Bible Study, Easter 2(A) – April 23, 2017

[RCL] Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

Acts 2:14a, 22-32

It is fitting that Peter’s Pentecost speech comes to us on the Second Sunday of Easter. While Peter’s audience had just experienced the exhilaration of the Spirit’s outpouring, the church today is recovering from Easter Sunday. Peter’s speech provides the rhetorical jolt needed on this “Low Sunday” that lacks the lilies, crowds, and glorious hymns from the previous week. These words are the first of thirty some speeches in the Book of Acts and, indeed, the first of the innumerable attempts by Christian leaders to explain the faith. Our task is to hear this inaugural attempt at Christian witness both as “good news” and as “new news”. Attention to Peter’s delivery recalls some of the precariousness of the moment: Peter’s refutation of the charge of drunkenness against the apostles (omitted from the lectionary) reveals an uneasiness early in his sermon. This is then steadied by Peter’s usage of Old Testament scripture, which places his effort on more familiar—and more eloquent—footing. This portion of the sermon ends on a powerful note, though, as Peter reminds the audience that “all of us are witnesses” (2.32) to Christ’s resurrection. The “all” refers to both the disciples on the Pentecost stage with him as well as those celebrating 2000 years later, trying to hear the words afresh.

  • What parts of Peter’s speech “cut to the heart” (2.37) of the modern reader?
  • How does the Church maintain the quality of its proclamation throughout the highs and lows of the calendar year?

Psalm 16

In the Acts reading above, Peter/Luke uses Psalm 16 to advance a Christological argument. Given that it is the only portion of the Old Testament in the lectionary, it might be fruitful to consider the verses outside that setting. The Psalm describes an intimate relationship with the Creator, as first and second person pronouns abound throughout and metaphoric imagery implies a tactile closeness. In addition, unlike the many psalms that are in response to particular suffering or trouble, Psalm 16 portrays a relationship of sustained trust. Such an interaction bestows certain blessings on the faithful—blessings that are both material and spiritual in nature. Interestingly, the word “trust” itself is never mentioned—ironically appropriate given the speaker’s understanding of God’s presence as one whereby “my heart teaches me, night after night” (16.7).

  • What are some examples of a “goodly heritage” that God has bestowed in your life?
  • Would you describe your prayer/ devotional life as comparable to verse 7, or more contingent and variegated?

1 Peter 1:3-9

The Epistle reading offers a different understanding of faith from Psalm 16 as the epistle author connects faith with persecution and suffering. At the time of its writing, 1st Peter would have provided comfort to Christians whose families have disowned them because of their new identity. To our modern ears, however, it provides a measure of discomfort about the costs associated with a life in Christ. We are wise to think deeply about the nature of suffering and the power dynamics associated with “various trials.” Beyond that, for both sets of readers, the reading communicates that knowledge of Christ indeed does not equate, necessarily, to either earthly happiness or pain. Rather, the end result of faith in Christ, is to “love him” and the “salvation of your souls.” (1.8-9)

  • In the comfortable settings of Western Christianity, how should the “genuineness of faith” be appropriately “tested by fire”?

 John 20:19-31

The story of “doubting Thomas”, unique to John, renders yet another understanding of faith. It does so in a courtroom-like drama, familiar to the Gospel, where notions of witness and testimony are examined in a taut narrative. Attention to Thomas’ declaration in 20-28 and his strong convictions earlier in the Gospel are responsible for this, along with perhaps the humble realization that we all would likewise require tactile evidence for faith. Thomas would, in fact, make a rather poor witness in today’s courtroom. When Jesus tells him to put his finger in his side, Thomas has the opportunity to become the star witness for all sorts of subsequent theological and historical questions. But, due to the immediate and exclamatory nature of his answer, one doubts that he indeed followed through on Jesus’ directive. Rather, he declares a verdict similar to the one from 1st Peter: by seeing Jesus, Thomas believed in and loved him.

  • When you hear/ read good news, what is your reaction?
  • What prevents us from seeing God in the world around us?

Charles Cowherd is a Middler at Virginia Theological Seminary. A postulant in the Diocese of Virginia, he lives in Alexandria, VA with his wife Michelle – a mental health therapist.

Download the Bible Study for Easter 2(A).

Bible Study, Epiphany 6(A) – February 12, 2017

[RCL] Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-31

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Moses is coming to the end of his final sermon. He has laid out before Israel the whole of the law, including its covenantal blessings and curses (28:1-68). He has reminded the people that, if they lose their way, the repentant will be ever-welcomed back into God’s mercies (30:1-10). And, by way of conclusion, he speaks the words we read today: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity” (v.15).

But lest God’s people then or now misunderstand him, Moses defines what true life, true prosperity, is. It is not a ten-figure bank account, a dream-come-true romance, or a secure and stable future. Instead, it is “loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (v. 20). The Lord is our life, and even amidst trouble and trial, “holding fast to him” is our prosperity. It is true God has promised to bless obedience, but the core of this blessing is union with God. All other blessings come as fruit from this union. To “dwell in the land” (v. 20), therefore, is primarily to enjoy the special presence of the Lord, from whom all blessings flow.

  • Love and obedience are tightly linked in this and many other scriptural passages. How does this link transform or deepen our understanding of life with God?
  • What might it look like to “hold fast to God” in daily life?

Psalm 119:1-8

Throughout Psalm 119, we see two contrasting figures: those happy people who keep the law faultlessly and delight in doing so, and the writer of the psalm, who wishes he was one of the people he describes. It is not that the psalmist has no desire to walk the narrow and righteous way of the Lord. On the contrary, he wants nothing more. After describing the ways of the obedient with overwhelming reverence, he writes, “Oh that my ways were made so direct.”

