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.