Author: Tom Letchworth

Rev. Tom Letchworth, Senior Pastor of Marion United Methodist Church Bro. Tom was ordained an Elder in the Little Rock Conference of the United Methodist Church in 1985. He has served First UMC in Paragould, (2007-2011), St. Paul UMC in Searcy (2002-2007), and First UMC in West Memphis (1995-1998) as senior pastor. He has also served Salem UMC in Benton as pastor (1985-1995), and St. James UMC in Little Rock as associate pastor (1983-1985). As a full-time local pastor in the beginning of his ministry, he served the Morrilton Parish (1980-1981). While attending Perkins School of Theology, he served the Maypearl/Venus charge in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The son of an Air Force chaplain, Bro. Tom has lived all over the world. He received the call to ministry while he was a member of Yucaipa UMC in California, where he started the candidacy process. He was introduced to Arkansas through his seminary internship at Pulaski Heights UMC and thus completed his candidacy requirements with the Little Rock Conference. From 1999 to 2002 he was appointed as a General Evangelist, during which time he added dramatic presentations to his sermons and preached/taught workshops in Missouri, Kentucky, Kansas, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, Tennessee, and Arkansas. He and his wife, Celeste, have written full-length plays published by Lillenas Drama (Nazerene Publishing House): Mysteries With a Message, Volumes I and II; and Meet Me at Luigi’s. They are also the proud “authors” of Sam, a creative writing graduate of the University of Arkansas, and Joe, a music graduate of Asbury University.

Gospel for August 27, 2017

Dave Ruark took this photo, which he titled, “Who do you say that I am.”
He says of the photo: We had bowls out in front labeled to match the titles on the display. People were handed glass beads and asked to vote as they walked by.

START WITH SCRIPTURE:

Matthew 16:13-20

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OBSERVE:

This is a pivotal moment in the life of Jesus with his disciples.  Jesus continues on his journeys outside Jewish Galilee and Judea.  He has been in the region of Phoenicia, near Tyre and Sidon on the coast (Matthew 15:21-28).  He has dropped back near the Sea of Galilee, where he has fed more than four thousand (Matthew 15:29-38).  From there he sailed by boat across the lake to Magdala, which is on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.  But after some Pharisees and Sadducees begin to pressure him to give a miraculous sign in order to “prove” himself to them (Matthew 16:1-12), Jesus seems to again seek refuge in the non-Jewish region to the north of Galilee, in the region of Caesarea Philippi. (Caesarea Philippi was established by Philip the Tetrach, son of Herod the Great.  Obviously he was pandering to his Roman overlords by including the name Caesarea for the city. The city of Caesarea Philippi, was founded at an ancient site known as Paneas, which was devoted to the Greek god Pan. The shrine was built upon an abundant spring that was believed to be the primary source of the waters that fed the Sea of Galilee. It was about thirty miles northeast of the Sea of Galilee near the foot of Mount Hermon).

The setting where Jesus asks his famous question of his disciples — near Caesarea Philippi — may add poignancy to the answers he receives.  He is a Jew in a Gentile area asking about the Jewish Messiah:

 Now when Jesus came into the parts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?”

It is very clear that Jesus is identifying himself with the role and title of the Son of Man.  This title is used to describe Jesus eighty-eight times in the New Testament. In the Old Testament it may have originally merely meant “mortal” or “human beings.”  However, in Jesus’ time, it had an apocalyptic and Messianic connotation, created in part by some of the prophets (Daniel 7:13-14).

In a sense, both meanings are conveyed here.  Jesus is a human being — he is fully human. But he is also the Messiah — he is, as Christian creeds will later affirm, fully God.

So, this is no casual question that Jesus asks.  It is a theological question of utmost importance.  He is determining whether anyone is grasping his true identity.

The disciples seem a bit insecure in their responses.  They don’t answer for themselves, but they say what they have heard rumored about Jesus:

They said, “Some say John the Baptizer, some, Elijah, and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”

In other words, they focus on his humanity. Granted, he is special — after all, each of the prophetic figures named is either recently dead or long dead.  The speculation about Jesus certainly seems to lend itself toward paranormal supernatural visitations!  By this time, John has been beheaded by Herod’s executioner (Matthew 14:1-12).  The rumor that Jesus was some kind of  “zombie John the Baptist returned from the dead” seems to have actually originated from  a very nervous King Herod (Matthew 14:2).

Elijah, of course, was the prophet who confronted King Ahab of Israel in the 9th century B.C., and became famous for his miracles.

Jeremiah was famous as the “weeping prophet” who warned the king of Judah of the imminent judgment of God to be visited on Jerusalem by the Babylonian empire — which did come to pass in 586 B.C.

But the disciples’ tepid response, quoting what others have to say about him, is not the end of the interrogation:

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

To be fair, in his first question Jesus did ask them a more general question — who do men say that I am?  But now Jesus is being very direct.  Who do you, the ones who have been with me since the beginning of my ministry, think that I am?  You have heard my teachings, you have seen my healings and wonders.  What have you concluded?

We can only wonder how many heartbeats passed, how many seconds elapsed, among these disciples after Jesus asks this question.  Do they shift their feet nervously?  Do they look at one another sheepishly?

Of course, it is the fisherman, the impulsive Simon Bar Jonah (which means Simon the son of Jonah) who speaks up.  And what he says is a confession of faith.  In fact, it might be said that this is the kernel of all confessions and creeds that are to come:

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

If the title the Son of Man might be a little ambiguous, there is no doubt about what Peter means here.  Christ means the anointed one, which in Hebrew is rendered Messiah in most translations.  The three offices in the Old Testament in which anointing with oil was done were prophets, priests, and kings.  Jesus fulfills all three of these roles.  And Simon can see that Jesus must be the long awaited Messiah.  No, Simon is not a scholar, a scribe or a Pharisee — but he knows what he has seen and heard. Although the title, Christ, has been used six times as a description of Jesus prior to this passage, Peter’s declaration is the first time that anyone has actually applied the term directly to Jesus.

And then there is the declaration that Jesus is the Son of the living God.  This is an unequivocal statement that Jesus is divine.  He is not merely a human carpenter and wandering rabbi.  He is God.  Again, this is not the first time Jesus has been designated the Son of God.  God the Father declares at his baptism that Jesus is his beloved Son (Matthew 3:17).  Satan taunts Jesus with this identity — If you are the Son of God (Matthew 4:3, 6) why don’t you prove it with a miracle?  The  numerous demons who possessed the two men in the Gergesene cemetery recognize him as the Son of God (Matthew 8:28-34).  The disciples worship Jesus as the Son of God (Matthew 14:22-33) after they have witnessed him walking on the sea.

Simon is reinforcing what he personally has experienced — when he was briefly able to walk with Jesus on the water — and what he has now become convinced is true of Jesus.

To be sure, Jesus never refers to himself as the Son of God in the Gospel of Matthew.  His most common self-identification is that he is the Son of Man (thirty times in Matthew’s Gospel).  However, he has clearly defined his own relationship with the Father in Matthew 11:

 All things have been delivered to me by my Father. No one knows the Son, except the Father; neither does anyone know the Father, except the Son, and he to whom the Son desires to reveal him (Matthew 11:27).

