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, Lent 4(A) – March 26, 2017

[RCL] 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41 

1 Samuel 16:1-13

Those anointed and called to do God’s work don’t always look and act as we’d expect them to. In this passage from Samuel, Jesse brings forward several candidates for the next king of Israel, all of whom are rejected with the phrase, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Instead, God calls the youngest son, the least likely candidate; the one who is busy with other tasks. The one who no one thought was in the running. The passage demonstrates that God anoints and sends messengers not as mortals see, but as God sees.

  • When have you heard the Good News from a source you didn’t expect?
  • How does a glimpse of a person through God’s vision of the heart change our own assumptions about who is called to do God’s work? What does this tell us about God?

Psalm 23

Something as familiar as the 23rd Psalm can start to feel almost rote. But, there is so much richness in the theological depiction of a caring, nurturing and providential God contained in the poetic imagery of this psalm. God is our trust, our sustenance, our protector, our benefactor, our ever-present companion and shelter in life. A wonderful lyrical setting of the 23rd Psalm is Marty Haugen’s Shepherd Me, O God. Haugan’s translation turns this familiar psalm into a prayer for our committed lives of faith, “Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my needs, from death into life.” Not only is the setting beautiful, but it moves the words from passive comfort to an aspirational commitment to living fully into the life into which we are called and shepherded by God.

  • When has God provided for you in your time of need? How did this change your understanding of God’s presence in your life?
  • Where do you experience the shepherding of God in your life…either away from harm, or towards a place where your soul can be revived?

Ephesians 5:8-14

If you’ve ever had the chance to watch a sunrise unobscured by city lights and buildings, one of the most amazing things happens. First, before one even sees the sun emerging over the horizon, the whole sky begins to glow with a pastel, luminescent presence. This pre-dawn beckoning tells us that the night is ending and day is about to dawn. The sun’s movement over the horizon is stunning, and often melts the light glow of the pre-dawn into sharp color where it seems that every hue is exposed to its fullness, available for us to use for whatever the new day brings.

This passage from Ephesians can be seen in the same way. The early Church in Ephesus was still emerging. This world had experienced the dawn of the risen Christ and yet wasn’t entirely sure how to blend the vibrancy of that light into a world that at times seemed unaware of its brilliance. Paul, writing to the church, encourages and exhorts them to rise from that pre-dawn uncertainty and into the brilliance of the resurrected Christ by seeking all that is good and right and true which the light has exposed. Once bathed in that light, the way becomes visible with God’s help.

  • What are your first thoughts when waking? What might happen if you focused your waking energy on that which is good and right and true?
  • In what ways does the Light of Christ expose work that needs to be done: in your church, in your community, in the world at large?

John 9:1-41

It seems like whenever something bad happens, our human reaction is to try to pin-point a quick, unilateral cause: Was the person with a cancer diagnosis a smoker? Was there a family history of depression? Who had someone crossed in order to be treated so badly? We can’t help jumping to conclusions, mostly because all of us harbor a fear of something tragic happening to us, or to those we love. Having someone or something to blame gives our rational brain something to hang onto so that our emotional heart doesn’t have to break a bit more standing in the raw empathy of another person’s pain. In short, “blame” can take the place of “love.” Today’s Gospel is a story of misplaced blame: blame of the person who is blind, blame of his parents, blame of people who seem different; blame of Jesus for extending healing on the Sabbath, rather than following the letter of the law. But, where in this story is love?

The first person to show love in this story is Jesus, who heals the person who was blind, “so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Healing occurred so that love could be set free. Isn’t that really what healing really does? The second show of love is from that very person who was once blind and now sees: he gives his testimony, and gives glory to God simply and with conviction, “Lord, I believe.”

This week’s lectionary readings are filled with metaphors of light, love, and belief from unexpected places. As this Gospel shows us, we have to ask ourselves the same tough question that the learned Pharisees ask: “Surely we are not blind, are we?” When we allow Jesus Christ to open our eyes, we are healed by the love that is set free. Jesus becomes the light that shines in the darkness, illuminating the path on which we are shepherded, step by step, in God’s grace.

