Bible Study: Proper 20(B), September 20, 2015

(RCL) Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13–4:3, 7–8a; Mark 9:30–37

He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:35–37)

Proverbs 31:10–31

How did this description of “a capable wife” strike you? For some, it may seem a model of self-sacrificing generosity and a poetic celebration of the valuable roles women played in ancient society (and still play, in many cultures, today). For others, it may reek of patriarchal inequality and seem of little relevance given our changed understanding of marriage and gender roles. When a single passage can provoke such differing responses, it is worth pausing to consider the ways our own experiences and personal histories shape our understanding of the text.

As a case study, reread verse 21. To most Episcopalians, the first half of the verse might provoke chuckles: “She is not afraid for her household when it snows…” Good, we might think. Glad there is no irrational fear of white stuff falling from the sky! To others, who may have experienced dangerous cold with inadequate clothing or shelter, the wife’s ability to provide plush (and warm) clothes for her family would hardly seem a laughing matter.

  • What verses in this passage seem most relevant to your life today?
  • What verses seem least relevant?
  • How might someone read those same verses and have an opposite reaction?
Psalm 1

From the very first verses, the psalm connects happiness with faithfulness to the law. Those whose “delight is in the law of the LORD” and who “meditate on his law day and night” shall be like fruitful trees, the psalmist tells us, whereas the wicked are “like chaff which the wind blows away.” Righteousness and wisdom are the foundation of happiness, according to Psalm 1.

But why do bad things happen to good people? Or to ask the more exacerbating question: why do good things happen to bad people? It would be a mistake to dismiss the psalmist as naïvely arguing that faithfulness to God guarantees an easy life. (The psalms are not the place that folks peddling a toxic Prosperity Gospel would have you look, for they are replete with lamentations of the faithful who suffer amid humiliation and defeat.) So the question becomes this:

  • What sort of happiness does faithfulness to the law of the Lord in fact provide?
  • How does that vision of happiness contrast with our contemporary culture’s understanding of happiness?
James 3:13–4:3, 7–8a

This is a beautiful passage that, like Psalm 1, speaks of the value of submitting to God. The author identifies conflicting wisdoms that might govern the actions of those he addresses. There is “earthly, unspiritual, devilish” wisdom that leads to “envy and selfish ambition” in the individual and “disorder and wickedness of every kind” in society. Against this, there is “wisdom from above” that is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits…” Trouble arrives, he tells us, when we act based on earthly wisdom and not out of faithfulness to God.

The Letter of James was controversial for much of Christian history, largely because its emphasis on doing good works seemed to clash with parts of Paul’s writings that emphasized salvation by faith alone and not by works. (Other parts of the Pauline corpus—e.g., Romans 2:13—sound like they could have come straight from the Letter of James.) This passage can help us understand that faith in God and charity towards our neighbor are inseparable. It is our faithful adherence to the “wisdom from above” that spurs us to act gently, justly, and in ways that will yield “good fruits.”

  • Can you think of a conflict in your own life or in the life of your congregation?
  • How does your sense of that conflict shift as you imagine seeking to work through it according to the heavenly wisdom that this passage describes?
Mark 9:30–37

After describing the disciples’ continued misunderstanding of Jesus’ passion prediction, this passage shows us their misunderstanding of Jesus’ values. Just as the psalmist and the letter of James advocate prioritizing heavenly wisdom, Jesus treats others according to a heavenly ethic and wisdom, not according to the hierarchical norms of society. The disciples’ concern for “who was the greatest” reflects their earthly priorities, and Jesus shows how a heavenly ethic reverses earthly expectations. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” Jesus says. He illustrates his point by taking a little child (in an age when such children had little social status) and telling his disciples that service to such a child is indistinguishable from service to him. A child without status can be a proxy for God. 

  • In our churches, do our children’s ministries demonstrate that we’ve embraced Jesus’ teaching?
  • Jesus used the little child as a stand-in for all those without status and power. Who in our communities (and, beyond them, in the world) are the powerless or neglected, and what would it mean for us to treat them as though they were proxies for God? 

Download the Bible Study for Proper 20B Bible Study.

Written by Robert Pennoyer, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

Robert Pennoyer is a third-year seminarian at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, where he is also a member of the Institute of Sacred Music. He is a candidate for ordination to the priesthood in the Diocese of New York. He lives in New Haven with his wife and their one-year-old daughter.  

Bible Study: Proper 19(B), September 13, 2015

(RCL) Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19; James 3:1-12, 14-17; Mark 8:27-38

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (Mark 8:34-35)

Proverbs 1:20-33

What a challenging passage: on first glance it appears as though Woman Wisdom, the female personification of wisdom found in the book of Proverbs (and elsewhere), is merely scolding humanity for ignoring her calls. If we take a closer look, we can see that Woman Wisdom inserts herself into the center of commerce and community life of the city (vs. 20-21), where people are the most distracted from choosing the “fear of the Lord” (vs. 29). It is interesting to note that she feels that people lose sight of following God when they are attending to business and engaged in their daily tasks.