Jesus also clearly affirms Simon’s declaration.  Simon Bar Jonah got it right:

Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”

Jesus is confirming that Simon’s  realization is not something that has been logically figured out, but has been spiritually revealed by God.  Understanding the identity of Jesus isn’t a matter of theological insight or mere empirical observation — it is revealed knowledge.

And we also discover when Simon receives his nickname — Rocky.

 I also tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my assembly, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

Peter is the Greek version of Rock. In Aramaic Rock is Cephas (John 1:42; 1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:22; 9:5; 15:5; Galatians 2:9).  Although Matthew’s Gospel refers to Simon as Peter at least six times prior to our lectionary Scripture, it seems apparent that this account is the first moment that Simon is given the nickname Rocky. 

Jesus is honoring Simon Peter for his stalwart declaration — and says further that the Rock of Peter’s faith will become the foundation for the church.  The cornerstone of this faith is that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.  And we note the nuance of Jesus’ metaphor — the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.  The gates of Hades in this image is stationary, like a fortress.  It is the church that is aggressively besieging Hell!

Peter himself is given awesome authority:

I will give to you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven; and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.

A Roman Catholic interpretation of this passage vests ecclesiastical authority with Peter, whom they believe to be the first bishop of the church. He has been given the keys, which denote authority.  However, Jesus later speaks of this same authority that is to be vested with the gathered church:

Most certainly I tell you, whatever things you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever things you release on earth will have been released in heaven. Again, assuredly I tell you, that if two of you will agree on earth concerning anything that they will ask, it will be done for them by my Father who is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the middle of them (Matthew 18:18-20).

The verbs bind and release are plural — Jesus is speaking of the whole church, not one individual.  Authority is given to the church for the purpose of disciplining church members, and implementing the teaching of Jesus.

Finally, Jesus makes it clear that Peter’s epiphany, though true, is not to be revealed just yet:

 Then he commanded the disciples that they should tell no one that he was Jesus the Christ.

The reason for what some have called the Messianic Secret is unclear. Perhaps Jesus doesn’t want to gather people to himself for the wrong reason — to be a mere wonderworker, or an earthly king.  This would be consistent with his rejection of the devil’s temptations (Matthew 4:1-10).  Perhaps he doesn’t want to be manipulated.  Or perhaps he wants to be in control of what his identity as Messiah really means, especially given all of the interpretations and expectations that have been attached to that concept.   But Jesus’ true identity as the Christ will be fully revealed after his resurrection.

APPLY:  

There are many important questions that we may be asked in our lives. What do you want to be when you grow up? What will you major in when you are in college? Will you marry me?  These can be defining questions that set us on a life-changing path.

Of all of the questions we may be asked, there are none more important than the questions Jesus asks.  His first question provides the room for us to speculate about doctrine and theology and Biblical history:

Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?

This allows the disciples to say what others are saying about Jesus.  This is a tendency that modern preachers and theologians understand well.  It is so easy to talk about what other people — theologians, Biblical scholars, and other preachers — might say about Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook. Witness his second question:

who do you say that I am? (emphasis mine)

There is no more important question that Jesus asks of us today.  Who do  we say that he is?

Is he merely a Jewish carpenter? Or a rabbi? Or a wonderworker? Or a great moral teacher?

C.S. Lewis’s answer on this issue is classic:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse…. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come up with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. (from Mere Christianity)

Jesus is either the Christ, the Son of the living God, and our Lorid, or he is a phony.  And our entire faith is founded on the same confession made by Peter.  This is not something that we figure out on our own, or simply accept because we were told this in Sunday School.  This is a conclusion at which we arrive in the same way that Peter did:

for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.

The affirmation that Jesus is Lord, Christ, and the incarnate God, is the rock upon which our faith is built.

RESPOND: 

The moment of Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God is pivotal in the Gospel of Matthew, and in Christian doctrine.  This is also, in one form or another, the definitive profession of faith required of those who call ourselves Christians.

Paul says it this way:

If you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart, one believes unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation (Romans 10:9-10).

We are not “grandfathered” into Christianity simply because our family have been members of a local church for several generations.  And we aren’t even de facto Christians  simply because we have been baptized, however important this sacrament is.  We are Christians when our spirits respond to the Spirit’s witness in our hearts that Jesus is Lord, Christ, Son of God, and has been raised from the dead.

Over the years in my ministry, I have preached the necessity to profess our faith in Christ as our Lord.  I have no idea how many have responded in their own hearts to my pleas to confess Christ as Savior. As a pastor, I have received hundreds of people as new Christians and church members who have professed faith in Christ for the first time in their lives.  They have answered the question asked by my own denomination’s ritual of profession of faith:

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,
put your whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as your Lord,
in union with the church which Christ has opened
to people of all ages, nations, and races?

This kind of profession, modeled after Peter’s confession, is the beginning of a new life in Christ.  But it is not the end.  This profession leads to the great adventure of following Jesus for the rest of our lives.

Lord, your Spirit has borne witness with my Spirit that I am a child of God.  I confess that Jesus is my Lord and Savior, and is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  This profession has forever changed my life.  May this faith be the “rock” of my life and ministry, and of my church.  Amen.

PHOTOS:
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Epistle for August 27, 2017

START WITH SCRIPTURE:

Romans 12:1-8

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OBSERVE:

In Romans 12, Paul’s focus shifts from theology to ethics — from what we must believe to how we must act.  He has established the doctrine of  justification by grace through faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ, and the identification of the believer with the risen Christ.

So Paul continues to explore the implications of his theological insight for the Christian life.  Since the Spirit bears witness to our spirits that we are children of God, and therefore heirs with Christ, how are we to live?  His initial answer is among the most magnificent and challenging exhortations in Scripture:

Therefore I urge you, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service.  

The old saying in seminary New Testament classes is that when you run into a therefore in the epistles, ask yourself “what is it there for?”  Paul is saying that because of what Jesus has done for us, and what the Holy Spirit is doing in us, we are to live a new life.

The language he uses is the language of the temple — we are to offer our very bodies as a living sacrifice. Of course, we are reminded that Jesus has previously offered himself for us.  Earlier in this letter Paul has made it very clear that we are:

justified freely by his (i.e. God’s)  grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus;  whom God sent to be an atoning sacrifice, through faith in his blood, for a demonstration of his righteousness through the passing over of prior sins, in God’s forbearance (Romans 3:24-25).

Paul is in no way suggesting that sacrificing ourselves for Christ is a means of earning God’s favor or grace.  The therefore suggests that offering ourselves completely to God is a response to what Christ has done for us, not a means of attaining salvation.

This is what a previous generation might have called “consecration” — giving oneself wholly and completely to God.  No longer are the sacrifices of lambs or bulls in the temple adequate — the sacrifice required in order to be transformed is our living selves! Today we might say it differently — we are to be “sold out” for Christ.  Note that Paul is not calling for martyrdom.  He urges a living sacrifice.  Our whole lives are to belong to God.

The Biblical understanding of the body is not that you have a body (that it is some sort of shell) — you are a body.  The Christian’s body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).  When Paul tells us to offer our bodies to God, he is including every dimension of our lives.

