Archive for the 'John' 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 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 Dec. 25, 2014: Christmas Day (Christmas III)

The Reading                                                           Isaiah 52:7-10

Addressing ruined Jerusalem, the prophet Isaiah shows us the sentinels of Zion singing the good news of the Lord returning to redeem his people—all his people, to the ends of the earth. To the ends of the earth let us also repeat the sounding joy of Christmas, and live into it.

The Response                                                         Psalm 98

Isaiah 52:7-10 celebrates the Lord’s return to Zion and the salvation of God’s people. Psalm 98 resounds in response: the Lord has done astounding things, and the Lord’s victory is so obvious to all the earth that the very rivers and hills cry out for joy.

The Epistle                                                             Hebrews 1:1-12

The letter to the Hebrews, written to the church in Jerusalem, addresses Paul’s fellow Jews. To explain exactly who and what Jesus is, Paul cites Old Testament scriptures the Jews would know well. These scriptures refer to Jesus, the Son of God and the very being of God, who will remain after heaven and earth are gone.

The Gospel                                                              John 1:1-14

The word “gospel” comes from Old English gōd spell ‘good news’. The first fourteen verses of the gospel of John indeed tell good news: beginning at verse 10, “he”—Jesus—is come to help us become children of light, of grace, of truth, of God.

 

Further thoughts

Jim Mathes, the Episcopal bishop of San Diego, reports in his blog that, though he has been a lifelong fan, he has chosen to stop watching football as a witness against the violence of our culture.[1] I think it can also be argued that football epitomizes our human insistence on sorting people tidily into categories that amount to “winners” and “losers”, “good guys” and “bad guys”, “Us” and “Them”. as either winners or losers, and we extend this even in circumstances that don’t seem much like competitions. How readily we disparage losers! How readily we perceive disrespect on the part of others and move to “get our own back”! That this is true of human nature in general is surely an important lesson of the Bible, from the murder of Abel onward. Furthermore, we easily fall into projecting onto God our own eagerness to see winners rewarded, losers punished, and disrespect prosecuted to the fullest extent of the Law.

The lections for Christmas Day suggest that what we project onto God may not represent God very accurately. Psalm 98 celebrates the Lord’s victory, but without identifying a loser, and the psalmist emphasizes that the Lord judges all peoples with equity—that is, with an eye toward the special circumstances of each. Isaiah proclaims the Lord’s return, but what the Lord brings in Isaiah 52:7-10 is not retribution but redemption and comfort. More to the point, Hebrews 1:3 emphasizes that the Son, Jesus, is “the exact imprint of God’s very being”, and, if what God the Son brings us, according to John 1:1-14, is life, light, grace, and truth, it follows that God’s own self is life, light, grace, and truth—and such a God may be not nearly as ready to categorize either my enemies or me as I am myself. Such a God takes on the frail flesh of a baby. Such a God hangs on the cross with arms open to all peoples, to show us that what it takes to break the cycle of retributive violence is, when offered violence in deed or even in word, to refuse to offer violence in response.

That, it seems, is how to live into the call to join Jesus as another-child-of-God of life, light, grace, and truth, it follows that I am called to do as he did in a dark world. How astonishing, and how much the point of Christmas!

 

[1] Mathes, Jim, “Bearing Witness to Our Culture of Violence,” Where SunDays Are Better than Others, Episcopal Diocese of San Diego Web site, 18 December 2014. http://www.edsd.org/where-sundays-are-better-than-others/bearing-witness-to-our-culture-of-violence-fourth-witness/#.VJmQoAAA. Accessed 23 December 2014.

For Sept. 28, 2014: St Michael and All Angels

The Reading            Genesis 28:10-17

The readings for the feast of St Michael and All Angels are full of angels. In Genesis, Jacob the conniver, fleeing from the brother he has fleeced, stops for the night far from what he thinks of as God’s country. Even here, however, and despite his guile, the Lord finds him and has plans for him.

The Response            Psalm 103:19-22

Psalm 103:19-22 calls on all creation to bless the Lord: the angels who do as the Lord orders, the hosts of heaven who minister, all the works of the Lord, and finally the psalmist’s own God-created soul.

The Epistle            Revelation 12:7-12

In Revelation 12:7-12, forces let by the mighty archangel Michael throw Satan and his angels out of heaven. That the infuriated devil is en route is bad news for earth and sea, but his time is short and we are not defenseless.