But instead of either promising what he will never be able to produce, or excusing himself from a seemingly impossible way of life, he speaks both a pledge and a plea: “I will keep your statutes; do not utterly forsake me” (v. 8). He cries out in the only posture we frail creatures can rightfully take before an almighty and perfect God. He expresses his longing to be the Lord’s in heart and soul and mind and body—speaks it, in fact, as if it were already the case—and then pleads for the Lord’s assistance, for the Lord alone can accomplish what the psalmist has dared to request.

  • How can Psalm 119 shape the way we pray?
  • How does the psalmist’s clear delight in the law of the Lord transform or inform the way we think about “law”?

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

All of us at some point or another have heard someone’s actions be excused with the acknowledgement, “They’re only human.” The excuse is understandable. Despite the modern world’s discomfort with the word “sin,” most would admit that people aren’t perfect; we’re bound to make mistakes and argue, bound to gossip and complain, bound (at least every now and then, we say,) to act on our lower impulses rather than our more noble ideals.

Paul, however, knocks that excuse flat on its back when it stumbles out of the mouths of the new Christians in Corinth. According to Paul, the follower of Christ who “[behaves] according to human inclinations” (v. 3) and acts as if he or she were still “merely human” (v.4), is a contradiction. For “we know that our old self”—our “only human” self—“was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom 6:6). With that in mind, “jealousy and quarrelling” (v. 3) aren’t to be excused as the inevitable outcome of any gathering of people, but they are to be mourned and repented of as sins which mar God’s holy temple. The Church is called always to repent of its sins and to put itself each day anew into the hands of God who both purifies and brings to maturity.

  • What have you been excusing as “only human” which perhaps might call for deeper repentance and the transforming mercy of God?
  • In the second portion of the text, Paul addresses the Corinthians’ confusion between human labor and God’s accomplishment. How can we both appropriately honor human service in the Church while continuing to honor, praise, and follow Christ above all?

Matthew 5:21-37

In ages long past, a servant stood on a mountaintop with a God wrapped in fire, in order to receive the holy law. In our text today, other servants stand on a mountaintop with the same God, now wrapped in flesh, in order to receive a second law which affirms and intensifies the first. Murder has always been forbidden; now unchecked anger is revealed as the heart’s intent to kill. Adultery was never acceptable; now adultery with the eyes and mind is shown to be as evil as adultery with the body.

But how to fulfill such a law, and why even try? We are not saved by works. And yet, Jesus said not only to hear his words, but to do them (Mat 7:24). We are not saved because we are righteous, but we are saved that we might become righteous. Through Christ—who fulfilled the law (Mat 5:17)—anger has no power in us, lust has no dominion. These and every other evil have been taken down to death, and through union with Christ, they are killed daily in us as well. We are called into a higher life—Jesus’ life—and we are given his Spirit to carry on God’s good work in us to the day of its completion, when we are at last made one with Christ (Phil 1:6).

  • How is the Sermon on the Mount a blessing to the Church, as the Mosaic Law was a blessing to Israel?
  • Which portion of the reading can you be practicing through the power of Christ in order to obey his command to not only “hear these words…[but do] them” (Mat. 7:24)? 

Written by Deanna Briody. Briody is studying Church History and Theology at Trinity School for Ministry in Western Pennsylvania. She hopes to pursue further studies at the graduate level. In her spare time she enjoys writing poetry, playing volleyball, and reading novels.

Download the Bible Study for Epiphany 6(A).

Bible Study, Epiphany 5(A) – February 5, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 58:1-9a, [9b-12]; Psalm 112:1-9, (10); 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16]; Matthew 5:13-20

Isaiah 58:1-9a, [9b-12]

 God has told the prophet Isaiah to “Shout out, do not hold back!”, and Isaiah speaks accordingly, drawing out the hypocrisy of God’s people in their devotional practices. This continues the call for a renewal of heart and behavior that we heard in Micah last week. Isaiah says that the people of God ask, “Why do we fast, but you do not see?” He follows it up immediately with the answer: “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, / and oppress all your workers.” Fasting (for Isaiah’s community and for ours) is an expression of repentance, but here it is only a cover for more selfish behavior. Isaiah says that in order to be attended to by God, the people must repent in their hearts and behavior: “Is not this the fast that I choose: / to loose the bonds of injustice . . . to let the oppressed go free.” Only then will God answer the people’s cry and say “Here I am.”

  • What can you think of in our common life in America that is a “yoke” to be lifted, or “the bonds of injustice” that must be loosed?
  • In your town or city, what is “the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil” that should stop?
  • Where else in the Bible do we find this emphasis on God’s requirement of honest and unhypocritical devotion?

Psalm 112: 1-9 [10] 

Psalm 112 continues Isaiah’s theme and elaborates on what the life of the truly righteous person will be like. They are “merciful and full of compassion,” and are “generous in lending,” “manag[ing] their affairs with justice.” The result of living in true righteousness is a life that is happy, fearless, honorable, and trusting: “their heart is right.” The Psalmist’s words are a description, an exhortation—but also a gesture of hope, a trusting prayer that right behavior will have practical results in the speaker’s heart and mind, and in the world.

  • Which of these descriptions of a righteous person rang most true for you? Did it remind you of anyone?
  • What quality in this description was most immediately appealing to you for your own life?
  • In what ways does this Psalm specifically encourage us to grow in righteousness?
  • Did any of these images or phrases remind you of other parts of Scripture?

