and committing adultery with the women who serve in the temple. Eli knows this, but has been unable to stop their behavior. As the passage tells us, the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. God calls Samuel, but the boy doesn’t realize who is calling him. Eli is wise and humble and instructs Samuel to listen to God. Further, Eli insists that Samuel tell him what God has said, even though it is a curse against his line.

There are two stories here. One is the story of God’s call to the boy Samuel to be a prophet. The other is the story of Eli, who instructs Samuel to listen to God and to tell the truth about what God has told him, even though it is bad news. The result is that Samuel becomes a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. There are two parts to a call. One is listening. The other is truthfully responding to God’s call.

What is the role of a mentor? Think about wise teachers, parents or substitute parents whom you have known. How have they helped you to recognize and speak the truth?

Think about Eli’s role as a parent of sons who have behaved so badly that God curses their line. Has Eli failed as a parent? Should he have been able to control his sons? Does his lenience with his sons preclude his ability to teach others?

God’s call is not only for clergy. It’s important to think about how laypeople are called to serve. How have you been called? What is your response to God’s call?

Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17

These verses of Psalm 139 are about being known intimately by God. This psalm is a prayer of radical gratitude and surrender. It is a prayer of praise to a God who is creator of all that is, and it is especially a prayer of a profound personal relationship with God. These lines are a beautiful response to God’s call, words that Samuel might have spoken in response to his experience of being called in the Hebrew Bible passage for today. Like the story of Samuel’s call by God, these beautiful lines are often separated from the rest of the psalm. The lines following today’s lectionary selection speak of killing and hating. The psalm is more than a song of praise; it is a prayer that offers comfort in the face of evil, fear and loneliness. We are never separated from God, no matter what the circumstances.

Is it comforting or frightening to be so intimately known by someone that your thoughts are known even before you think them, someone who is acquainted with all your ways? Do you think that God judges your unspoken thoughts? What would happen if you spoke all your thoughts aloud to someone you trust?

1 Corinthians 6:12-20

This passage from First Corinthians is reminiscent of today’s passage from Psalm 139. The message is one of total unity with God: Anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.

Paul brings the Hebrew message of unity with God to a Christian community when he says, “for you were bought with a price,” referring to the sacrifice of Christ. Paul’s purpose is to tend to his community’s health, to be a pastor to them, to equip them with the theology that they need to live in community. The message of Epiphany, the revelation of God’s coming, takes on a note of salvation in Paul’s theology. God raised his son Jesus Christ and will also raise us. It is Christ who has freed us. Paul expands the horizon of the church to think about the nature of freedom and freedom’s relationship to our life in community. Certainly we are free, but we must be accountable to others.

Meditate for a few minutes on these words: “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial.” With your Bible study or scripture discussion group, begin a list on chart paper of some things that may be lawful but not beneficial. Which of these things are concrete and which are abstract? What is the relationship between the physical and the spiritual in the context of this passage? What is the relationship between the individual and the community?

How does this passage from First Corinthians relate to today’s theme of God’s call to us?

John 1:43-51

“Follow me.” “Come and see.” These are words of invitation. This is a passage about being called to discipleship. It is also about seeing and being seen. Philip identifies Jesus as both the promised deliverer about whom Moses and the prophets wrote and also as the son of Joseph from Nazareth. Nathanael’s question – Can anything good come out of Nazareth? – might be read as asking whether a powerful deliverer could rise from such humble beginnings. Philip answers, “Come and see,” as if to say, “See for yourself.”

Indeed, Jesus seems to enjoy Nathanael’s candid reaction to his humble origins. Jesus recognizes Nathanael as a man in whom there is no deceit. Nathanael’s response is to recognize Jesus as a prophet and name him: Rabbi! Son of God! King of Israel!

When Jesus says, “You will see [and do] greater works than these,” the words are not only addressed to Nathanael but also to all of us who hear and read these words. We are all invited to discipleship. In our response to the call we both see and are seen. This is the nature of being called. And indeed, like Samuel and like Nathanael, we are called to see even greater things. The ultimate fulfillment of the call to discipleship will be the revelation of the Kingdom of God.

In this passage, the message of Jesus is passed from person to person. Jesus finds Philip. Philip finds Nathanael. The Christian message is experiential. Think about other passages in the Bible where people experience Jesus’ presence and are drawn to his message about the Kingdom of God. Then think about people in your own life who have been drawn to the Christian message through personal experience passed from person to person.

Jesus says to Nathanael, “I saw you under the fig tree.” Some scholars suggest that this would have been the place where Torah was discussed. Perhaps Nathanael had been listening to some teachers talking about the law and the prophets. Perhaps Nathanael was ready and waiting for the teacher who would open his heart, and that teacher was Jesus. Think about times when you have been under the fig tree, metaphorically. How has waiting and listening opened you to discipleship?