This complete offering of self to Christ, having been justified through his blood, is what makes our sacrifice holy and acceptable.  The phrase that is translated spiritual service is more properly translated reasonable (from the Greek logiken) service.  This suggests that because Jesus has offered himself completely for us, it is reasonable that we offer ourselves completely to him!  And the word service can mean work, but it can also mean worship. Our living sacrifice is a reasonable worship to God.

The second sentence of this passage is every bit as powerful:

Don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what is the good, well-pleasing, and perfect will of God.

In a sense, Paul is defining what it means to be offered as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.

To be conformed to this world also has a nuanced meaning.  The Greek word translated here as world is aiown — meaning this present age, this generation, this era.  In other words, Paul is talking about a culture and an era that is transient.  This age will pass away.  His description of this world in another epistle clarifies the sinister nature of this present time:

the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that the light of the Good News of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should not dawn on them (2 Corinthians 4:4).

The god of this world is undoubtedly Satan, as Jesus also tells us in the Gospel of John when he describes his own death and resurrection as a victory over the Evil One:

Now is the judgment of this world. Now the prince of this world will be cast out (John 12:31).

We are not to be conformed to this  world because it has been temporarily taken hostage and enthralled by Satan.  The prevailing values, treasures, and priorities of this present age are not consistent with the eternal values, treasures and priorities of God’s age to come.

And Paul takes the next step.  Instead of becoming conformed to this world, we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.  Again, this phrase is packed with meaning.  The word transformed in Greek is metamorphosthe.  For one thing, it is an imperative.  A command.  Be transformed.

For another thing, transformed is a loaded word.  It is used to describe the Transfiguration of Jesus in the Gospels (Matthew 17:2 and Mark 9:2), when he was transformed from his normal appearance into a brilliant, other-worldly light.  And this word is also used to describe the transformation that occurs in the believer who looks onto the glory of God by faith:

But we all, with unveiled face seeing the glory of the Lord as in a mirror, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord, the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18).

This suggests that the transformation that Paul speaks of is nothing less than transformation into the likeness of Christ!  As Paul writes elsewhere, to be made new in Christ is nothing less than to begin to see the renewal of God’s image in our lives:

seeing that you have put off the old man with his doings,  and have put on the new man, who is being renewed in knowledge after the image of his Creator (Colossians 3:9-10)

This transformation begins within — by the renewing of your mind.  We are reminded that when the Spirit begins to work in our lives, he works from the inside out:

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.  For the mind of the flesh is death, but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace (Romans 8:5-6).

Faith, though a gift from God, is also a matter of internal focus — beginning in the realm of the mind.  So Paul exhorts the Philippians:

Finally, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there is any virtue, and if there is any praise, think about these things (Philippians 4:8).

The result of this complete surrender to God, coupled with non-conformity to the schemes of this world and the transformation of one’s mind, is astonishing:

that you may prove what is the good, well-pleasing, and perfect will of God.

The person who is surrendered to and transformed by God is in God’s will!

And Paul isn’t finished with the practical applications of the transformed life.  He calls upon these transformed people to maintain their sense of proportion — we are to be humble:

 For I say, through the grace that was given me, to every man who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think reasonably, as God has apportioned to each person a measure of faith.

The transformed person is to have a sense of self-awareness.  They have been lifted up with the promise of the restoration of the image of God, but they are not to become arrogant or filled with a sense of superiority.

He then reminds the Christian that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.  In an image that will become familiar in Paul’s writing (1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4:11-16;) — the church is the body of Christ.  And this explains why no believer should think more highly of themselves than they ought to — because each member of the body is important to the functioning of the whole body:

 For even as we have many members in one body, and all the members don’t have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.

And finally, he focuses on some of the individual gifts that differ from one another, but are each essential to the effective functioning of the body of Christ:

Having gifts differing according to the grace that was given to us, if prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of our faith;  or service, let us give ourselves to service; or he who teaches, to his teaching; or he who exhorts, to his exhorting: he who gives, let him do it with liberality; he who rules, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.

This list of varying gifts is not comprehensive or exhaustive.  There are other gifts that are listed in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4.  Paul’s point is that each person’s gifts are required for the well-being of the body.

APPLY:  

The question Paul addresses from Romans 12 to 15 is this — how then shall we live?  Knowing that we have been claimed, redeemed and adopted by God — what does that mean for our lifestyle?

Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12:1-2 is a stirring call to new life:

  • When we surrender our lives completely to God, our entire life can become an act of worship — with our families, in our daily jobs, in our church work, even in our leisure pursuits and hobbies — provided they are offered up to God first.
  • We are urged to be consciously non-conformist to this present age. This age (our present culture) is not consistent with the kingdom of God that we see envisioned in the Scriptures — a kingdom of love, righteousness, peace, and joy.  And if we have trouble believing the notion that this age seeks to shape us and our world-views, we need only ask one simple question — why do advertisers in the United States spend approximately $10 billion a year?  If the advertisers don’t think they can influence our spending habits, our consuming, our lifestyle choices, why spend so much money?  And by the way, how many hungry children would that money feed? How many water wells would it drill in arid Africa? How much medical research would that money fund?
  • We are urged to be transformed from the inside out — as our minds are transformed by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, we become what God originally intended us to be, with his image renewed in our lives.
  • And when we have wholly surrendered to God, rejected the distorted values of this world, and allowed the Holy Spirit to transform our minds, we are beginning to know and live according to God’s will.

But all of this is not simply for our own personal self-actualization.  We are part of a larger community of faith — the body of Christ.  Therefore, we are to have a proper, realistic self-awareness — we are to know our own role within the body of Christ, and humbly exercise our gifts according to the grace that was given to us.

The truth is that God’s goal is not merely the personal transformation of individual Christians, but the transformation of the world.  And his instrument for that purpose is — of all things — the church, which is the body of Christ!  Only when every member within the church understands their own gifts and exercises them for the well-being of the whole body is the church able to accomplish this transformation.

RESPOND: 

When my sons were young, my wife discovered an interesting genre of literature for them to read.  These were books called Choose Your Own Adventure.  As an English major, I thought I knew what was needed to make a story work — and one of those elements was a plot.  But in these books, the reader can decide the outcome of the plot!  At the end of each chapter, the reader is given certain choices, and then directed to different pages based on those choices — and the outcome could be very different based on those choices!

It struck me that we are also presented with choices by God — we are invited to join God in the adventure that he has planned for our lives.  And in Romans 12:1-2, we have a plot-line provided by God that leads to the ultimate adventure:

Therefore I urge you, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. Don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what is the good, well-pleasing, and perfect will of God.

Life is our adventure story, and we are faced with so many different choices and decisions. Everyone has a story.  Some are dramas, some are comedies, some may have tragedy.  We see all of those elements as we read the accounts of the life of Paul and the other apostles.  But we also see the ultimate outcome of these stories when their lives are surrendered to God:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

And for our part, in response to what God has done for us in Christ and through the Holy Spirit, there is one first step necessary — faithful surrender to God.

