Archive for the 'Galatians' Category

For Feb. 8, 2015: Absalom Jones

The Reading                                                                 Isaiah 61:1-4

The first part of the book of Isaiah pronounced God’s judgment on Israel for oppressing the poor: her kings were to be cut down and her people exiled in Babylon. Isaiah 61:1-4, fittingly for the commemoration of Absalom Jones, calls the despondent returnees to rebuild and restore shattered Jerusalem—and to rejoice in freedom.

The Response                                                               Psalm 137:1-6

Psalm 137 laments the exile in Babylon that Isaiah prophesied for Israel. The oppressors’ demand for songs and mirth has echoes in later history: slaves are often not even allowed the dignity of grief when that conflicts with their masters’ demand to be amused.

The Epistle                                                                    Galatians 5:1-5

By the third century BC, Celts or Gauls from western Europe have invaded and settled in the part of modern Turkey that is called Galatia. Can these gentiles follow Christ without undergoing circumcision? Paul’s answer is yes: Christ has freed us from bondage to the Law—and that means all of us.

The Gospel                                                                     John 15:12-15

John 15:12-15 is part of Jesus’ discourse leading up to the night of betrayal. We read verse 12 as a command to love, but the Greek conjunction ἴνα, which is translated ‘that’ here[1] and in John 13:34,[2] is more often translated ‘in order that’—in which case Jesus may be telling us to do as he does so that we may indeed love as he loves.

 

Further thoughts

Feb. 13 is the feast day of Absalom Jones, priest, in the Episcopal calendar. He was born in 1746 on the Wynkoop plantation in Sussex, Delaware. Too frail for the fields, he was a house slave. He bought a reading book with the pennies his owner’s guests gave him as tips and cadged reading lessons whenever possible. When Absalom was sixteen, his owner, Benjamin Wynkoop, decided to give up the plantation he had inherited for commerce; Wynkoop sold the rest of Absalom’s family and took Absalom to Philadelphia, which featured a growing community of freedmen and a Quaker community devoted to abolition. Absalom clerked in Wynkoop’s store by day and went to one of the Quakers’ black schools by night.

The first marriage of 1770 recorded at St Peter’s Anglican Church was of “Absalom (negro slave to Mr Wynkoop) and Mary (Do. to S. King)”;[3] both owners worshiped there. King agreed to manumit Mary—to sell her her freedom—and Absalom composed an appeal to the Quakers for loans and donations for the purchase, so their children would be freeborn. He worked from dawn till dark for Wynkoop, and till past midnight for wages in order to pay the debt. When the British occupied Philadelphia in 1777, Wynkoop left town with the other patriots; Absalom could have gained his freedom by working for the redcoats, but instead he kept the store going.[4] In 1778, Absalom and Mary paid off her debt and Absalom requested his own manumission. Wynkoop declined, and kept declining repeated requests until 1784. It should give any 21st-century Episcopalian pause to reflect that Wynkoop was a devout churchman, vestryman and warden of St Peter’s and Christ Church Philadelphia and a generous donor—of money earned by the toil of his slave and the sale of slave-produced goods such as molasses and rum.[5] When at last Absalom was manumitted and registered as a freedman, he and Mary took the surname Jones; he continued working for Wynkoop for wages.

Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, as lay preachers at St George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, increased the black membership by ten times; the vestry responded by adding a blacks-only balcony and, one Sunday in November 1786, a sexton interrupted Jones and others at prayer to drag them up to it. The group walked out of St George’s and never returned. Jones and Allen founded the Free African Society, a benevolent organization that gave rise to the African Church in 1792. When yellow fever swept Philadelphia in 1793, causing many whites to flee, Jones and Allen and their followers tirelessly nursed the sick irrespective of race. Allen went on to found the African Methodist Episcopal Church, but Jones and his followers turned to the Episcopal Church in 1794 and were accepted as the African Episcopal Church of St Thomas (though not without restrictions). Jones was ordained as a deacon in 1795 and as a priest in 1802. In 1808, and partly through his efforts in circulating petitions to Congress, he witnessed the end of the slave trade into the US, though not the end of slavery itself. He died on Feb. 13, 1818.