  • In what ways do our daily tasks and work distract us from following the way of God?
  • In what ways might you act or behave differently in your work or daily tasks if you were following the way of God while engaged in those tasks?
Psalm 19

This Psalm makes everything seem easy. If you follow the Law of the Lord, you are blameless in the sight of the Lord and are without sin. Easy as pie. Verse 8 tells us that the “law of the Lord is clear”, which is true sometimes, but other times it is not so clear.

  • What are we to do when the law of the Lord is not so clear?
  • What tools have you found helpful in discerning a course of action when you are finding the law of the Lord hard to decipher?
  • What are some of God’s “laws” that are very clear for you?
  • Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you doubted your understanding of God’s laws? What was that experience like?
James 3:1-12

Here we have another very challenging passage from the book of James, warning readers about the power of words and speech. James cautions us that the tongue controls the entire body and has the power to guide the whole self toward goodness or away from goodness. If we use our mouths to proclaim the goodness of God on Sundays and to talk badly about our coworkers come Monday morning, which way are our tongues guiding our whole selves? James says that the same spring can’t produce fresh water and brackish water; the brackish water will always contaminate the clean water, and no amount of clean water can completely dilute the contaminated water.

  • We have been meditating, in today’s readings, about the law of the Lord and how to follow the way of the Lord in confusing and unclear situations. What would it look like to be guided by our own speech and tongue?
  • What would you change about the way you use words in order to guide you into a closer relationship with God and closer to God’s goodness?
Mark 8:27-38

One general theme from the readings today is following in the way of the Lord in both action and speech. We have been asked to consider wisdom in our daily life and work. We have been told that the law of the Lord is clear, and that those who follow it are blameless. We have also been told that the tongue controls the entire self and that it can guide us into goodness. Each of these passages challenges us to avoid taking the easy and thoughtless way out of a situation, and choose God’s way. Here Jesus lays this message down loud and clear: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” The way of the cross is costly and Jesus never attempts to hide this fact from his followers.

  • What are some gospel truths that you think are worth setting aside your own comfort, or even your own life for?
  • In what ways have these passages encouraged you or challenged you to consider what it means to follow Christ differently?
  • What situation in your life or community might Jesus be calling you into? In what ways is that a comfortable call? An uncomfortable one? 

Download a copy of the Bible Study for Proper 19B Bible Study.

Written by Maggie Foster, Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP)

Maggie is a third year seminarian at CDSP, a postulant from the Diocese of Southern Ohio, and an Ohio State Buckeye. She is interested in ministry that finds a way to meet both the physical and spiritual needs of people living in poverty. She lives in Berkeley with her fiancée, Andrea and their dog, Jasper.

Bible Study: Proper 18(B), September 6, 2015

(RCL) Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-10 (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go– the demon has left your daughter.” (Mark 7:27-29)

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

All the readings for this Sunday seem to point toward mercy and justice, reminding us of the first petition of the Collect: “Grant us…to trust in you with all our hearts.” So many times in our interactions with others, especially with strangers, we find it difficult to trust. We have learned that it can be foolhardy to give someone the “benefit of the doubt,” to enter a relationship by suspending judgment and assuming the person’s motivation is good unless we are proven wrong. The ancient wisdom of Proverbs reminds us that rich and poor, neighbor and stranger, even the just and unjust are all creatures of God. Perhaps our daily encounters do require us to be prudent, and we can blend prudence with a gracious recognition of our shared humanity. We can choose to act with justice and compassion, and to value integrity over prejudice or greedy self-interest.

  • Besides physical and material support, how can we “share our bread with the poor”? Describe an occasion when you have observed someone giving generously of his or her time, attention, labor, or some other resource.
  • What would you be willing to do or say to defend a stranger against injustice?
Psalm 125

“The hills stand about Jerusalem; so does the LORD stand round about his people…” In the language of the Psalms, God’s power in creation is often mirrored in God’s mercy and protection for God’s chosen people. However, our worldview is often at odds with such a straightforward equation. We have seen too much human domination and cruelty in history and in recent events that makes us dubious, and we can’t help thinking it a bit naïve of the Israelites to proclaim, “The scepter of the wicked shall not hold sway” over those who are just, good, and true of heart.