This one thing was illustrated to me several years ago when I was helping my oldest son to move in at the University.  I was trying to think of something wise and “fatherly” to say to him as he began his second year in college.  Nearby, there was a soccer stadium.  The stadium seemed vacant — no practice or game was going on — and yet a song was playing on the public address system. I suddenly figured out what it was — the hokey pokey.   As I listened to the music, I thought especially of the last verse:

You put your whole self in
You take your whole self out
You put your whole self in
And you shake it all about
You do the hokey pokey
And you turn yourself around
That’s what it’s all about.

And it hit me — that was it!  That was my advice to my son!  I said to him “That’s it, Son! The secret to life — put your whole self in.”

I think this is the first step necessary in this passage from Romans — submit your whole life:

present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service.

This is salvation — not merely saying the sinners prayer, not simply getting some water sprinkled on our heads, or even being completely submerged in a creek.  True salvation and discipleship begins and ends with complete surrender to God.

Our Lord, you have offered yourself completely for us.  Our response to you is to completely offer ourselves to you.  Take our lives, enable us to turn away from the clamoring demands of this world, and transform us into your likeness.  And empower us to use the spiritual gifts you give us for the good of your body and the world.  Amen.

PHOTOS:

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Psalm Reading for August 27, 2017

START WITH SCRIPTURE:

Psalm 124

CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

This is a Song of Ascents attributed to David, which was sung when the congregation processed up Mount Zion to the place of sacrifice.  We remember that in the time of David the temple had not been built, but that the ark of the covenant had been moved to that location, and the tabernacle and the altar were there.

This is a song of thanksgiving for deliverance from one’s enemies.  If anyone understood the peril of facing one’s enemies, David certainly did — from Goliath and the Philistines, to his own King Saul who had once sought his life, to the various hostile nations that surrounded Israel; and even, in civil war, his own son Absalom!

However, unlike the Greek or Roman hero who might attribute their victory to their own god-like strength or military prowess, David is quick to acknowledge the Lord as the source of Israel’s victories over their enemies.

In fact, he confesses that if Israel had trusted in their own strength and strategy, they would have been lost and the result would have been disastrous:

 If it had not been Yahweh who was on our side,
let Israel now say,
 if it had not been Yahweh who was on our side,
when men rose up against us;
 then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their wrath was kindled against us.

He also closes this Psalm with a very similar attribution to the intervention of the Lord:

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

The imagery that David uses is interesting.  In verses 3-5, the predominant image is the proud waters. Israel’s enemies were so overwhelming and overpowering that they were like floods that would have swallowed up Israel, swept them away, gone over them like torrents.

The people of Israel certainly had memories of waters as an existential threat — when crossing the Red Sea under Moses’ leadership as they escaped from Pharaoh’s armies; crossing the Jordan River on dry land with Joshua into the hostile land of Canaan that was also their land of promise; and when Deborah and Barak led the Israelites against commander  Sisera and the Canaanites, as described in the book of Judges:

From the sky the stars fought.
From their courses, they fought against Sisera.
The river Kishon swept them away,
that ancient river, the river Kishon. (Judges 5:20-21)!

In the instance of the Red Sea and the Jordan River, the overwhelming waters were subdued by God; in Judges the waters become a weapon in God’s hand against the enemy of Israel.

Here, God prevails against the overwhelming power of Israel’s enemies, who are not named here.

The other image in verses 6-7, compares Israel’s plight to being hunted by their enemies.  The Lord has spared them from becoming  as prey to their teeth. And they are like birds who escape the traps of the fowlers because the snares are defective.

This image also would have been something David well understood.   When King Saul sought to hunt David down, David played a cat and mouse game with the King — and David was the mouse, hiding in the valleys, gorges and hills of Judah (1 Samuel 22-27). And he also resorts to the same kind of guerilla tactics when his son Absalom approaches the city of Jerusalem with overwhelming force; David abandons the city and retreats across the river Jordan to find more suitable ground for a future battle.

Whatever the context of the Psalm, the bottom line is clear:

Our help is in Yahweh’s name,
who made heaven and earth.

APPLY:  

Only a very small percentage of us are likely to have been placed in a position of combat, or have been pursued by enemies who seek to “devour” us.  Those who have served in the armed forces might well pray this Psalm, or those who have been made refugees by hostile, armed terrorists such as we read of all too often today.  For those in either situation, this might be a very relevant Psalm.

But for those of us who live in security and peace, there is also an application.  We may sometimes forget in our routine days of dropping the kids off at school, or soccer practice, or a day at the office, that there is an invisible battle raging around us even now.

Paul reminds us of this reality in Ephesians 6:11-12:

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world’s rulers of the darkness of this age, and against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.   

This is a battle waged on moral and spiritual grounds, by our daily decisions that arise out of our Christian convictions.  If we take the unseen world as seriously as the Scriptures do, we must be aware that there are cosmic powers that are in rebellion against God, and who seek to harm us as God’s children.

Although it may seem an odd claim to make, in some ways this spiritual battle may be more difficult than facing weapons of war or overt hostility.  That is not to minimize the dangers faced by soldiers, or the persecution of the martyrs in any way.  But when they are faced with the obvious overt threat, the responses are very clear — to fight or die. If they confess Christ they may face persecution or even death.

Those conditions are stark, but more clearly defined.

But the spiritual warfare waged in the office, the school, online with facebook or social media, can be far more hazy.  The Enemy’s weapons of deception are far more effective when he insinuates that our convictions may  be reduced to mere opinions, and faith may be reduced to foolish superstition. If the Lord were not on our side, we too would be washed away by the torrents of ambiguity, and we would be devoured by the Enemy.

We must rely on the same faith that David had:

 Our help is in Yahweh’s name,
who made heaven and earth.

RESPOND: 

C.S. Lewis calls his book  That Hideous Strength  a “modern day fairy tale for grownups.” The book depicts the constant battle between good and evil.

His description of the representatives of N.I.C.E. ( the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments) is chillingly familiar, as they seek to destroy the “conventional” morality of those whom they enlist.

It was a reminder to me that there are a multitude of philosophical and religious perspectives in our world today that would reduce our values to a kind of “subjective relativism” and turn the values of good and evil into mere “chemical reactions” in the brain.

Subjective relativism would “free” us from objective truth so that we get to decide what is true and correct, without reference to God or Scripture. So there is no absolute truth or good or evil.

As Dostoevsky might say, in such a world “all things are permissible.”

But this Psalm reminds me that there is One who fights for me, and for all of us; and, to quote Martin Luther’s great hymn:

Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing,
were not the right man on our side,
the man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth, his name,
from age to age the same,
and he must win the battle.     (A Mighty Fortress is Our God)

Our Lord, if you were not on our side – on my side – I would be utterly and hopelessly lost! I cannot withstand the overwhelming and confusing flood of error and misinformation in our world, nor can I overcome the foes that seek to devour me — unless you are fighting for me.  May I trust only in you for deliverance.  Amen.   

PHOTOS:

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Old Testament for August 27, 2017

Start with Scripture:

Exodus 1:8-2:10

CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

Our passage from Exodus is a nativity story.  As we will see, it is the nativity story of Moses, who will rise to deliver his people from slavery.  And it is also the nativity story of the people of Israel as a nation.  This we will see when the book of Exodus concludes with the nation of Israel liberated and unified in the wilderness of Sinai.