The Gospel            John 1:47-51

John 1:47-51 alludes to Genesis 28:10-17, the Old Testament reading. Nathanael, unlike Jacob, is no deceiver—in fact, he may be gullible in proclaiming Jesus the Son of God just because Jesus noticed him under the fig tree—but, like Jacob, Nathanael and we will see angels at work bringing heaven to earth, by way of Jesus.

 

Further thoughts

The Bible mentions angels about 270 times, including the mentions in the Michaelmas readings. The Anglican tradition recognizes four named archangels: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel.

Michael (Hebrew mi-cha-’el ‘who (is) like God?’) is named in the book of Daniel; as the warrior angel of Revelation he is the patron of military members and mariners and, since his late-fall feast day coincides with harvest, of grocers. British banks still call the last quarter of the calendar year the Michaelmas quarter.

Gabriel (gabri-’el ‘my strength (is/be) God’) is named in the book of Daniel and in the deuterocanonical book of Enoch. Identified with the angel of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, he is the patron saint of postal workers, broadcasters and other communications workers, the clergy, and stamp collectors.

Raphael (rafa-’el ‘my healer (is/be) God’) appears in the deuterocanonical book of Tobit as the guide and healer of Tobit’s son Tobias, and by tradition he is the angel who stirs the pool of healing waters in John 5:7. He is the patron saint of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, lovers, travelers, and nightmares.

Uriel (uri-’el ‘my light (is/be) God’) is named in the deuterocanonical books of Enoch and 2 Esdras, in the latter as the instructor of the prophet Ezra. He is the patron saint of the rite of Confirmation and of poetry.

The word angel is from Greek ἄγγελος or ángelos, which translates the Hebrew word mal’akh ‘messenger or agent’; in biblical times both words refer to either human or heavenly beings. St Jerome’s fourth-century Vulgate Bible first reserves angelus for divine messengers and nuntius or legatus ‘delegate, emissary’ for humans.

In today’s world, evidence of angelic intervention seems rare—but our brothers and sisters at home and abroad cry out for the protection, truth, healing, and light that Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel have represented. What if that means that the angels of the 21st century are you and me?

For June 8, 2014: Pentecost, Year A

The Reading            Numbers 11:24-30

The book of Numbers tells of the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness. As the current reading opens, Moses has cried out for help in dealing with the people’s complaints, and the Lord has commanded him to gather seventy elders to manage things. Then something Pentecost-like happens.

The Response            Psalm 104:25-35, 37

Psalm 104 celebrates the power of the Lord, who has only to look at the earth to make it tremble—but it also celebrates the wisdom of the Lord in creating and sustaining quite simply all that there is.

The Second Lesson            Acts 2:1-21

The name Pentecost comes from the phrase pentekoste hemera ‘fiftieth day’, by which Greek-speaking Jews like Luke referred to the feast of Shavuot or First Fruits fifty days after Passover. As Luke tells it, all the nationalities converging on Jerusalem to be Israelite for this Shavuot experience mind-bending phenomena.

The Gospel            John 20:19-23

The Gospel reading takes us back to the evening of the Resurrection. The disciples have heard rumors but can’t entirely believe them—and then, quite unexpectedly, Jesus appears alive among them.

 

Ponderables

The readings for Pentecost all bear on the gift of the Holy Spirit. The psalmist’s account is the most orthodox in reminding us that all life on earth is itself the gift of the Spirit as the Lord chooses. The remaining lessons show human reactions to the gift appearing where it’s not expected. As Numbers tells it, the Spirit that comes on the elders in the wilderness is diverted from Moses and, worse, given to two men who aren’t even at the tent with the other 68; Moses’ assistant Joshua reacts to news of the errant gift with what sounds like jealousy. John 20:19-23 shows us the Spirit as simply Jesus’ breath—but in verse 25 Thomas will declare that, because Jesus didn’t appear to him, it can’t have happened. In the familiar account of Acts 2, the Spirit comes as wind and fire and leads the disciples huddled in Jerusalem to speak in other languages; some onlookers wonder how mere Galilean fisherman could possibly be so gifted while others simply dismiss them as publicly drunk, or at least full of spirits less pure.

As shocking as the flame and languages are, however, Peter’s explanation includes assertions that are even more eye-opening to those in Jerusalem and all the welter of nationalities that have converged on Jerusalem to be Israelite experience two utterly mind-bending phenomena: “God’s people” means absolutely everyone.

How often do we take it upon ourselves to decide where and how and to whom the Spirit ought to be given? And how do we help God help us stop doing that?