But read this psalm again, and notice how much is expected of the faithful: they are to trust in the Lord, not put their hands to evil, and remain true of heart. It is those who turn aside – who do not look to God for their guidance and strength – who follow crooked paths and end up among evildoers. Here we find an expression of wisdom, possibly even born of hard experience, rather than naïveté. No, we can’t go through life expecting God to keep a protective bubble around us; that would be belief in magic, not faith in God. Perhaps the psalmist is saying that our trust in God should be for our spiritual protection against our own selfish tendencies, more than against any outward enemies.

  • Who do you think is to blame, when calamity befalls a person or group of people? Is the answer always clear?
  • In what ways might God be standing guard over us, if not to prevent us from suffering the pain and injustice inherent in human existence?
James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17

Scholars have long debated the identity of both the author and the intended audience of this epistle, but its message remains strong and clear: one who claims to have faith in Jesus as Messiah and Lord must live in a way consistent with that faith. When we genuinely trust God’s power and love, we cannot turn our backs on the poor or show favor to the rich based on superficial distinctions.

Debating the relative importance of faith and good works is like asking the old question about the chicken and the egg – indeed, neither is viable without the other, and so we must look to the true source of life in both. Some people receive and respond to God’s love in an outpouring of faith that then is expressed through their sharing of that love with others. Some people act in just and compassionate ways out of an intellectual commitment that gradually deepens into faith. What James warns his readers about is the ‘disconnect’ – we cannot say we have faith and then act unlovingly without violating our own integrity. It is in this sense that he challenges them, “Can faith save you?” The superficial faith that does not urge us to action for the sake of God’s reign and love of God’s children is truly dead and useless.

  • Think of a time when you met a person whose socio-economic condition was greatly different from your own. How did you feel? How would it feel if your positions were reversed?
  • What actions might you take to express your faith as you now understand it? In what ways might your faith grow if you take those actions?
Mark 7:24-37

What an odd, even awkward pair of stories we read in this Gospel lesson. There is no escaping the fact that they do not present Jesus in the best light, and they were preserved by the earliest Christian communities and included by the author of this first written account of the Good News. We must look a little deeper to find their significance to early Christians, and their importance for us.

Mark weaves the idea of a “Messianic secret” throughout his story of Jesus’ ministry. God is already present and powerfully active in the world, as seen in Jesus’ miraculous healings and exorcisms; but we must also accept that God’s full restoration of creation – the perfection envisioned by ancient prophets – is yet to come at a time we cannot foresee. Through that lens, we might view the stories of the Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man as prophetic symbols of God’s power to transform and restore the world’s division and isolation.

Mark tells a story in which Jesus has gone a long way from home, and by implication a long way from the Jewish population, the children of Israel for whom his ministry began. When a Gentile woman seeks him out and asks his help, he replies in a way that sounds rude to us but would in fact have made perfect sense in the context of the first-century Church. Jesus had come to the “children” first, but then had extended his compassionate ministry beyond his own ethnic boundaries. Told from within a community of Gentile Christians, this encounter with a desperate mother presents Jesus as validating and blessing their faith, even against the background of a strained history.

Jesus moves on, but in an even wider circle beyond his Galilean base. In this companion story, we find echoes of the same themes – Jesus takes the deaf man aside, away from the crowd; he performs the requested cure, without seeming effort or even difficulty. Finally, he tells everyone to keep quiet about it but they proclaim the news far and wide. Here is the Gospel: the power of God is present, among us, and cannot be contained even though it has not yet been fully revealed.

  • Where are our blind spots, and what messages are we not willing or able to hear? Do we need to understand this passage as an invitation to move outside our own boundaries or our ‘comfort zone’?
  • It is hard to keep quiet when we have good news to tell. What kind of joy or gratitude do you have in your heart that wants to be shared? Can you see God present and working in your life somewhere? Do you hear God calling you into something new? Try to articulate those experiences.

Download a the Bible Study for Proper 18B Bible Study.

Bible Study: Day of Pentecost (B)

May 24, 2015

Jessie Gutgsell, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (John 16:13)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Acts 2:1-21

Here we have the familiar and yet still hard-to-believe story of the Holy Spirit descending on the apostles. It comes in the first section of Acts where the focus is largely on Peter and his ministry. The second major section of Acts (starting in chapter 13) will turn to focus more on Paul’s missionary journeys.

In this story, the Spirit comes with the sound like a rushing and violent wind (verse 2). The spirit descends in tongues of divided fire onto the apostles’ heads, and they begin to speak in different languages. Then a crowd gathers and begins to hear about God’s amazing power and deeds all in their own language. (See verses 6 and 11.) The primary reactions to this are amazement, confusion and a “sneering” kind of doubt. (See verse 13).