1 Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16]

 Paul was writing to a congregation he had built himself a few years before, located in the diverse port city of Corinth. Today’s passage comes in the midst of a longer cry for unity in a divided congregation. Picking up on the idea of divine foolishness we heard last week, Paul admits—boasts!—that he didn’t come to the Corinthians with “plausible words of wisdom.” Instead, the power of his testimony, and of the whole community’s, is in “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” The power and wisdom of God—secret, inexplicable to human rulers—is where our faith should rest. Paul describes this power and wisdom coming to us “through the Spirit,” who helps us understand and speak what God has given us.

  • In your Christian communities, what signs of the Spirit have you seen that are not about “plausible” arguments? (Like extreme generosity, unexpected kindness, etc.)
  • Have you known someone in your lifetime who has made Christ known to you, like Paul, not in “lofty words” but “in weakness and in fear”?
  • How might this metric (humanity’s “plausible words” vs. God’s foolishness) change the way we normally think about justice? or peace?

Matthew 5:13-20

In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus gives us another angle on the righteous life. The people of God must be bright—a bright flavor, a bright open light—shining before others “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Matthew’s Jesus also makes explicit here something that runs through the whole Gospel—that he has come as fulfillment of the law, not as its destroyer. The call to righteousness seems to have changed in his new witness, but it has not at all removed it. Those who are “great in the kingdom of heaven” will be following and teaching the words of the law and the prophets.

  • Where else in the Bible do we find images like the flavorful salt or a bright lamp?
  • How might these particular words of Jesus shape the way we think of his relationship to the law?
  • How might our actions in a largely secular society be like a lamp lit in the darkness?

Written by Emily Garcia. Garcia is a candidate in the Diocese of Massachusetts finishing up her last year at Berkeley Divinity School in New Haven, CT.

Download the Bible Study for Epiphany 5(A).

Bible Study, Epiphany 4(A) – January 29, 2017

[RCL] Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12

Micah 6:1-8

God is clearly disappointed in Judah’s lack of faith in action in this passage from Micah who prophesied in late 8thC BCE to the elites of Jerusalem. It comes at a time when temple worship was at an all-time high, their coffers overflowing. And yet, there existed huge disparities in the social fabric of the kingdom. Micah’s voice is one that speaks out loudly against the injustice of land-grab schemes that exploited subsistence farmers, forcing them into survival loans with administrative elites, and leading to loss of land inheritances, creating a class of indentured peasants. “It’s just business”, the people say. “Aren’t we meeting our temple obligations and then some? God, what more do you want from us?”

It’s surprising how easy it can be to be lulled into believing we are meeting our end of the bargain with God, simply because that’s what we believe. Our pledge is paid on time; we come to worship without fail. Those actions are important as faithful members of our churches, but God shakes us free from our amnesia to remember we are also called to be faithful members of our communities and the world. Inaction in the face of injustice makes us complicit in those wrongs. Putting our faith into action, “walking the walk” in step with God and our neighbor is the “more” that is asked of us.

  • What are the things we offer up to God as evidence of our faith?
  • How can we transform our experience and participation in Sunday liturgy beyond the door of the church where it truly becomes the “work of the people”?
  • If we recognize practices in our society that prey on the most vulnerable among us, how might we as Christians respond?

Psalm 15

Who is worthy to enter into the temple? What are our credentials? What certifies our internal purity? This is the opportunity for reflection the psalmist offers to us as we seek an audience with the Holy One. The evidence we are asked to show is not focused on God directly, but rather through the lens of our interactions with others children of God.

Listed in the foundational qualities of those living a blameless life: truth telling, rejecting gossip and rumors, making it our business to put emphasis on the well-being of others, and reliance on God in all things – we can recognize our own Baptismal vows. This is not a badge we proudly display at the temple gates for proper ritualistic practice, but our evidence of living an ethical life. Engaging practices such as the Ignatian Examen or the 10th (daily review) and 11th (prayer and meditation) steps of the Twelve Steps of AA can be helpful tools for regular self-examination and for seeking God’s guidance as we seek to abide in the Holy dwelling.

  • How are we actively living out our Baptismal vows in ways that support our efforts to live “a blameless life”?
  • What practices of self-examination are present in your life today? How is God present for you in them?
  • We might also pause to ask ourselves where and how the psalmist points us toward examining where our own personal and societal actions may serve to include or to exclude others from full and joyous participation in the community. Is the price for their entrance different from what we ourselves expect to provide?

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

“For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” 1 Corinthians 1:25

It is intriguing to think about God as “The Fool”. The role of the fool in Shakespeare’s plays is much more than that of the man with the funny hat who plays the idiot, bumbling around, and amusing others at his own expense. The character of the fool is often employed to point to the absurdity of those in power and to introduce subversive themes to a plot. “That of course, is the great secret of the successful fool; that is, that he is no fool at all.” (Isaac Asimov)

Paul is spending all the equity he has garnered with the Corinthian community to unite them in the reality of God’s great foolishness enacted by Christ’s death on the Cross. Followers of the gospel Paul preached and taught are being confused and drawn away to follow dynamic preachers with a message more appealing than the embarrassment and shame of the crucifixion. Paul’s concern is not for himself but for the salvation of the beloved community who are diverted from their devotion in the God whose death on the cross and resurrection is the ultimate counterintuitive subversion.

  • What are some compelling messages preached by “experts” in our society that might draw us away from God’s central hopes and purposes for us?
  • Is Paul inferring we should disregard the gifts of wisdom and discernment we have been given by God?
  • In what ways are we called to be God’s countercultural fools?

Matthew 5: 1-12

Jesus’ teachings in this prelude to the Sermon on the Mount are specifically directed to his apostles. The phrases beginning with ”Blessed are” are very familiar to us as modern day Christians; so familiar we may have a representation of them hanging on a wall in our homes.  But we are far removed from the context in which they were delivered. At the time Matthew was writing the account of the Master’s words, his listeners would have understood the very real and present turmoil that Jesus’ followers were experiencing as a minority community of believers living under an oppressive regime. They would have embraced the consolation Jesus offered and understood being “Blessed” as their inclusion in the coming Kingdom when Christ will return to bring justice and peace.