  • When did you “see the light” about a situation in your own life, or in the world around you? What differed between your first assumptions, and the eventual recognition of truth? Where is God in your own story?
  • Jesus sees the potential for God to be revealed in the person who was blind. Drawing on the reading from 1st Samuel from this week, how might God be revealed in those whom we least expect? Through what actions of love might this be revealed?
  • Placing ourselves in the position of the person whose sight has been restored, how might the world look through newly opened eyes? Where might God be revealed in this new vision?

Written by Sarah Kye Price, a postulant for the priesthood in the Diocese of Virginia, seminarian in her second year of the low residency program at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, and Professor of Social Work at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her scholarship, teaching, and formation for ministry are firmly rooted at the intersection of faith and social and economic justice.

Download the Bible Study for Lent 4(A).

Bible Study, Lent 2(A) – March 12, 2017

[RCL] Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17

“For God so loved the world…”

The etymology of “Lent” comes from the old German word for “long,” and it is believed to refer to the lengthening days of the spring season. So, Lent can properly be interpreted as a time of lengthening, or stretching. It is a time to stretch our faith, and in this week’s readings, we see multiple examples of ways in which God is calling us to stretch ourselves and our faith. But in asking us to stretching ourselves, God also demonstrates God’s massive outpouring of love for all of us. God is ready to help us along our Lenten journey. God’s love is waiting for us to stretch ourselves enough that we can truly see how big God’s love can be.

Genesis 12:1-4a

The Lord is pushing Abram. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house.” He is challenging Abram to leave everything that he knows behind, and to form a new nation. It is a tremendous promise from God, but it is also meant to stretch Abram. Now, Abram really has to show God if he really believes God. Abram is about to put his faith into action.

  • How might God be calling us to stretch ourselves during this Lenten season?
  • How might we put our faith into action?

Psalm 121

After reading Genesis, Abram most likely had a lot of questions for God. The Psalm seems to be answering Abram’s questions. Abram probably worried about where he was going and how he would survive in this new land. The answer to all Abram’s questions is the Lord. The Lord will watch over Abram as Abram embarks on God’s new plan for Abram. The Psalm is showing the breadth and depth of God’s love for us. “The Lord shall watch over your going out and coming in.” God’s love for us is bigger than we can humanly imagine.

  • What questions do you have for God?
  • Where is God calling you to trust in God’s love?

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Even as we stretch ourselves, this week’s reading from Romans points out that we are not saved by our own works, but purely by God’s righteousness. Therefore, as we think about the sacrifices that we are making for Lent, we need to understand our rationale for those sacrifices. Are we doing them to win God’s favor? That would be unnecessary. We have already won God’s love. God loves us because God has made us lovable. Rather, we might consider our Lenten practices as ways to draw us closer to God, to lengthen our faith and to more fully appreciate God’s love for us.

  • Are you giving something up for Lent? Why?
  • Is your Lenten practice likely to lengthen your faith and draw you closer to God?

John 3:1-17

Nicodemus is understandably confused. He was a Jewish leader, and yet Jesus is offering a theology that is entirely new to him. Jesus is stretching Nicodemus, and Nicodemus is willing to be stretched. He is trying to keep up with Jesus. But, then, Jesus offers the most hopeful message of his ministry. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus is offering God’s salvation. As in the Romans reading for this week, Jesus is providing another explanation of the breadth and depth of God’s love for humanity. God created this world and all the living things in this world. Therefore, God has no interest in condemning it, but in loving it. There is nothing that any of us have done to warrant such an unconditional love, but God provides it, nonetheless. It requires us to stretch our minds and hearts to contemplate a love as broad as the love of God. In this Lenten season, we are stretched to start to appreciate God’s love for us.