Absalom Jones undoubtedly knew Psalm 137 by heart, and its woes were much of his life. In his dignity, determination, courage, and love, however, he carried himself as a friend to God and humans and he demonstrated to whites who thought they knew what a slave was worth what a black man unfettered could do and be. At times captive, brokenhearted, and mourning, he nevertheless lived out the call of Isaiah 61:1-4 as proclaimer of liberty, oak of righteousness, and repairer of devastations. The Episcopal Church must be honest about the slaveholding in its past, and we are all called to recognize our own prejudices—but what better way to honor the memory of the Rev’d Absalom Jones than to follow in his footsteps to bless and liberate our brethren and the world, including ourselves?

 

[1] D. Mark Davis, “Commands To Love, Or Commands In Order To Love?” Left Behind and Loving It, http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2012/05/commands-to-love-or-commands-in-order.html, 7 May 2012. Accessed 4 February 2015.

[2] D. Mark Davis, “Commanding Love,” Left Behind and Loving It, http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2013/04/commanding-love.html, 23 April 2013. Accessed 4 February 2015.

[3] “Historical Documents: Absalom Jones’s Marriage to Mary,” Africans in America, Part 3, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3h93.html, no date. Accessed 7 February 2015.

[4] Nash, Gary B. “Becoming Free.” Chapter of Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840 (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988), p. 68. Accessed 6 February 2015.

[5] Safford, Timothy B. “Who Owned Absalom Jones?” Sermon, 13 February 2008. Web site of Christ Church Philadelphia, http://www.christchurchphila.org/Welcome-to-the-Christ-Church-Website/Who-We-Are/Sermons/Sermons/202/month–200802/vobid–678/. Accessed 7 February 2015.

For Dec. 29, 2013: 1 Christmas, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 61:10-62:3

Isaiah 61 was composed as God’s people returned from exile to find Jerusalem in ruins; life is hard. Even so, says the prophet, there is great good news: it is time to rejoice as one does at one’s wedding, for God’s vindication and salvation are on their way—and already here.

The Response            Psalm 147:13-21

The selection from Psalm 147 is a song of praise. It calls the people to worship and praise the Lord for making the front doors secure, protecting the weak, giving peace, providing rich harvests, controlling the natural order and the seasons, and announcing his word. Hallelujah!

The Epistle            Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

In the epistle, Paul writes to the church of Galatia—a part of Asia Minor populated by ethnic Celts—to explain the difference between life under the law and life in faith. Under the law we were like dependents with no legal standing. Then Jesus came to name us as immediate kin—and so to adopt us into God’s forever family.

The Gospel            John 1:1-18

On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Luke gave us the close-up view of the birth of Christ. On the first Sunday of Christmas season, John’s gospel begins with a wider perspective: Jesus the Light of the World comes into the world to give us power to become children of God, if we will take it.

Ponderables

A lectionary is a sequence of readings from the Bible for weekly or daily use. The Revised Common Lectionary or RCL is a three-year cycle of scripture readings for use at Sunday church services; Year A, which began on the first Sunday of Advent at the beginning of December, follows the gospel of Matthew, Year B the gospel of Mark, and Year C the gospel of Luke, with the gospel of John read on festival days and on Sundays in Pentecost Year B after the gospel of Mark is finished.

The RCL is “revised” in that the original version, based on and inspired by the three-year Roman Catholic lectionary that was published in 1969, was altered in 1996 from the version issued in 1983 by the North American Consultation for Common Texts. It is “common” in that it is in use at least to some extent in many Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Unitarian Universalist, UCC, and other churches. One advantage of the RCL is that having all these churches on the same page, so to speak, makes ecumenical services much easier.

The Episcopal Church began transitioning from the lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer to the Revised Common Lectionary in 2007. We retain the BCP usage on some specific Sundays, however. One of those is the first Sunday after Christmas; where the RCL has a distinct set of readings for each liturgical year, Episcopal usage specifies the same set for all three years. The readings bear repeating: it is good to follow Isaiah’s exultant outstretched arm pointing to the Light on the horizon, to repeat with the children of Israel a short litany of the Lord’s mercies, to hear with the Galatian aliens the great good news of our adoption, and to wonder with John at the great mystery of the Word of God made flesh of our flesh. Amen, hallelujah!

