OT Lectionary Oct 4th Trinity 18 Genesis 2:18-24

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

At the end of the first account of creation in 1:31 God surveys his creations and declares that it is all good. But here, for the first time, in 2:18, God sees something which is not good: the solitary life of the man. So begins the story of Eve, of marital relationships, and of family life, about which Jesus has much to say in the gospel reading for today.

This passage is, of course, something of a red rag to the bull of feminism, but the language is carefully used to avoid any kind of pecking order (in spite of what later exegesis has made of it). The Hebrew ‘ezer (help) is almost always used of help from God, and thus denotes help from a superior above, rather than the aid of a junior assistant. But this might go the other way, and exalt the woman above the man, so it is qualified by the word which the NIV unhelpfully translates as ‘suitable’ for him, but which actually has the meaning of being ‘alongside’ him. So mutuality is the name of the game.

The naming of the animals demonstrates this same kind of mutuality with all creation. Naming implies dominion, but also care and respect, rather than domination. Those of us who have kids name them, and however bizarrely some might go about this task, it is still done out of love and reverence. Names can be used cruelly, but this is not the intention of living parents.

Michelangelo. The Creation of Eve.

The divine surgery uses an unusual word for the anaesthetisation, almost always used of God’s action on humans, and often for a period of divine revelation. But the result is a companion for mutual enjoyment. It is interesting that in the first account of creation in Genesis 1, the man and the woman are commanded to be fruitful (1:28), but there is no such command here. The sexual union which they are to enjoy seems to be completely divorced from procreation, but rather seems to be just for fun and pleasure. The final verse emphasises this: their life together was literally ‘shameless’.

This is a passage which is often used in the battle over appropriate sexuality, and of course Jesus uses it, in today’s Gospel reading, to speak about the danger and harm of divorce. The repeated emphasis on ‘male and female’ has been used heavily by the anti-gay-marriage lobby, and it is difficult to see how it cannot be taken as normative about what ‘marriage’ is, as indeed it has been for millennia. Whatever one thinks about gay partnerships, it is surely difficult to call them ‘marriages’.

But to sidestep this controversy, the passage has been seen as a foundational one for understanding God’s purpose for married relationships. They are to be based on mutual love, care and respect, they are to be shamelessly intimate, and they are meant to bring lifelong joy and companionship. In the next chapter we are going to see how it can all go wrong, and we are still living with those consequences in many tragic marriages today, where one partner or the other attempts to dominate or harm the other. We ignore God’s purposes at our peril.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – 1 Corinthians

Paul first visited Corinth, a major city and seaport of Greece, around AD 50, and planted a church there. As usual he began preaching in the Synagogue, but was rejected there and moved to the nearby house of a Gentile convert called Titius Justus, which became the HQ of the new congregation. When in 51 AD the Jews tried to prosecute Paul, the new Roman consul ruled that the dispute was an internal Jewish matter, thus ensuring that the church, like the Synagogue, had the protection of the Roman authorities.

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Although we only have two of them, there were actually three letters written to the Corinthian Christians: 1 Cor 5:9-11 speaks of a letter written previously. It seems also that the first four chapters of our 1 Corinthians were ready to dispatch when Paul received a further communication from the church, to which he replied in chapters 5 – 16. Our 2 Corinthians followed later.

 

The church was one which had some severe problems at its heart. Paul needs to address them on issues such as division and party spirit, Gnosticism, law-suits, immorality, family life, financial giving, the Eucharist, what love is all about, gifts of the Spirit, especially tongues and prophecy, and what happens when we die. The Corinthian church was one which did everything to extremes, from worship to incest. So it forms a pretty good agenda for any teaching series on Christian living today, in a society where many of the same issues remain hot topics.

 

1 Corinthians is the second letter from Paul which we have encountered on this journey, and we can immediately see a great contrast. In Romans he was setting out his stall, expounding the theology on which his preaching would be built if the church accepted him as their ‘missionary’. But here he is much more responsive to their agenda: several times we get the phrase ‘Now: about …’ they have clearly sent him a list of issues on which they want his opinions, and he goes through them systematically, dealing with each in turn.