I could see these categorizations being the same today with people’s different reactions to amazing acts of the Spirit. We hear in verse 13 that people start to audibly doubt the situation, blaming alcohol for the craziness of the moment. But then Peter responds with his first public speech. He bases his words largely in scripture, quoting Joel in our portion for today, but also Psalms and other books later. Something that’s incredibly significant about Peter’s speech is that he quotes Joel in verse 18, saying that everyone, regardless of status or gender, will receive the Spirit and prophesy. Peter’s speech goes onto to explain that the Spirit will come, and then he briefly discusses the end times. Peter, quoting Joel, uses powerful imagery about the last days before Christ’s return, saying that the moon will be turned to blood and the sun to darkness (verse 20). But those who believe in Christ and have received the Spirit will be saved (verse 21).

What would it be like to hear about God’s deeds and power in our own individual languages? Maybe this means more than just languages that we speak, but also the different ways that we experience communication in non-verbal ways. How do you imagine that you would hear or experience the Spirit speaking?

Reflect upon verse 18 that all will receive the Spirit and prophesy. Are there people who you sometimes think have not received the Spirit and should not prophesy? Perhaps this verse will challenge that?

I mentioned the three responses to an amazing act of the Spirit: amazement, confusion and a sneering kind of doubt. Which of these responses do you normally experience? Do you experience one more than others or none of them?

Psalm 104:25-35, 37

This is an exuberant psalm of gratitude and praise for our Creator God. The psalmist reflects upon God’s magnificent creation of the earth. One can easily conjure up luscious images of God creating the earth and its inhabitants with joy. (See verse 27 about the Leviathan.) God created everything, and verse 28 tells us that all the earth and creatures look to God for their sustenance and preservation. As we will hear in Romans, we get the message that the earth, the animals and humans are all in this experience of life and existence together. We have all come to being through one creator. God send God’s Spirit through all that lives, grows and dies, and that Spirit will renew the earth (verse 31).

The psalm ends with the psalmist almost unable to contain his praise: “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will praise my God while I have my being” (verse 34). How wonderful and right that marveling at God’s handiwork in creation would lead the psalmist to such praise. The speaker then reveals that he speaks his words to glorify God, to rejoice in God and please God (verse 35). If only we could all take such delight in God’s creation – both the earth and our fellow humans!

If you were to write your own psalm of praise to God for creation, what would you say? For what would you give thanks to God?

In verse 34, the psalmist says that he will sing to the Lord and praise God while he has his being. In what ways do you show your praise? Do you sing? Do you dance? Do you write? How can you show your praise and gratitude in more ways?

Romans 8:22-27

This has long been one of my absolute favorite passages of scripture. There is so much communicated in these few verses: the pain of ecological damage to the earth, the struggle of being human, the doubts about how to pray, and the awesome power and presence of the Spirit. Romans is one of the last-known undisputed writings by Paul. Read in this context, Paul’s words become that much more poignant.

Here in these verses we see that Christ’s return has not yet come. We live on this earth in a spirit of anticipation. This anticipation requires a hope for what we cannot yet see or maybe even imagine (verses 24-25). And while we wait, it is not just humanity that struggles “with sighs too deep for words,” but also the very earth and “whole creation” (verse 22).

This message may sound depressing, but the power and presence of the Spirit is assured in verse 26 when we hear that the Spirit will help us in our weakness. We may not know how to pray, or even how to deal with the destruction we see around us, but that third person of the Trinity will intercede for us. These verses give us the permission to grieve for life’s difficulty, but they also give us the responsibility to hope and trust in God and God’s will. And if you were to keep reading onto the next verse of Romans (8:28), you would read that all things will work together for good for those who love the Lord.

For what losses and disappointments do you sigh in a way that is too deep for words?

When you are struggling, try to remember Romans 8:26, that the Spirit will intercede for you in your difficulties. Perhaps this will give you comfort.

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

These words from the Gospel of John come in the last section of the gospel. They are in the middle of what has become known as the “Farewell Discourse” (Chapters 14-16). The Last Supper has just occurred in Chapter 13, and Jesus’ trial and execution immediately follow our selection for today. These emotion-filled words come in what could be thought of as the calm before the storm. The overriding message of these passages is similar to what we hear in Romans: The world will be oppositional, life will be hard, but we will not be alone.

In this somewhat lengthy discourse, also known as the “Johannine Pentecost,” Jesus names the fact that the news he’s delivering is not easy to hear (16:6). He communicates that he must go away and that it is to everyone’s advantage that he goes away (16:7). Imagine the dismay and emotion of the disciples upon hearing this news!

Jesus continues to discuss the future, explaining that the disciples will not be alone once Jesus leaves. Jesus introduces the idea that “the Advocate,” or the Holy Spirit, will come only if and after Jesus leaves (16:7). The next words are staggering in their honesty and their poignancy: The Spirit will come and prove the world wrong. The Spirit will prove the world wrong about sin and about judgment. When the Spirit comes, it will guide us into “all the truth” (16:13).