A beatitude often misinterpreted in our own contemporary reading of the scripture refers to “those who mourn.” Rather than referring to the loss of a loved one in death, Matthew’s contemporaries would have been distressed, “poor in spirit”, by the injustice, inequality and violence of life in the Roman Empire, conditions far from the hopes of God for his people. Likewise, “the meek” are not those who simply allow themselves to be walked upon by the strong, but instead, because they are humble, they are open to and welcome their reliance on God, insuring their place in the new order.

  • Where in our common life might mourning and lament be helpful responses?
  • How might practicing humility before God and others be an empowering force in your life?
  • Is there a beatitude you find meaningful in your own life? Why?

Written by Sandi Albom. Albom is a seminarian in her final year at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA. She is currently serving as an intern at All Saint’s Episcopal Church in Peterborough, NH. Sandi is an RN and is called to ministry in the recovery community and with people whose lives have been affected by addiction. She and her husband Bob live in Manchester, NH with their two feline companions, Mandy and Quinn.

Download the Bible Study for Epiphany 4(A).

Bible Study, Epiphany 3(A) – January 22, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 5-13; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

Isaiah 9:1-4

Transformation is at hand! One might look at this passage as a song of restoration because Isaiah is telling Israel to take heart, as they have lived through a conquest in which the tribal territories of Zebulun and Naphtali were captured (by the Assyrians). But Isaiah is clear that there is even more than restoration ahead: the gloom will vanish, and there will be joy and exultation.

Israel will be saved from the darkness of their oppression. Isaiah tells of their coming liberation from the “yoke of their burden,” which is the “rod of their oppressor,” using a story from their history. He reminds the people of the way Gideon delivered Israel “as on the day of Midian.” Now of course Isaiah is clear about the ultimate source of this generation’s deliverance. We know this because if we read a few lines beyond this passage, Isaiah credits the Lord of hosts with Israel’s delivery.

However, Isaiah also tells us that the people of Israel have a role. Not only will they “see a great light,” but also the light will shine on them! In dark times, we all look for hope to sustain us until we can see the great light again. Why might God shine the light on Israel? What if that light shines on the people because God is showing them that from their own selves can come a way out of desperate times? What if that light is a commissioning? 

  • In what way might you be bearing a yoke of oppression in your own life?
  • How might you be benefitting from or contributing to the oppression of others?
  • In what ways might the Light be shining on you to take responsibility for a way out of darkness? How might you be the fulfillment of God’s promise to someone else?

Psalm 27:1, 5-13

God is an inexhaustible source of strength and courage for the psalmist, the well that never runs dry. Oh, to be swept up in such joy that one’s fondest wish is to drink deeply of it until the end of time! This is a love song to God, and we can feel the frisson, our pulse picking up as we fall into ecstatic love with the Divine.

Anyone who has ever been in love will recognize not only the joy in one’s Beloved, but also the desire to express the depth of one’s devotion. But this is not a song to the human love of one’s life: this is a love song to the ultimate – to God! And this Beloved is, for each one of us, our light, our salvation. So, who can be afraid when swept up into love with the most powerful force in the universe? Okay, well maybe we are a little afraid that something will go wrong and we’ll lose it. The psalmist speaks for everyone who has ever been in a state of great love and then said either silently or aloud, ‘please don’t ever leave me.’

“Do not forsake me, O God of my salvation.” But no, not this God. This is the God who will always speak in our hearts and say “Seek my face.” And may we ever do so.

  • What does it mean to seek God’s face? What does God’s face look like to you?
  • The psalmist asks that he (or she!) may “dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of [my] life.” What does that mean to dwell in the house of the Lord?
  • Why are you afraid?

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

It’s hard not to read Paul’s letter to the Corinthians without thinking of how applicable this message is to any church in the 21st century. Christians are humans and we disagree on many things even within a single denomination. Paul’s organization in this letter to the young church in Corinth is so important, first reminding the people that they are brothers and sisters—a family now, and then reminding them in whose name they are united: Jesus.

For the church in Corinth to be strong and healthy, the basis of their unity is in the mind and purpose of Jesus. That’s different than urging people to agree with one another in an accord of their own. Paul continuously points to Jesus, telling the Good News, and reminding the people that it’s the Good News of Jesus Christ, not of his own ministry. He keeps pointing to the cross because if the people will only look to him, their unity will fall apart when he is not present.

Paul knows that he must pay attention to many places where gentiles will hear his message, because he believes that he must invite everyone into the Body of Christ. That is the mission that God has called him to, a mission of inclusivity! Paul powerfully reminds the church members: it’s not his (Paul’s) church. Nor is it Apollos’ nor Cephas’ church. The church is the Body of Christ.

  • What are some ways in which your church may have disagreements, and how might you come to a meeting of the minds?
  • What does Paul mean in V. 18 when he says “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”?
  • Paul urges the people to be united and in the same mind and in the same purpose. What is that purpose?

Matthew 4:12-23

Does this look familiar? Matthew shows us the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (today’s Hebrew Bible reading) in this passage. Jesus receives the news that John has been arrested, and immediately picks up on John’s message of repentance and the nearness of the kingdom of heaven. But Jesus goes beyond John’s message, now taking up his ministry in earnest. He knows that he will need a team, and he calls his first four disciples—two sets of brothers. It is especially noteworthy that both sets of brothers are said to have immediately left and followed Jesus. They did not stop to think about it and discern what they should do—when Jesus called, they said “yes,” and immediately followed him.