The intervening years between Joseph’s power in Egypt and the era when today’s lectionary passage begins are conveyed very succinctly:

Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who didn’t know Joseph.

Egyptians, who had once viewed the tribe of Jacob as allies, now see them as a grave threat.  There is some evidence that the introduction of the Hebrews into Egypt roughly coincided with the invasion of Egypt and its occupation by the people called the Hyskos.  The Hyskos are believed to have originated from Western Asia.  Their introduction into Egypt likely ended what some scholars call the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, and they remained as an alien, occupying presence until they were expelled by Ahmose I around 1560 B.C.  Between the introduction of the Hyskos and Ahmose I, there may have been an intervening period of roughly two hundred years or more.  This might explain why the new Pharaoh knew nothing of Joseph.  And the new Pharaoh might have identified Joseph’s tribe with the Hyskos who had occupied his land.

In any event, the Pharaoh sees the children of Israel as a menace.  Their population has grown and seemingly has outnumbered the native Egyptians.  The Pharaoh sees them as a potential security risk — they might join themselves to Egypt’s enemies in the future.

Pharaoh’s solution is extreme.  He orders the children of Israel to be made into slaves.  They are pressed into service as builders of the storage cities of Pithom and Raamses (which seems to have been named for the dynastic name of the Pharaohs who were to come).  The irony here is that many years earlier, the forgotten Joseph had been responsible for the building of grain storage buildings that fed Egypt and surrounding nations in a time of severe famine.

This strategy of oppression fails.  Instead of chastening the children of Israel, they grow even stronger! The Egyptians became even more harsh in their treatment of these new slaves:

The Egyptians ruthlessly made the children of Israel serve, and they made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and in brick, and in all kinds of service in the field, all their service, in which they ruthlessly made them serve.

And then the Pharaoh’s directives become diabolical.  He instructs the Hebrew midwives  Shiphrah and Puah to commit infanticide when they deliver male Hebrew babies.

These brave women engage in an act of civil disobedience  because of their faith in God ( we note that at this time, the God of Israel is Elohim, the ancient name of God.  The name Yahweh has not yet been revealed in Exodus — that will occur when Moses is an adult).  They lie to Pharaoh, in order to protect these Hebrew babies. The midwives and their own families flourish:

The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women aren’t like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous, and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”  God dealt well with the midwives, and the people multiplied, and grew very mighty. Because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.

However,  the Pharaoh escalates his program of genocide:

Pharaoh commanded all his people, saying, “You shall cast every son who is born into the river, and every daughter you shall save alive.”

What had been a focused program of case by case murder now becomes a general bloodbath.  We note that not only would the babies be drowned in the Nile — the waters were likely filled with crocodiles.

And then, in this moment of great darkness for the children of Israel, there is an obscure but hopeful ray of light.  In the home of two descendents of one of the sons of Jacob (from the house of Levi) a mother gives birth to a son. We learn later that this couple are named Amram and his wife Jochebed.

The mother of this child manages to conceal this fine child for three months, but as he grows his presence will become more obvious, and he will be at risk.

In a curious twist, Jochebed obeys the outrageous command to cast the male children into the Nile — but in her own way.  She fashions a basket from the papyrus reeds so common on the banks of the Nile, and lines it with pitch.  She makes a tiny boat for her son!

It is unclear whether Jochebed instructed her daughter (whose name is later revealed to be Miriam) to keep an eye on her brother in the basket as he floats amongst the reeds. That seems a likely conclusion.

And did Jochebed know that this was a section of the Nile where the Pharaoh’s daughter came to bathe in the river with her handmaidens?  This is only speculation, but it seems a logical possibility.  Perhaps Jochebed is counting on the maternal instincts of this Egyptian princess.   And that is exactly what happens:

His sister stood far off, to see what would be done to him. Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe at the river. Her maidens walked along by the riverside. She saw the basket among the reeds, and sent her servant to get it.  She opened it, and saw the child, and behold, the baby cried. She had compassion on him, and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.”

Miriam sees her opening, and is emboldened to speak to the Pharaoh’s daughter.  She offers to find a nurse from among the Hebrew women to feed the child.  Again, we can only speculate, but surely the Egyptian princess is not naive. She can put two and two together.  Perhaps she winks at Miriam and says “Go,” assuming that Miriam may know exactly where to find just such a woman!

Given the bizarre circumstances of this situation, this is the best possible compromise.  Jochebed nurses her own child, and presumably when he is weaned, she presents him to his adopted mother — the Pharaoh’s daughter.

The Pharaoh’s daughter names him Moses.  According to Hebrew etymology, this suggests that he was drawn out of the water.  Some authorities argue that the princess wouldn’t know Hebrew, and that his name may have meant son in the Egyptian language.  However, it isn’t inconceivable that the Pharaoh’s daughter accepted the “nickname” given by his “wet nurse.”

APPLY:  

There are manifold areas of application from this account in Exodus.

First, there are parallels between this origin story and the stories related to the birth of Jesus.  The pharaoh seeks to snuff out the lives of hundreds of Hebrew children in order to reduce the future threat he fears from them.  In Matthew’s Gospel, King Herod fears one child, who appears to be the designated heir of King David, who was born in Bethlehem in fulfillment of prophecy (Matthew 2:1-6). Herod’s response is to send his soldiers into Bethlehem with the mission of killing every male child under the age of  two years (Matthew 2:16).

Second, women feature prominently and positively in the nativity stories of both Moses and Jesus. In the account from Exodus, the midwives use their position to save the lives of male Hebrew babies.  Jochebed outwits the Pharaoh’s thugs by fashioning a wicker basket boat for her infant son; and her daughter Miriam keeps protective watch over him as he floats down the river near the reeds.  And the Egyptian princess exercises her own unique authority to adopt this Hebrew child as her own.  In the accounts of Jesus’ birth, Mary consents to become the virgin mother of the Son of God; Elizabeth becomes the mother of John, who will prepare the way for the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry many years later (Luke 1). The key role of women in the Biblical salvation history is undeniable.

Third, we see a clear example of justifiable civil disobedience.  Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives fear God rather than Pharaoh.  They know in their bones that the Pharaoh’s command to kill the newborn males is immoral — and they lie to the Pharaoh in order to cover up their efforts to spare these children.

We are taught by the Apostle Paul that we are to obey those in authority:

Let every soul be in subjection to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those who exist are ordained by God.  Therefore he who resists the authority, withstands the ordinance of God; and those who withstand will receive to themselves judgment (Romans 13:1-2).

This includes paying taxes as well as respecting and honoring those in authority.

As a rule, this is a good practice, for it ensures order and a tranquil and quiet life (1 Timothy 2:2).

However, there are clearly exceptions to this rule.  When the governing authorities issue immoral edicts that contradict God’s law, the believer has a duty to defy those edicts.

When King Darius (the king of Persia) enacts a decree forbidding prayer to any god other than himself, Daniel discreetly but definitely ignores the decree.  He continues to pray three times a day to the God of Israel in the privacy of his own home.  This leads to his famous survival in the lion’s den (Daniel 6).

