Thursday, June 9, 2016

Galatians 3

There are two main themes in this chapter of Galatians.

1—being a child of Abraham through Faith
                For Paul, faith = belief in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, and so when he speaks of faith “coming” (v. 23) he refers to the “era of Christ” as a particular time marked by Christ’s death and resurrection. It is through this relationship of faith, through Christ, that believers receive the Spirit (v. 2) and are saved, reconciled to God.
                A portion of this chapter tries to explain how Abraham, who lived prior to Christ, of course, could be the father of the faith, if “faith” hadn’t come yet. Paul cites several examples from Hebrew scripture of how God was working through Abraham and the law to prepare people for faith, when Christ would come. But he is careful to remind it was not the law that saved anyone, ever—then or now. Rather, it is faith in Christ Jesus.
                Being a “child of Abraham” (v. 7) means we believe in the same gospel, the same Lord, the same work God is doing, work which began long before Christ but was revealed in Christ as faith, and continues through the Spirit. Theologically we agree with this: those who believe in Jesus are one “family”. Being a child of Abraham is not a genealogical reality, it is about faith. While there are many stories in the New Testament about entire households being baptized once the head of the house believed in Jesus, making baptism a family thing, Paul’s point is that heritage doesn’t matter, faith does. Remember, he’s arguing against those who insist Gentiles must become Jewish before being Christian.)

2—identity as a child of God
                Paul redefines this new identity in faith. One of the purposes of the law was to form a common identity among the people of God. Sort of like we might sing “They’ll know we are Christians by our love”, in Hebrew scripture they knew they were Jewish because they followed the Mosaic law. But now Paul proclaims a new source for identity: baptism into Christ (v. 27). Who you used to be (Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female) doesn’t matter as much as who you are now: child of God. The things that used to mark people as different from one another give way to a common identity in Christ. One is not better than another; all are beloved children in God’s eyes.
                Finally Paul closes the circle of this argument and proclaims that all who are made new in Christ Jesus, all who are baptized and have put on Christ, all who share this identity, are Abraham’s offspring. It is that key relationship of faith, a gift from the Holy Spirit, that holds all of these pieces together. Whether Jew (following the Law) or Gentile, slave or free, male or female—all these differences come together to form the people of God, rooted in Abraham, and united in Jesus.

                Throughout this epistle, Paul does a nice job of showing the importance of the Law and his own respect for it, while insisting that the law is not what saves us. Now he has brought Abraham into the argument, not just “the law” in a theoretical way, but an example to whom they can relate, to show how God’s grace works not only on a timeline (as if the ancestors are out of luck because they lived before Jesus) but eternally in both directions. 

Monday, May 30, 2016

Galatians 2

In chapter 2, Paul continues the recitation of his own history, as a Jew and an apostle. While what it means to be a Christian continues to be in the process of definition, there are many mixed messages floating around. Paul encourages them to focus on THE gospel: we are justified by faith in Christ, period. Other traditions, including Mosaic law, might be valuable and comfortable, but they do not count when it comes to righteousness/salvation. Paul cites his own experience: he was a perfect Jew, a Pharisee, keeping all the laws; yet he does not believe the law saved him. It was only when God revealed Christ to Paul, when Paul died to that old way and was born anew in Christ, that he was saved.

Here we are getting to the crux of the argument: Christ has set us free from needing to follow the law. We are saved because of faith in Christ, and that’s all we need. We are therefore free to follow Christ, rather than following the law, as we live new lives and serve the neighbor.

Paul is so concerned about this singular focus that he even criticizes his colleagues who do not seem to be consistent. Cephas (Peter) apparently was OK with sharing meals with Gentiles, after his vision from God in Acts 10-11 that removed the dietary restrictions. But when some “purists” came along and influenced him, Peter returned to following the dietary laws, which Paul here criticizes. It is not the true gospel Paul gave them, and it creates division between those who are from Jewish tradition and those who are not, while Paul is seeking unity among the believers.

Are there things we think we “have” to do today to be faithful? 
Are there prerequisites for being a “good Christian”? 
How do we distinguish between following the law and following Jesus? 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Galatians 1

The major theme of Galatians will be FREEDOM. As Christians, we are free from the power of sin and the bonds of death, including the requirement of keeping Mosaic law in order to be made right with God (justified). We are also free for service to the neighbor, living as Christ lived. This freedom is not “do whatever I want!”, but freedom from worrying about whether or not we are saved in order to have time and energy to serve the neighbor. In Christ we are saved--now we get to work! 