So, Jesus and his disciples hit the road throughout Galilee. He did what Jewish men did in the first century when they wanted to worship, receive or give instruction and talk about God; he went to the synagogues. Jesus worked within the cultural structure of his time.

But he also went beyond proclaiming the Good News of God’s kingdom from the bema of a synagogue. Matthew’s passage records in Jesus’ travels throughout Galilee, he cured “every disease and every sickness among the people.” How extraordinary!

  • What are some ways in which Jesus has called you to follow him? How long did it take you to decide what to do?
  • What is the significance of Jesus’ healing ministry, and why do you suppose that a distinction is made between “disease” and “sickness”?
  • When Jesus, and previously John, say “the kingdom of heaven has come near,” what do they mean? Is it spatially near (close by) or temporally near (soon to arrive)?

Written by Pan Conrad. Conrad, a resident of Annapolis, MD, is in the final year of her M.Div. program at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA. She is a candidate for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Maryland, and by the time we reach Epiphany 3, God willing and the people consenting, she will have been ordained to the transitional diaconate. Conrad is also an astrobiologist and planetary scientist with NASA.

Download the pdf of the Bible Study for Epiphany 3(A).

Bible Study, Epiphany 2(A) – January 15, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

Isaiah 49: 1-7

These verses from Isaiah broaden the writer’s message of hope out to those “from afar,” to the whole world. He is someone God has chosen since before birth and was equipped to restore the true Israel, “in whom I will be glorified.” He will be the One who will restore Israel. Although the Servant assumes his failure as he has not seen any results in his attempt to free captive Israel. “I have labored in vain,” I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity,” yet he does not turn from God and will continue on because God will be his reward.

God proclaims that the servant will not only bring restoration to Israel, but will be “as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” The servant has been called for a much larger mission: salvation offered to all the world! Israel is to be the light, to bring this message of hope to all peoples.

  • When have you felt disappointed with your relationship with God? Have you ever felt that you, too, “labored in vain?”
  • What assurance does God give to us for those times?

Psalm 40: 1-12

In this Psalm, David reflects on how God has delivered him from the darkness of the despair his situation causes him into the light of freedom. David’s joy is so great he must sing praises to his God! David’s willingness to express God’s faithfulness and deliverance has not only changed David’s despair to joy, but has caused others to “see, and stand in awe, and put their trust in the Lord”.

David reminds us that “happy are they who trust in the Lord” who is willing and able to deliver us in our times of trial and tribulations. Turn to Him and trust that He is good, even in your times of despair, though the answer may cause us to have to wait patiently for it. Or perhaps you have prayed for God to deliver you from some dark and dreadful place, and you have suddenly found yourself back in the light. Share God’s faithfulness with others and bring God’s light into the world!

  • Can you think of a time in the past when God came to your rescue?
  • What are some works of God in which you can give praise now?

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

The Corinthians were a people who were “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.” They were set apart as God’s people and as such, Paul reminds them that they united with ALL those who were in Christ. Rather than simply living for their own accord, they were to use the gifts God lavished upon them in service to others. As they awaited “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ”, their gifts of speech and knowledge which had been enriched by God “in every way”, were not to become a source of pride for them, but were to be used to show their gratitude to God for them by sharing them with others.

As the Church, we too are called and equipped by God. God is faithful and will strengthen us to live sanctified lives as we share our faith with a world living in darkness. We are to be God’s light, thankfully and faithfully sharing the gifts God has given to each of us.

  • Do you know the spiritual gifts God has given to you?
  • How might you use these gifts for the building up of the Church, the Body of Christ? How might you use them to share Christ with the world?

John 1: 29 – 42

“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” John’s words describing Jesus can seem so familiar to us that we can forget the true impact of what this means. Jesus is the Lamb of God, the One sacrificed for us. Through His sacrifice, He takes away the sins of the world. His willing sacrifice is sufficient and available to pay the price for all those willing to place their trust in Him.

The glorious truth is that Jesus was, and is, the One come to lead and save God’s people! He is the One who is the light to the nations. He is the One through whom comes the grace of God and who will strengthen you to the end, until He comes again. He is the One we can turn to for deliverance from our troubles and our sins. He can still be found as we seek Him.  He is our Messiah, our Savior, our Christ, the Lamb of God!

  • John called Jesus the Lamb of God. Why do you think John choose this title for Jesus?
  • What name would you use to describe Jesus? How is this displayed in your life?

Written by Mary Ellen Doran. Doran is a Senior at Trinity School for Ministry, pursuing her Masters of Divinity and is in the Ordination process through the Diocese of South Carolina. She.and her husband Keith have two daughters, Amanda and Madalaine.

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Bible Study, Epiphany 1(A) – January 8, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

 Isaiah 42:1-9

In this passage we read one of the four servant songs of Isaiah. Israel is portrayed as the servant, whom God loves, and through whom God will bless all the nations. God is described as the powerful creator of the heaven and the earth, who is worthy of glory and praise. Yet this God is close enough to take the people by the hand and to hold them. How beautiful are the words from the opening line, “my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” These are words of belonging that many long to hear, whether from parents, spouses/partners, children, or friends. My soul delights in you says God, and nothing will get in the way of that love. In addition to covenantal language this passage is also a commissioning for the work set out for Israel. We are told that Israel will not cry out in the streets, grow faint, or be crushed as they do the work of bringing justice to all the world. Bring sight to the blind God says, bring prisoners out from the dungeons. Through your work I will make you a light to the nations. God does not take justice lightly, but as we hear in this passage, it is in fact work God has called us to. It might resonate with our post-communion prayer, “send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord…”

  • What images or feelings come to mind when you think about God’s soul delighting in you?
  • Can you think of a time that God blessed you through others or when others were blessed through you? Where was God in those moments?
  • When you think of brining justice to the world what work comes to mind?
  • What part of justice making might God be calling you to you?