  • What does God’s “unconditional love” mean to you?
  • Like Nicodemus, how do you with integrate God’s unconditional love into your life?
  • How might we focus on the breadth of God’s love as part of our Lenten practices?

Written by Brendan Barnicle, a Candidate for Ordination in the Diocese of Oregon, and Senior in the Masters of Divinity program at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific. Prior to the seminary, Brendan spent over 20 years working on Wall Street as a corporate finance lawyer, investment banker, and research analyst. He worked primarily with software companies, particularly Software-as-a-Service companies. He has a strong interest in economic justice, stewardship and organizational development.

Download the Bible Study for Lent 2(A).

Bible Study, Lent 1(A) – March 5, 2017

[RCL] Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7

On Ash Wednesday, God’s people were exhorted to begin the observance of a Holy Lent. The discipline of Lent is to be more than merely giving up a favorite dessert or trying to exercise more. Rather, the church is called to a self-reflective season of contrition and confession, of turning again to God, and submitting wholly to God. The first lesson from Genesis gives a name to the enemy we are likely to encounter as we attempt to meet the demands of Lent: temptation.

In the character of the serpent, this lesson paints a portrait of temptation. The lesson not only teaches us that temptation is crafty, but also in what ways it is crafty. Two stand out. Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of temptation is highlighted when the serpent says to Eve, “You will not die, but your eyes will be opened.” Temptation can be recognized because in its craftiness, it will mix a truth into its lie to make the lie more palatable.

The lesson also teaches us that it is the quality of temptation to spread. No sooner has Eve eaten of the forbidden tree than does she tempt Adam to sin as well. The sin of temptation is not content to sit still, but, like a plague, thrives when it spreads from one person to another until it has infected everyone. To resist temptation, we should be able to recognize when we have been tempted, and resist when we feel the pull to tempt others.

  • Where have you faced temptation in your life? How have you helped to spread temptation?
  • Where do you recognize truths and lies being mixed together in your spiritual life? How will you resist?

Psalm 32

Psalm 32 is about one of the central disciplines of Lent: confession. For those of us who are used to confessing our sins in the generic words of the general confession we say each Sunday, the concept of naming our sins out loud before God may seem somewhat foreign. But as the psalmist says: “While I held my tongue, my bones withered away.” The weight of unconfessed sin becomes unbearable until finally we have no choice but to shout it out before God. Only then, according to the psalmist, is the guilt of sin forgiven.

  • Reflect on the particular sins you might need to confess.
  • Why do you think the psalmist claims that confessing sins leads to their forgiveness?

Romans 5:12-19

In this passage from Romans, Paul makes the claim that “Adam was the type of the one to come,” meaning Christ. However, in Christ, the type is turned on its head. Just as many have died through the sin of Adam, in Christ, many have been afforded the free gift of grace. Just as through one man’s trespass, death gained dominion over the world, one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. If Lent is to be a season of turning again to God, of reorienting ourselves, then this epistle passage provides a sort of road-map to that reorientation. Through the demanding spiritual disciplines of Lent, we look away from our old life in the world of Adam’s sin, to the new life that is afforded in Christ. We travel through the dark season of Lent, in the hope and expectation that new life in Christ waits on the other side.

  • How might it be possible to observe the demands of the Lenten season without losing sight of the hopefulness that waits on the other side of it?

Matthew 4:1-11

This passage from Matthew provides the rationale for the Lenten season. As Christ went into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights, we are exhorted to spend forty days and forty nights in earnest prayer, contrition, and confession. We are reminded that even in the midst of our own struggles and temptations, we are in Jesus’ company, and that is a very heartening thing indeed. We cannot escape the darkness of the Lenten season, or the agony that will come on Good Friday, but we can move forward in the confidence that Jesus is with us in all of it. Just as angels came and waited on Jesus in the wilderness, Jesus waits on us as we undergo the forty days of Lent that are the preparation for the Easter celebration.

  • In what ways do you sense Jesus ministering to you throughout the trials not only of the Lenten season, but of your life?

