Archive for the '1 Corinthians' Category

For Jan. 18, 2015: 2 Epiphany, Year B

The Reading                                                      1 Samuel 3:1-10

Priests in Israel were priests’ sons, except for Samuel. The son of a woman who had been barren for decades, he was dedicated to the service of God. In the verses after this reading, the Lord tells Samuel of the disaster in store for Eli and his proud, devious sons. Samuel himself goes on to be a mighty prophet and anointer of kings.

The Response                                                    Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17

Eli’s sons chose to sin and flout the Law because they assumed the Lord would not notice. Psalm 139 states a different case very clearly: the Lord knows where we go, what we say, even what we think, from before our birth—and, even when we sin, we are still marvelously made and wondrous works of the Lord.

The Epistle                                                          1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Though Samuel was not a priest’s son, his grateful mother consecrated him to God. The life and death of Jesus free us from the Law—but, as 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 points out, each of us is consecrated to God as God’s temple, and so we are not free to do just whatever we want to.

The Gospel                                                           John 1:43-51

In John’s gospel, once Jesus is baptized he seeks followers. Nathanael, initially skeptical, seems won over by Jesus’ use of scripture: “no deceit” favorably compares Nathanael to the trickster Jacob (Genesis 27), later renamed Israel, and the predicted vision of angels echoes Jacob’s dream at Bethel (Genesis 28:12).

 

Further thoughts

As the lections for the second Sunday after the Epiphany make clear, we are known and sought out by the Lord—but we all have choices to make, and even making the right ones cannot protect us from grief.

In the Old Testament, the boy Samuel hears the call of God and becomes a true prophet who anoints kings. But he grows up sundered from his own mother, his counsel to Israel is spurned, and he mourns the failure of the first king he anoints. In the gospel of John, Nathanael is blessed to be first to proclaim Jesus the Son of God, but later he is a horrified and secretive witness as the Son of God dies on the cross. In 1 Corinthians, Paul argues that Christians freed from sin are not Christians free to sin, for we are the Spirit’s temple; yet he frames his point in terms of men’s sexual purity and the baseness of the very body that the Lord so wonderfully made (Psalm 139:13), and the Body of Christ has dealt ambivalently with the human body ever since.

As I write, the bishop suffragan (successor to the current bishop) of the Episcopal Church in the diocese of Maryland has been charged with vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence of alcohol, among other offenses. Because of choices she made on December 27, a man is dead and Facebook is aflame with allegations that Christians in general and Episcopalians in particular are hypocrites who mean to sweep the bishop’s misdeeds under the rug by wielding the magic broom of Jesus’ forgiveness.

The allegation that sticks here is that Christians are hypocrites. We are, for we are humans—humans who can make very bad choices, humans who sort each other into Them and Us and shame Them for the evil we fear in ourselves, humans who can then feel so terrified of that shame that we dare not reach for the hand of help. I write this not to accuse but as another such hypocrite.

Heather Cook’s choices remain her choices, mortal consequences and all: the grace of the Cross will not restore Tom Palermo in this life to his widow and orphans, and neither should it exempt Heather Cook from time in jail. I believe both propositions as surely as I believe that it is not at God’s bidding that anyone drives drunk.

That bad choices can be made to seem less attractive, and that even bad choices can be redeemed, is another matter—and the path to redemption, shadows and all, is best lit by the love that knows all frailties and loves not the less. What if it is each Christian’s proper task to follow Christ in being a stairway by which heaven opens and the love of God pours into this world?

For Nov. 30, 2014: 1 Advent, Year B

The Reading                                                   Isaiah 64:1-9

We launch the season of Advent, and with it Year B, with a reading from the predominantly hopeful third part of Isaiah that is penitential and a bit apocalyptic. All of us for whom Isaiah speaks are the authors of our own disasters and about as righteous as used toilet paper(verse 6)—but yet all of us are the work of God’s hand.

The Response                                                 Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

Isaiah’s theme is continued in Psalm 80. Prayers notwithstanding, God’s people are suffering: they eat and drink tears by the bowlful and are the scorn of their neighbors. They ask God, “Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand.” Christians often view this as a prophecy of Jesus. But what if it is a call to us?