For June 1, 2014: Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year A

The Reading            Acts 1:6-14

During Easter season, our first readings come not from the Old Testament but from the book of Acts. Today’s reading returns to the beginning of the book to tell the events surrounding Jesus’ ascension into heaven, after he has readied the disciples for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

The Response            Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36

Psalm 68 celebrates the power and might of God. What keeps it from mere triumphalism—from “Our God can beat your God”—is its emphasis on God as defender of the widows and orphans, the prisoners, the homeless, and the weary.

The Epistle            1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

The first letter of Peter finishes its counsel to the followers of Jesus. Suffering for being a Christian is to be expected: suffering patiently as Jesus did will lead to being glorified as Jesus is.

The Gospel            John 17:1-11

The gospel reading concludes John’s so-called Farewell Discourse shortly before he is betrayed. It is framed as Jesus’ prayer, though the references to having already finished his work and being no longer in the world suggest that John is addressing us.

 

Ponderables

The obvious themes of the readings for the seventh (and last) Sunday of Easter is glory. Acts 1:6-14 show us Jesus, after his final promise to the disciples, lifted up to heaven like Elijah in a cloud. The psalm sings of the power and strength of the Lord, who rides upon the heavens. 1 Peter 4 reminds its readers that God has called them to glory, and John 17 shows us Jesus preparing to take up the glory that is rightly his.

For most of human history, glory has been something one gains on a battlefield, the result of besting an opponent, the perquisites of being able to lord it over others. These readings suggest, in various ways, that such a human view is entirely too limited. Acts 1 follows up its depiction of Jesus’ glorious ascent with two messengers who firmly remind the disciples to stop standing around and go get busy. The psalm praises as essential parts of glory God’s tenderness toward widows, orphans, the lonely, prisoners, the weary, and the poor. 1 Peter 4 tells us that glory in God’s eyes is achieved through suffering—a far cry from conquering others. Jesus tells us in John 17:3 that he has glorified God by doing God’s work; in the previous verse he asserts that eternal life—which we see as a perquisite of God’s glory—is simply knowing and having a relationship with God.

What if eternal life isn’t the prize of glory reserved in heaven? What if, instead, it begins now with each choice we make on earth to perceive each heart’s suffering through the eyes and heart of God?

For May 25, 2014: Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A

The Reading            Acts 17:22-31

Finding that Paul is in Athens, the leading intellectuals of Athens invite him to the Areopagus to give a major lecture. He suits his preaching to his polytheistic and worldly audience: he playfully mentions their shrine to “an unknown god” and quotes Greek poetry to support the idea of a supreme God whose children we are.

The Response            Psalm 66:7-18

Psalm 66:7-18 calls “the peoples”—everyone in the world—to bless God, who is with us through suffering and tribulation. We no longer sacrifice animals in the Temple, but let us praise God with everything we’ve got.

The Epistle            1 Peter 3:13-22

Paul’s educated and leisured audience in Athens craved news but admitted to little need for hope. The first letter of Peter brings hope to those whose lot is to suffer: Jesus sets the example to endure patiently and speak gently when (not “if”, in this world) we suffer, because he suffered like a slave in order to bring us home to God.

The Gospel            John 14:15-21

We continue reading Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus promises the uncomprehending disciples that he is not abandoning them: he will send the Spirit to comfort and guide them.

 

Ponderables

Each of the readings for the sixth Sunday of Easter reveals something about God, about the people involved in it, and about us. The Athenians of Paul’s time knew that the gods up on Mount Olympus were like human beings, but not very nice ones; as much of classical literature tells us, the gods were vindictive and quarrelsome and in the habit of reacting jealously to human successes. Paul puts a different spin on divinity for them: it isn’t that God is like humans but that humans are created in the image of a God who is powerfully invested in their good. The psalmist, writing centuries earlier, praises God not for steering trouble away from him but for being right there with him when trouble comes and seeing him through it. The writer of 1 Peter informs the slaves and chambermaids of the world that the King’s Son of the Universe loves them—us—enough to suffer as a human like us so that we can stand like him in God’s presence. And Jesus promises his puzzled disciples—and, through them, us—that, though he will not be physically present, he will not abandon us humans without comfort; furthermore, the Spirit he will send is already here in residence.

But spirit is by definition intangible, and trouble—grief, poverty, loneliness, despair—can still look and feel like being literally out of touch with God. What if the way that the Spirit’s comfort comes is chiefly through the love and comfort that we give on God’s behalf to God’s grieving, poor, lonely, despairing children in this world?