Written by Richard Culbertson who is from Episcopal Church in South Carolina and currently a ‘middler’ at the University of the South.

Download the Bible Study for Lent 1(A).

Bible Study, Last Sunday after Epiphany (A) – February 26, 2017

[RCL] Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

Exodus 24:12-18

Exodus 24:12-18 provides an account of Moses’s ascent of Mt. Sinai for purposes of receiving the law and commandments. The reading begins with God’s two-part instruction to Moses to “come up to me on the mountain, and wait there.” Moses complies with these instructions, and sets out with Joshua toward the mountain. (Before leaving, however, Moses gives a similar instruction to Israel’s elders, directing them to “wait here for us until we come to you again.” The significance of this directive will be keenly observed later in Chapter 32.) Then, alone, Moses continues up toward the mountain. Critically, Moses stops short of reaching its summit. Meanwhile, the glory of the Lord settled on the mountain, covering it in a cloud. Moses waits on the mountain—but outside of the cloud—for six days. On the seventh day, God beckons Moses from within the cloud to enter in it—God’s glory then visibly appearing “like a devouring fire” at the summit. (v. 17). Moses obeys, entering the cloud and climbing to the top of the mountain. Moses remained on the mountaintop and within the cloud of God’s glory for forty days and forty nights.

The sequence of events leading up to Moses’s climactic ascent into the glory of God on the mountaintop is marked by an important pause between Moses’s initial ascent onto the mountain and then his ultimate ascent onto the mountain’s top into the glory of God. In both periods, Moses patently demonstrates obedience to God’s instruction and invitation: God first beckons Moses to come to the mountain, and Moses does. Then, God calls to Moses from within the cloud to enter and Moses does.

Equally important to these incremental sequences of ascending movement, however, is Moses’s obedience to God’s intervening directive to wait. For six days, Moses waits—on the side of the mountain and maybe only halfway up it—until such time that God asks him to continue onward and into God’s immediate and outwardly visible presence. During those six, exposed days, Moses waits in a liminal space between Israel camped below and the cloud of God’s glory above. It is perhaps in this space that Moses, while standing with a full and up-close view of the devouring fire of God’s glory, is prepared to enter into God’s presence. Perhaps for Moses, the coming and the waiting are equally important in experiencing God’s presence and glory.

  • In what ways does God call you into closer proximity with God’s self?
  • In what ways has God called you to simply wait?
  • Do you ever feel as though you are waiting in a liminal space between that which you have always known and something else that is greater than what you can imagine?

Psalm 99

Psalm 99 is a hymn of praise centered on God’s hegemonic attributes. The hymn commences with statements concerning God’s exaltation over and differentiation from the peoples over which God reigns. Included among these statements celebrating God’s governorship over the peoples, stands an attribution of God as a lover and executor of justice. The kingly exaltations that mark the first five verses of the Psalm are interposed by the reinforcing refrain, “Holy is he.” (vv. 3,5).

The latter half of the Psalm (vv. 6-9) demonstrates a shift in focus away from the distinction between God and God’s kingdom and toward a recollection of the historical incidences of obedience, faithfulness and covenant-keeping between them. These verses recount in varying specificities incidences of God as both lawgiver and forgiver and God’s people as wrongdoing but penitent. These incidences are freighted with allusions to the Saini-based, law-giving narratives and include referents to Moses, to God speaking from the cloud, and to God speaking from the holy mountain. The Psalm concludes with a statement that God is holy.

  • In what ways may a law-giver demonstrate an inclination toward justice?
  • What does it mean to say that God is holy?
  • What attributes does God exhibit that demonstrate holiness?