The Epistle                                                      1 Corinthians 1:3-9

The Christians of Corinth, a bustling Greco-Roman seaport, were well off by Christian standards, but Jewish and Gentile converts were at odds. Paul opens his first letter to them with gratitude for their learning and speaking but striking silence on the topic for which he praises other churches: love for one another.

The Gospel                                                       Mark 13:24-37

Mark 13 is Jesus’ long answer when four disciples ask him privately how they will know when the Messiah is coming. Jesus tells them to look for the signs, as one gauges from the fig tree’s leaves when summer is coming, but he adds that only the Father knows just when that will be.

 

Further thoughts

These “further thoughts” are normally confined to matters of theology. The current unrest in Ferguson, MO and elsewhere over a grand jury’s refusal to recommend that the shooting of Michael Brown come to trial, however, demands comment, the more so in light of the lectionary texts for this first Sunday in Lent, Year B.

As I write, it is the second day after the prosecutor’s announcement. News reports indicate that last night was calmer than the night before; it is good if the ashes in Ferguson and other cities are beginning to cool, both for the sake of the business owners and residents who suffer damage and injury and in the interest of toning down the chorus of gibes to the effect that, well, one really can’t expect any better behavior from… them. But I can’t help fearing that the settling ashes will once again be allowed to obscure and bury a discussion that this nation must have. The issue is that hundreds of thousands of mothers live in fear that theirs will be the boy who doesn’t come home tonight because he’s been shot by a cop. This fear has been given searing voice by a teacher friend of mine; her son is a senior at Army-Navy Academy in Carlsbad and a standout wide receiver in football, which means he’s a little more lightly built than Michael Brown but still a pretty big guy, and he’s black. She is nauseated with fear that he’ll die of reaching too fast for his ID. And she’s not alone.

That this fear exists and is pervasive must be confronted and dealt with, whatever one believes about who was right in Ferguson. If it is not, I fear that in the future of this nation are Psalm 80:5’s “bowls of tears” for all of us to drink. I fear Isaiah 64:7’s chilling prophecy that, far from falling to outside enemies, we are instead bound to be “delivered into the hands of our iniquity.”

What if our listening to the anguish of Ferguson is the sound of the Lord God tearing open heaven to come down and bring righteousness?

For April 17, 2014: Maundy Thursday

The Reading            Exodus 12:1-14

Exodus 12:1-14 gives instruction for a ritual meal—but unlike most ritual meals, it is to be eaten in haste by people who stand with one foot out the door ready to flee, and the blood from the lamb that is slain for the meal will mark the households to be spared when God executes judgment.

The Response            Psalm 116:1, 10-17

Psalm 116:1, 10-17 gives thanks to the Lord for help, good things, and deliverance from bondage. “The cup of salvation” could be one of the four cups of the Seder or Passover feast; it could also be a symbol of the abundance of blessing.

The Epistle            1 Corinthians 11:23-26

The epistle written to the Jewish and Gentile church at Corinth passes on the words of Jesus at the first Last Supper: remember whenever you eat and drink, for the everyday stuff of bread and wine are the slain Lamb and God’s new promise of unconditional salvation.

The Gospel            John 13:1-17, 31b-35

En route to being betrayed to his own death, Jesus teaches us the truest way to be God: love and serve.

For Feb. 23, 2014: 7 Epiphany, Year A

The Reading                                                            Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Priests in Israel were Levites (that is, of the tribe of Levi), and the book of Leviticus begins by discussing the priests and their duties. Chapters 18 through 20 are called the “Holiness Code”; they lay out how all the people who are God’s are supposed to behave, and can make for uncomfortable reading.

The Response                                    Psalm 119:33-40

We continue reading from Psalm 119. This is the fifth stanza, called the heh section because in Hebrew each verse in it begins with the letter ה (heh). The psalmist prays to understand and follow the Law.

The Epistle                                                  1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23

The verses from Leviticus called us to be holy as God is holy. Paul tells us that we already are holy, for in this world God’s temple or dwelling place is in fact each of us—each one on the planet. What is more, we belong to each other: contrary to worldly wisdom, grasping for more will not make me better.

The Gospel                                                                  Matthew 5:38-48

As Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount continues, Jesus paraphrases Leviticus twice—extending it outward beyond our neighbor and calling us to love all as God loves. The difficult word perfect translates the Greek telios ‘complete’: the last verse might be rendered “Be as completely like God as you can be.”