And in the New Testament, when Peter and John are ordered not to preach in the name of Jesus by the religious authorities, Peter replies:

Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, judge for yourselves,  for we can’t help telling the things which we saw and heard (Acts 4:19-20).

When an unlawful order is issued, or an immoral law is passed, obedience to God always takes precedence.

RESPOND: 

For people of a certain generation, it is nearly impossible to read this account from Exodus without being reminded of Cecile B DeMille’s famous Biblical epic The Ten Commandments, produced in 1956 with Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner in key roles.  The film was made largely on location in Egypt, Mount Sinai and the Sinai Peninsula.

The film was lavish, grandiose and impressive.  But sometimes we need to kind of shake our brains, the way we might an Etch-a-Sketch, and erase those memories so we can see the story through new eyes.

When we do so, we can often make connections that we never have made before. I can’t help thinking of the Shoah,  known as the Holocaust of the Jews in World War II.  Although the Nazis exterminated an estimated six million Jews during that period, it wasn’t the first time that the people of Israel were faced with severe oppression.

As with the modern Final Solution proposed by Hitler, the Pharaoh’s oppressions increased with gradual increments.  After Hitler was named chancellor of Germany in 1933, he began to implement his views of racial superiority.  Jews were forced out of civil service, university and legal professions.  In November, 1938, there was a riot organized and systematically carried out by Nazi “brownshirts” who attacked synagogues, Jewish stores and homes, and led to the arrest of Jewish men.  This was called Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.  By 1939, Jews were being removed from Nazi occupied territories and placed in concentration camps.  By 1941, the wholesale slaughter of Jews began to be implemented — by firing squads, and later in gas “showers.”

Pharaoh also began his oppression of Israel with gradual steps.   First, they were enslaved, with Egyptian taskmasters to afflict them.  And when that failed to stem the birthrate of Israel, the Egyptians became more ruthless:

they made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and in brick, and in all kinds of service in the field, all their service, in which they ruthlessly made them serve.

Then the Pharaoh began his campaign of genocide, trying to enlist the help of Hebrew midwives whom he instructed to kill the newborn boys, and let the girls live.  Finally, when this failed, he issued a general order:

 Pharaoh commanded all his people, saying, “You shall cast every son who is born into the river, and every daughter you shall save alive.”

The correlation, and the point, should be clear.  Oppression begins with fear mongering and bigotry, and can escalate into wholesale genocide if unchecked.  Even today, we must remain vigilant against such horrors.  It happened in ancient Egypt.  It happened in Germany in the 20th century.  It could happen here and now unless we stand firm against such oppression and injustice.

Lord, there may come times in our lives when we are also faced with stark choices, like the two midwives.  Give us courage to take the right stand, and act in accordance with your laws, not unjust customs or laws of men.  Amen.

PHOTOS:
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Gospel for August 20, 2017

START WITH SCRIPTURE:

Matthew 15:21-28 

CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

Jesus continues his healing ministry — only now he is no longer in Jewish Galilee.  He has departed from Gennesaret (just south of Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee) and has withdrawn into the region of Tyre and Sidon to the north.  He seems to be seeking respite from the pressures of Herod (Matthew 14:1-13),  the needs of the multitudes (Matthew 14:14-21, 35-36), and the controversies of the Pharisees and scribes who have come all the way from Jerusalem to interrogate him (Matthew 15:1-14).  Perhaps he hopes to be a bit more anonymous as he moves out of Jewish territory into a pagan land.

However, even in Phoenicia, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, the reputation of Jesus precedes him.  A Canaanite woman recognizes him.  Canaan was identified with the land of the Phoenicians.

And this Gentile Canaanite is aware of the heritage of Jesus.  She cries out:

 Have mercy on me, Lord, you son of David! My daughter is severely possessed by a demon!

This is historically significant.  We are reminded that David was the king of the united kingdoms of Israel and Judah.  David enjoyed unusual success as a monarch, and became the Biblical standard of a good king despite a serious moral lapse.  He was promised an eternal royal dynasty by God.  Thus, a pagan woman who recognizes that Jesus is a descendant of David suggests her awareness of Hebrew prophecies concerning the Messiah.

But a Jewish reader would have said — the son of David is our Messiah, not yours! The attitudes of Jews toward Canaanites were the same they had toward Samaritans, Greeks or Romans — they were all Gentiles, and hence unclean.

Jesus seems at first to confirm this prejudice:

But he answered her not a word.

Jesus, who is normally described as a compassionate healer everywhere he goes, ignores this woman and her demon-possessed daughter.

Evidently the Canaanite woman is quite persistent.  She begins to annoy the disciples who beg him:

Send her away; for she cries after us.

It seems that what they are really saying to Jesus is ‘give her what she wants!  She won’t leave us alone.’

Again, Jesus’ response seems out of character:

I wasn’t sent to anyone but the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

We remember that when he commissioned his disciples to go out in his name, preaching the Good News, healing and casting out demons, he was very specific:

Jesus sent these twelve out, and commanded them, saying, “Don’t go among the Gentiles, and don’t enter into any city of the Samaritans. Rather, go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 10:5-6).

If anything, Jesus was making it clear that his first priority at this point in his ministry is to reconcile to God those Jews who had strayed from the faith.  We know from reading the rest of the story that the ministry to the Gentiles will come, but later.  First things first.

We also know that Jesus has made some exceptions — he healed the servant of the Roman centurion from a distance (Matthew 10:5-13) He also casts out demons from two men in the region of Gergesenes, which is a Gentile region on the southeastern bank of the Sea of Galilee. Very likely the two men were Gentiles. The fact that the demons are cast into a herd of swine certainly confirms a Gentile connection — Jews wouldn’t keep pigs since they were forbidden to eat pork (Matthew 8:28-34).

But Jesus seems adamant in this account, even as this woman persists. Finally, he answers, rather harshly:

 It is not appropriate to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.

This is clearly an insult.  Dogs in Middle Eastern cultures were not considered “man’s best friend.”  Dogs were usually described as unclean scavengers.  Jesus seems to be racist at best — the children are obviously the Jews, and the dogs are Gentiles!

But this woman is tenacious.  She argues with Jesus!

 But she said, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”

Yes, dogs may be scavengers — but they do belong to their master, and they eat what he throws them from the table!  They may not be children, but they still have a place, she seems to be arguing.

Jesus responds with some astonishment, and with action:

 “Woman, great is your faith! Be it done to you even as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.

Faith transcends race, class, ethnicity, even religious affiliation.

APPLY:  

This is a somewhat troublesome passage.  Matthew doesn’t “clean it up” for our convenience.  Jesus appears to be subject to the same bigotries against Gentiles that prevailed amongst his Jewish brethren.

How is this possible?  Jesus is the Son of God.  He loves all the world.  And at the end of Matthew’s Gospel he will commission his disciples to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations.  How can he be so harsh to this pathetic woman seeking healing for her daughter?  It seems so out of character!

Is it because Jesus was also fully human as well as fully God?  Was he therefore influenced by the attitudes of his time, sharing even some of the prejudices of his own culture?  Did his views evolve so that he became more inclusive?  That might be a comforting humanistic explanation, but it still doesn’t seem to be consistent with the man who was described as worthy of worship in the previous chapter (Matthew 14:22-33).