2 Peter 1:16-21

2 Peter 1:16-21 consists of two principal statements—both, three verses in length—purposed to bolster the credibility of the author’s other teachings set out in the letter. In the first section (vv. 16-18), the author establishes their credentials as one personally acquainted with the person and majesty of Jesus Christ. To do this, the author first disclaims “cleverly devised myths” as the sources of inspiration or instructional content. (v. 16). Instead, the author acts as an eyewitness to Jesus Christ’s majesty and as one who was personally present at Jesus’s transfiguration. Given this intimate proximity to God and to Jesus (indeed, the author claims that he heard God’s voice that identified Jesus as God’s son with whom God was well-pleased), the author’s teaching inferentially reliable and authoritative.

In the second section (vv. 19-21), the author describes prophesy as originating from the Holy Spirit rather than from human imagination or from the human will. Implicitly, the author holds out his teachings as confirmed prophetic messages. Using metaphors of darkness and sources of light, the author admonishes the reader to closely attend to these confirmed prophetic messages.

  • What is your understanding of prophecy?
  • Are prophetic messages still heard today?
  • How do we discern the implications of today’s prophetic messages?

Matthew 17:1-9

Matthew 17:1-9 presents a narrative account of Jesus’s transfiguration. The passage begins as Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. Once there, Jesus is “transfigured” in front of them; his face shines “like the sun” and his clothing became “dazzling white.” (v. 2). As this occurs, Moses and Elijah suddenly appear also. This gospel narrative is silent in describing their appearance (cf. Lk. 9:31).

What follows are multiple incidences of audible speech—some preserved as direct quotations—that occurred on the mountain. First, Moses and Elijah talk with the transfigured Jesus. The narrative does not share the merits of their conversation. The narrative does, however, recount Peter’s exclamation that occurs next: “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” (v. 4). Although Mathew’s gospel does not share the impetus driving Peter’s exclamation (cf. Mk..9:6; Lk. 9:33), its awkwardness is immediately evident to the reader. What’s more, as Peter is speaking, his outburst is interrupted both by a bright cloud overshadows them, and also a voice that emanates from within the cloud.

The voice pronounces: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.” (v. 5); compare (Mt. 3:17). Upon hearing this voice, the disciples fall to the ground, altogether rapt in fear. The final narrative quotations contained the reading come from Jesus. First, Jesus urges his disciples to rise and to fear not; second Jesus directs his disciples to not disclose that which they observed until “after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (v. 9).

The spoken passages recounted in this pericope supply a measure of authenticity to its narrative arc. Peter’s interposition of an inappropriate offer to construct makeshift tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah is the most useful for this purpose. In hearing Peter’s offer, readers are able to not only share in the palpable discomfort that Peter experienced at the time, but also appreciate the patent incompatibility of Peter’s proposal with that which transpired before him. This incompatibility is, by extension, demonstrative of the differentiation between the human (Peter) and the divine (Jesus transfigured).

The consequence of this differentiation reaches its climax when God announces Jesus’s son-ship: the disciples are reduced to abject fear and Jesus is (ostensibly at least) elevated beyond even his transfigured state. It is at this point of ultimate differentiation that Jesus comes down to his disciples, and touching them, implores them to get up and to fear not. Thus, we observe in microcosm the incarnation of Christ as God with us.

  • When do you feel the farthest from, or the most differentiated from, God?
  • At those points when you perceive the greatest distance between yourself and God, what erases that distance such that you may again participate in communion with God?

Written by Jeremy Carlson. He is a second-year student at the School of Theology at the University of the South and a postulant from the Diocese of Alabama.

Download the Bible Study for Last Sunday after Epiphany (A).

Bible Study, Seventh Sunday after Epiphany (A) – February 19, 2017

[RCL] Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Leviticus: not the most popular book of scripture among many Christians. How does one read text that does not contain a discernible story with engaging characters, but only seemingly arcane rituals and laws that have no apparent relevance in twenty-first century Western Christian culture? We do not practice them or even believe in their validity for the most part. How can we relate?