For June 30, 2013: Proper 8, Year C

The Reading            2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

We resume our review of the history of God’s people with the second book of Kings. Today’s reading tells how Elisha inherits the mantle—literally—of his adoptive father, the great prophet Elijah. Elisha requests a double share of Elijah’s spirit not from greed but because that is the proper share of the true heir. Elisha certainly needs it to serve as God’s voice to the kings of Israel and Judah, who as often as not turn their backs on God.

The Response            Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20 Page 693, BCP

“I will cry aloud to God; I will cry aloud, and he will hear me.”

The Epistle            Galatians 5:1,13-25

Some members of the church at Galatia argued that being circumcised and keeping the Jewish feasts meant that one could do whatever one wanted otherwise. In today’s Epistle reading, Paul argues forcefully to the contrary. It’s worth pointing out that, of the fifteen works of the flesh he cites, more than half are clear offenses against other people: that is, failures to love our neighbors as ourselves.

The Gospel            Luke 9:51-62

“They said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But he turned and rebuked them.”

 

Further thoughts

A common theme in all three of today’s reading is the connection between power and love.

The reading from 2 Kings omits the verses in which, at the stopping points in the journey of Elijah and Elisha, all the other prophets of Yahweh keep asking Elisha whether he knows that his master will be taken from him. One suspects that they dare not approach the powerful prophet Elijah himself, so instead they test his apprentice’s power. The relationship between Elijah and Elisha is not merely a master-apprentice relationship, however: Elijah has been Elisha’s father in all but the biological sense. It is the love between them that gives Elisha the power to stay with Elijah in spite of being told he may leave, to the very end; one senses also that Elisha’s stubborn love is a greater comfort to Elijah on his final journey than the great man would like to let on; and it may well be as much a sense of loss more than anything else that impels Elisha to make the first test of the power that he has inherited.

The passage from Galatians is less symbolic. Paul explains—perhaps with some exasperation—that the salvation of God confers power, but not the power to do whatever one darned well pleases irrespective of the effects on others: it is instead the power in others’ lives that one gains without seeking it through reliably acting in love, and it is the power of each exercise of love to heal and hallow the worn and aching hearts in this worn and aching world.

Jesus underlines the point by living it. His followers must not throw their weight around, nor have they leave to expect wealth, renown, acceptance, or even a place to stay that isn’t someone else’s to give. Ours are not to be the lives in which the loose ends are neatly tied up and under our control. Instead, Jesus tells us, we should prepare to give our love and even ourselves for the sake of restoring God’s justice and mercy for all souls.

For June 16, 2013: Proper 6, Year C

The Reading            1 Kings 21:1-10, 15-21a

The first and second books of Kings tell the stories of the rulers of Israel and the prophets during their reigns. In today’s reading from the first book, notorious King Ahab pouts because he wants land he does not own; Jezebel, his even more notorious wife, arranges for the land’s owner to be executed under trumped-up charges. It falls to the prophet Elijah to confront Ahab about his wrongdoing.

 The Response            Psalm 5:1-8

The Epistle            Galatians 2:15-21

As the second chapter of the book of Galatians opens, Paul defends his call to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. He makes a narrow point and a wider one. The first point, made in verses that we are not reading today, is that the circumcised and the uncircumcised are to share the good news together. This leads to his second point, which we read today: what justifies us with God is nothing whatever that we do.

The Gospel            Luke 7:36-8:3

“‘…her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.’”

 

 Further thoughts

Today’s readings present somewhat unappetizing views of righteousness. The psalmist tells us that God shuns the bloodthirsty and protects the righteous, but righteous Naboth is publicly humiliated and killed on trumped-up charges just so Ahab can take his land for a vegetable garden. Super-righteous Paul tells us just how far his super-righteouness goes in buying him justification with God: absolutely nowhere. Jesus’ host clearly believes he has done two extraordinarily generous and superior things in inviting this controversial itinerant preacher to dinner and in not making a public issue of Jesus’ gaucherie in allowing a “sinful woman” to touch him, and then Jesus sets him straight on, among other things, Simon’s unfortunate lapse from the standards for hospitality.

It is hard not to cheer when grasping Ahab and Jezebel finally reap what they have sown, and it may be even harder (because the consequences are less) not to feel satisfaction at Simon getting taken down a peg. This may not be altogether inappropriate: as we will see in the course of the summer’s lectionary readings, justice and equity are very much on the mind of God and so they ought to be on ours.

