Bible Study, 3rd Sunday after Pentecost (A) – June 25, 2017

[RCL] Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

Genesis 21:8-21

Outside of the book of Genesis, the word “Abraham” appears in the Bible 142 times. Compare that with Sarah, which appears 24 times, and Hagar who only appears 3 times—once in Baruch and twice in Galatians. Given that father Abraham is remembered for the covenant God makes with him to provide descendants as numerous as the stars (Gen 15:5), it seems strange on the part of the biblical authors to ignore Sarah and Hagar, without whom Abraham would have no descendants.

The author paints a picture in today’s story of a jealous Sarah who casts out a helpless Hagar into the wilderness with her young son. Hagar, a servant girl, was forced against her will to have sexual relations with her master, bear him a son, only to be cast by her master’s jealous wife into the wilderness — where she and her son will surely die of thirst. Human jealousy, pride, and ambition pit these women against one another. God, however, remains faithful to both Sarah and Hagar. Hagar calls out to God, and God provides water and makes of Ishmael a great nation. Through Sarah and Isaac, God makes another great nation. In today’s world, we see over and over nation pitted against nation as we fall trap to the sins of jealousy, pride, and selfish ambition. Perhaps through remembering that God loves and cares for us even when we fall into sin, we can seek to create a world where we love all nations as family.

  • Look at Gustave Doré’s famous engraving of Hagar in the Wilderness. Does this image change the story for you in any way? How might you depict the story of Hagar and Ishmael?
  • Where in your life have you been jealous of the accomplishments of others? How might God transform that jealousy?
  • What does this story teach us about modern political diplomacy?

Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17

In Psalm 86, the psalmist calls out to God for help against enemies (this becomes far more apparent when we include verses 11–15 which the lectionary leaves out). The psalmist follows a familiar pattern of petitions for God’s help, followed by words praising God before asking for deliverance from enemies and moving into thanksgiving even before God provides help (Ps 86:12–13, BCP). The psalmist believes so surely in God’s goodness that he thanks God even before the prayer has been answered.

The most important verse of this psalm has been removed from today’s reading: “But you, O LORD, are gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger, and full of kindness and truth” (Ps. 86:15). This is a direct quote taken from Exodus 34:6 where God, speaking to Moses, reveals that I AM is a God who loves mercy over anger. The hope of favor the psalmist holds is not a blind hope like I hold when I say, “I hope I win the lottery.” This hope comes from God’s own mouth. The psalmist teaches us that when we pray and call upon God for help, we should reach deeply into our scriptural tradition to see how God has worked and is working in the world. Then we can call out with faith and hope to the God who has “helped me and comforted me” (Ps. 86:17).

  • What “enemies” persecute you or your community?
  • What insights do you gain from the scriptural witness?

Romans 6:1b-11

This poetic passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans beautifully summarizes for us the mystery of Holy Baptism. Baptism, especially as it has been made part of public Sunday worship in the 1979 Prayer Book, is a time for the whole church to rejoice in the addition of new members into our community, which is the Body of Christ. Given that in our tradition we practice infant baptism, most of our baptisms carry the double joy of also celebrating new life and growing families.

I certainly do not mean to suggest that the church should not celebrate the births of babies within our churches, but Holy Baptism has nothing to do with earthly birth, and everything to do with death to self and birth into a new way of being. Just as Paul reminds us so beautifully in this biblical song or canticle, through our baptism we, like Jesus, die. In the practice of full-immersion baptism, a person literally goes under water where they are incapable of breathing—death. Rising up out of the water under the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the person takes a new breath as they emerge from Jesus’ death into Jesus’ resurrection.

This is good news! We are no more slaves to sin, but we have a new life in Jesus. We are no longer slaves to death, but we have eternal life in Jesus. Alleluia!

  • What aspects of death are in our baptismal liturgy?
  • What aspects of birth are in our baptismal liturgy?
  • What does full participation in the Body of Christ look like? How might we order our lives if we remain conscious of the fact that we are part of the Body of Christ?

Matthew 10:24-39

One common complaint against Christianity brought up by atheists is the problem of theodicy—why does an all-powerful, loving God allow terrible things to happen in the world? This criticism only holds up, however, if one buys into the common misunderstanding, professed by many Christians, that Christianity is a religion of sunshine, rainbows, unicorns, and puppy dogs, completely devoid of suffering and pain. Readers of Matthew’s gospel know that the in-breaking of God’s kingdom comes with much pain and suffering.

Today’s reading begins with Jesus reminding us not to fear the oppressors of this world, but to fear God. Written against the backdrop of the oppressive Roman Empire, Matthew offers words of comfort to worshippers of God that the reign of God is being uncovered. Jesus empowers us to stand in opposition to our oppressors, proclaiming the peace and love of God, yet Jesus is not naïve enough to think that our oppressors will simply give up. Proclaiming the Good News will always make those in power uncomfortable, and sometimes that even means people in our own families.

  • When have you disagreed with someone in your family about politics or religion? Were you able to resolve it? If so, how?
  • What issues in your local community might be informed by your being a follower of Jesus? How might you proclaim God’s justice in places of oppression? 