This argument is shaped by a controversy in the church in Galatia. Some who follow Jesus have come to town after Paul has left, and are insisting that in order to be Christian, one must first be Jewish, observing all the laws and customs of Mosaic law found in the Torah. In the first chapter, Paul references this as “turning to another gospel” (v. 6). He begins to lay out his credentials as the supreme Jew, how as a Pharisee he actively persecuted Christians, literally to their deaths. But Jesus was revealed to him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) and he converted that zeal against Christians to work on behalf of Christ. He is not making this up—he has been sent by God to witness to Christ. As a highly educated and trained religious official, he knows the ins and outs of how it all works, and these “false teachers” must be stopped. He will continue to develop this argument about being free in Christ throughout the book. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Summer Reading 2016: Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians

This summer we are reading together three epistles from the New Testament.

While communication by letter across distance was not uncommon in the time of the New Testament, these particular letters, which we honor as scripture, are distinct.
1--They are much longer than an average letter which might contain personal or official correspondence. Biblical epistles written by Paul average 1300 words each; other official epistles from the time average only 295 words.
2—Rather than carrying news or an official decree, biblical epistles are used for supporting a new worshiping community as it develops, providing theological correction and admonitions for particular behavior. Perhaps this is why they are so long: a theological argument is carefully constructed, including traditional information from local culture and religious customs, which then leads to a compelling argument about why following the Way of Jesus is the best way to go, and what it looks like when you do follow that way.
3—While the form of the epistle is somewhat standard with popular letter-writing customs of the day, the elements have been altered to make a theological statement. Rather than a simple “Greetings” or “Farewell”, a religious blessing opens and closes the letters: “Grace to you and peace from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ”.

These epistles were written to communities of believers which Paul himself had organized in his travels. He* writes them to encourage their ongoing work in the gospel, to clarify theological questions, and to address problems or concerns that have arisen in the communities. As we read through these three, we will be able to reconstruct the situation in the church based on what is being addressed in the letter.

*Paul is noted as the “author” of 13 epistles in the New Testament. Only 7 of these are “undisputed”, based on timing and style. Probably the 6 others were written by others who knew Paul, but not Paul himself. In our reading, Galatians and Philippians are considered authentically Pauline; Ephesians probably came later, is more general, and was likely not written by Paul himself. Still, they are all regarded as normative scripture for Christian faith and life. The epistles are likely the oldest material in the New Testament (AD 50-60), as the gospels and Acts were collected and recorded later (AD 70-90). 

Each week through September 4 we will read one chapter of these epistles. They will be the text for preaching and teaching on Sundays. 

Note: I use study Bibles for much of this background material: 
The New Oxford Annotated Study Bible with Apocrypha, NRSV, ed. Bruce M. Metzger & Roland E. Murphy. NY:Oxford University Press, 1991. 
Lutheran Study Bible, NRSV. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009. 
The Learning Bible, CEV. NY: American Bible Society, 1995. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

National Day of Prayer

I was invited to be the speaker for Buda's National Day of Prayer (05 May 2016) breakfast for city employees, hosted by the Buda Ministerial Alliance. Here is the sermon:

Today is the National Day of Prayer.
All around the country, people of faith are gathering to pray together.
That’s a pretty amazing thing.
People of various traditions, various creeds, backgrounds, and languages
            gather together to pray this day.
Together we are called to pray-- for our nation, for leaders, for our cities, towns, communities.
In Buda, we gather for breakfast to honor and pray for our city employees.

Generally speaking, praying doesn’t seem that hard.
I know many people who pray without having to think much about it.
On the other hand, some people don’t pray because they’re not sure how to do it, what to say.
When I was a child, my brother often asked me to pray on his behalf,
            because he was sure that God would listen to me better than God would listen to him.
I don’t know why he thought that, but I am happy to report he says his own prayers now!

So the idea of praying isn’t that hard, but HOW are we to pray?
What are we to say when we come into the presence of an awesome God,
            who longs to hear from us?
And how are we to pray for something as diverse and ambiguous as a whole nation?
In a time of discontent, in a time of election, in a time of violence,
            in a time of mistrust of people and of institutions—how are we to pray?

Sometimes we know what to say.
We know what we want, and we ask for it, or maybe even demand it from God.
Sometimes we don’t know what we do want, but we do know what we don’t want.
Sometimes we don’t have any words for our prayers,
            and sometimes our prayers are set to music.  
We don’t all pray the same, and we don’t all pray for the same things.
Yet we are urged by our forebears, whose stories we know from scripture, to pray.
Pray in silence, pray aloud, pray alone, pray with others, pray without ceasing.
Tell God some things, ask God some things.
Abram, Rebekah, Moses, Elijah, Jesus, Peter, and other biblical ancestors prayed to God—
            it seems to be a good thing to do!  
And so, we pray.
We tell God what’s wrong.
We ask God to bless, to heal, to give wisdom and guidance.
We ask for protection, for trust, for respect across differences.
Sometimes we tell God exactly what we want and how we think God should do it,
            and sometimes, perhaps in our better moments,
            we let ourselves melt away and entrust it to God, however God will handle it.