Moreover, this episode is also inconsistent with what he has said earlier when he healed the servant of the Roman centurion.  The centurion begs Jesus not to come to his home — perhaps because the Roman is aware of Jewish attitudes toward Gentiles, and doesn’t want Jesus to be compromised.  Instead, he tells Jesus that as a soldier he understands authority, and all Jesus need do is issue the command and his servant will be healed.  And Jesus responds to him this way:

he marveled, and said to those who followed, “Most certainly I tell you, I haven’t found so great a faith, not even in Israel.  I tell you that many will come from the east and the west, and will sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven, but the children of the Kingdom will be thrown out into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”  (Matthew 8:10-12).

Clearly, in this account Jesus understands that there will be many Gentiles who will be saved and invited to the great wedding banquet at the end of the age, while many who assume they are included will be cast out.  Jesus is obviously articulating an inclusive message about the Gentiles.

So why the initial cold shoulder with the Canaanite woman?  I reject the notion that Jesus’ sensibilities somehow “evolved” over time, especially given his response to the centurion’s faith.  I do believe that the spread of the Gospel was to happen in stages. I believe that this was a strategic decision,  which explains why he initially told his disciples to go only to the lost sheep of Israel, and then after his resurrection commanded them to go to all the nations.  But I don’t think that Jesus fundamentally changed in his attitude toward others.

Perhaps there are two possibilities.  One is that Jesus is testing the Canaanite woman’s faith.  Did she merely see him as a wonderworker who might help her daughter?  Had she tried everything else and thought she might as well try this Jewish healer?  But she proved to Jesus’ satisfaction that what motivated her wasn’t merely her desperation, but her faith in the son of David. 

Another possibility is that Jesus was using this incident as a teaching moment for his own disciples.  He is certainly aware of the prejudices of his own disciples.  In fact, we know that even after his resurrection and after the day of Pentecost  there would still be great resistance to expanding the mission to the Gentiles.  It would require a direct vision from God to Peter in order to lead him to the house of Cornelius the Roman centurion (Acts 10).  And a similar experience on the road to Damascus between the risen Jesus and a Jewish Pharisee named Saul would change the course of history for the ministry to the Gentiles (Acts 9).

Perhaps Jesus is teaching the disciples that they must see this woman not as an annoyance, or as an unclean Canaanite, but as a woman of great faith.

RESPOND: 

The racial and ethnic attitudes that I discover in this passage about Jesus and this Canaanite woman are every bit as relevant today as they ever were.  In the United States, racism has become somewhat more subtle, but there are still boundaries and barriers that exist.

When I see a woman in the grocery store wearing a burka, I have to admit that my initial reaction is still uncomfortable.  And yet when I see her with her children selecting breakfast cereals, I realize that she and her family are not so unlike mine.

I really do believe that this encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman was meant to illustrate for us that the differences between ethnic groups shrink when we are reminded of our common humanity.  This woman has a daughter whom she loves deeply, and about whom she is desperately worried. She is so concerned that she actually crosses an ethnic and religious boundary, and recognizes this son of David from whom she seeks help.  And her faith is what Jesus acknowledges.  Human need and faith transcend all other barriers.

Lord, I pray that you will help me look beyond my differences with people who don’t look like me or talk like me or think like me.  Help me to see them as fellow human beings who need the healing and hope that you offer.  Amen. 

PHOTOS:
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Epistle for August 20, 2017

START WITH SCRIPTURE:

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

This passage from Romans 11 addresses the fate of Israel from the perspective of a Jew who believes firmly that Jesus is the Messiah promised by the Hebrew Scriptures.  This is part of a larger discussion that encompasses not only the book of Romans, but Galatians and Ephesians as well.  Moreover, the selected verses of this particular lectionary passage may easily be taken out of context without considering the whole chapter.

Paul does not shy away from the tough question — now that Christ has come, what will happen to the Jews:

I ask then, did God reject his people?

His answer is decisive, and personal:

May it never be! For I also am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God didn’t reject his people, which he foreknew.

Our lectionary editors have chosen to skip from verse 2b all the way to verse 29, which both complicates and oversimplifies the argument at the same time.

If we were to read verses 1-2, and then ignore verses 3-28, we might conclude that there are no consequences for rejecting Jesus as Messiah.  But that’s not what Paul says.  Instead, Paul employs the Biblical concept of the remnant in order to point out that some from Israel are among the elect by grace (Romans 11:5).  He again stresses the cardinal point, that salvation is not by works but by grace.  And he points out that because Israel has rejected Christ, the door has been opened for the salvation of the Gentiles.  He uses the famous metaphor of Israel as an olive tree (e.g., Hosea 14:5-7) , but he shifts the focus.  Some of the branches have been broken off from the olive tree (Israel) so that branches from a wild olive tree (the Gentiles) might be grafted in.  Partly, he believes, this is to provoke Israel to jealousy:

Since then as I am an apostle to Gentiles, I glorify my ministry;  if by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh, and may save some of them (Romans 11:13-14).

There is a seeming contradiction here.  Paul says that some may be saved — and then says this:

that a partial hardening has happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in,  and so all Israel will be saved (Romans 11:25-26).

He resolves the seeming contradiction — the same conditions prevail for Jews and for Gentiles when it comes to salvation.  It is a gift of grace received through faith in Christ. There is no distinction.  Paul has established this at the very beginning of this letter:

 For I am not ashamed of the Good News of Christ, for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes; for the Jew first, and also for the Greek.  For in it is revealed God’s righteousness from faith to faith. As it is written, “But the righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17).

Salvation is not given because of genetics, nationality, or the righteousness of works.   

So, what does Paul mean when he writes the following to the Gentiles:

For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For as you in time past were disobedient to God, but now have obtained mercy by their disobedience,  even so these also have now been disobedient, that by the mercy shown to you they may also obtain mercy.  For God has shut up all to disobedience, that he might have mercy on all.

In keeping with what he has written in Romans 11:3-28, this is really a reminder to the Gentiles that they are included in the covenant as though they were latecomers to the party.  Because some of the natural branches of Israel have been broken off, the wild olive branches of the Gentiles have been grafted in.  God’s mercy is available to all who believe (cf. Romans 1:16 above).

The problematic part of this passage is his statement:

For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.

What does he mean?  He has already made it clear that faith is the one condition required to receive grace for both Jews and Gentiles.  Is he contradicting himself? Again, we must read the verses that immediately precede this sentence:

Concerning the Good News, they are enemies for your sake. But concerning the election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sake (Romans 11:28).

Israel was the vessel through whom God has chosen to tell the story of salvation history, and through whom the Messiah has come.  Israel has been and continues to be beloved by God.  That doesn’t change the fact that salvation is only through faith in Jesus Christ, whether one is Jew or Gentile.

APPLY:  

This passage presents us with several questions.  What is the relationship of Jews and Christians?  Is the election and the covenant that was established by God with Israel still in effect?

It is obvious that Paul loves his own people.  He identifies himself as a Jew until the very end.  And he holds out the hope that all Israel will be saved. Jesus is clearly the fulfillment of the promise of a Messiah that was made to Israel throughout the Hebrew Bible.