Psalm 29

Psalm 29 contains vivid imagery of what God’s voice looks and sounds like: thunder, mighty waters, flames, writhing oak trees. These images speak of a God who cannot be contained nor controlled. This is a voice of power and might, and we are told to “Ascribe to the lord the honor due his name.” Yet in the last verse we hear a switch from a description of God’s being to God’s plans. What does God intend to do with all God’s strength? To give it to the people, that they may be strengthened and find peace. This psalm may bring to mind the story of Elijah, when God came to him not in the wind or fire, but as a still small voice. It may even bring to mind the story of the Good Shepherd when we hear of God calling each sheep by name. God’s voice is indeed one of unimaginable power, but through God’s love it is a voice that we can hear and respond to as well.

  • What does God’s voice sounds like to you?
  • Where do you you hear God’s voice?

Acts 10:34-43

This passage is a snippet from Peter’s visit to Cornelius and his household in Caesarea. We hear Peter give an account of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Most importantly Peter speaks of God’s lack of partiality and that the good news of Christ is available to all who believe. It can be difficult at times to accept that it is God who calls disciples, and not we ourselves. It is important to remember that we must work alongside all the members of the body of Christ, even those we disagree with in order to do God’s work. Peter also speaks of those who ate and drank with Jesus after his resurrection and then of the apostles commissioning to preach. Even through death Jesus was still with his disciples, just as he is still with us as we gather to pray and eat together.

  • Where have you encountered the risen Christ?
  • Where might God be calling you to share your story of encountering Jesus?
  • Are there moments you wish God showed partiality? How can you come closer to those within your faith that you disagree with?

Matthew 3:13-17

This passage follows John’s preaching of Isaiah, “prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” When Jesus gets to the river Jordan John, recognizing who Jesus is, states that it should be Jesus who baptizes him, not the other way around. This is just the beginning of Jesus’ work and ministry and already he is turning everything upside down and inside out. We will be doing things differently Jesus seems to say. It is through this new way of thinking that the Holy Spirit comes down like a dove and we hear the words of heaven, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus’ baptism marks his time to begin his work in the world around him, just as our own baptism call us into the life, death, and resurrection of our own lives. It is time to remember Jesus’ baptism, and our own. You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, you are a beloved one of God. Just as Jesus turned the world upside down, how might you through your baptism join in the work of God?

  • Where were you baptized? Who was there? Do you remember it?
  • Read through the baptismal covenant in the Book of Common Prayer. What parts stand out to you and why?
  • Have you felt the Holy Spirit as closely as the dove was seen at Jesus’ baptism? What does God’s voice sound like when God calls you beloved?

Written by Reagan Gonzalez. Gonzalez is a second year MDiv student at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, TX and a Candidate for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Montana. She enjoys running, reading, writing poetry, and Godly Play. She and her husband and enjoy hiking and other outdoor adventures with their Welsh Corgi, Maggie. 

Download the Bible Study for Epiphany 1(A).

Bible Study, Feast of the Holy Name (A) – January 1, 2017

[RCL] Number 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:15-21

Numbers 6:22-27

There is something holy about the giving and receiving of names. The acts of naming and being named are sacred practices in the Judeo-Christian faith. When we are born, our parents or our guardians give us our first names and share with us their last name. We give affectionate nicknames to those we love and share our lives with. When we are joined together with another in marriage, a common practice is the sharing or joining together of last names between partners. Our names give us identity and reveal us as persons who are known and joined together with our families and community.

How remarkable then is this instance of the Lord sharing a name with the people of Israel? In this act, Israel is given an identity—one of being joined together with the Lord who is capable of blessing them, keeping them and granting them peace, even in the midst of their incompleteness and in their becoming.

Today, this same blessing is available to us. We too can share in this name with the one who desires to bless us, keep us and ultimately, grant us peace.

  • What names have you been given by those who love you?
  • What names have you given to others who you love?
  • How has being given a name by another changed or added to your relationship with them?
  • Are there any special names you associate with God?

Psalm 8

Names give distinction to our identity. In Psalm 8, we find the Lord described as “our Governor” and the one whose name is exalted “in all the world!” Further the Lord is described as one who is able to overcome our strongest of adversaries and who’s fingers shaped the moon and stars, setting them on their course. In comparison, the author of Psalm 8 names humanity as “man” and describes us as “a little lower than the angels” and wonders, “What is man that [God] should be mindful of [us]?”

Our identity is distinct from the identity of the Lord. The Lord’s name is representative of unbounded divine power that is capable of shaping the universe around us, and our name points toward our limitedness and our ultimate need for the Lord.

Yet in this passage, we are also reminded that the Lord, who is our governor, has trusted us, in our limitedness, with the works of the divine’s hand. How humbling and how wondrous it is to share in relationship with the Lord who holds all power, yet trusts us with the responsibility of overseeing and protecting the creation.

  • It has been said that difference makes relationship possible. What difference/distinction do you see between you and God?
  • What has the Lord trusted you with overseeing and protecting?
  • How would you describe the identity you have been given by God and in what ways is it unique?

Galatians 4:4-7

Titles, a kind of name, give nuance to our identities and reveal how we are related to one another. This passage from Galatians illuminates a change in title that drastically changes our relationship to God. The author states that we were once “slaves” but now have been “adopted” and are called God’s children and heirs.
The language of slave maybe it difficult for many of us to relate to, but perhaps we can use the word employee to gain insight to how this change has impacted us? Neither slaves nor employees of a manager are loved by their manager in the way that a parent loves their child. Further, it would be unusual for a slave or employee to be the beneficiary or heir of the wealth of a manager. A child of a parent, however, is loved and also heir to all the good things of their parent.