Charles Lane Cowen is a postulant for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Rhode Island and an M.Div. Candidate at the Seminary of the Southwest.

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Bible Study, Trinity Sunday (A) – June 11, 2017

 

[RCL] Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

The stories of creation in the Bible are a few of the enigmatic and disputed narratives in history. Countless scholars and avid readers of the Scriptures have attempted to shed light on the meaning behind the Jewish version of the origin of human beings and the world as we know it. Amidst all the interesting commentaries and criticisms, the practical lesson of stewardship, of humans as creatures of imbued divinity, the images of God, capable of both the destruction and renewal of creation are perennial and emphatic statements of our nature as God’s children.

In the text, God’s command was for Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply” and to “subdue” and have “dominion” over every living thing on earth. I believe these words hint to a missionary aspect of our understanding of the Creation. From the very beginning, we have been given the task to bear fruit, that is, to produce good work, and to put things into order—especially with regard to the prevalent abuse of our natural resources and the disregard of the environment’s welfare. The Anglican Five Marks of Mission, which include the imperative to “strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth” is an allusion to that ancient divine command from our Triune God.

  • Christians have been accused of being “too eager for heaven that they forget earth,” and thus disregarding the importance of the environment. How would you respond?
  • Do you think the Creation narratives provide solid reasons to be faithful stewards of God’s creation? Why or why not?

Psalm 8

This psalm evokes a feeling of wonder and awe, the one we often have after gazing at the glittering canopy of stars against the dark sky. Humble adoration is immortalized in the words, “When I consider the heavens, the works of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, what is man that you should be mindful of him?” The captivating intricacies of the universe have long captured the imagination of poets and scientists alike. The psalmist was no exception.

  • Many Celtic prayers are examples of beautiful odes composed for the adoration of God as the Creator. Have you experienced particular moments when the beauty of nature stirred you to worship?

 2 Corinthians 13:11-13

The Apostle Paul’s benediction, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you,” is a striking statement worthy to be pondered in light of the Trinity. In this passage, Paul underscores the importance of building community: to strive to keep the peace, to dwell in unity with one another—even in difficult circumstances.

As I read this passage, I reflected on the word communion as a distinctive factor in understanding the Trinity. The benediction speaks of the entire manifestation of God’s love from the Father being exemplified in grace by the Son and bounded through the Holy Spirit. This trinitarian perception is conveyed through our faith expressions. The Trinity, then, is the Divine Communion. And we participate in the affirmation of this communion poignantly in our celebration of the Eucharist as a koinonia, or community of faith. In the Eucharist, we are bounded by God, with God, and in God, where love is perfected.

  • The doctrine of the trinity is difficult to explain. However, the traditions passed down to us by our predecessors in the faith help us understand it better. What are those traditions? Do you think they must be preserved and taught to the present generation?
  • Is the Trinity truly manifested in the Eucharist? Yes or no? Why or why not?
  • How should we encourage the Christian sense of community in our present societal context of individualism?

Matthew 28:16-20

The trinitarian formula—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is a peculiar mark of the Great Commission. Jesus, in this Gospel passage, gives his final instructions, citing the authority given to him by God the Father in the context of his resurrection. His authority is made absolute, triumphant, and infinite. Through him, the knowledge of the Triune God has endured.

Still, why bother with the trinitarian formula? Will the Great Commission still be great without it? Perhaps the glory of God cannot be realized without acknowledging the distinguishing work of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit culminated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through Him, the Triune God is revealed.

  • Reflect on the Trinity and how it is a fundamental doctrine of our understanding of God.
  • How is the Trinity implied in the Paschal mystery of Jesus?

Sunshine Dulnuan was given her name because of her father’s favorite singer, John Denver. She is 26 years old and a second-year seminarian of St. Andrew’s Theological Seminary in Quezon City, the Philippines.

 

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Bible Study, Proper 8 (A) – July 2, 2017

[RCL] Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

Genesis 22:1-14

The Binding of Isaac may present one of the most well-known and most challenging stories of the entire Bible. Biblical scholars have wide-ranging methods of either discounting or explaining away the horrific image of God asking a father to sacrifice his son—a notion that is almost unthinkable to us. Rather than trying to justify or condemn this action, let me provide a bit of background and share a few ideas, and then, as people of faith, we will do what we have always done: We will prayerfully consider the story together and call upon the Holy Spirit to guide us to some deeper understanding of God through it.

First of all, we must remember that the first fruits have always belonged to God. This was true of the harvest, the cattle, and human offspring. In the Ancient Near East, human sacrifice was fairly common, and although it was slowly fading by the time Genesis was written, it was not unknown. The rationale was that everything we have is because of God’s gifting it to us, and we are to return the first and best to God as a sign of thanksgiving. Given Sarah and Abraham’s infertility, Isaac was not only the first-born but the miraculous and valuable first-born. God sets out to test Abraham’s faith, and, through that testing, God provides Abraham with all he needs. Out of bareness, God provides a son. God tests Abraham’s faith, and God provides the means to maintain blessing in the face of sacrificial testing.