 

Ponderables

Jesus misquoted Leviticus—with the goal of helping us to read Leviticus right.

The first quote, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”—alluding to Leviticus 24:19-21—is literally correct but subject to misappropriation. We quote it to justify what we feel we deserve from those who hurt us; we assume it assigns the minimum level of recompense that we are entitled to. In context, however, the verse specifies a maximum and so is not a spur to the human thirst for revenge but a curb. Jesus then goes even farther. If I truly follow Jesus, I should not be looking to get my own back, and I am not entitled to assume that other people intend to hurt or diminish me.

The second quote is a riff on Leviticus 19:18—but that verse does not counsel us to hate our enemies. In fact, the Leviticus reading specifies ways in which we are to deal lovingly with the poor, aliens, and people in our power. Jesus’ version reflects not what Leviticus says but where human wisdom—the human wisdom that Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians—tends to take it. Then Jesus blows our interpretation apart. He tells us that our God loves everyone enough to send good things not just to those who, according to the world, deserve them, but also to those who don’t.

What if we all really gave as good as we have gotten?

For Feb. 16, 2014: 6 Epiphany, Year A

The Reading                                                      Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20

The book of Ecclesiasticus or Sirach was probably written in the second century BC, by a Hellenistic Jewish scribe who wrote not just for Jews but also for Greeks seeking answers about life and faith and God. Though this is one of the Apocrypha—the books outside the Hebrew Bible, the Torah—we in the Anglican Communion believe it to be well worth studying.

The Response                                          Psalm 119:1-8

We begin reading from Psalm 119, the longest psalm of the Bible with 22 stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This first stanza could have inspired the reading from Ecclesiasticus, with its praise of the consequences of choosing to follow God’s law.

The Epistle                                                               1 Corinthians 3:1-9

The writer of Ecclesiasticus told us that it is up to us to choose to do what is right. The Epistle continues to point out ways in which the community at Corinth is falling short of what God wants: it matters much less who gets credit for this or that ministry than that the will of God for the growth and salvation of all of us be done.

The Gospel                                                                    Matthew 5:21-37

Jesus announced in the Sermon on the Mount last week (Matthew 5:17) that he came not to abolish but to fulfill the Law of Moses. Now he extends the law: to be his, it is not enough to refrain from killing, adultery, or swearing falsely. Whatever we do to treat others as inferiors or objects for our gratification is wrong.

 

Ponderables

As Epiphany season continues, its themes turn from the revelation of God entering our world to the revelation that the Kingdom of God is within us, messy humans that we are. Ecclesiasticus poses this in terms of a stark choice—fire or water, death or life—that does lies in our own hands, and the psalm praises the happiness of those who choose life through obedience to the Law. Paul takes a different tack to arrive at a similar destination: we cannot earn salvation through obeying the Law, but we do have choices in how we respond to the great gift of grace—and, tellingly, in how we extend grace to others.

As Jesus says, he comes not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. In the gospel for 6 Epiphany he explains: the commandments prohibit murder, adultery, and other specific major offenses, but the point of them is for us to stand in love against anything or anyone that demeans or objectifies and estranges another human being. The prescription to cut off body parts sounds ghoulish to Western ears, but in Semitic society it was a very serious matter: one ate with one’s right hand only, so the effect of having that hand cut off was to disqualify one permanently from polite society. This difficult prescription is usually taken as hyperbole, but what if it is instead irony? What if we are the Kingdom of God, and we’re called to do our utmost to stand in love against alienation, both by those who estrange others—and by those who estrange themselves?

For Feb. 9, 2014: 5 Epiphany, Year A

The Reading                                                        Isaiah 58:1-9a

When the people of Jacob—the inhabitants of Judah and Israel—return from exile in Babylon, they wonder why their fasting and self-punishment seems not to impress the Lord. Isaiah pulls no punches: the best sacrifice is to feed and heal and free God’s afflicted children.

The Response                                          Psalm 112:1-9

Psalm 112:1-9 praises those who fear the Lord: they will be mighty, merciful and full of compassion, generous, and just. For such upright people and through them, light will shine.

The Epistle                                                              1 Corinthians 2:1-12

In the Roman world, one function of education was to produce powerful, persuasive orators. The people of Corinth expected great speech from the apostle Paul, but were disappointed. Here Paul explains: human wisdom sheds little light on either God’s wisdom or the astonishing depth of God’s desire that we be saved.