In this light, when we consider this change in title—from slave to child and heir—we can rejoice in this good news of who we have become in relationship to our divine parent.

  • What titles do you currently hold and what do they tell others about who you are?
  • Have you ever had a change in title that drastically effected the way that you were able to relate to others?
  • When you consider that God has called you child and heir to kingdom of God, does it change the way you think about how you relate to God on a daily basis?

Luke 2:15-21

In our gospel passage, we learn that Jesus was given his name even before being conceived in his mother’s womb. Likewise, the shepherds who had come to see him told Mary that even before Jesus had been born that they have been visited by angels who told them that he would be the messiah.

This story begs the question, when is it that we truly become who we have been created to be?

Frederick Buechner describes our divine calling as “the place where [our] deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Surely Jesus found this to be true of his calling in the world and perhaps as we mediate on this idea, we too might discover some new calling or possibly even revitalize one that we have known but have allowed to lay dormant for too long.

  • What do you believe your calling is in the world?
  • What deep needs of the world are clearly visible to you?
  • What talent or skills do you posses that bring you great joy and gladness?
  • Where do your answers to the first two questions intersect and how does it inform what you believe your calling to be?

Joshua Woods is currently a MDiv student in his middler year at the Seminary of the Southwest. He is a Chaplain Candidate for the United States Air Force Reserve, preparing for active duty chaplaincy after his ordination. He lives in Austin, TX with his wife Laura and their two dogs, Roxie and Ezra.  

Download the Bible Study for Feast of the Holy Name (A).

Bible Study, Advent 4(A) – December 18, 2016

[RCL] Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

Isaiah 7:10–16

During this season of Advent, it is easy to read the prophet Isaiah and immediately jump to the birth of Jesus. Isaiah is directly quoted in Matthew’s gospel, which we also read today: Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. While it is not wrong for us to understand who Jesus is in light of this text, we must also recognize that the prophet Isaiah was not predicting a future when Mary would give birth to God incarnate. Isaiah’s project is one that is much more immediate and much more involved.

If you read the fullness of Isaiah’s text beginning at 7:1, you see that the prophet is arguing with King Ahaz who has allied himself with the Assyrian empire. At this time in history, the Jewish people were split between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. As the Assyrian empire expanded, Isaiah was sent by the northern kingdom to call Judah into alliance with Israel against a common enemy. When King Ahaz refuses, Isaiah says that a child—an innocent—will come with a name that means “God with us,” but that child will see the destruction and ruin of Judah.

Isaiah’s prophecy is about how even in the face of atrocities, God is with us. Jesus, who came in love to reconcile humanity to God and one another, is one way we see that prophecy come about, but it was certainly not what Isaiah or Ahaz expected.

  • What ideas or issues split us as people of God today?
  • How does our story as told in scripture lead us to reconcile those differences?
  • Is there an Advent practice that could help foster reconciliation and love in our church/community/world?

Psalm 80:1–7, 16–18

Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

This refrain is repeated in Psalm 80 in verses 2, 7, and 18. It is the cry the psalmist makes on behalf of the people of Israel that shapes the arc of the psalm. The people in darkness and despair cry out for God to bring light into the world. Although our Prayer Book translation of the psalm is beautiful, it does not always capture the subtleties of the Hebrew. In Hebrew, each repetition of this prayer builds upon the last.

v.3 – Restore us O God (elohim)
v.7 – Restore us O God of Hosts (elohim tseva’oth)
v.18 – Restore us O Yahweh, God of Hosts (yahweh elohim tseva’oth)

Try not to get too bogged down in the Hebrew, but do notice that with each cry for help, the psalmist grows in knowledge of God and who God is. The cry moves from the generic word for god to a specific god, God of Hosts, to an actual naming of God, Yahweh, God of Hosts.

Also telling in this prayer is that the psalmist asks for the light of God’s countenance – light from the face of God. We know from Exodus 33:20 that no one can see God’s face and live. That is the gift of Jesus – a God whom we can name, know, and look in the face comes into the world to spread light and life.

  • Where in this world do you see the face of God?
  • What words or modifiers would you use to describe God as you have known God?
  • What prayer would you write for your church/community/self to pray every day this final week of Advent?

Romans 1:1–7

If we break up into parts this opening greeting from Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul basically does three things: he identifies himself as a servant of Jesus, he identifies who Jesus is, and he offers greetings and blessings to Jesus’ people in Rome. It is a passage full of statements of identity—who Paul is, who Jesus is, and who we, the church, are.

Paul first talks about himself in relationship to Jesus. He is a servant of Jesus, he is called by Jesus to be an apostle, and he is set apart for the gospel, or good news, of Jesus. Paul’s identity is completely wrapped up in his relationship to Jesus. In verse 6, that identity is shared with the people in Rome who are also “called to belong to Jesus Christ.”

Sandwiched between these two statements of identity is a rich statement of who Jesus is. Jesus is described as “descended from David,” “flesh,” “Son of God,” “resurrected,” and “Lord.” Even Jesus’ interactions with us are laid out: Jesus gives us grace, establishes our faith, and brings in the Gentiles.

Paul, Jesus, the church in Rome, and even we who are followers of Jesus today are all enmeshed together in God’s creation. Paul is establishing in this salutation that all of us are connected to one another and to God in the person of Jesus.

  • What is your relationship to Jesus? How do you express that?
  • How do you talk to others about the good news of Jesus? Or do you?
  • How can we as a church and as individuals better live into our identity as followers of Jesus?