  • What does it mean to offer the first fruits of our lives to God?
  • Without going so far as to glorify suffering, where has God provided for you in times of suffering?
  • Does God test us? What is helpful or problematic about this strong Biblical theme? (See Job, or The Lord’s Prayer—“lead us not into temptation.”)

Psalm 13

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How many times in my life have I prayed this prayer? From the comparatively trivial times when the cop pulls me over for speeding, to the horrors of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, or the wildfires in Tennessee, there are times in life when it feels like God is far from us. Note that the psalmist believes that God has forgotten her “forever.” For the psalmist, this is not a temporary blip on the weather radar, but a permanent state wherein she feels as if God’s presence is so far removed that it will never return.

The psalms give us the incredible gift of raw, unvarnished human emotion. They remind us that God’s love for us does not mean that we live in a world of perfection without pain and suffering. This idea of human suffering in the presence of a loving god—theodicy—has perplexed followers of God for thousands of years. Yet we, like the psalmist, are called to recognize that pain and still ring out our song to “praise the name of the Lord Most High.” There is no shame in lament, for God laments with us; therefore, the Lord’s name be praised.

  • When is a time in your life where you felt God was absent?
  • How were you able, or were you able, to continue to praise God?
  • How might lament bring healing in times of suffering?

Romans 6:12-23

This passage from Paul’s most theologically dense letter always recalls images of the Exodus for me, and, in particular, Moses’ farewell address in Deuteronomy 30. Having led the people out of bondage in Egypt, God offers the people a choice between “life and prosperity, death and adversity” (Deut 30:15). In summary, if the people love God and follow God’s commandments, they will have life. If they do not, they will have death.

Likewise, Paul uses the imagery of slave either to sin or to righteousness. To our post-American slavery ears, this can sound harsh or even inhumane. We must never excuse or explain away the horrific sin of American slavery, but Paul means something different here. Just as God told the Hebrew people going into the Promised Land, God has given us teachings through the Law and through Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of the Law, which will lead us into a place of life and abundance. In particular, this “free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23). Jesus’ whole life, culminating in his death and resurrection, was a testament to the Law which he summarized as “You shall love the Lord your God with all our heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind . . . [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt 22:37–39).

  • Where in your life are you a slave to sin?
  • How might obedience to God deliver you from that position into life?
  • Where is our church/town/state/nation a slave to sin, and how might obedience to God deliver us into life?

Matthew 10:40-42

These two verses at the end of Chapter 10 of Matthew conclude a treatise from Jesus to his disciples on the role of mission. Jesus gathers the twelve, gives them the powers of healing and exorcism, and sends them into the world to cast out demons and heal (Mt 10:1). Jesus then warns his disciples that in performing these acts of love, they will meet persecution and disdain.

Jesus still commands us, his 21st-century followers, to share the Good News of Jesus, which brings healing and life to the world. This may not make us popular, and neither will the work be easy. In these two verses appointed for today, however, Jesus reveals the rewards for those who are faithful. Notice that these rewards do not include wealth, fame, or worldly goods. Our reward is “the reward of the righteous” (Mt 10:41). God calls each of us to spread the Gospel in different ways—some are wandering prophets, some are teachers, some are even little children. All of us, however, carry the light of Christ and can take that light into the dark places of this world.

  • What are your gifts, and how might you use them to spread the light of Christ?
  • What brings you great joy? How might God use that joy to spread the Gospel?
  • Where are the dark areas in your community that need the light of Christ?

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

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Bible Study, Proper 9 (A) – July 9, 2017

[RCL] Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45: 11-18; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

Abraham’s servant was given a difficult task—to go out and find a wife for his master’s son, Isaac. Abraham must have trusted his servant immensely to give him such an important and life-altering assignment. The servant, however, did not trust his own intuition or discernment to complete the task assigned to him, but, instead, turned to the God of his master Abraham for guidance. He prayed, “O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going!” (Gen. 24:42). We know from the end of this story that the servant’s prayer made all the difference! How often do we begin our day overwhelmed by the things and tasks that have been assigned to us? How often do we wonder how we will make the right decisions or accomplish all that has been entrusted to us? Perhaps we can learn a lesson from this unnamed servant, who had the wisdom to place his trust in God and ask that God would make successful the way before him.

  • Do you begin your day with prayer? If not, why not?
  • Do you include God in all of your daily decisions or do you only pray when you have a major decision to make?
  • What could change about your life if you included God in even your most mundane daily decisions?

Psalm 45:11-18

Marriage, like all relationships we enter into, changes all parties involved. We enter as individuals and are joined together by covenantal promises to one another. We are no longer responsible only for ourselves—our wants and our desires, but are now willfully entangled with and responsible for the wants and desires of our partner. Successful relationships require both sacrifice and compromise for the happiness and fulfillment of all involved. These are the relationships that stand the test of time, that persist and become the stories our children and grandchildren share. Like the princess and the king, whose name is to be remembered from one generation to another (Psalm 45:18).

