Bible Study: 2 Easter (B)

April 12, 2015

Broderick Greer, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” (John 20:21-23)

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

Acts 4:32-35

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

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

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

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

Psalm 133

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

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

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

1 John 1:1-2:2

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

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

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

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

John 20:19-31

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

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

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

Bible Study: Easter Day (B)

April 5, 2015

Jessie Gutgsell, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

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

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

Acts 10:34-43

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

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

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

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

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

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

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

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

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

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

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

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

John 20:1-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bible Study: Palm Sunday (B)

March 29, 2015

Steven M. Balke, Jr.Virginia Theological Seminary

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

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

Isaiah 50:4-9a

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

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

Did you find yourself reprioritizing values during Lent?

What in your life threatens to undo those priorities?

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

Psalm 31:9-16

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

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

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

When have you felt like shame was controlling you?

Do you know someone who feels alone because of shame?

How can you help them see that they are loved?

Philippians 2:5-11

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

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

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

Have you ever felt alone in the world?

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

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

Mark 14:1-15:47

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

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

Where do you see people suffering in the world?

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

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

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?