But prayer is more than talking at God.
It’s even more than listening to God, which for me is the harder part of prayer.
Real prayer is becoming so intertwined with the Divine that we start to resemble God.
We are made in the image of God, and when we pray, we are empowered to live a godly life.
The theme verse for today from Isaiah 58 commands us to “shout out, do not hold back!”
Pray, yes, and fervently, without ceasing.
But the rest of this chapter puts legs on our praying, shows us what prayer looks like in action:

Isaiah 58   Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. 2Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.
3“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. 4Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. 5Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 6Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,10if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 11The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
13If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; 14then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

And so on this National Day of Prayer, we are gathered to pray.
We will spend an hour here, eating, praying, knowing we are friends.
But then what? What will these prayers mean this afternoon, or next week?
Isaiah sends us out not to pray, but to BE THE PRAYER—
            the grace, the peace, the justice, the food, the liberation, the hope, the healing of God.
Yes, God hears and answers prayer, and often it is through us, the beloved children of God.
We are reminded that we do God’s work in this time and place by these beautiful words
            based on ancient Jewish teachings:
            “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief.
            Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now.
            You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.
Indeed, we are a world in need of prayer.

Thank you for the prayers you offer, and the prayers you are. Amen. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Bible Study Brief: Daniel 3

Sunday, March 20

Daniel 3:1-29

Daniel is considered a major prophetic book (it’s fairly lengthy) and contains apocalyptic visions (making it similar to Revelation). The first part of the book contains six stories which emphasize the rewards of being faithful to God, even at the expense of disobeying a foreign king. They are written in the style of traditional stories, and probably are Hebrew adaptations of already existing tales. The second half of the book contains the visions, dreams of Daniel about the future of God’s people. The book covers a timespan of several kings. Ancient sources for Daniel are found in both Hebrew and Aramaic languages. 

In this story, one of the two most remembered from Daniel (the other is Daniel in the Lions’ Den, chapter 6), three Hebrew men are punished for being faithful to God despite the king’s orders. All the stories in this first section are about Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Daniel, though Daniel does not appear in this story. They are captives in Babylon but have been appointed to positions of authority in service to the king, having been selected from among the best (strong and smart) of the captives to be educated in Chaldean ways.

When the king erects a golden statue and demands that everyone in the kingdom bow down to it, Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego refuse, out of loyalty to the God of Israel. They’d rather die than cheat on God, regardless of whether God will save them. They are thrown into a fiery furnace… you know the rest of the story (or read it!).

This is a story about faithfulness in time of trouble, and remembering who you are when you are in a strange land, surrounded by customs, laws, and people that not only don’t match yours but in some cases are directly contrary to yours. It’s a migration problem that is still a struggle for people on the move today, including refugees: what language will we speak, what food will we eat, what freedoms will be retained and which taken away, in this new place? How will we survive? How will we know who we are, and who God is, in a new land? What will become important to us? The Hebrew men in this story get to keep their culture and their identity because of God’s impressive save. What might we learn about living amid cultural diversity in our time and place? 

Bible Study Brief: Isaiah 61

Wednesday, March 16

Isaiah 61:1-4, 9-11  

We come again to the latter section of Isaiah, sometimes called “Third Isaiah”, probably about 150 years later than the beginning of the book. The promise of what God will do for the nation in exile will be carried out by this “apostle”, one sent by God to the people. The promise is rich, and just what they are hoping for: a reversal of fortune, and undoing of the harm done to God’s people. Imagine playing a scene backwards, when all that has been broken or blown up gets reassembled, good as new.

Christians reading this section will be reminded of Jesus reading this very passage aloud in the synagogue, and claiming himself to be this One whom God has sent (Luke 4:16-21). This does not mean that Isaiah was predicting Jesus, but that God made a promise which we know through Isaiah, and God fulfilled that promise in Jesus.

As we’ve observed throughout this series, most of the verbs have God for the subject. The people are hopeless—they (we?) keep messing up, getting in trouble, separating ourselves from God. God alone has the power to repair these breaks, to rescue us in time of trouble (a better translation than “vengeance” in verse 2), to restore the divine relationship. In this time of spring and new life, it is easy to imagine what this new thing will look like—as surely as the earth puts forth new shoots, so will God cause righteousness and praise to spring up, not only among the faithful, but before ALL the nations.

A next step for us as people of faith is to live in God’s ways, which are described here. God has the power to do all these things, but it does not mean we have no power. Filled with the Spirit as this servant is, we too can bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty, release, and the year of the Lord’s favor, and comfort those who mourn. These are divine tasks, but being made in the image of God, we too can accomplish God’s work in these ways. What might this promise look like in our world today, in our communities, neighborhoods, and families?