  • What are some successful relationships you have witnessed that give you hope?
  • Successful relationships often require both sacrifice and compromise. What type of things have you had to sacrifice or compromise in order to have a relationship with God?
  • Have those sacrifices and compromises helped or hindered your growth as a person?

Romans 7:15-25a

If I’m honest, I’m terrible at keeping my New Year’s resolutions. At the beginning of each year, I’m always so hopeful in preparing a list of all of the great changes I’m about to make in my life. But more often than not, I’m unable to successfully maintain those resolutions even through the month of January. It’s not that I don’t want to make the changes or that I don’t believe the changes would ultimately be better for me. In fact, it is just the opposite! So I can relate to Paul when he states, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). So what hope is there for a person like myself, who lacks the self-control or self-discipline to accomplish even the simplest of positive changes in their own life? Paul answers by asking, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25). The answer is clear—our only hope is in Jesus, who has done for us what we could not do for ourselves. Thanks be to God!

  • What New Year’s resolutions did you make this year? How many are you still keeping?
  • In what way has God extended grace to you in your own life?
  • How can we extend that same grace to others in our life whom we might have held to a standard that they could never successfully meet?

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

There is an old saying: Hindsight is 20/20. Or, to put it more simply, the benefit or effectiveness of our actions can be most clearly seen and considered after we have already done them. In this way, many of the spiritual practices we take part in don’t seem to make a lot of sense in the moment. Sometimes I’d rather sleep in on Sunday morning than wake up early, get dressed, and go to church. Other times I’d prefer doing something for myself to giving up my day to participate in an outreach project or community event. It’s so easy to convince ourselves that our point of view in the present moment is the most accurate one, yet most often, it isn’t until we are past our own selfish desires and emotions of the present moment that we are able to see our actions most clearly. The  author of Matthew affirms this, saying, “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” Often, the burdens that seem inconvenient and most heavy are the very things we are being called to by God, who has promised us both wisdom and rest.

  • Have you ever attempted a difficult activity, but were thankful for it after accomplishing it?
  • If you are avoiding doing or participating in something currently, what is stopping you? What are you afraid of?

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

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Bible Study, Easter 7 (A) – May 28, 2017

[RCL] Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36; 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11; John 17:1-11

Acts 1:6-14

At this point in Scripture, the disciples have devoted the last few years of their lives to following Jesus. During those years, they have witnessed amazing things: healings, the recovery of sight, abundance from nothing (five loaves and two fish), calming storms, and even raising people from the dead. And when all their hope was crushed as their Messiah was dragged off to his death, he soon came back, overturning and conquering death. They have seen all the wonders and signs, and they are ready for the final climactic event, for the promise to be fulfilled, the foretold happy ending- the ushering in of a new age and restoration of the Kingdom.

But instead, Jesus asserts that this is something God has set to happen when God deems fit, and until then, there is work to be done in spreading the Good News of Jesus to new places and bringing all people to know him in their hearts and lives.

  • How do you see the church/parish you attend bringing the Good News of Jesus to people?
  • Do you remember a time where the message or story of Jesus really ‘sank in’ and affected you?

Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36

 “Father of orphans, defender of widows.” Verse 5 of Psalm 68 holds these beautiful words. To me, they evoke a feeling of warmth and of a God who brings comfort to people whose situations and circumstances are anything but comfortable. The Psalmist here acknowledges God’s goodness.

  • Where do you find God’s presence strongest in your life?
  • Can you think of situations where things looked dismal but God provided in some way?
  • Has God put special people in your life who have been there in these times?

1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11

Much like today’s Psalm, this passage from 1 Peter speaks of God’s blessed assurance during times of trial. In the trying moments of our lives, it is good to remember our calling as Christians to always speak in truth, love, and understanding, just as Jesus did with all those with whom he came in contact. This does not mean we have to sugarcoat hard truths or hide our frustrations, but it does mean we must always keep in mind the well-being of our neighbor, even the neighbor with whom we have a tough time. The Devil wants us to forsake Christ, and give into insensitivity and disregard of others. Resisting this temptation takes a lot of strength, but fortunately, we have Jesus to help and hold us up.

  • Can you think of someone in your life who has shown patience, love, understanding, or endurance?
  • If so, in what ways do you find inspiration from his or her personal example?

John 17:1-11

In this passage, Jesus gives the promise of Eternal Life to those who give themselves over to him as Lord. He also petitions God to protect his disciples and keep them united.

  • As a disciple of Jesus, what is it that you think brings harmony and unity with fellow believers in your life and community of faith?
  • What are some areas of opportunity with your fellow believers to build trust, support, and mutual understanding for the glorification of God?

 

Andrew (Drew) Christiansen is a senior at Bexley Seabury Seminary. He is a postulant in the Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Michigan and ecclesiastically endorsed by the Episcopal Church Office of Armed Forces Ministry. Drew is currently finishing his seminarian-internship at Trinity Episcopal Church in Wauwatosa, Wisc., a faith community he is so blessed to have been a part of. Drew enjoys reading history, promoting ecumenism (especially with Lutherans!), and listening to a wide, eclectic range of music. He also likes a good game of skee ball.