These words, even though they are hard to hear, also bring tremendous hope. These are the words that we can turn to when we are struggling with the hardest things we have to face in life, when we question why there is so much violence and injustice in the world. Jesus never claims that it will be easy, but he does say that we will have to testify with the Spirit to what we have seen and done, and that we will not be alone in this journey.

In what ways do you hope that the Spirit will “prove the world wrong”? What areas of life seem particularly detrimental and unfair?

Consider the title of the Spirit as “Advocate.” The Spirit is also sometimes known as “the Comforter.” In what ways can you relate to this person of the Trinity with these identity designations?

Read the passage in an imaginative way, trying to imagine that you’re one of the disciples hearing this farewell discourse from Jesus. What are your emotions? Your reactions?

Bible Study: 7 Easter (B)

May 17, 2015

Steven M. Balke, Jr.Virginia Theological Seminary

“I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.” (John 17:15)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

Trying to discern God’s will for our lives is a serious matter. We make decisions and choose courses of action all the time that we hope are for the best, but many of us would desperately love to know what God would have us do. Whether we are casting lots, randomly picking passages out of the Bible, or reading tea leaves, we are grasping at trying to make sense of our lives and to find some sort of profound guidance in an otherwise swirling sea of potential good choices and bad choices.

It is helpful to look at the approach the Apostles took in choosing their new member. Yes, they dearly wanted to know what God wanted them to do, but they tried to be in a kind of model of mutual discernment with God. Acts states that they prayed over their choice and worked to discern from all of their options down to two people, then they left room for God to work in their lives. It was a careful balance of not trying to wrestle control away from God but also not washing their hands of any responsibility. May we all strive to make decisions in such a way, holding lightly both the importance of our own discernment with trust in God’s grace.

When do you find yourself trying to wrestle control of your life away from God?

When do you find yourself letting go of responsibility for your own decisions?

How can you try to hold self-reliance and trusting in God in balance?

Psalm 1

When trying to discern God’s will in our lives, there is a danger in thinking that outcomes are God’s judgment upon us. We are taught throughout the Bible that great blessings flow upon those who make choices that are pleasing to God, and great disaster befalls those who make choices that are displeasing to God. A side effect of this is a great number of people who feel like bad things happen to them because they did things in their lives that God did not like and God is punishing them for it. This can be disastrous for a person’s sense of well being as well as corrupting of his or her relationship with the church.

In our eagerness to see God’s will at work, we need to be careful in assigning God’s motivations to events. Instead, Psalm 1 teaches us that our own motivations to follow God lead us to delight. The psalm is an insight into our relationship with a God who loves us dearly and always wants what is best for us. God loves us, so if we “meditate day and night” on what God wants for us, God is watching over us.

When have you felt like suffering was a judgment against you?

Where have you seen other people struggle with feeling like God is punishing them?

How can you be a part of sharing God’s love with those who are suffering?

1 John 5:9-13

The Johannine community from which this letter came was surrounded by very God-loving people who were also deeply divided with one another about how best to go about loving God. This letter came from a people who believed that they had discerned God’s will in the best way that they could and were trying to share what they had discerned with those around them. Other Jewish communities and fellow Christian communities alike sometimes took the approach of excommunicating them, cutting off their relationships, or undermining their teachings; yet the Johannine community’s proclamation of God’s love for us and God’s promise of eternal life through Christ survives to this day.

Sometimes after carefully discerning what you think is right, some people are still going to disagree with you and challenge you. This is particularly true when trying to discern what God would have us do. Struggling with doubts in the face of such adversity is understandable. When in doubt, know that if the path you have discerned has led you to proclaiming God’s love in word and deed, has led you to be a more loving person to those around you, or has helped open you to believing in God’s promise of life everlasting, then you can be confident that you have not been led astray from God.

What do you do when others challenge what you feel is right?

When have others saved you from making a mistake that you thought was right?

What can you do to discern the difference between the two?

John 17:6-19

In his book “Thoughts in Solitude” (Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1958), Thomas Merton offers a very useful prayer for those trying to discern:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

This prayer includes the statement that we do not really know what the future holds for us or what God’s plan is, but that if we do our best to try to do what we think our part in it is, that God will be pleased with us for trying. Merton can express this in good confidence because we learn much of what God expects from us in the actions of Christ in the gospels.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus’ disciples make lots of mistakes; they try very hard to do what they think is best but fall short of perfection, just like the rest of us. In the end, Christ still calls them his people, still loves them, and still wants them to receive eternal life just for believing in him.

