Posts Tagged 'Epistle'

For July 20, 2014: Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11

The Reading            Isaiah 44:6-8

The earliest books of the Old Testament proclaim that the Lord God is the greatest of the gods. Isaiah 44:1-15 relates a different claim: that the Lord is the only god.

The Response            Psalm 86:11-17

Psalm 86 combines elements of lament—begging God for aid against enemies who despise both the psalmist and God—and praise. After extolling God’s graciousness, slowness to anger, and kindness, the psalmist asks for a sign of favor with which to shame the haters.

The Epistle            Romans 8:12-25

The early church in Rome included both Jews and former pagans, though not without disagreements. Paul explains humanity’s common birthright as adopted children of God: we all share in Christ’s glory, but we are also to share humbly in Christ’s suffering while we wait in hope for our redemption.

The Gospel            Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

We continue examining Jesus’ parables that use the imagery of plowing, planting, and harvesting, with his explanations. The “weeds” in this parable would probably have been darnel, a plant that looks a great deal like wheat until it ripens.

 

 

Further thoughts

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) is the three-year cycle of Bible readings, followed with more or less fidelity by most Christian churches, that works from first verse to last through most books of the Bible. A challenge for the RCL’s makers is that the Old Testament, even without the psalms, comprises several times more text than do the epistles and the gospel taken together. To even things out, in Pentecost season the RCL splits just the Old Testament readings and apposite psalms into two tracks. Track 1 begins with Genesis and traces the covenants, falls, and redemptions of God’s children, while Track 2 focuses on prophecy, on calls for repentance or proclamations of righteousness. That a given day’s epistle and gospel tend to be about equally complemented by either track’s pair of readings is both intentional and remarkable.

The gospel readings for Propers 10 and 11 reflect a rare but sensible choice and a surprising choice. As the gospel of Matthew has it, Jesus tells a large crowd two parables and then the disciples urge him to interpret them. The rare but sensible choice is by the makers of the RCL, who allot each sermon-worthy parable and its explanation to a different Sunday: the parable of the sower for Proper 10 last week and the parable of the bad seed this week. The surprising choice that Jesus even complies with the disciples’ demand: he almost never explains parables, and these explanations are almost painfully literal and obvious.

How does this square with the other lections? Isaiah testifies that the Lord is not merely the greatest god but the only god, who alone knows the future, and the reason we are not to fear. The psalm celebrates this God’s graciousness and compassion. Yet, as the epistle notes, suffering and decay are inextricably part of this world: from birth onward we learn that there is plenty to fear in pain, sickness, shame, disaster, and death. As I write, we mourn the 295 passengers and crew of Malaysian Airlines 17, including almost 100 AIDS experts bound for a conference, sacrificed for a political cause relevant to few or none of them. How can God foresee such evil and not forestall it?

For May 26, 2013: Trinity Sunday, Year C

The Reading            Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

The book of Proverbs is part of what Biblical scholars refer to as “wisdom literature”; it dispenses sound advice for Old Testament living. Today’s reading, however, is about Wisdom, personified here as God’s partner in creation. We of the New Testament know Wisdom as the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity.

The Response            Psalm 8

“O Lord our Governor, how exalted is your Name in all the world!”

The Epistle            Romans 5:1-5

Paul’s letter to the church at Rome has sometimes been called his most important theological work. Today’s short but rich reading may well be the core of it: we have peace with God and ourselves not through our own efforts but because the incredible love of God gives us hope.

The Gospel            John 16:12-15

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

 

Further thoughts

First, a disclaimer: for a theological explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity, please consult a theologian. What I can offer here is my grammatical workaround of using plural pronouns and agreement forms for singular God, as in “God are Love, and where true love is, / God Themselves are there.”

I was inspired to this in youth by T.H. White’s witty and heartrending book The Once and Future King. Toward the end of the first part, just before the Sword in the Stone reveals young Wart as King Arthur, Merlyn the magician sends him out for his last lesson among the animals. A badger tells him a story of Creation in which all the animals looked exactly like embryos until God allowed them to choose adaptations such as claws or teeth or thick hides or wings. All made their choices—except for Man, last of all, whose response begins, “Please God, I think that you have made me in the shape I now have for reasons best known to Yourselves, and it would be rude to change…” This turns out to have been precisely the right answer. God replied,

“As for you, Man, you will be a naked tool all your life, though a user of tools. You will look like an embryo till they bury you, but all the others will be embryos before your might. Eternally undeveloped, you will always remain potential in Our image, able to see some of Our sorrows and to feel some of Our joys. We are partly sorry for you, Man, but partly hopeful.”