The Gospel                                                                   Matthew 5:13-20

The gospel for the fifth Sunday in Epiphany picks up the Sermon on the Mount just after the Beatitudes. In today’s world, salt can be bought at the 99-cent store and getting light is as easy as flipping a switch, but in Jesus’ time both salt and light were precious and often difficult to obtain.

Ponderables

The readings for the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany pose a classic chicken-and-egg conundrum of the faith: whether righteousness comes from doing good or doing good comes of being righteous.

On the one hand, Isaiah enlightens the Israelites returning from Babylon as to why God appears not to pay proper respect to their fasting and sackcloth and ashes: they are doing it for show and to get blessing and healing for themselves. Only if they bless and heal the poor and the marginalized will they receive God’s light and vindication. Similarly, the psalmist notes, only those who do good will get wealth and light and honor and remembrance in death. (It is worth noting that, by Isaiah’s time, the notion that there might be life after death did not yet figure in Jewish theology: being remembered was the best one could hope for.) In this context, Jesus’ observation that getting into heaven takes more righteousness than even the doggedly righteous scribes and Pharisees can muster is disturbing (and sometimes being disturbed is good for us).

On the other hand, Jesus tells the crowd—and us—not that they should become the salt of the earth and the light of the world, but that we already are. This coheres with the idea that the passage from 1 Corinthians develops: our righteousness is God’s doing rather than ours. Then Jesus instructs us to let the light that we already are shine by doing good things. And we all know that habits, good and bad, are self-reinforcing.

Almost six hundred years ago, Martin Luther weighed in on the side of sola fide—‘only by faith’. But many of us find that the light that we shed, and the good that we’re willing to expect of others, has a bearing on the light that we’re able to receive. So what if, with righteousness received, the answer is “both”? And how do we make room for everyone’s light to shine?

For Jan. 26, 2014: 3 Epiphany, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 9:1-4

The regions of ancient Israel were named for the In the eighth century BC, when Israel has been conquered and Judah threatened by the Assyrian empire, things are dark for the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, which is to say the offspring of Jacob, in the north—but, says Isaiah, light and joy and victory are coming!

The Response            Psalm 27:1, 5-13

Psalm 27:1, 5-13 celebrates the greatness and mercy of the Lord in terms that remind us of the reading from Isaiah: we have faith not because evil cannot come near us, but because God is with us when it comes.

The Epistle            1 Corinthians 1:10-18

The church at Corinth probably counted no more than a few dozen, but Paul’s first letter makes clear that the members had fallen into factions, claiming bragging rights based on whether they’d been baptized by Paul or Apollos or Cephas (whom we know as Peter). Paul lets them know just how badly this misses the point.

The Gospel            Matthew 4:12-23

As his public ministry begins, Jesus relocates from Nazareth, then a small hamlet in the mountains, to Capernaum on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee; Matthew paraphrases Isaiah’s prophecy about this. Jesus then calls ordinary people from their ordinary lives to share in his ministry.

 

Ponderables

Common threads in the readings for the third Sunday in Epiphany are light and darkness—and fishing. The great light of Isaiah’s prophecy is reflected in the first verse of Psalm 27, in Paul’s resonant affirmation of the Good News, and in Matthew paraphrasing Isaiah’s prophecy to identify Jesus as its fulfillment. But there is also darkness: Isaiah speaks in very bad times, the psalmist foresees trouble in spite of and perhaps even because of being God’s instrument, the church at Corinth is rent with faction and backbiting, and Jesus’ calling wrenches the fishermen away from sacred obligations and the roles that give people identity.

What it is that Jesus is using as bait, to pull those fishermen in so fast? Surely not triumph or accomplishment: fisherfolk know that a good haul today means mending nets so you can try to tear them all over again tomorrow. Surely not an easy life with no conflict: the psalmist looking into the future knows better, and if the Corinthians, despite mentoring by The Apostle Paul His Ownself, feel the tug of faction and carping, then we two millennia later shouldn’t be surprised.

Could it have been love? The love that is brave enough both to tell the truth with grace and to hear it with humility? The love that checks the very human impulse to leap from divergence to disagreement to argument to faction? The love that makes all God’s children more welcome than our fear makes us strangers?

What if we all made that love our bait, and went fishing?