God does not expect perfection from any of us. If we try our best to discern God’s will in our lives, God will love us for doing our best. In the midst of a world where there is too much going on to make sense of it all and too many things vying for our attention all the time, remember to think of God’s love and our own call to love, and you will be dwelling in the world but being a part of what God wants for this world.

When do you find yourself discerning what God wants from you?

When do you find yourself discerning what God wants for you?

How can you be what God wants for the world?

Bible Study: 6 Easter (B)

May 10, 2015

Jason Poling, General Theological Seminary

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

Acts 10:44-48

Our 1979 Book of Common Prayer includes all kinds of changes to the liturgy for baptism, but the most significant one doesn’t have to do with the language in our prayers. Have you noticed that our baptismal rites aren’t found right before Confirmation, as in older prayer books, but instead fall between Easter Vigil and the Eucharist?

There’s a reason for that: The Book of Common Prayer tells us right at the outset that “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 298). Baptism is the necessary precursor to the Eucharist, as our Canons clearly state: “No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church” (I.18.7). As the Easter Vigil is traditionally the time when the church would welcome new members, it is fitting that our prayer book follows the Vigil with the service for Holy Baptism. Only after baptism do we get to the Eucharist.

Some see this as exclusionary – but it isn’t. We don’t discriminate on ethnicity or any other invidious dividing line. Our table excludes nobody who wants to be at it; with Peter, we say to anyone who wants to share with us in our Lord’s Supper, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?”

How do you understand the relationship between baptism and Eucharist? Where does Confirmation fit in?

Psalm 98

One of the most ancient poems of our English language is “Cædmon’s Hymn.” Dating from the late 7th century, this poem – which St. Bede attributes to a cowherd under angelic inspiration – is a short but powerful nine-line celebration of God’s might and glory as revealed in creation.

This psalm is in much the same vein (better, “Cædmon’s Hymn” is in the same vein as this psalm) in that it celebrates God’s might and glory. Here, though, the psalmist celebrates God’s might and glory as revealed in his vindication, his victory, his triumph – all of which requires a defeated enemy. The “nations” to which the psalmist refers are the hostile enemies of God’s people, who would indeed have been their victims had God not rescued his people by a demonstration of overpowering force.

Not long after Cædmon wrote his poem, his monastery fell prey to a Viking attack. Psalms like this one have a special resonance to those who know what it is to fear the violence of an irresistible, predatory foe. Most likely, as you read this you are not facing that kind of existential threat from your neighbors. So in times like these, we may follow the advice of our fellow Anglican C.S. Lewis and pray this psalm on their behalf.

Have you ever prayed a psalm for somebody else? For somebody you don’t know?

Have you ever prayed a psalm for yourself?

1 John 5:1-6

“Take my yoke upon you,” Jesus said, “for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30). “His commandments are not burdensome,” John says here in our passage. Likewise, in Torah we read that Moses told God’s people, “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away” (Deuteronomy 30:11).

None of this should give us the idea that we can earn God’s favor, or even that we have it in ourselves to please him. One shameful element of our Anglican heritage is that our native Pelagius (ca. 354-418 CE) is one of the heretics whose false teachings keep coming back like dandelions in the spring. The upside for the church is that Pelagius’ notion that we could merit God’s favor by our own works stimulated his contemporary, St. Augustine, to produce some of his most inspired works of theology.

But we can’t miss the message – taught consistently throughout scripture – that God gives us his commandments to give us joy, not to kill it. It is sin that kills joy, that uses fleeting pleasures to keep us from knowing the fullness of joy that comes with a life lived as God made us to live it.

Think about the last time you confessed sin. How much pleasure did that sin bring you? How much joy? How much joy did it kill?

John 15:9-17

If all we knew was that God’s commandments bring joy, that alone would be Good News – since those commandments are available to us, and we can see the lives of people who follow them. But what Jesus makes clear in this passage is that obedience to God is not simply a matter of adhering to rules; rather, it’s an intimate relationship with the eternal Lover who made us. He has told us how we can live well, yes, but he has also made it possible for us to live not just for ourselves but in him. We abide in Jesus’ love as we keep his commandments; we keep his commandments as we abide in his love. And the more we “get” this, the more complete is his joy in us.

Think about the first time you were taught to do some sort of manual task, like cutting a piece of wood. Did somebody point at the saw and the wood and tell you to cut straight? Or did she guide your hands into place, demonstrate how much pressure to apply and how fast to go, even guide your hands with her own? The command to cut straight really would be burdensome, and would produce anxiety rather than joy, if we didn’t have any help. Thankfully, our master Carpenter is a better teacher than that. Indeed, as he told the disciples later on in this same conversation, he promised to send them his Spirit to teach, guide and comfort them. We receive that same Spirit in our baptism.