This is, please note, one God, yet plural. It is possible that White intended a sort of “royal We”, but it resonates with me differently. Though I still quite naturally try to reduce God to human scale, the slight strangeness of “God are…” in my mouth keeps me mindful of God as human and more than human, and the plural verbs and pronouns avoid assigning God exclusive maleness, instead encompassing maleness and femaleness (and probably much more in addition). God as singular plural also reminds me of the eternal fellowship enjoyed by God, as suggested by the Old Testament reading, a depth of mutual knowing and being known whose fullness is quite beyond the grasp of humankind here and now; it is the fellowship for which, through Christ, the apostle Paul says we have such hope; and just as surely the fellowship for whose stunning loss on earth Jesus in today’s gospel was gently but relentlessly preparing his disciples and friends to grieve.

For August 19, 2012: Proper 15, Year B

The Reading            1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

Today’s reading begins with the accession of Solomon to the throne of King David. Solomon’s dream can be taken as political packaging—of course the anointed king should have a confirmatory dream from God—but Solomon’s request for wisdom with which to govern is one that we can hope all leaders in all places will emulate.

 

The Response            Psalm 111

 

The Epistle            Ephesians 5:15-20

The good advice for the people of Ephesus continues to be good advice for us: at all times and in everything, give thanks to God.

 

The Gospel            John 6:51-58

 

Further thoughts

What a set of contrasts in today’s reading! Wisdom is opposed to… cannibalism?

On the one hand, there’s the dream in which, to launch Solomon’s reign, God offers a divine blank check and Solomon surprises not only the chronicler but us in bypassing power, honor, and long life in favor of wisdom. There’s the psalm’s commendation of the glory of God and of the wisdom of holding God in awe. There’s the advice in the book of Ephesians to life wisely in this world while giving thanks for everything.

On the other hand, there’s “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). This verse is difficult for those of us in the 21st century with a taste for a nice rare steak. A first-century Jewish audience would have found it downright indigestible. The word in the Greek for “flesh” is σαρχ sarx (as in sarcophagus ‘flesh-eater’), so it is either ‘raw meat’ or ‘dead meat’; the Law expressly forbade Jews to consume raw meat and blood and to touch dead bodies, so Jesus has given orders to perform acts of eating and drinking that are about as ritually impure as it is possible to be. Jesus uses two verbs for ‘eat’ in this passage; one of them just means ‘eat’, but the one in John 6:53, τρώγω trogo, has been glossed as ‘chew’ or ‘gnaw’ (Davis) or ‘chomp’ (Ewart): vivid words for messy eating, and therefore claimed to be very literal.

It is important not to make the Good News less shocking than it really is. The fact is, however, that, in most languages, words for eating are commonly used metaphorically as words for learning and thinking: to ruminate, from Latin rumen ‘cow’s stomach’ is literally ‘to chew one’s cud’. A slightly different reading of trogo may be justified, along the lines of ‘chew really thoroughly, so as not to lose a single bit of the goodness’.

Think about a really enjoyable meal with some delightful surprises for the mouth, in the best of company, and with time and space to savor them and to be refreshed by each other’s time and attention. It is simple wisdom to eat, drink, and commune mindfully, noticing what one is taking in. In such a meal, everything comes together to satisfy needs of body and of spirit, needs one may not even have known that one had, and in it we catch the slight but unmistakable whiff—a foretaste, if you will—of how Jesus feeds us.

And what if—minus the matter of salvation, of course—we are similarly called to do what we can to feed each other?

 

D. Mark Davis, “From ‘Bread of Heaven’ to ‘Gnawing on Flesh’”, Left Behind and Loving it, http://www.leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2012/08/from-bread-of-heaven-to-gnawing-on-flesh_14.html.

David Ewart, http://www.holytextures.com/2009/07/john-6-51-58-year-b-pentecost-august-14-august-20-sermon.html.


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