It is sobering, though, to realize just what Jesus has to say about that nameless woman: she loves extravagantly not because she is good or gifted but because she has been forgiven extravagantly.

What might the world look like if we forgave like that?

For June 9, 2013: Proper 5, Year C

The Reading            1 Kings 17:8-24

The first and second books of Kings tell the stories of the rulers of Israel, most of whom are not very faithful to God, and the prophets in those times, most of whom are faithful and often suffer for it. In today’s reading, the prophet Elijah goes outside of Israel and imposes on a widow who has fallen on very hard times that then get worse. Through his faithfulness and his compassion, God’s servant works a miracle.

Lection 1 pronunciation notes: “Zarephath” is ZARE-uh-fath; “Sidon” is SIGH-don

The Response            Psalm 146

“Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them.”

The Epistle            Galatians 1:11-24

The church at Galatia was a mix of Gentiles and converted Jews; this could cause friction when the Jews expected the Gentiles to follow Judaic practice. In today’s reading, the apostle Paul sets out his biography for the Galatians with the goal of establishing both his background as a really good Jew and the insignificance of his background when it comes to salvation, which is strictly God’s to give.

Lection 2 pronunciation notes: “Galatia” is gah-LAY-shah; “zealous” is ZELL-us; “Cephas” is SEE-fuss; “Cilicia” is sill-ISH-uh

The Gospel            Luke 7:11-17

“When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’”

Further thoughts

A thread that binds today’s readings together is of things not going according to plan.

The mourners in Nain know exactly where they are going and why and what will happen afterward: their friend and relative has died, so it is their duty to go get him properly buried, and then his mother is going to be destitute because that’s the way the world works. But other plans are in God’s works, and a fairly standard funeral procession turns into a unique celebration.

Saul of Tarsus knows exactly where he is going and why and what will happen afterward: he is going to save God’s people from the threat posed by people who keep preaching Jesus in spite of persecution; he will be a good guy in God’s eyes and a hero to Israel, because that’s the way the world should work. But other plans are in God’s works; the persecutor is turned around by the grace of God, and the proof that this is from God is that, though the message of grace is largely the same, Paul has absolutely not learned it from any human.

The widow of Zarephath knows exactly what she is doing and where it will end: she has no hope of protecting her son from dying of starvation, because that’s the way the world works, but she can at least feed him one last time before they starve together. But other plans are in God’s works, so the prophet from Israel says, and indeed he and they eat and live.

Elijah himself might be less certain. Zarephath, the first reading tells us, “belongs to Sidon”: it is not Israelite territory, and one senses that Elijah goes there only under orders. There, what he has heard from God comes to pass. So far, so good—but suddenly his hostess’s son sickens and dies. This is not in the script! Elijah seems in shock. He cries out at the injustice, then he does whatever comes into his head, and then he implores God… and, miraculously, the boy begins to breathe again, and grief and anger and self-blame give way to wonder.

That is precisely the message of Paul. Though my frailties and my losses bear down on me like the hand of grief on the mourners of Nain, like the hand of hunger on the widow of Zarephath, Jesus the merciful is ready to stop the bier with a touch, not because I deserve it but simply because, wherever I go and with whatever plans, I cannot help but be his.

For June 2, 2013: Proper 4, Year C

The Reading            1 Kings 18:20-21, 30-39

This summer’s Old Testament readings begin with Israel’s history after David and Solomon. When later kings strayed from God’s way, God sent mighty prophets to get them back on track. As today’s reading opens, Elijah has challenged the priests of Baal to a competition before God’s people to see whose God is great enough to send down fire on a sacrifice. The priests’ entreaties and self-mutilation fail to produce so much as a spark. Then, before he takes his turn, Elijah has the wood and the sacrifice drenched. Now watch the fireworks!

The Response            Psalm 96

“Tell it out among the nations: ‘The Lord is king!… He will judge the peoples with equity.’”

The Epistle            Galatians 1:1-12

For centuries before and after Jesus, the plain of Anatolia in modern Turkey was part of the Greek-speaking world. In the third century BC, several tribes of Gauls or Celts from Europe conquered the central region that came to be called Galatia after them. These Galatians were among Paul’s first and most enthusiastic converts to the gospel of grace—but the beginning of the letter to the Galatians, which we read today, suggests their susceptibility to other influences with which Paul is not at all pleased.