Matthew 1:18–25

In this passage from Matthew’s gospel, names and relationships are very important. Just prior to this passage, Matthew gives a detailed genealogy that links Jesus to David, the great king of Israel, by naming all of Joseph’s ancestors. Jesus’ mother Mary and father Joseph are named, and the love Joseph has for Mary is revealed when he is unwilling to publically disgrace her for being pregnant. When the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph, the angel calls Joseph by name and notes his lineage from David and his relationship with Mary. Furthermore, the angel tells Joseph to name the child Jesus which means “God saves.” Even in Matthew’s commentary after the story, he recalls the prophecy from Isaiah who speaks of a child who will be named Emmanuel which means “God with us.”

Names mean something here. When we love someone or know someone well, we call them by their name, and our relationship is strengthened. Names also sometimes carry their own meaning. According to Jewish practice, Yahweh, God’s name, is not spoken in order to give it a sense of holiness. When God became one of us, however, he receives a rather common name, Jesus, which is a shortened version of the Hebrew name Joshua. The fact that Jesus has such a normal name and yet it means something tremendous – “God saves” – tells us something about God and how God interacts with us in this world.

Note all the contradictions in this story. Joseph is a simple man, yet descended from King David. Mary is in a situation that could ruin her socially, yet Joseph loves her and she bears the son of God. Jesus is given a simple, common name, yet it lays out God’s plan of salvation for the world. Matthew points out the greatness of this name and this plan through recalling the prophecy of Isaiah where a child will be called Emmanuel – God with us. It is a reminder to look for God’s presence in one another because God is with us in the common and everyday.

  • What names or titles would you give God?
  • Have you ever found God in unexpected or common places?
  • What does your name tell about your story?

Reflections by Charles Lane Cowen, Postulant for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Rhode Island, M.Div. Candidate, Seminary of the Southwest.

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Bible Study Advent 3(A) – December 11, 2016

[RCL] Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Isaiah 35:1-10

Chapter 35 is Isaiah’s prophecy about the day of God’s glory wherein there will be rejoicing, gladness, blossoming, and shouts of joy. The people will experience a sense of renewal, as he assures them that their salvation includes being saved from their enemies and restoration. There is no place for fear in God’s kingdom. Restoration occurs for those who are in need: the blind, the deaf, the lame and the mute. The people who rejected God’s way and suffered the consequences, judgement, and alienation will again be the objects of his unmerited favour. And God provides a highway for them which has two qualities: holiness and joy. The people who walk in this way are described as the redeemed and being in right relationship with God. It is the place where God brings full deliverance to the people. Hence, those who walk upon this highway will be full of joy as they march towards God’s kingdom as symbolized by Zion.

  • What were the encouragement given to the sinners and needy? How can this be an encouragement to us today?
  • Do you consider yourself walking in this highway? Why or why not?

Psalm 146:4-9

We don’t know who wrote this particular psalm and we don’t know when it was written. With confidence, the psalmist proclaims that God Almighty is the one who keeps promises forever and who will always respond to the needy by giving justice to the oppressed, food to the hungry, freedom to the prisoners, eyesight to the blind, lifting up the humble, caring for the stranger, sustaining the orphan and widow, and loving the righteous. The psalmist may have experienced or witnessed all of these occurrences and therefore concludes by exclaiming that God will reign forever – from beginning to end. 

  • The psalmist expressed faith and great joy in praising God through writing this psalm, how do you express yours?
  • Do you agree with the testimony of the psalmist? Why?

James 5:7-10

James of Jerusalem was encouraging his oppressed members in this passage to have patience in their sufferings. These were the poor Christians oppressed by the rich. James was encouraging them to patiently wait for the coming of the Lord.  He gave two examples how they can do this: First was the story of the farmer who patiently waits for his harvest even though it takes time before having it, and second were the prophets like Job who have given them examples of patience and endurance in suffering. Despite the disasters he faced, and the relentless attack of his friends, Job kept his faith and did not abandon his trust in God. As a result, the Lord finally brought about the restoration of Job’s fortune. Therefore, James message to them is to strengthen their hearts, keep the faith, patiently waits for the coming of the Lord and not putting justice in their own hands and not grumbling to their fellow Christians for them not to be judged also.

  • The word for suffering probably refers to a broad category which includes all different kinds of suffering. In our society today, what do people currently suffer from? How about you as an individual? What is your own suffering?
  • Reflecting from this passage, how do you deal with your own suffering?

Matthew 11:2-11

In today’s Gospel, Matthew highlights Jesus’ identity as an unexpected Messiah and Jesus as the fulfiller of Isaiah’s vision of restoration and Jesus as God’s wisdom. He was frequently rejected by the Jews, especially the Jewish leaders, because they have their own qualifications of a Messiah that Jesus failed to pass. Even John the Baptist who prepared his coming and who baptized him has his own expectation of him as a Messiah. John was in prison and sent his disciples to Jesus asking him “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?” He asked this not to question his Messianic identity but to further explain to him what’s going on because he expected the Messiah to come with fire, brimstone, with winnowing fork in hand to exercise judgement as what Isaiah prophesied.  Jesus answered it by sending also John’s disciple to inform him about his works as a healer, preacher and teacher. Jesus’ answer indicates that his messianic identity is characterized by signs that include healing the sick and preaching good news. He was not the kind of Messiah who came to judge them but to have compassion and mercy for them.

  • What are your expectations of Jesus? Were your expectations fulfilled?
  • Do you agree that Jesus is our Messiah/saviour?
  • Who is Jesus Christ to you? State in your own words and in accordance of your own experience. 

Written by Naliza S. Balaki, a third year seminarian of St. Andrew’s Theogical Seminary in Quezon, City, Philippines. Balaki is a graduate of Bachelor of Secondary Education majoring in math. She is Indigenous, from Mountain Province. 

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