How do you think about the relationship between following Jesus’ commandments and abiding in his love? Do you sometimes feel as if you have to do one or the other?

Can you think of a time when you were especially aware of the Holy Spirit’s guidance as you followed God’s commandments?

 

Bible Study: 5 Easter (B)

May 3, 2015

Michael Toy, Princeton Theological Seminary

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower.” (John 15:1)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:24-30; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

Acts 8:26-40

This story from Luke/Acts stars Philip, one of the seven deacons chosen earlier, in Acts 6:5. Philip has just come from Samaria, where he preached the gospel with joyous reception. Now we find Philip on a road in the wilderness where he teaches the Ethiopian eunuch about Jesus. In Acts 1:8, Jesus tells his disciples, “And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Through Philip, the gospel message is being spread to all people, not just to Jews or even the surrounding nations.

The gospel message is the proclamation of God’s kingdom here on earth. In this story, the gospel is being spread to the physical nations of the globe. This story about the global spread of the gospel offers an opportunity for introspection as well. What corners of your own life need the proclamation of the gospel? Is the Good News about Jesus evident in your finances, work-life balance, attitude and health?

The Ethiopian eunuch humbly and poignantly asks Philip how he can understand the scriptures unless someone explains it. Whom do you seek when you find something in scripture that you do not understand?

In this passage, the Spirit instructs Philip to join the Ethiopian; how does God lead you to proclaim the message of Jesus today?

Psalm 22:24-30

Psalm 22 is an individual lament psalm beginning with the heart-wrenching cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But like all lament psalms, the ending glorifies God, acknowledges God’s omnipotence, sovereignty over the earth, and the universality of the worship of God. God’s far-reaching glory extends from the great assembly to the poor to all the ends of the earth. Verse 28 makes the claim that even those who have died will bow down and worship God. The glory of God also extends into eternity; those who are not born yet shall hear of God’s saving deeds.

The worship of God in this passage is corporate and communal. The worship takes place in the assembly, in families and with all of humanity.

Remember that this psalm began with an individual lament. How does this move from an individual lament to corporate worship serve as a pattern of worship? When have you had individual struggles and found that your worshipping community was a consolation? Conversely, how can the worshipping community be sensitive to the grief and laments of individual members?

1 John 4:7-21

The author of 1 John, in this passage, beautifully describes the relationship between God and God’s beloved. Within this description is a carefully constructed argument that ends with the exhortation for those who love God to love their sisters and brothers. Certainly, it feels good to know that the God of the universe, the omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient God loves each of us. But equally important in this passage is the imperative to share this love that we have received. For this author, to be God’s beloved means that one shares that love. On one hand, unconditional love expects nothing in return. How then can the author make the claim that knowing the love of God means we ought to love one another? While abiding in God’s love sounds wonderful on paper, life happens and God’s love is the farthest thing from our hearts and minds. What does it mean to truly abide in the love of God? How can you remind yourself of this throughout the toils and busy-ness of life?

While this passage denounces fear, when we love and care for one another, we often worry and fear for a beloved’s well being. How is the fear that has to do with punishment different from the fear that has to do with caring for another person?

John 15:1-8

This is a difficult passage to swallow, for on a first reading, the message is one of warning and judgment. All those who fail to abide in Jesus will be thrown away, gathered and burned. On one hand, the rhetoric of judgment is a great reminder of the importance to abide in Christ. But on the other hand, the judgment and burning does not seem concordant with many conceptions of a God of love.

At the end of the passage, in verse 8, Jesus teaches, “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” In this passage there is no mention of God being glorified by the burning of withered branches. On the contrary, God is glorified when people bear much fruit. And in these lectionary readings, we see that the gospel of love and its fruit is spread throughout the world, through all time and to all souls.

1 John tells us that sharing love starts with our brothers and sisters, those immediately surrounding us. In the story from Acts, Philip has left Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and is now bearing witness to Christ to all the ends of the earth. Finally, the psalm claims that God extends outside the boundaries of the assembly, beyond economic boundaries, past national borders, and even breaks down the barrier of death. “All who go down to the dust fall before him” (Psalm 22:26). What are the implications of this claim that the love of God is extended even to the dead?

All will worship God. Triumph belongs to the loving God, the one who leaves no boundary uncrossed and no person unreached. What hope does this bring to us as we contemplate God’s victory?

One of the perennial questions Christians must confront is this: If God is all powerful and God’s will is always accomplished, what then does it matter if I proclaim God’s kingdom? In the wake of the Easter celebration, the gospel reading compels each Christian to ask herself and himself: In what ways do I currently bear fruit of the resurrected Christ?