Would you read it if it were a life-or-death situation? Scholars such as Robert Alter, Jacob Milgrom and Everett Fox, in their commentaries on Leviticus, all seem to suggest that this central portion of Torah describes a life-or-death situation for the Israelites, their place in the cosmos and their relationship with God. The instructions, both for priests and for lay Israelites, are meant, these scholars suggest, to enable God’s chosen people to attain holiness and set aside impurity by embracing the values found, for example, in today’s reading: caring for the poor and the “sojourner” (both Alter and Fox use this word rather than “alien”); not taking advantage of your neighbor; and generally, not being morally complicit with sin.

  • How might this reading affect your understanding of holiness? Is holiness related to morality?
  • Take some time to re-read these verses, but include the omitted ones, 3-8. Are Christian rituals reflective of our values? If so, how?
  • Is our understanding of holiness different in twenty-first century Christianity than in the writings of seventh-century-B.C. Judaism? How?
  • How might we see love in these verses? How is holiness related to love?

Psalm 119:33-40

“Teach me.”

“Give me.”

“Make me.”

Best of all: “Incline my heart.”

Perhaps surrendering to God’s action upon us, as suggested by the syntax of the psalmist’s words, is what sets our hearts free.

  • What might it mean in your life to surrender to God?
  • How might you ask God to work upon you?

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Consider the character of Nick Bottom, from Shakespeare’s comedy, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Bottom is a comic figure, a “rude tradesman,” who is often portrayed as what we would now term “socially awkward,” comparable to Sheldon from the TV show “The Big Bang Theory,” but less of an academic snob. The group of rude tradesmen whom Bottom leads are attempting to put on a play for a duke’s wedding. Shakespeare’s comedy contrasts the actions of the aristocrats with those of the lower class. During the course of the play, an impish fairy, Puck, changes Bottom’s human head into that of an ass because Bottom is such a laughable leader of the group of “actors.” In one scene, after his romantic encounter with the fairy queen, Titania, he shamelessly (mis)quotes the apostle from a different part of 1 Corinthians (2:9) as he attempts to understand his experience:

“I have had a dream, past the wit of man to
say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go
about to expound this dream. Methought I was – there
is no man can tell what. Methought I was, – and
methought I had, – but man is but a patched fool, if
he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye
of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not
seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue
to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was.”
— William Shakespeare, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” lines 1767-1776

  • How might Bottom’s speech be related to Paul’s words in today’s reading: “If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”
  • How does today’s text affect your understanding of leadership, whether in a religious or a secular setting?

Matthew 5:38-48

Coercion. Oppression. Submission. Resistance. What do these words mean to you? Do you visualize a Hollywood action movie, where the bad guys attempt to coerce the good guys into submission via physical violence, and then the good guys win out by means of armed resistance? Often the directors of these films appear to exalt gunfire, punching and bombing as the means of overcoming the enemy. Both sides use extreme violence to achieve their respective ends. If this is what you visualize, you are obviously not alone. And neither is twenty-first century Western culture. Many in Jesus’ time expected just this of him – armed resistance of the Roman oppressors.

Or do you picture Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., when hearing these words? Do you view turning the other check to your enemies as a loss or a surrendering of your power? As a sign of weakness?

David E. Garland, in his book, “Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary” (Smith & Helwys, 2001) reminds his readers that to turn the other cheek affords one power over the “enemy” or the oppressor, because, essentially, you are putting the ball back in that person’s court. He or she must then choose whether to offer more violence. For example, the Roman soldier then becomes the one who must choose how to respond when the person who has been compelled to carry a heavy pack willingly submits to going one more mile; the people on the bus are the ones who must choose to force a black woman from her seat.

  • How would our lives be different if Martin Luther King, Jr., had led his followers into armed resistance?
  • How would the story of Christianity be different today if Jesus had led an armed uprising against the Roman Empire?
  • How can your life be different if you strive to be perfect in love of neighbor and enemy, as Jesus asks of us in today’s lesson?

Written by Christine Havens. This Bible Study was originally posted in February 2014.

Download the Bible Study for Epiphany 7(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).