 

The book is a rich store of purple passages. Chapter 13 on love, which you’ve heard at so many weddings, has nothing to do with marriage, as its context makes clear, and chapter 15 is well-used for funerals (and also the church crèche, which is dealt with in v 51). The teaching on the Body of Christ, which the church rediscovered in the 1970s, has revolutionised our lives, and of course the stuff on spiritual gifts has been used either to prove or disprove the appropriateness of charismatic renewal, depending on your point of view and interpretation. But there is much more in there which can still speak to us today, and which will reward further reading and study.

 

As (nearly) always Paul begins with heartfelt praise for the Christian community, its serious problems notwithstanding. Perhaps he gives us a glimpse of how God views his church today: horribly compromised, deeply divided, pretty ignorant, but on the way to glory, and providing a shining testimony to Christ. I sometimes wish I could see the church of which I am a proud part more as our Father sees it.

Image: “GR-korinth-bema-akrokorinth” by Bgabel at wikivoyage shared. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

OT Lectionary Sept 27th Trinity 17 Numbers 11

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

Nostalgia, they say, isn’t what it used to be. When things get tough, everything from the past suddenly looks wonderfully attractive, even cucumbers, melon and garlic. Every church leader knows that, and many agree with it, while others, like Moses, have to contend with it again and again among the people they are called to lead.


Our passage today gives us a picture of church which is all too familiar. The people want to go backwards, and they remember the past selectively, focussing on the garlic but not on the slavery, the beatings, the sheer exhaustion and hopelessness of it all. The Devil you know is obviously preferable to the unknown future, and they feel insecure in spite of God’s promises to them, showing that here as in so many places the root problem is faithlessness. So upset are they that Moses can hear the sound of weeping, which is odd because it is usually the presence of onions, rather than the lack of them, which causes people to cry.

Just as the people turn on Moses in their distress, so Moses turns on God, pouring out to him his utter exhaustion with the task to which he has been called. In fact there are several occasions when Moses reaches the end of his tether, and it is fascinating to note (and I do intend to write a book about this one day) how each time Moses complains to God and asks that he might die rather than carry on with this miserable existence, his cries bring about divine and supernatural action. For those in any doubt this passage proves once and for all that God is male. According to all the Mars vs Venus literature when women are upset they want a hug, not a solution, whereas men simply want to get on and solve the problem, which is why blokes so often get it wrong. God does not say ‘There there’ to Moses: he acts, by anointing with his Spirit a task force who can share the burden with him.

But even this group don’t get it. Even with this spiritual anointing they are jealous for their position, and are peeved that two elders who didn’t turn up for the event had nevertheless been anointed. Moses himself makes a prophetic statement, which looks over the horizon to Pentecost, wishing that all of God’s people could receive his Spirit and become prophets.

Grumbling congregations, burnt-out leaders, jealous church officers; nostalgia for the past golden age, death wishes, despair: all these are sadly around as much as ever in today’s church. Even the other side of the cross and Pentecost we still hanker for the good old days, and often wear our leaders out doing so. This story challenges us to reflect on what we might be doing to those whom God has set over us. How terrible if we were causing them to despair of life itself. It also calls us to believe in the future which is coming, even if it seems aeons away, to look forward with faith and hope, and to walk together confidently under the anointing of God’s Holy Spirit.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Romans

Romans is the first of Paul’s many letters, and I believe that the key to understanding it lies in an obscure passage in chapter 15. Paul is writing to a church he did not found, and which he has never visited, but he is setting out perhaps the clearest exposition of the Christian gospel to be found anywhere in the NT. Was he writing to put them straight over some points of doctrine or behaviour, as is clearly the case with some other letters? There is no hint of this at all in the letter: compare it, for example, with Galatians, to which we will come shortly.

 Dionisii (Dionysius). The Apostle Paul.

I think there is a different purpose behind his letter. He is not trying to get the Roman Christians to be orthodox: he is telling them that he is. 15:17 begins a section in which Paul is saying that he has finished his work in the eastern end of the Mediterranean. From the origins in Jerusalem right round to Illyricum (modern-day Croatia, the last stop before Italy) Paul has preached the gospel and planted churches. We know that his ministry has always been to break new ground, rather than building on the work of others (v 20), so (v 23) there is nowhere else for him to go. But he has one burning ambition left – to do in the western Med what he has done in the east. He wants to go to Spain (don’t we all as autumn draws on?). But that is a bit of a distance from his base in Antioch, so he is looking for a new ‘sending church’, and Rome seems an admirable choice.