Bible Study: 4 Easter (B)

April 26, 2015

David MarkerBishop Kemper School for Ministry

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

Acts 4:5-12

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

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

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

How often in our own lives do we appeal to an outside authority for an excuse to explain what we are not capable of doing ourselves?

While Peter and John had the name of the resurrected Christ to support them, how much do we delight in invoking the name of someone else in order to fill our own needs to be appreciated?

When do we call on the power of the resurrected Lord to fill us with the joy and glee of the Holy Spirit?

Psalm 23

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

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

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

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

1 John 3:16-24

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

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

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

John 10:11-18

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

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

When are we able to feel the comfort of knowing the one who enters by the gate to the sheepfold?

How do we know we are loved? By our friends and family? By our God?

Are you able to accept that God knows you and loves you – that we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand?

Bible Study: 3 Easter (B)

April 19, 2015

Elizabeth HadawayVirginia Theological Seminary

“They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’” (Luke 24:37-39)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Acts 3:12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48

Acts 3:12-19

At this point in the church year we read from the New Testament’s Book of Acts rather than the usual Old Testament source, yet this passage of Acts shows deep connections to the Old Testament. It reminds us that our salvation history includes the family history of Genesis and the prophecy of Isaiah. History and prophecy come to a point in a Greek word, paida, that can be translated in two ways. The New Revised Standard Version translates it as “servant” (verse 13); it can also be translated as “child.” Jesus is both: God the Son, the fully divine person of the Holy Trinity, who for our sake becomes the suffering servant prophesied in Isaiah 52:13-53:12.

Peter’s speech catches us and keeps us from falling into the cruel and divisive heresy of Marcionism. Marcionism rejects the God of the Old Testament, claiming that the God of the New Testament is not the God of Abraham. Christianity, however, is clear that we worship the God of Abraham: the same God who became human for us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Peter wants the crowd to know that what he does is not based on his own power or righteousness; it is a reflection of the work Jesus completed on the cross. How can your own life be a reflection of this?

Psalm 4

Psalm 4 is a delightful paradox, a public prayer about private prayer. It abounds in contrasts. By contrasts, like stepping stones, the psalmist moves from distress to confidence in God. It begins with a cry for help, which God answers by another contrast: the contrast between true and false. True worship combines the interior life of private prayer and examination of one’s own heart “in silence on your bed” (verse 4) and the exterior life of offering “the appointed sacrifices” (verse 5) with the community of faith.

Faithful prayer in a worshipping community reminds us that we are never alone in our distress. The psalm moves from speaking for an individual to speaking for the many suffering people who are looking for the face of the Lord. This is a reminder that we have companions. We have faithful witnesses of God’s love for us in liturgy and scripture. The reward of persistence in prayer is confidence in the Lord; not the confidence that is limited to a “wish list” of consumable items, but the spiritual confidence that comes from a loving relationship. What a privilege it is to enjoy pillow talk with God!

This is one of the psalms appointed for Compline (Book of Common Prayer, p. 127). Have you tried using Compline as a nightly prayer at home?

How can misdirected sacrifice lead to worship of false gods?

1 John 3:1-7

Like Psalm 4, 1 John is about a relationship of security in God’s love. Love is the reason God the Father calls us children. Love is the reason God the Son provides himself to take away our sins and the sins of those who wrong us. We need to remember these things because the materialistic world often rejects God and may also reject us for belonging to God’s family.

This passage calls us to humility and gentleness with ourselves and others: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, what we will be has not yet been revealed” (verse 2a). We are works in progress, growing in faith rather than fully grown. We are bound to make mistakes, yet we have hope because of Christ’s love for us. To abide in Christ is to continue to return to that love as our home, over and over again.

How is a Christian’s being “unknown” by the world like other forms of alienation from the world?

How is it different?

Luke 24: 36b-48

Despite what they have heard from other witnesses, the disciples gathered in Jerusalem are frightened at their first sight of Jesus after his resurrection. Jesus eases their fear into joy with words of peace and comfort, inviting them to touch him as proof of his reality. As further proof that he is himself, in the flesh, he asks for food and eats a piece of broiled fish. We say in the Apostles’ Creed that we believe in the resurrection of the body. We say in the Nicene Creed that we look for the resurrection of the dead. This is one of the passages at the core of our belief. The resurrection into which Jesus leads us is not merely “living on in memories.” Human memories fade and fail. The resurrection is more than memory. It is the fulfillment of the Word made flesh.

How can we be about the mission Jesus gives the disciples?

How does the hope of the resurrection empower us?

Bible Study: 2 Easter (B)

April 12, 2015

Broderick Greer, Virginia Theological Seminary

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

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

Acts 4:32-35

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

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

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

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

Psalm 133

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

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

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

1 John 1:1-2:2

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

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

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

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

John 20:19-31

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

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

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