The Gospel            Luke 7:1-10

“‘For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes.’”

 

Further thoughts

Today’s readings tell of speaking with authority, and of three responses.

In the material left out of the Old Testament reading, the priests of Baal seek to make their god set the sacrifice afire by screaming and crying for hours and gashing themselves till the blood flows. Their god doesn’t come through, and Elijah mocks them. The Lord of Israel, however, sends down fire at Elijah’s request. This vividly establishes Elijah’s authority, and reinforces God’s, in the eyes of the assembled people of Israel. I am one of the people of Israel: given a sign, I cry, “The Lord indeed is God!”—but so often I then go away wondering how to make a sign happen again, and wondering what’s wrong when it doesn’t. Sometimes I am also a priest of Baal, desperate to make God do our bidding because, well, don’t I deserve it? (Well, no: I don’t.)

The epistle may be one of Paul’s very earliest. The people of Galatia, neighbors but not kin to Paul’s native city of Tarsus, are thoroughly and Celtically enraptured by the word that salvation is in reach for them, too. In their zeal to follow Christ really well, however, they then buy the line that grace depends on this discipline or that practice, first. Paul is having none of it: as he puts it, even were an angel to announce such preconditions, that’s not the gospel. But I am such a Galatian: captivated by the gift, yet simultaneously looking for the strings that, in my human experience, are surely attached and therefore must and should be pulled.

What of the centurion? He, the outsider or the sell-out—we don’t know whether he was sent from Rome or recruited locally—should have been the one to stand on rank, the one to order a a platoon out for Jesus, the one to grasp and yank any string within reach. Instead, he cares for his servant; he is friends with the Jewish elders, who are willing to go for this Roman outsider to Jesus the Galilean outsider; and finally it is he who recognizes in Jesus the authority of One who will not be forced but who is ready when asked to do the unimaginable. I am not the centurion: it is beyond my grasp—except, of course, through God’s grace.

For Dec. 30, 2012: 1 Christmas, Year C

The Reading            Isaiah 61:10-62:3

The late chapters of the book of Isaiah were written probably around the middle of the fifth century BC for people returned to Israel from exile in Babylon to a Jerusalem still in ruins. Despite the difficulties, Isaiah rejoices that God’s vindication and salvation are already and at the same time are yet to come. Isaiah’s message is for each generation—including ours: let us not rest until salvation comes, but let us also exult, for Christ is born!

The Response            Psalm 147:13-21

The Epistle            Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

Within the Christian community that Paul planted at Galatia, in modern Turkey, were some who insisted that non-Jews were obliged to convert to Judaism and observe Mosaic law before they could convert to Christianity.  Paul, though himself perhaps the best Jew ever, has no use for that position: Christ having redeemed us, all of us are no longer slaves under the old law but children of God the Father.

The Gospel            John 1:1-18

 

Further thoughts

The month of January is named for Janus, the Roman god of doors and gates and of beginnings and transitions. Janus had two faces, for doors look both in and out, and beginnings and transitions are also endings in their way. The Christian in this world is in something of the position of Janus.

We look in one direction at the world that is, the world that came into being through the true Light but that does not recognize its creator and king in Jesus. We see a world in which justice miscarries, a world in which light seems lacking, a world in which the vindication and glory of Isaiah’s prophecy seems very far off indeed, a world in which, as the psalmist claims, the real God is only for Israel and the circumcision that marks God’s covenant is reserved only for men, a world in which the name “Christian” is smirched, to our shame, by association with historical and present abuses that we would love to disown but cannot honestly deny. We see our lives moving inexorably toward the end; as the gates close on our hopes and dreams, it can be hard not to despair.

At the same time, however, we look forward: forward to the vindication and righteousness that, Isaiah promises, Jerusalem will represent to all people—and already does, in God’s time and in God’s eyes. We look forward with Paul to God redeeming and adopting us—as God already has, in God’s time and in God’s eyes, for how else should we dare even to want to call God “Daddy!” We look forward to the Light of the World, Jesus, from whose unfathomable and eternal goodness we will receive grace upon grace—and already have. For, as John says, the light is already in the world—and, deep though the darkness may be, it is still the light that prevails.

O come, let us adore him!