 

Download the Bible Study for Easter 7 (A).

 

Bible Study, Easter 5 (A) – May 14, 2017

[RCL] Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14

Acts 7:55-60

The ministry, arrest, and death of Jesus echo through the story of Stephen.  The apostles who knew Jesus prayed over and laid hands on Stephen to commission him in his ministry.  Stephen’s work following the way of Jesus threatened the established power structure and authorities; he was arrested, brought before the council and the high priest, and put to death.

These echoes continue as Stephen prays for the Lord to receive his spirit and for those who are perpetrating his gruesome murder to be forgiven.  Stephen’s story, however, is more than a recapitulation of Jesus’ own story, as though in the parallels Jesus may be dimly found.  Even unto death, Stephen perseveres—by the power of the Spirit—in proclaiming the glory of God and the presence of Jesus at God’s right hand.

Though the crowd may have “covered their ears,” Stephen’s words and actions in proclaiming Jesus will live beyond him, participating in the resurrection reality promised by Jesus.  New life will come forth as the Good News spreads; remember that a “young man named Saul” has been witness to all of these events.

  • When have you known someone to continue to proclaim Jesus even in the face of great adversity?
  • Name a time when you were acutely aware of the glory of God.
  • When have the words and/or actions of others in proclaiming Jesus brought forth new life in you? When have your words and/or actions in proclaiming Jesus brought forth new life in others?

Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

Deliver me—rescue me—lead me—guide me—save me.

This selection from Psalm 31 is a prayer for relief, addressed to the one constant source of strength.  In the midst of chaos, uncertainty, and oppression, God is refuge, rock, and stronghold.  This is a prayer of trust and commendation to God, who is faithful and whose love is steadfast: “Into your hands I commend my spirit. . .”  These are the words spoken by Jesus on the cross (Luke 23:46) and likewise by Stephen at his death (Acts 7:59).

As Jesus and Stephen show us, trusting and commending ourselves to God often means letting go of the ways we may want to be delivered, rescued, led, guided, and saved.  This is, therefore, not an easy psalm to pray.  To commend our whole selves to God means to trust all to the refuge of God’s love.

  • Have you ever prayed these or some other similar words?
  • Have you ever experienced God’s deliverance in a way that you did not envision or expect?

1 Peter 2:2-10

This passage from First Peter speaks of what it is to be God’s people, “chosen and precious in God’s sight.”  We are reminded of the Baptismal Covenant we renewed together on Easter with a commitment to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.”

Study, prayer and worship, and fellowship are the pattern of Christian life.  They are the marks of disciples—the footprints of those who follow Jesus.  And we follow Jesus together, as a community; we are not only God’s persons, but also God’s people. We must engage our individual lives of faith with the life of the community—seeking the “pure, spiritual milk” of God’s word in study, offering our praise and thanksgiving in worship, and then proclaiming “the mighty acts” of God to the world.  There is always room for growth among God’s people—we are “living stones,” not a people set in stone.

And we do all of this the only way we know how: with God’s help.

  • As a follower of Jesus, how are you engaged in study, prayer and worship, and fellowship?
  • How does your community support you in living this pattern of Christian – that is, disciple – life? How do your support your community in living this life?
  • Where do you sense room for growth in your community?

John 14:1-14

This passage shares a story—a conversation between Jesus and his disciples—which took place before the Great Three Days, and we now have the opportunity to listen to the conversation with Easter ears and Resurrection eyes.

Thomas and Philip address Jesus with a title of respect and deference: “Lord.”  They recognize who Jesus is—the Word made flesh, the light of the world, the bread of life, the Good Shepherd—but do they know Jesus—do they believe?

Jesus reminds them of the intimate relationship between himself and the Father: “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”  To know Jesus is to know the Father.  To know the “works” of Jesus is also to know the Father, but even more than this, those who know and believe will participate in the work of the Son and the Father.  This is the work of Easter people—to know and believe God dwelling in each of us and then to participate in the work God is calling us to in the world.

  • What does it mean to believe and to know? Are these the same?  How might they be different?
  • To what work is God calling you in this place and at this time?

 

Elizabeth Farr is a Candidate for Holy Orders from the Diocese of East Tennessee and a current Middler Seminarian at the School of Theology at The University of the South.  A “cradle Episcopalian,” Elizabeth is a 2007 graduate of the University of the South College of Arts and Sciences.  In her vocational life before seminary, Elizabeth served as the Youth Director at Bruton Parish, Williamsburg, Virginia, and, most recently, Good Shepherd, Lookout Mountain, Tennessee.  Elizabeth is married to Matthew Farr, a Senior Seminarian at the School of Theology and recently ordained transitional deacon, and they have a two-year-old son, Rohen.

Download the Bible Study for Easter 5 (A).

 

Bible Study, Easter 6 (A) – May 21, 2017

[RCL] Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

Acts 17:22-31

In this passage, we see Paul addressing an audience almost exclusively made up of Gentiles in a Greek setting where Christianity is foreign, the concept of a monotheistic God is laughable and the idea of resurrection downright ridiculous. Paul is speaking a foreign concept to an audience that is curious, yet skeptical.