 

But how will the Christians there know whom they are taking on, and more importantly can they trust him? So Paul writes to them setting out in detail the gospel he will be preaching under their sponsorship, and in the process gives us the greatest account of what the Christian gospel means to be found anywhere in the Bible.

 

The first eight chapters spell out clearly and logically what the gospel is, beginning from human sin and rebellion and ending with the crashing crescendo of chapter 8 and the triumphal cry of ‘No condemnation’ for those in Christ Jesus. There is then a three chapter diversion into the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, a key issue in the church in Rome due to its particular history. Then, in 12:1 comes the fateful word ‘Therefore’ which marks the division between good theology and its outworking in right behaviour. Chapter 12 to 15 spell out how Christians ought to live in the light of the gospel, and covers such up-to-date topics as roles within the church, respect for secular authorities, and the treatment of those who see things differently from how we see them. Finally he sets out his hope to come to Rome to begin the new phase of his ministry, and adds a chapter of personal greetings: many of the characters he knows because their paths have crossed in the past.

 

Romans is one of the best NT books to study in detail, because of its clear explanation of the gospel. Some of its arguments may sound a little strange to our ears, but it all makes perfect sense and would be a great way to spend six months of your homegroup’s or congregation’s life.

OT Lectionary Sept 20th Trinity 16 Jeremiah 11:18-20

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

This passage begins a section of Jeremiah’s prophecy which contains a series of laments. Jeremiah’s image is as a bit of a misery, living as he did during a time when the national life of Israel was unravelling, and which culminated in the destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the invading Babylonians. Clearly he is deeply distressed about what he can see happening around him, and about what he sees as the inevitable destruction to come. But in this section we get a glimpse of a deeper sorrow: that of misunderstanding, betrayal and violence. This is a classic case of ‘Shoot the messenger’. It has been said that the foremost task of a leader is to define reality: sadly many people have no interest in reality and become deeply hostile towards those who try to make them see  what is going on and where things are headed. Jeremiah seems to feel that this betrayal is even worse because it comes from the people among whom he lives, the men of Anathoth. They ought to be his friends, but they have chosen to make an enemy of him.

God has somehow revealed to the prophet the plans of those who oppose him, and his punishment is clearly because of his godly calling and life. the unusual reference to the tree in v 19 may be an ironic reference to Psalm 1, where those who remain faithful to God, as Jeremiah clearly does, are likened to a flourishing tree. ‘Well, let’s chop that tree down!’ say his opponents. Jeremiah’s response is a cry both for vengeance and vindication, and God’s response, immediately after  our set section, is a promise of vengeance with a vengeance.

Rembrandt. The Prophet Jeremiah Mourning  over the Destruction of Jerusalem.

Many church leaders will know this kind of opposition from those among whom God has called them to serve, and the severe pain of violent opposition from the very people who ought to be alongside him. Many will know the almost equally painful experience of passive-aggressive behaviour among other church members. We know from other passages (for example 20:7) that Jeremiah felt that God was as much to blame as his earthly enemies for his distress. And of course today’s Gospel reminds us that Jesus himself was the victim of misunderstanding, hostility, and his Father’s will.

So what of the cry for vengeance? And of God’s promise to do exactly that? How does that square with the NT calls for us to turn the other cheek and forgive our enemies? Clearly God thinks it is an appropriate cry, since he agrees to do what the prophet begs him to do. The first thing to note is that Jeremiah’s cry is real. I’m never quite convinced by nice Christians who have been through hell but blithely say ‘But I forgave them!’ Some experiences are so damaging that the pain goes on for years afterwards, and it is only human for us to cry for punishment on those who have caused such pain to us and to our families. The Bible certainly seems to validate such cries for vengeance, but the NT adds a further dimension. My favourite definition of forgiveness is ‘the handing back to God of the right to punish.’ However much I might want my enemies to roast in eternal brimstone, I can choose to let God alone have the right to punish, knowing that ‘the judge of the earth will do right’. This sets me free from their power, and it also gives me the satisfaction of knowing that if it comes to it God can mete out much more severe punishment than I ever could. Forgiveness cannot simply mean having nice feelings toward those who have so damaged us, or even trusting them again. But to give back to God the right to deal appropriately with them is as good as it gets, and is a gloriously liberating choice to make.