This should be an antidote to any crude “Christian” anti-Semitism.  Jesus was a Jew.  His disciples were Jews.  And more than two-thirds of our Bible is the Jewish Old Testament.  Oh, and all of the New Testament, with the exception of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, were written by Jews who followed Jesus. We cannot understand the coming of Christ without understanding the Old Testament.  There is no excuse for anti-Semitism.

There is, however, a concept called supersessionism that suggests that the Christian church has replaced Israel as the object of God’s promises, election and covenants. This view suggests that the church has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people, and the New Covenant of grace has superseded the Mosaic law.

This is a complicated and controversial debate that is far beyond my scope.  However, I would argue that the grounds of salvation have always been the same for Jew or Christian from the beginning.  Paul has taught us clearly that the righteousness of works cannot save any of us.  Only the righteousness of faith (cf. Romans 10:1-11).

Paul has previously given the example of Abraham — arguably the quintessential Hebrew patriarch.  And he has made it clear what the grounds of Abraham’s salvation were:

 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not toward God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness” (Romans 4:2-3).

And then Paul points out that all who have such faith are descendants of Abraham, which is the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations.  Paul takes this to mean not merely the biological children of Abraham — the Israelites, Ishmaelites, Midianites (among others).

No, the true descendants of Abraham are those who share his singular family trait — faith:  

For this cause it is of faith, that it may be according to grace, to the end that the promise may be sure to all the offspring,  not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.  As it is written, “I have made you a father of many nations” (Romans 4:16-17).

Paul never wavers from his insistence that salvation is a gift of grace received not through the law or works or genetics, but only through faith:

Therefore it also was “credited to him for righteousness.” Now it was not written that it was accounted to him for his sake alone,  but for our sake also, to whom it will be accounted, who believe in him who raised Jesus, our Lord, from the dead, who was delivered up for our trespasses, and was raised for our justification (Romans 4:22-25).

All who have this faith are children of Abraham and no longer strangers to the covenant (cf. Ephesians 2:11-22).

RESPOND: 

In one of the churches I served there was a retired circuit judge who was very active in church — attending worship regularly, as well as Bible studies and small groups.  He had not always been that way, but he shared that he had experienced a real and deep conversion while he was a practicing lawyer.

He was married to a Jewish woman.  They had met when they were both serving in the Army during World War II. After his conversion, he worried about her salvation.  But he found great relief when he read these words from Romans:

I ask then, did God reject his people? May it never be! For I also am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God didn’t reject his people, which he foreknew.

In this same chapter, the judge no doubt discovered the words:

all Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26).

This old judge felt that he had found a loophole that covered his wife.  As we have tried to explain above, it’s a little more complicated than that.

I have met many Jews in my life. Some are Messianic Jews who believe that Jesus (or Yeshua as they call him, according to the Hebrew language) is the Messiah.  Some  are Jews who are quite comfortable with their faith and traditions.  Some are secular Jews who aren’t particularly religious.  And I have become acquainted with some Jews who even came to my church and came very close to conversion — but declined to do so out of deference to their parents.  In one case in particular, the parents of one Jewish woman were survivors of the Nazi Holocaust.

Simone Weil was a Frenchwoman whose parents were Jewish agnostics.  She became a philosopher and mystic who reported an ecstatic spiritual encounter with Christ — and yet she was never baptized into the Christian faith.

How do we address the serious questions raised about God’s relationship with Israel and the Jews?  I plead ignorance — a Christian agnosticism (the word agnostic means to be without knowledge).  I just don’t know.  Like Paul, I pray for Israel and the Jews.  And I trust God’s mercy more than my own opinions.

Just to be clear, I restate my own conviction.  God doesn’t reject any of us; but we might reject God.

Lord, I trust your love for all people — certainly the people of the covenant, the Jews, but also every tribe, nation and people.  My prayer is that all people might be saved. Amen.

PHOTOS:

"Romans chapter 1 verse 1" uses the following graphic:
"rejected" by Vic is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Psalm Reading for August 20, 2017

START WITH SCRIPTURE:

Psalm 133

CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

This Psalm addresses the theme of unity within the family as a great blessing.  It is described as A Song of Ascents.  These were Psalms that were sung by pilgrims as they approached Jerusalem during the three great festivals of the Hebrew liturgical year.

This Psalm, attributed to King David, is also regarded as a wisdom Psalm. In the Hebrew Bible, Wisdom literature includes the Book of Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, part of Daniel, and several of the Psalms.  Wisdom literature is devoted to advice about how the wise man (or woman) can live well and succeed in harmony with God’s laws and wisdom.

The metaphors that are used  to illustrate this unity may seem both beautiful and perplexing to us. The precious oil poured out on Aaron’s head down his beard, and over his collar suggests a sense of abundance.  But is this reference to Aaron made because the High Priest in Israel is a symbol of the glue that holds the community together?  Is the religious ritual of the priestly role a bonding agent that creates this sense of unity?

It may be useful to note that not only is the precious oil considered useful in biblical culture for healing and cleansing, it is also used in anointing men for the roles of prophet, priest and king.

The other metaphor the Psalmist uses seems to evoke a sense of refreshment — the dew of Mt. Hermon, the highest mountain in the region between Syria and Israel at over 9,232 feet, would be cool, especially for someone climbing to such heights in a normally dry climate.  For the dew to fall on Mt. Zion, in the central Judean highlands, would suggest a refreshing blessing.

More significantly, though, the Psalmist maintains the sense of unity – Mt. Hermon, the northernmost point of Israel is identified with the geographical, religious and political center of Israel at Mt. Zion (aka Jerusalem).

The blessing that is bestowed is life forevermore.

David is the king of two kingdoms — Israel in the north and Judah in the south.  Mt. Hermon may represent the Northern Kingdom, and Mt. Zion may represent Judah.  No doubt David is celebrating the beauty of unity as a means of unifying these two kingdoms.

APPLY:  

Unity and harmony are indeed great blessings; but they are exceedingly rare in our polarized culture and world.  Not only are we divided by race, culture, politics — Christians are divided by doctrinal differences; and even within denominations we find serious divisions today.

On those rare occasions when we do find cause for unity, it indeed feels like abundance and refreshment.

We must find ways to focus on those things that unite us rather than divide us whenever possible. But even when we cannot agree, we must still ‘speak the truth in love’  (cf. Ephesians 4:15) without compromising our integrity.

RESPOND: 

I grew up as an Air Force brat, the son of an Air Force Chaplain.  I honestly didn’t realize that there were serious differences between Christian denominations until I became a serious Christian myself in my young adulthood.

I knew that there were “Protestants” and “Catholics” because we had two different chapel services.  But I also knew that the same space was used for worship by both groups — the same altar, and even the same cross.  Even more fascinating — on one side of the cross were the letters “IHS” (common on many Protestant crosses), and on the other side was the “Corpus Christi” (a representation of the body of Christ).  So it struck me very early that though we worshiped at different times, we still worshiped the same Lord.

My prayer is that we will continue to find unity in Christ as Christians from every denomination.

Lord, may we be united in our worship of you as our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

PHOTOS:

"DSC_0017: Behold how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity" by Ted is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.