Aren’t we all somewhat skeptical? This resurrection story we so joyously celebrate in Eastertide can be a hard one to fully accept without some critical thought and questions. What is it about this resurrection story that so captures us?

When I read this passage, I see Paul describing a miraculous and deeply mysterious deity, but what is perhaps most striking, for us and for the Gentiles of Paul’s audience, is how personal and intimate this God of ours truly is. This is a God “in whom we live and move and have our being”, a God that views us and loves us as God’s “offspring”, God’s children. This is a God with whom we have a deeply intimate relationship and connection; not an object cast in gold or an untouchable, unreachable deity off in a separate realm. We belong to and are a part of God. Paul is not just proclaiming resurrection of the body, Paul is proclaiming that we are children of God, in whom all things are possible.

  • Why might this notion of a personal God be so scandalous or hard to believe?
  • How do you understand the resurrection as it relates to your personal relationship with God?
  • How is God working on resurrection in your life this Easter season?

Psalm 66:7-18

Psalm 66 is considered a song of thanksgiving. In this passage, terrible things have happened to the speaker of the song, but they have survived and are praising God for having helped them through the trials. This Psalm recalls what God has done for the community (Ps 7-12) and what God has done specifically for the speaker of the Psalm (Ps 66:13-18). In other words, this Psalm tells a story about God’s action and the personal ways in which God has helped others and the individual speaking.

As I raise my children, this Psalm represents the kinds of stories I tell them in order to help them understand what it means to have faith. I explain how God has been revealed to me and how I have personally experienced God alive in my local church and in community. I share how God has been active in my life as I have dealt with hardship. This Psalm represents a parent’s story about their faith to their children and a grandparent’s story to their children and grandchildren. It represents the stories we tell about our faith journey with God in community; these stories are passed down from generation to generation.

  • How do you share your faith with younger generations?
  • How do you think your faith story could help those younger generations understand their own faith journey? How has an elder’s faith story shaped your faith journey?
  • Where in our liturgy and worship do you see us singing this song of thanksgiving and sharing how God is alive in our community?

1 Peter 3:13-22

Peter is speaking to a community of Christians who are terribly afraid because they live in a world where the threat of being murdered for their belief in Jesus as the Messiah constantly hangs over their heads. This passage can feel hard to relate to as many of us do not experience the constant threat of being attacked or killed by the governing authorities of this country for practicing our Christian faith.

In this passage, Peter seeks to assure the imperiled community and convince them that this faith is worth the threat of persecution and death. He appeals to the concept of baptism in order to make his point. Remember your faith, he seems to say, as he speaks on the meaning of the initiation into faith by the waters of baptism. This baptism “now saves you– not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience.”

Today, when we remember our Baptismal Covenant we are asked to remember that we have promised to serve that of Christ in all persons, and respect the human dignity of every human being. While we may not be persecuted as Christians in this country and context, there are many who are being persecuted for their faith (Christian or otherwise) around the world and even in our own communities. How can we “appeal to God for a good conscience” by practicing our Baptismal Covenant and helping those who are being persecuted today?

  • How can we practice the call of our Baptismal Covenant in our current contexts and communities?
  • How is God calling you specifically to live into your Baptismal Covenant in this season of your life; in this year, month, week, day?
  • What prayers, practices or disciplines help to anchor you in your Baptismal Covenant? 

John 14:15-21

This passage in John begins and ends with love. In between these bookends is an explanation of the relationships of the Holy Trinity. Jesus expresses that the commandment of love he has asked believers to keep is not something that will have to be done alone. In fact, we are intertwined and intimately connected to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit as believers and are, ultimately, never alone. Our being, our essence, is part of God, which is part of Jesus, which is part of the Holy Spirit. Jesus emphasizes that these three persons of the Trinity are connected and interwoven. He expresses that we as believers do not only have access to these persons of God, we are also part of them, intertwined and deeply connected with them.

This passage articulates how living in faith means to live in Holy Community. Our model for God is a community of interwoven and interconnected parts which are bound up in and made from love. This focus emphasizes how our faith should be lived out and understood in relationship with one another. If our model for God is expressed in three persons, representing what it means to be in communion with others, then we ought to work out and express our faith in communion as well. Love should also be the foundation on which all communion and faith is built.

  • How do you live out your faith in communion/community?
  • Are there ways in which you have not been able to live out your faith in community? How so?
  • What do you like about this idea of faith lived out in community? What about this makes you feel uncomfortable or presents difficulty for you?

 

Erin received her M.Div. from Earlham School of Religion and is receiving her Diploma of Anglican Studies at Bexley Seabury Seminary Federation. She is a candidate or ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis and currently serves as the Director of Discipleship at Good Samaritan Episcopal Church, an Episcopal Church plant in Brownsburg, Indiana. Erin will begin her first call in ordained ministry as the Pathways Priest for the Diocese of Indianapolis in June 2017, working on stewardship vitality and sustainability practices with four congregations in the diocese. She lives at home in downtown Indy with her husband and two boys.

 

Download the Bible Study for Easter 6 (A).

Bible Study, Easter 4 (A) – May 7, 2017

[RCL] Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

Acts 2:42-47

During the Easter season, lections from the book of Acts are used in place of the Old Testament because they record the early response of the church to Christ’s resurrection.  In its larger context, the assigned text for Easter 4A serves as a transition from Peter’s first sermon (2:14-36, 38-40, cf. Easter 3A) to his second sermon (3:12-26, cf. Thursday in Easter Week).  This passage describes what happened in response to Peter’s first sermon.  In verse 42, we see four characteristics of the community life of the church, i.e. devotion to (1) the apostles’ teaching, (2) fellowship, (3) the breaking of bread, and (4) the prayers.

The word in Greek for “fellowship” is koinonia, which means a shared and common life.  We see characteristics of this common life by “all who believed” in the rest of the passage, in that they were together, had all things in common, spent much time together, and so forth (vv.44-46).  It is possible that “the breaking of bread” is a double entendre, that is, it could refer to both the Eucharist and to common meals.  Regarding the former, we are reminded of what happened in Luke 24, where the eyes of the followers were not opened until Jesus had “broken the bread” (vv.31, 35).  Regarding the latter, we see them “[breaking] bread at home” and eating their food with “glad and generous hearts…” (v.46).

  • What do you think contributed to the growth of the early church (v.47b)? Was it simply because of the “signs and wonders” (v.43)?  Do you think it had anything to do with the four characteristics of this early community?  Yes or No?  Why or why not?
  • Look at each of the four characteristics in verse 42 and how they were manifested in the life of the believers. Compare this with your own faith community. What is similar? What is different? Are these applicable to life today?  Why or why not?  If something does not seem applicable, then consider how the principle behind it may be implemented.  Is there anything that you think is missing?

Psalm 23

What more can be said about this Song of Trust, which is read each Easter 4 and on other days of the church year?  The simple yet profound metaphor of “the shepherd,” and his relationship to his sheep is often viewed as unifying the entire psalm.  According to this perspective, the whole psalm is an exposition of the first verse, where we see a typical near-eastern shepherd fulfilling his duties: ensuring that the sheep have water, food, rest, and safe paths to walk on, protecting them from dangers, particularly predators that would attack and kill them, using his staff and rod to not only protect the sheep, but to herd them, and putting oil on their heads and noses to drive away the annoying insects that cause infection. The themes of guidance, provision, and refuge are predominant. When Christians read this psalm, they see Jesus as the Good Shepherd (cf. John 10) who restores our souls, leads us in right paths, accompanies and comforts us through danger and darkness, provides the Eucharistic meal in the presence of our enemies of sin and death, and actively pursues us every day we live.

  • An interesting observation is the shift in pronouns referring to the LORD (the 3rd person “he” in vv.1-3, but 2nd person “you” vv.4-6). What is happening in the text when the author shifts from 3rd person to this direct address?
  • In verse 6, the word “follow” does not imply “bringing up the rear,” but rather the sense is that of “pursuing.” The covenantal steadfast goodness and mercy, or love and support, of the Lord are not simply things upon which we depend each and every day, but rather these are things that vigorously pursue   What difference does this make to you?
  • There are four sets of contrasts in this psalm: (1) want and provision, (2) rest and activity, (3) fear and comfort, and (4) danger and security. Go back through the psalm and look at each of these.  What do they reveal about the Lord and humanity?  How do these apply to your life?  What effect does this have on your perspective about your present and future?

I Peter 2:19-25

The idea of suffering for doing good is a theme in 1 Peter.  We see this illustrated in the proverbial quality of the first two verses in this lection, where a contrast is highlighted between enduring pain and suffering for doing wrong, versus for doing right.  For the former, there is no credit due.  For the latter, however, there is not only “credit to you” for suffering unjustly, but moreover, “God’s approval” of you.  Lest the reader be surprised by this, the writer points to Christ’s suffering on our behalf, drawing from the image of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, where we see Jesus, the one without sin, choose to suffer without protest, because he trusted God for his vindication (vv. 22-23). The author suggests Christ’s suffering is not only an example for us to follow (vv. 21), but it is also redemptive (v. 24).  Christ’s passion, his atoning sacrifice for our sins, restores our relationship with “the shepherd and guardian of [our] souls” (v. 25).  Jesus is not only the Good Shepherd who gives his life for his sheep, but he is also the one who protects, provides for, and leads his sheep (cf. John 10, Psalm 23).

  • What are some examples of suffering unjustly? Recall a time when you, or someone you know, has experienced unjust suffering.  How did you feel?  How did you respond?  What have you learned about Jesus’ understanding of this experience?  Are there situations where we should not follow Christ’s examples of non-retaliation?
  • Why was Jesus willing to submit to death? To whom did he trust for his ultimate vindication?  In what ways might this encourage you, when you face the pain and suffering of misunderstanding, marginalization, persecution, etc. for “doing the right thing” for His name’s sake? 

John 10:1-10

This lection contains two instances of reported direct speech (vv.1-5 and vv.7-10), both of which contain two images to describe Jesus’ relationship to his followers:  a shepherd and a gate.

In the first section (vv.1-5), we hear Jesus use a shepherding metaphor to describe legitimate and rightful leadership.   We note a contrast between how the sheepfold is accessed, and how the sheep respond to the voice they hear.   Those who seek to access the sheepfold in a stealthy manner are deemed to be thieves and bandits.  In contrast, the rightful shepherd uses the gate, which is opened by the gatekeeper (1-3a).   When the sheep hear the voice of a stranger, they will run away because they do not recognize the voice.  In contrast, when the sheep hear the voice of the rightful shepherd, they follow because they know his voice (3b-5).

  • What does it mean to “know his voice?” What kinds of things can we do to cultivate an ability to hear and recognize his voice?

Before leaving this section, the two observations are worth noting about the nature of his leadership:   the shepherd not only “calls his own sheep by name,” but he also “goes ahead of them” once he has led them out.

  • What difference does it make that Jesus intimately knows each of us by name, and that he does not abandon us, but rather goes ahead of us?

At the close of this section, we get a comment from the narrator in verse 6.  Since Jesus’ audience did not understand his “figure of speech” (vv.1-5), it becomes necessary for him to offer a different way to describe his relationship to his followers.  In this second section (vv.7-10), Jesus uses the “gate” image again, thereby connecting it with the first section, where its function was to identify who the rightful and legitimate shepherd was, that is, the gate was the only point of authorized entry into the sheepfold.

While there are many interesting observations to make here, it’s important to note the use of this image in connection with the declaration “I am,” which harkens back to Ex 3:14, Isa.45:5a; 48.12b, and used in the Gospel of John six other times (I am “the bread of life,” “the light of the world,” “the good shepherd,” “the resurrection and the life,” “the way, and the truth, and the life,” and, “the true vine”).

  • Why do you think Jesus uses the “I am” declaration here? He could have said, “I am like a gate…” or “I am like a shepherd…” (cf. John 10:11)?  What is the significance of this?  What do these various images and metaphors teach us about Jesus’ salvific relationship to the world?

Diane C. Mumma-Wakabayashi is a Candidate for Holy Orders.  She and her husband Allen (also a Candidate) are currently at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.  They are finishing up a year of Anglican Studies coursework in preparation for ordination this year.  They have three lovely Pembroke Welsh Corgis – Josephus, Buckaroo, and Cooper.

 

Download the Bible Study for Easter 4 (A).

Bible Study, Easter 3 (A) – April 30, 2017

[RCL] Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45; Psalm 130

Ezekiel 37:1-14

When I read this passage, I hear under the words, “them bones, them bones, them dry bones,” that refrain I think I learned in Sunday School. As I dig into this prophecy from Ezekiel, I feel the strength of the four winds blowing with the breath of life into the valley. God here is speaking life into something that has been dismembered. God shows that nothing, not even death, is beyond the realm of God’s mighty power.

  • What dry bones in your life can you ask God to breathe new life into?
  • What or who needs your prophecy – who is God reaching through you?

Psalm 130

I am not a very patient person. This psalmist, who speaks so poetically on waiting for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning, captivates me. I need to be reminded to wait, but perhaps there is also a place for my impatience in waiting. Watchmen waiting for the morning might be calm, but my soul waits for God more than that – perhaps there is excitement in my impatience. In God’s word lies my hope.

  • What are the ways, in prayer, that you wait for God?
  • What do you feel in your waiting?

Romans 8:6-11

As we learned in the lesson earlier, God’s power is not stopped by flesh and bodies. The body is made and created in God’s image, and part of our body is also our Spirit. I read the distinction here between setting your mind on flesh versus setting your mind on Spirit as being a religious distinction – Spirit, capitalized, reads to me about setting your mind on God rather than on yourself.

  • What do you need to give up to focus on God?
  • How can you celebrate the Spirit that is part of your body?

John 11:1-45

This gospel is rich. I often think about how the roles between Mary and Martha are reversed – that Martha, this time, is the one to meet Jesus. I also hear so stingingly her words, that, “If you had been here this wouldn’t have happened.” I am also struck, after all of these lessons about God overcoming death, by the power of God to breathe new life into that which we thought was gone forever. But today, what I am struck most by is the gratitude that Jesus gives. Before he asks God for anything, he gives thanks. In a world that so often seems to breed selfishness, I think gratitude is one of the purest antidotes.

  • What can you thank God for?
  • What might God want to resurrect for you, and breathe new life into? 

 

Jazzy Bostock is a sun-loving, big-dreaming, laugh-adoring, God-praising, Native Hawaiian woman, in my first year at seminary. I believe deeply in the power of kindness, compassion, gentleness, and most of all love. I am grateful for the opportunity God has given me to be here, and for all that God is. Mahalo piha.

Download the Bible Study for Easter 3 (A).

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.

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