Reflections on Discipleship – A Chance to Shine

This morning my son phoned me from the city where he is living whilst training for Ordained Pioneer Ministry. He said that he had discovered many many people who were wanting to donate food and clothes towards the Syrian refugee crisis, but there were no collection points at all in the city. He was spending the day doing the rounds of different church leaders asking if they could use their churches as foci for the goodwill of those people desperate to help.

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I am aware that the crisis is complex and that people disagree about appropriate solutions, but meanwhile refugees are sick, homeless and starving, and a Christ-like response must surely be to do something to help. On the basis that churches are far more likely to grow if they are perceived by the communities in which they are set as ‘useful’, it seems that we have a golden opportunity to do something which benefits the poor and which raises our goodwill in the community. Whether we’re in a tiny village or a town centre, whether we’re catholic, evangelical or whatever, whether we’re large and bustling or small and struggling this is something we can do, and maybe something we can do together as mission communities. But the opportunity won’t be there for ever: we need to mobilise for action as soon as we can.

For further information on setting up a collection point, you might like to try contacting action@calaisaction.com although other organisations such as Oxfam are involved too.

Who is willing to step up to the challenge?

Image: By Voice of America News: Margaret Besheer reports from the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli; “Syrian Refugees Seek Out Smugglers”. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Acts

It is very clear from the first paragraph that Acts is volume two of Luke’s account of the ministry of Jesus, who continues to be very much present among his followers as the church is born and they continue the work he began. The story is obviously selective, as we saw last week that John’s was, but Luke’s guiding principle is set out clearly in 1:8. The believers are to receive the Holy Spirit, and then the gospel is going to spread out from the city of Jerusalem, to the ‘county’ of Judea, and to the neighbouring territory of Samaria, which was considered Jewish by the Gentiles but foreign by the Jews, rather as Wales might be to Americans and to the English. Then it would spread to the ends of the earth. The rest of the book is the story of how this happened.

 

The Spirit comes, as promised, during the Jewish Festival of Pentecost, which celebrated the firstfruits of the harvest, and the disciples, who have now become ‘apostles’, are supernaturally gifted not just with speaking in tongues but also with boldness to preach and demonstrate the gospel. Within a very short time the church has grown to thousands of members, who are seeking to live out their community life of prayer, learning, generosity and service. Then in chapter 8 Philip takes the gospel to Samaria, and the same supernatural life springs up.

 All Saints Episcopal Church, Jensen Beach, Florida windows 010.jpg

The focus then shifts to Paul, who is dramatically converted in chapter 9, and who will be the one to take the gospel into the world of the Gentiles. His missionary journeys fill the rest of the book, until his arrest and transportation to Rome to face trial.

 

One significant feature alongside the spiritual power and success of the church in Acts is the fierce opposition they face, almost from day one. As a general rule opposition comes not from the occupying Romans but from the religious Jews: Paul’s appeal to be tried by Caesar in 25:11 suggests that he thinks he will fare better there than before the Jewish Sanhedrin. But even within the church there is opposition: the conversion of some Gentiles is a matter for deep suspicion, Abraham’s call notwithstanding, and it takes the first General Synod in chapter 15 to allow Gentile believers into the church. The study of opposition is an important area with which to engage in the church today, riddled as we are by hostility to new things. Acts suggests that it doesn’t take very long at all for traditions to get set in stone and to become hostile to the work of the Spirit.

 

Significant in the book are the ‘we’ passages, in which Luke switches to the first person, suggesting strongly that he himself was an eyewitness to the events he describes. As with his Gospel, he shows concern for medical details, and for women and the poor and helpless.

 

But what of the ends of the earth? The book seems to end with a whimper rather than a bang, as Paul is imprisoned in Rome and fades from view. However it may not be like that. Paul arrives in Rome, not the end of the earth but its centre, to which all roads lead and presumably from which all roads go. There is some evidence that the Roman legal system allowed two years for accusers to come and make their case, after which prisoners were acquitted and set free. But even while under house arrest Paul preached freely. So there may be more of a bang there than we think. And of course as has often been said we are Acts chapter 29 as the story goes on and more and more unreached people have the opportunity to respond to the good news of God in Christ.

Image: “All Saints Episcopal Church, Jensen Beach, Florida windows 010” by Stephen B Calvert Clariosophic – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –