Jan
2018

Candlemas

In Western Christianity, February 2 is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, commemorating Jesus’ presentation at the temple (see Luke 2:22-40).  This old icon expresses Luke’s account simply and beautifully.

Joseph (portrayed, as is traditional, as a very old man) carries the two turtledoves that Leviticus 12:8 says a poor woman may offer instead of a sheep for her cleansing from the ritual uncleanness caused by childbirth: a defiling act, for mother and child alike (see Leviticus 12:2-8; note that in Roman Catholicism prior to Vatican II, this day was called “the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin”).

In the priests’ world view, the life of any being was contained in the blood, meaning that blood belongs exclusively to God.  Childbirth, being a bloody process, rendered mother and child alike ritually unclean.

The period of uncleanness depended on the sex of the child: 7 days of impurity for a male child, 2 weeks of uncleanness if the baby was female.  This was followed by an additional 33 days for a male child, 66 days for a female, during which the mother “must not touch anything holy or enter the sacred area” (Lev 12:4).  Although in the icon, little Jesus looks more like a young boy than a baby scarcely over a month old, Luke says that Joseph and Mary, as observant Jews, made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem “When the time came for their ritual cleansing, in accordance with the Law from Moses” (Luke 2:22): that is, forty days after Jesus’ birth (which is why the Feast is celebrated in the Christian West on February 2, 40 days after December 25).

Also pictured are Simeon and Anna.  Simeon, who had been promised “that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26) holds baby Jesus, praises God for him, and prays a beautiful prayer, called (after its opening words in Latin) the Nunc dimittis:

Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word,
     because my eyes have seen your salvation.
 You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples.
 It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles
    and a glory for your people Israel (Luke 2:29-32).

Anna, an 84 year old widow who “never left the temple area but worshipped God with fasting and prayer night and day. . . began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:37-38).  In Luke’s gospel, then, from the very first, anyone with eyes to see and a heart to believe knows who Jesus is!  His presentation in the temple as a baby marks, in a sense, the beginning of his mission.

This celebration, coming in the dead of winter, is traditionally associated with hope for Spring’s return.  Good weather on this midwinter day is held to be a bad omen of more bleak days ahead, while bad weather augurs the swift return of sunshine and greenery–which is why, in America, February 2 is better known (heaven help us!) as Groundhog Day. We wait to see if a groundhog (in Pennsylvania, of course, THE Groundhog, Punxsatawney Phil) will see his shadow.

The association of February 2 with light and warmth leads to the other name for this feast day, Candlemas.  In the Revised Common Lectionary, the Old Testament reading for Candlemas every year is Malachi 3:1-4:

Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me;
        suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple.
        The messenger of the covenant in whom you take delight is coming,
says the Lord of heavenly forces.
 Who can endure the day of his coming?
        Who can withstand his appearance?
He is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap.
 He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver.
        He will purify the Levites
            and refine them like gold and silver.
            They will belong to the Lord,
                presenting a righteous offering.
 The offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord
        as in ancient days and in former years.

Malachi comes at the end of the Book of the Twelve, and in the Christian Bible, at the end of the Old Testament.   The book is set well after the end of the Babylonian exile, when Judah once more has a temple, a priesthood, and a functioning sacrificial liturgy. Yet, according to the prophet, the people are bland, cynical, and indifferent.  Far from being moved to repentance and change by Malachi’s call to reform, the people say, “Anyone doing evil is good in the Lord’s eyes,” or “He delights in those doing evil,” or “Where is the God of justice?”(Mal 2:17).  In other words, Malachi’s community believes that either God does not see what they do, or that God does not care.

Malachi gives assurance that these questions and doubts are about to be addressed, for “suddenly the LORD whom you are seeking will come to his temple” (Mal 3:1).  Those who piously claim to delight in God’s covenant will soon have the opportunity to express their gratitude personally!

Actually, Malachi proclaims not only the advent of the LORD, but also of the LORD’s messenger.  In Hebrew, “my messenger” is  mal’akhi–the same word that appears at the beginning of the book (Mal 1:1), where mal’akhi is the one through whom this message of judgment is communicated.  While we might expect a name like Malachiah (“the LORD’s messenger”), “my messenger” seems an unlikely name for any parent to give a child. Probably, then, the prophet is anonymous, called Mal’akhi  because of Malachi 3:1.

But already within the editing of Malachi, we see further reflections on the identity of this enigmatic figure.  In the conclusion to this book (see Mal 4:5 [3:23 in the Hebrew text]), the prophetic forerunner of the day of the LORD has become Elijah, who was taken alive into the heavens in a chariot of fire (2 Kgs 2:11) and so can be called upon for this task.

In Christian Scripture, Jesus is the one who comes to cleanse his people from their sins (Mal 3:2-3), and John the Baptist becomes the “messenger” sent to proclaim Jesus’ coming (see the quotes of Mal 3:1 at Matt 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 1:76; 7:27), and “Elijah who is to come” (Matt 11:14; cf. Matt 17:10-11; Mark 9:11-12; Luke 1:17).

Perhaps this is why Augustine on the one hand describes John the Baptist the “messenger” of Malachi 3:1 (Tra. Ev. Jo. 14.10.1), and on the other relates Malachi 3:1-2 both to Christ’s first coming (reading the Lord coming to “his temple” as a reference to the incarnation; see Matt 26:59-61; Mark 14:55-59; John 2:19-21, where the “temple” refers to Jesus’ body) and also to his second coming at the end of time (“Who can endure the day of his coming?,” Mal 3:2; cf. Civ. 18:35; 20:25).

Perhaps as you have been reading this blog, the musical setting of Malachi 3:1-3 from George Handel’s famous oratorio The Messiah has been playing in your head–as it has in mine.  Charles Jennens, who composed the libretto for this oratorio, doubtless picked this passage for inclusion because, like Augustine, he regarded it as a reference Christ’s first and second coming.

It is also little wonder that this text should be used for Candlemas, a day celebrating Jesus coming into the temple.  But, as the old name for this feast reminds us, the occasion for Jesus and Mary coming to the temple on this particular day is their cleansing, mother and child, from ritual impurity–an idea also expressed in Mal 4:2-3:

He is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap.
 He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver.

In Malachi, it is the the priesthood (the “sons of Levi,” in Handel’s stirring oratorio) who, after being purified and cleansed by God in the coming trials, will at last present right offerings to the LORD, restoring Judah and Jerusalem to a right relationship with God (Mal 3:4).  A Christian reader may find the idea of ritual purity and uncleanness strange, even meaningless.  Indeed, regarding ritual purity and impurity laws relating to food, Jesus said:

Don’t you know that everything that goes into the mouth enters the stomach and goes out into the sewer?  But what goes out of the mouth comes from the heart. And that’s what contaminates a person in God’s sight. Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adultery, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and insults.  These contaminate a person in God’s sight. But eating without washing hands doesn’t contaminate in God’s sight (Matt 15:16-20).

Although we may see no need for cleansing from ritual impurity, Jesus’ words surely ring true. We know that our own thoughts, words and actions–or the actions and words of others–can make us feel dirty.  Understanding our need for forgiveness of sin, and freedom from guilt, may we, with Malachi, affirm that God can cleanse us from the stain of our sin, today and in days to come.

Jan
2018

“. . .until justice rolls down like waters”

 

FORWARD:  While I am on sabbatical, I am reposting previous blogs.  This one for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is from just a year ago, when Dean John Welch of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and I were honored to keynote an event honoring Dr. King at First UMC in Ellwood City, PA.  Thank you to former student and colleague in ministry Rev. Chad Bogdewic, who invited me to preach; to Rev. Angelique Bradford, pastor at Ellwood City First, for hosting this event; and to the Ellwood City Ministerium, for planning it.

The grim circumstances cited in the last paragraph of this blog have, if anything, heightened in this past year, when our own President offered support to those marching with white supremacists in Charlottesville, and most recently used a scatological epithet to demean Haiti and many African nations.  We have never needed to hear and heed Dr. King’s–and Amos’–call to action more than today.

Outside the headquarters of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama stands this monument to the martyrs of the civil rights movement, whose names are carved into the fountain at its center.  On the wall around this centerpiece is engraved, “. . .until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

The attribution of the quote is correct: this exact wording comes from Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered on August  28, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C., during the March on Washington: one of the most famous speeches of modern times:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

But Dr. King, a Baptist preacher, certainly knew that when he said those words, he was paraphrasing the words of the prophet Amos:

I hate, I reject your festivals;
    I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.
If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food
        I won’t be pleased;
    I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.
Take away the noise of your songs;
        I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
        and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:21-24)

This was not the first time that Dr. King cited this passage from Amos. Indeed, he cited this passage earlier that very year, in April, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:

I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists. From “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King was in jail, in Birmingham, for leading sit-ins, marches, and protests of racial discrimination in that city.  While in jail, he learned of an open letter published in Birmingham area papers, called “A Call for Unity”—signed by eight prominent white Alabama clergymen (including two Methodist bishops).  The letter bemoans a “series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders,” and says, “We… strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets.”

In his book Why We Can’t WaitDr. King remembered writing his response to this open letter: “Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly black trusty, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me.”  The letter was published in June 1963 in three magazines, including Christian Century; but it was in the July issue of Atlantic Monthly that it reached its largest audience.  It has since been reprinted countless times–but it takes some looking to find “A Call for Unity”!

Those eight white Alabama clergymen who disapproved of Dr. King felt that civil disobedience is inappropriate for Christians. Evidently, Christians should express their faith in church, where it belongs.  Oddly, we still sometimes think of social justice and Spirit-filled worship as two different things–indeed, we may go so far as to describe these as the concerns of different churches.  But for Amos, there was no separating the two.

The passage from Amos cited by Dr. King powerfully expresses God’s passion for justice, and God’s rejection of any form of religion that does not issue forth in lives of justice.  Without right living, our prayers and hymns are just noise. And lest we think that this is just Amos’ view, or just the Old Testament’s view, the New Testament also proclaims this truth:

If anyone says, I love God, and hates a brother or sister, he is a liar, because the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister who can be seen can’t love God, who can’t be seen (1 John 4:20).

Without justice, right worship is impossible.  However, I am also persuaded that right living is impossible without right worship–or at least, very, very difficult!  If we seek to establish God’s justice on our own steam, we will burn out quickly. That’s why Jesus named two great commandments: love God, and love neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40Mark 12:28-34; and Luke 10:25-28). Just as love for the neighbor shows forth our love for God, so it is as we love God, and know ourselves loved by God in our worship, that we are empowered to love our neighbor.

While those eight prominent white Alabama clergymen may have disapproved of Dr. King, Amos would have heartily approved! Amos condemned the wealthy of his own day, declaring that God’s judgment would fall upon Israel for their callousness to the forgotten poor:

because they have sold the innocent for silver,
            and those in need for a pair of sandals.
They crush the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
        and push the afflicted out of the way (Amos 2:6-7).

Amos confronted both the religious and the political leaders of his own day for their involvement in injustice.  Amaziah, high priest at Bethel, condemned Amos as an outside agitator (!) from the southern kingdom of Judah, and ordered him to go back home:

You who see things, go, run away to the land of Judah, eat your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s holy place and his royal house (Amos 7:12-13).

Amos would have been delighted by Dr. King’s response to the charge that he too was an “outsider.”  In his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” he wrote,

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. 

Was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a prophet, like Amos?  That is not an easy question for an Old Testament scholar to answer!  After all, the prophets of ancient Israel believed that the words that they bore were God’s words, not their own: that is why Amos, like other prophets in Israel, speaks in God’s name and with God’s voice, in the first person (“I hate, I reject your festivals. . . If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food I won’t be pleased”), as God’s spokesperson. Dr. King certainly never claimed such an exalted status for himself, or for his words.

But the prophets were also ministers of God’s justice, shaking Israel out of its complacency and calling their people to remember who they were, and live as God’s people. As a voice raised on behalf of the oppressed, as a tireless laborer in the cause of God’s justice, as an example of what one person devoted to God’s call can accomplish—Dr. King was a prophetic witness to his own time, and to ours.

Today, when the gap between rich and poor has become greater than at any time since the Gilded Age and the robber barons; today, when the Southern Poverty Law Center records 1,094 reports of harassment and intimidation in the month after our recent election, “more than the group would usually see over a six-month period; ” today, when the continually rising tide of deaths of young African American men by police violence makes Dr. King’s dream seem more and more remote, may we recommit ourselves to work for and pray for the day when “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Jan
2018

The Magi

For millions of Western Christians, today–January 6–is the Feast of the Epiphany: a day associated particularly with the light of the star that guided the Magi to the Christ Child (see Matthew 2:1-12).  Tradition says that there were three Magi, that they were kings from three continents and three races, and that they were named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.  Of course, that is the way it is in our Christmas pageants and in our creches.  But none of this is in Matthew’s simple account:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him” (Matt 2:1-2).

The Magi were a clan of priests and astrologers from Persia–our words “magic” and “magician” derive from “magi.”  Matthew does not tell us how many Magi came–the traditional number three comes from their three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt 2:11-12). The idea that they were kings from distant lands and races comes from Isaiah 60:1-6, traditionally read as fulfilled in the visit of the Magi:

Nations will come to your light
    and kings to your dawning radiance.

. . . the nations’ wealth will come to you.
 Countless camels will cover your land,
    young camels from Midian and Ephah.
They will all come from Sheba,
    carrying gold and incense,
    proclaiming the Lord’s praises.

 

Still, there is an appropriateness to the tradition’s reading of the Magi as representing the whole outside world.  After all, they come to the manger as the ultimate outsiders.  They come not only from outside of Judea, but from outside the Roman empire itself–from the land of the feared Parthians, an armed and unstable threat on the empire’s eastern frontier. They are not Jews, either ethnically or religiously; while nothing is said of their religious heritage by Matthew, they would have been Zoroastrians.  Remarkably, it is Matthew who tells their story: Matthew, the most Jewish of the gospel writers, is the one who records a visit to the Christ child from foreigners and unbelievers!  Yet in this gospel these foreigners come, not as enemies to threaten the Child, but as pilgrims to honor him.

Herod’s religious experts also see the Magi’s star, and rightly interpret the Scriptures that witness to the coming king:

As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces,
        one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you.
    His origin is from remote times, from ancient days.
 Therefore, he will give them up
        until the time when she who is in labor gives birth.
        The rest of his kin will return to the people of Israel.
He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
        in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
        They will dwell secure,
        because he will surely become great throughout the earth;
        he will become one of peace (Micah 5:2-5; see Matt 2:4-6)

But these faithful, patriotic citizens stay in the false security of Herod’s walled palace, and never see the miracle.  Instead, it is the foreign, Gentile Magi who become the first, faithful witnesses to the new thing God is doing–breaking into our world as one us there in Bethlehem.

Epiphany celebrates the light of God shining into the entire world with the birth of Christ, and indeed, the light of God’s revelation shining into all our lives yesterday, today–and one day, forever!  May we learn from the wise men to be “wise guys” ourselves: to be ready to receive God’s blessing from the hands, and to hear God’s word in the voice, of a stranger.  May we say to all hatred, racism, and fearmongering a firm and unequivocal “No.”

AFTERWORD

In the Christian East, the liturgical year follows the old Julian calendar. By their reckoning, this is Christmas Eve, and tomorrow is Christmas.  So, to all our Orthodox sisters and brothers–Merry Christmas!

Jan
2018

The Holy Name of Jesus

 

FORWARD:  Today is New Year’s Day, of course–a day for rededication and new beginnings.  But it is also the eighth day of Christmas, and so according to Luke 2:21, the day when Jesus was circumcized and named.  Therefore in many traditions, this day is the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.  In recognition of that day, I am reposting these words from blogs on August 27 and September 5, 2013, about the names given to the Christ Child.  Merry Christmas, friends, and a joyous New Year 2018!

Matthew 1:18-24 provides the background for a Child ballad (no. 54) still sung in Appalachia, a Christmas carol called “The Cherry Tree.”   This strange little story never makes it into the Christmas pageants–probably because of its mature language and themes!

Mary, Joseph’s fiancee, is pregnant.  Joseph reaches the obvious, natural conclusion: Mary must have been unfaithful to him.  Certainly, the engagement was off, but in that culture, at that time, more could have–indeed many would have thought, should have–happened.  Mary’s actions had brought shame upon Joseph, as well as upon her own family.  At the least, she should have been exposed to public shame.  At the worst, with the evidence of her pregnancy to confirm her faithlessness, Mary could have been stoned to death (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:13-28, especially 20-21 and 23-27). In some parts of the world, such “honor killings” still occur today.

 

But Joseph wanted nothing to do with any of this:

Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly (Matt 1:19, CEB).

Before Joseph could act on his decision, however, an angel appeared in a dream, to assure him of Mary’s faithfulness.  Her pregnancy was a miracle; her child “was conceived by the Holy Spirit” (Matt 1:20, CEB)!  Further, the angel gave Joseph instructions concerning this child: “you will call him Jesus” (Matt 1:21, CEB).

The name Jesus (Greek Iesous; Aramaic Yeshua) is a form of the name “Joshua,” derived like that name from the Semitic word for “salvation,” yeshuah.  He is to be named this because of his life’s work: “he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21, CEB).

A second name is also given to the child, however–not by Joseph, but by the writer of this gospel, for the eyes and ears of its readers and hearers (Matt 1:22-23, CEB):

Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:

Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
        And they will call him, Emmanuel.

(Emmanuel means “God with us.”) 

One characteristic feature of Matthew’s gospel is the quotation of Scriptures that foreshadow Jesus’ life and ministry.  Here, he is quoting from Isaiah 7:10-16.

In Matthew’s gospel, then, two names are applied to the Christ before he is even born: Jesus and Emmanuel.  Both names figure prominently in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension.  

With many students of Scripture, I believe that the best explanation of both the similarities and the differences among the first three gospels (commonly called the Synoptic Gospels due to their parallel structures) is that Mark was the earliest gospel, and was used as a source in both Matthew and Luke.  This makes the differences between Mark and Matthew’s versions particularly significant for understanding Matthew’s particular emphases.

In Matthew, as in Mark, Jesus eats a Passover meal with his disciples, breaking the bread and sharing the cup.  Matthew’s version follows Mark’s, with one important addition.  In Matthew as in Mark, Jesus blesses the bread, and breaking it shares it with his disciples, saying, “Take, eat; this is my body” (26:26).  He then takes the cup, gives thanks, and shares it with them:  “Drink from this, all of you.  This is my blood of the covenant, (just what Mark says) which is poured out for many so that their sins may be forgiven” (26:27-28).  That last phrase, only Matthew has.  Remember that the angel had said, “you will call him Jesus [that is, Yeshua, or “Savior”], because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).  But, how?  Only now do we begin to see.  Somehow, in his death, Jesus takes upon himself the ugliness and horror of human life, human evil, human sin.

Now we come to the cross.  In Matthew, the death of Jesus is described in more detail than in Mark’s gospel.  In particular, Matthew has a sequence of three groups of people who mock Jesus as he is hanging on the cross.  Their words are important (look particularly at the words in italics).  First there were the passers-by (27:39-40), who said,  “So you were going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, were you? Save yourself!”  (Remember the name Yeshua, “the Savior”)  “If you are God’s Son, come down from the cross.”  (Remember the name Immanuel, “God with us”).

Next the religious leaders, the chief priests, the scribes, the elders   mock him, too:  “He saved others, but he can’t save himself. He’s the king of Israel, so let him come down from the cross now. Then we’ll believe in him. He trusts in God, so let God deliver him now if he wants to. He said, ‘I’m God’s Son’” (27:42-43).

Finally, the bandits crucified on either side of Jesus “insulted him in the same way” (27:44).  Of course, the powerful irony is  that he is on the cross because he is Yeshua.  He will not save himself because he is the savior,  enduring in full the ugliness of human evil and sin.  “Come down from the cross if you are the son of God?”  It is because he is the son of God that he remains on the cross.  That is why he, Immanuel, is here.  He is God with us–God with us even here, even at death’s door, even in the depths of human ugliness and depravity.

As in Mark, so in Matthew, Jesus cries out, “Eli, Eli lema sabachthani?” (27:46)–combined Hebrew and Aramaic for “My God! My God, why have you left me all alone?” (Psalm 22:1).  But the mocking crowd misunderstands him (Matt 27:47-49).  Someone says, “He’s calling Elijah;” someone else says  “Let’s see if Elijah will come and save him.”  But no one will save him, because he is determined to save everyone.  It is by his death that he brings salvation.

Matthew has one more scene to set before us. After his resurrection from the dead, Jesus addresses the disciples one last time:

I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth.  Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age  (Matt 28:18-20).

From the very beginning of his life, Jesus is the son of God, born of a virgin and given the name Immanuel:  God with us.  Jesus is the obedient son of his Father in all things.  In Matthew’s gospel, the cross is the ultimate act of Christ’s obedience.   At the cross, Jesus is still Immanuel, God with us, the obedient son of God.  Yet in Matthew, the cross is also the means of our salvation; at the cross, he is Yeshua, Jesus, Savior.  Somehow, his death and resurrection takes up our death and our disobedience, and does away with it.

The apostle Paul puts it this way:

If we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son while we were still enemies, now that we have been reconciled, how much more certain is it that we will be saved by his life? And not only that: we even take pride in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, the one through whom we now have a restored relationship with God (Romans 5:6-11).

In Christ’s death, the gap between humanity and divinity is bridged: we are reconciled (Greek katalasso) to God.  In Christ’s resurrection, we are given the hope and the promise of our own deliverance from death.  By entering into our life, and even into our death, Jesus draws God near to us, and us near to God.  He brings God’s divinity down to where we are, and lifts our humanity up to where God is.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus expressed this idea quite well: “That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved” (to gar aproslepton, atherapeuton ho de henotai totheu, touto kai sozetai).  By his life, Christ as Immanuel brings God to us and us to God.  By his death, Christ as Yeshua enters our death and evil and abolishes its power forever.  By his resurrection and ascension, Christ completes the meaning of both his names.  He is Jesus, our Savior, who destroys our death.  He is Immanuel, God with us, who makes us fully “at one” with God.  He is our atonement.

AFTERWORD:

I owe the insight into the names in Matthew’s gospel that I have shared here to my colleague John Blumenstein, who completed his Ph. D. in New Testament while I was working on mine in Hebrew Bible.  The Blumensteins were our neighbors in campus housing, and our dear friends–in fact, it was John who prompted me to apply for my first teaching job, and started me down this trajectory that my ministry has followed for going on 30 years.  Wherever you are today, John, and whatever you are up to–thank you!

Dec
2017

Let Justice Roll Down!

My sons and I are going to see “Justice League” today–I am very psyched!  However, the themes of justice and injustice were already much on my mind today, as was the Bible’s premier proponent of justice, the prophet Amos.

First, the Senate has voted to approve a major tax overhaul that, through massive tax cuts for the wealthiest among us, will further exacerbate the gulf between the rich and the poor this prophet so roundly condemned.  Second, Michael Flynn has pled guilty to lying to the FBI about contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia; regarding his plea, he said, “I recognize that the actions I acknowledged in court today were wrong, and, through my faith in God, I am working to set things right.”  Third, Flynn was not the only one to cite God and faith in regard to this case: former FBI director James Comey tweeted this passage from Amos:

All in all, then, this seems a good time to revisit this post from November 17, 2014.

On August  28, 1963, during the March on Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered  one of the most famous speeches of modern times at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C.  One of many high points in this human rights milestone was Dr. King’s powerful rebuttal of his detractors:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

The majestic words that conclude this paragraph, engraved into the wall at the Civil Rights Memorial outside the headquarters of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, are sometimes attributed to Dr. King.  But of course, he knew that he was quoting from the prophet Amos:

I hate, I reject your festivals;
    I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.
If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—
        I won’t be pleased;
    I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.
Take away the noise of your songs;
        I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
        and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:21-24).

Amos powerfully expresses God’s passion for justice, and God’s rejection of any form of religion that does not issue forth in lives of justice.  Oddly, we often think of social justice and Spirit-filled worship as two different things–indeed, we may go so far as to describe these as the concerns of different churches.  But for Amos–and indeed, for Jesus–there is no separating the two.

Recently Arnold Abbott, who is 90 years old, was arrested together with Pastor Dwayne Black of The Sanctuary Church in Fort Lauderdale, and Mark Sims of St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in Coral Springs, for feeding the homeless in defiance of a new ordinance in Fort Lauderdale.  Perhaps some feel that this act of civil disobedience was inappropriate: Christians should express their faith in church, where it belongs.  But Amos would celebrate this act of defiance.  Indeed, Amos condemned the wealthy of his own day for their callousness to the forgotten poor:

because they have sold the innocent for silver,
            and those in need for a pair of sandals.
     They crush the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
        and push the afflicted out of the way (Amos 2:6-7)

Today, when the gap between rich and poor has become greater than at any time since the Gilded Age and the robber barons, Amos’ words have a renewed appropriateness.  Today, when the rising tide of deaths of young African American men by police violence makes Dr. King’s dream seem more and more remote, may we recommit ourselves to work for and pray for the day when “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

 

Oct
2017

Ghoulies and Ghosties

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!

This (allegedly) traditional Scottish prayer, collected by folklorist D. L. Ashliman, reminds us of the grim folklore back of Hallowe’en.  The night before November 1 was once called Samhain, an old Celtic festival of the quarter-year (falling between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice). In Celtic culture, it was believed to be a night when the borders between this world and the next became particularly thin, so that the unquiet dead could cross over into this world and molest the living. Food offerings, lamps, and even the severed heads of enemies (grimly recalled, perhaps, by Jack o’lanterns) could be set out to appease or turn aside the ghosts.

 

We call this night not Samhain, but Halloween (that is, Hallow E’en), because October 31 is of course the night before November 1, All-Hallows Day–hence, All-Hallows Eve.  All-Hallows, or All-Saints, Day began in the days of Pope Boniface IV as a feast day for all martyrs, and was first celebrated on May 13, 609.  Pope Gregory III (731-741) shifted the focus from the martyrs to the celebration of all the saints who lack a feast of their own (and by extension, of all who have died in the Lord), and as such All-Saints was declared an official holy day of the church by Pope Gregory IV in 837.  The feast was shifted from May to November 1 in response to the European (specifically Celtic) holiday of Samhain (El Dia de Los Muertos in Spain).

When the Celts became Christians, this night was transformed by the realization that Jesus Christ had triumphed over death, hell, and the grave. Death, and the dead, no longer needed to be feared.  Those Celtic Christians now knew, as Ephesians 2:4-7 affirms,

God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace!  And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus.  God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.

The association with All-Hallows Day made this a night of rejoicing! Hallowe’en is a celebration of life, and of Christ’s victory over death and the fear of death

Because of Samhain’s grim past, some Christians have argued that we should not celebrate Hallowe’en at all–that to do so is to flirt with the demonic, and to open the door to evil influences.  I disagree.  I think it is fitting that this night, which used to be a grim and grisly night of fear, has become a night of laughter and joy, when it is little children who come to our doors to receive our offerings of food–and surely, there is no better medicine against fear and despair than joy and laughter!  As the Reformer Martin Luther once observed, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”

AFTERWORD:  I am reposting this portion of an earlier blog, to recognize and celebrate Hallowe’en and All-Saint’s Day.  Happy Hallowe’en, sisters and brothers–and praise God for all the saints!

 

Sep
2017

What Do You Do When the Worst Thing That Can Happen, Happens?

Like many of you, I have found myself returning in my mind today to the days following September 11, 2001.  On Thursday of that week, the little college town where we were living, Ashland, Virginia, held a memorial service on our town square.  I was among those asked to speak.  As I wrestled with what word to bring, indeed with how to speak a word of the Lord to this horrible event, I was led to Habakkuk 3.16-19.  Habakkuk saw his homeland destroyed by the Babylonians.  He knew what it was to suffer attack, to lose family and friends to a remorseless enemy.  The shock and horror we felt then, and may feel again in the wake of fresh tragedies, Habakkuk knew well.

I am reprinting below the sermon I preached then.  It is my prayer that Habakkuk’s ancient words, which spoke to me so powerfully then, will speak to you today, of honest grief, and hope, and healing.

 

            What do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens?  That question weighs most heavily this morning on the hearts of those who have themselves been injured, and those who grieve for loved ones, torn from them or suffering grievous harm in this attack.  But surely, it is asked by all of us here today.

            What do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens?  While this question was brought home to us powerfully and poignantly in the events of this past week, it is certainly not a new question.  The prophet Habakkuk saw his world destroyed.  He saw advancing Babylonian armies swallow up town after town, village after village.  He saw homes in flames.  He saw his friends and family slaughtered or taken away in chains to Babylon.  Habakkuk cried out, “Are you from of old, O LORD my God, my Holy One?  We shall not die.” (Hab. 1:12)  Surely, surely, you will not let us die.  “Your eyes are too pure and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (Hab 1:13)  Habakkuk is in shock.  He can’t accept what he sees and hears.  “I hear, and I tremble within.  My lips quiver at the sound.  Rottenness enters into my bones, my steps tremble beneath me.” (Hab 3:16)  We know how that feels, don’t we?  Seeing on the television screen, or reading the newspaper, or hearing on the radio the news of what happened Tuesday morning in Washington and New York and Pennsylvania—surely, we know how the prophet feels.  Who could believe it?  Who can believe it now?

From shock, Habakkuk moves to anger.  “I wait quietly for the day of calamity to come upon the people who attack us.” (Hab 3:17)  We know how that feels too, don’t we?  Our hearts cry out for vengeance against those who have brought this horror and devastation to our land.  We are dishonest to ourselves and dishonest to God if we do not own that anger.  But, Habakkuk didn’t stay with the anger, and neither can we.  If we stay with the anger, the desire for vengeance, then we will never heal.  We will never move on to wholeness and new life.

Sisters and brothers, God forbid that the horrific assault that our nation suffered on Tuesday should cause us to forget who we are!  We are a nation founded upon fundamental human rights and freedom for all people, affirming the essential dignity of every woman and man.  If this assault makes us forget that, then the terrorists will have won.  They will have destroyed, not just stone and mortar and steel and flesh, but the dream that makes us who we are.

A former student of mine is working as a missionary in Egypt, helping to settle Sudanese refugees.  He told me that Egyptians have been coming up to him since September 11, telling him how horrified they are by what happened and how deeply sorry they are that this has taken place.  Even the Sudanese refugees with whom he works, people who have lost everything, who have nothing, have been comforting him, telling him how sorry they are about all that has happened.  Friends, the people who committed this atrocity may have been Arabs, but the Arab people did not do this.  Those who brought this horror to us may have called themselves Muslims, but Islam did not do this.  In the difficult days ahead, should the call that justice be brought to the criminals who perpetrated this act transform itself into a cry of vengeance against a race or religion, we must recognize that prejudice for the evil that it is, repudiate it, and root it out of our midst.

So what do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens?  Habakkuk says, “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation.”(Hab 3:17-18)  Oh God, this is as bad as it gets!  How can we get through this? Habakkuk says, Though I cannot see your face, Lord, though I cannot feel your hand, I know you are with me: “I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation.” (Hab 3:18).

The attacks Tuesday morning robbed us of a sense of security, of safety, of invulnerability that many of us had come to accept as our birthright.  Such things happen over there, sure, in foreign places, but they can never happen here.  We were wrong.  But then, our security never was in the strength of our military, much as we respect and honor those who serve us all in that noble calling.  Our security lies this morning where it has ever lain, in the confidence that God’s peace enfolds us, and that nothing can wrest us from God’s hand.

The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Rome, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)  That’s security, sisters and brothers–the only security we can have; the only security we truly need.

“GOD, the Lord, is my strength,” Habakkuk says; “He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.” (Hab 3:19)  A deer can make its way over seemingly impassible terrain.  It can mount up impossible precipices.  The prophet is saying, “Lord, I don’t see how I can get through this!  But I know that you have given me feet like the feet of a deer, to leap over the obstacles that lie before me, to mount up the precipices that rise to cover me.”  May that be our prayer today: that God will give us feet like a deer, to carry us through these times!  God can give us, and will give us in these coming days, the courage to meet whatever obstacles lie ahead, and the resolve to make our way through.

We’ve already begun well, by coming here to pray together, lifting ourselves and our nation up to the Lord.  We’ve already begun well, by involving ourselves in ministries of kindness and service.  God will show us, in coming days, ways that we may demonstrate God’s love and kindness to a hurting world.  But most of all, as we turn to the Lord, God will give us in these days to come the confident assurance that we are in God’s hands.  No one and nothing can take us from the hand of God—not even when the worst thing that can happen, happens.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Aug
2017

“The sun became black as sackcloth. . .”

 

Last Monday, August 21, Wendy and I were in Bowling Green, Kentucky for the solar eclipse.  A solar eclipse happens whenever the moon passes between the earth and the sun, so that the moon’s shadow falls on the earth.  Eclipses are not unusual–one happens somewhere on the earth’s surface ever 18 months. But this was the first total eclipse visible all across the continental United States since June 8, 1918.

Total eclipses are a minor miracle.  The earth is just far enough from our sun, and our moon is just large enough and just far enough away from us, that the moon and sun have about the same apparent size in the sky.  This means that, from our perspective, the moon can entirely block the sun’s disk, making visible the wispy corona surrounding our star.

This is not always the case: since the moon orbits our planet in an ellipse rather than a circle, its apparent size at its furthest distance from us is slightly smaller than our sun.  An eclipse in those circumstances results in a thin ring of sunlight visible all around the dark lunar disk–an annular eclipse (this picture is by Kevin Baird, copyright 2012) like the one I remember viewing with a pinhole camera in West Virginia May of 1994.

The photo of the 2017 eclipse at the head of this blog was not taken by us.  It is from NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day site, and was taken in South Carolina, right in the center of the band of totality–that is, the area entirely within the moon’s shadow–that on August 21 crossed the continental United States, from Oregon to South Carolina.

Where we were–in the band of totality, but not at its center–the experience was different.  We watched through our viewers as the moon advanced across the sun’s disk, from a wee bite off the upper right edge until the moon’s disk entirely covered the sun.  Although the sky was mostly clear, the sunlight faded, as on an overcast day, until the world became. . . not dark, but twilit–like early evening.  It had been a hot summer day, but the air became cool.   During the minute and a half or so of totality, when we could look up with unprotected eyes, the sun was a dark black circle–like a hole in the sky.  The corona was far brighter than I had expected: a ring of brilliant white fire.

My attempts at amateur photography failed to capture what we saw at all–but as the moment of totality passed, the gaps between the leaves of the tree under which Wendy and I were sitting acted as natural pinhole cameras, refracting images of the crescent sun onto our lawn chairs:

So–why am I, a self-styled Bible Guy, blogging about this?  Most of the time, we can comfortably live as though we are at the center of the universe.  The eclipse was a vivid reminder that we are not:  that the universe is far larger, stranger, and more wonderful than our day-to-day experience may lead us to believe.

Ancient people of course also experienced eclipses, and so it should be no surprise that these awesome events are described in Scripture.  The title of this blog comes from the King James Version of Revelation 6:12:

And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood. . .

The “moon became as blood”  describes another, more commonly observed event, when the moon passes into the shadow of the earth: a lunar eclipse.

Although ancient people did not know what caused lunar and solar eclipses, they certainly knew that these events never happened in conjunction.  So the sun becoming “black as sackcloth” and the moon becoming “as blood” could only mean an undoing of the fundamental laws of creation.  John in Revelation draws on a stock of images of the coming day of the LORD, particularly Joel 2:30-31 (3:3-4 in Hebrew):

I will give signs in the heavens and on the earth—blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood before the great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.

This image is also found in the Gospel pronouncements concerning the end:

In those days, after the suffering of that time, the sun will become dark, and the moon won’t give its light. The stars will fall from the sky, and the planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken (Mark 13:24-25; see also Matt 24:29; Luke 21:25).

Another, more surprising reference to the eclipse comes from James 1:17:

Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all.

While the Common English Bible catches the sense of this passage, it obscures some subtleties in the language.  First, God is addressed in this passage as patros ton photon: literally “the Father of lights” (see the NRSV and KJV of this verse).  The reference is likely to Genesis 1:14-19, where God populates the sky dome with lights–both the greater lights of the sun and moon, and the lesser lights of the stars.  Hence, the CEB unpacks the Greek phrase as “the Father, creator of the heavenly lights.”

This astronomical image of God continues in the following phrase: par’ ho ouk eni parallage he tropes aposkiasma.  Here, the CEB paraphrases to capture the point of this image: God does not change, but is the constant and dependable source of “every good gift.”  The KJV renders more literally, in a way that captures the astronomical reference: “with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”  The stars change as the heavens turn above us.  Indeed, the ancients knew well not only that the stars varied in brightness and color (see 1 Cor 15:31), but that some individual stars varied in brightness over time; that new stars, as well as meteors and comets, could sometimes appear; and that the planets (from the Greek word for “wanderer”) followed their own quite distinct courses through the cosmos.  Unlike the lights, then, God their Father is constant!  But the expression he tropes aposkiasma (literally, “nor of turning a shadow”) is particularly intriguing.  I believe that it describes the eclipse.  The moon may wax, or wane, or turn blood-red, and the sun itself may dim, and even disappear–but God’s love and goodness cannot be eclipsed!  As the apostle Paul wrote,

I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created (Rom 8:38-39).

AFTERWORD

While we were in Kentucky, we learned that my Dad’s sister, Barbara Ann Tuell, had died.  We were privileged to celebrate her life at her funeral at Big Tygart UMC, our home church.  The following memorial was written by Kim Currence Yeager, whom Barbara raised, and who cared for Barbara lovingly and faithfully through her long illness.  Thank you, Kim–and may light perpetual shine upon you, Aunt Barb!

Barbara Ann Tuell, 80, of Mineral Wells, went home to be with Jesus, on Sunday, August 20, 2017, surrounded by her loving family.

She was born July 9, 1937 in Parkersburg, the daughter of the late Robert and Vida Tuell.

She was known as Grammy, to her grandson Clayton, who she always said was her reason for fighting so hard during this long battle with cancer. She loved spending time with family and truly dedicated her life to loving and caring for them. God used her selfless, giving and gentle heart to impact their lives in a tremendous way.

She is survived by her chosen daughter who she raised from the age of seven, Kim Yeager and husband Todd and their son Clayton Reese, who she lived with; her brother, Bernard Tuell and nieces and nephews, Tammy Parker, Steven Shawn Tuell, Tracey Dent and Dee Dee Nichols. She also will be greatly missed by her best friend, Mildred Oldaker, and Kim’s brother, Alan Currence.

In addition to her parents and infant sister, she was preceded in death by her sister-in-law, Mary Tuell and Kim’s parents, Marvin and Wilodene Currence.

Her family would like to sincerely thank Dr. Kelli Cawley, Marsha McCullough and the staff at Strecker Cancer Center for all the compassionate care and kindness they provided, also to Nicole and Amedisys Hospice for comfort in these last days.

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race and I have kept the faith.” 2 Timothy 4:7.

Jul
2017

Responses to “The Truth in the Bible.”

In my previous blog, I posted an open letter to the Wesleyan Covenant Association concerning their slogan “The Bible Is True” (as explained by Rev. Jeff Greenway on the WCA website).  The letter has prompted lots of response.  This year at annual conference, many people expressed appreciation for the stance I had taken–thank you.  I also thank Kris Bishop and Rev. Joe Stains for taking the time to draft detailed formal responses, deserving a reply (you can find their responses below, in full).

First, both letters acknowledge the main point of my letter: that readers of Scripture are also inescapably interpreters of Scripture.  Neither letter embraces the position Rev. Greenway advocated in his post, which is no surprise: “God said it–I believe it–that settles it” is not an accurate account of anyone’s actual approach to the Bible.  Texts must be read, interpreted, and applied prayerfully and carefully, attentive to their context in Scripture and in history.  Kris Bishop is absolutely correct that the examples I cited to make this point were not comparing “apples to apples,” but “trying to say that apples are oranges and oranges are pears.”  I agree entirely with the biblical justifications Rev. Stains uses for Sunday worship (one of my illustrations), and both Kris Bishop and Rev. Stains are correct that the texts I cited about women in ministry from the Pastoral Epistles are certainly context-bound.

But that was exactly my point.  All of us readily recognize, for example, that the ritual purity laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy are of a different order than Leviticus 19:18 or Deuteronomy 6:5  (Jesus calls these the two greatest commandments; see Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; and Luke 10:25-28).  Different passages may call for different approaches.  The Bible is not flat!

I apologize if this was unclear in my letter: after all, I did write,”Consistency and honesty demand that we treat the biblical statements on this issue [that is, homosexuality] no differently than we do other texts.” But what I meant by this was that since we acknowledge the importance of context in those other matters, we ought to recognize that importance in our reading of the homosexuality passages as well (those interested in my approach to those biblical texts can find my blogs on those passages by entering “homosexuality” in the “Search” window).

This was, in particular, my reason for mentioning divorce in the letter.  I agree entirely with Rev. Stains’ pastoral approach to divorce and remarriage.  It must be acknowledged, however, that while in Matthew 19:9 and 5:31-32 divorce is permitted in cases of adultery, no such allowance is made in Luke 16:18, Mark 10:1-12, or 1 Cor 7:10-16–and remarriage is forbidden in all. We can make sense of Jesus’ teaching by seeing it in its historical and social context: in Palestine in Jesus’ day, women could not independently own property.  Divorce meant that the woman would be dependent upon her family or community to support her, and could therefore be made homeless and destitute by her husband’s rejection.  So Jesus set the Law aside and rejected divorce in order to protect women from being set aside at their husbands’ whims.

My point is that the biblical basis for opposing divorce and remarriage is as strong as if not stronger than the biblical basis for opposing LGBTQ inclusion.  Context matters–not only the historical, social, and canonical context of the biblical texts, but our own contemporary, pastoral context as well.

However, both Kris Bishop and Rev. Stains have misunderstood my reason for making this point.  Kris Bishop writes, “We cannot say that just because we don’t follow dietary law of the OT that NT laws no longer apply or should be reinterpreted.”  Rev. Stains observes, “Dr. Tuell cites these perceived contradictions as if to suggest that, since we have already taken liberty with these issues, we are now free to take it wherever we choose.”  Both seem to think that I am in danger of setting aside moral standards in Scripture, or that I am advocating for a mere relativism–since the church has already taken positions in opposition to some Scripture on some points, then anything goes! But my letter does not say this, nor is it my position.

If we grant (as both of my respondents evidently do) that ALL of us are interpreters of Scripture, then it does not do to claim that wrestling with the interpretation of the Bible amounts to declaring that “God’s Word and his will for us is no longer the truth,” or to say that those with whom we disagree “believe that those Scriptures that no longer conform to the norms of modern society are obsolete and without meaning. In essence, they want the church to proclaim to the world that in some places in Scripture, God got it wrong” (statements taken directly from Rev. Greenway’s post).

Nor, by the way, does this mean that all interpretations are equally valid–clearly, Scripture can be misread.  But surely, recognizing that we are all of us interpreters, seeking to discern God’s will in the words of Scripture, calls for humility on all sides, and a willingness to listen (and to argue!) without breaking fellowship.  Surely, such openness is in the spirit of John Wesley!

In his Sermon 39, on the “Catholic Spirit,” John Wesley unpacks 2 Kings 10:15, which reads in the King James Version “And when [Jehu] was departed thence, he lighted on Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him: and he saluted him, and said to him, ‘Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?’ And Jehonadab answered, ‘It is.’ ‘If it be, give me thine hand.’ And he gave him his hand; and he took him up to him into the chariot.”  Wesley declared this as his own view with regard to sisters and brothers from other church bodies: “Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? If it be, give me thine hand.”

I do not mean, “Be of my opinion.” You need not: I do not expect or desire it. Neither do I mean, “I will be of your opinion.” I cannot, it does not depend on my choice: I can no more think, than I can see or hear, as I will. Keep you your opinion; I mine; and that as steadily as ever. You need not even endeavour to come over to me, or bring me over to you. I do not desire you to dispute those points, or to hear or speak one word concerning them. Let all opinions alone on one side and the other: only “give me thine hand.”

By this, Wesley did not mean to call for mere relativism either (a position he calls “speculative latitudinarianism,” or “an indifference to all opinions: this is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven”!). Indeed, Wesley held that every Christian must hold her or his convictions firmly: “A man of a truly catholic spirit has not now his religion to seek. . . . he is always ready to hear and weigh whatsoever can be offered against his principles; but as this does not show any wavering in his own mind, so neither does it occasion any.”

That said, however, Wesley was also fully aware that “humanum est errare et nescire: ‘To be ignorant of many things, and to mistake in some, is the necessary condition of humanity’” (Wesley’s own translation of a quote from the Duke of Buckingham’s epitaph)—that is, “He knows, in the general, that he himself is mistaken; although in what particulars he mistakes, he does not, perhaps he cannot, know.” This realization necessitates, in any reasonable person, a generosity of spirit:

Every wise man, therefore, will allow others the same liberty of thinking which he desires they should allow him; and will no more insist on their embracing his opinions, than he would have them to insist on his embracing theirs. He bears with those who differ from him, and only asks him with whom he desires to unite in love that single question, “Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thy heart”?

It was not my purpose in my letter, Rev. Stains, to deny that “ORTHODOX SCRIPTURAL VIEWS DO HAVE GROUNDING.”  Nor did I intend, Kris Bishop, to say that “there is no way to define sin.”  My purpose, and my hope, as I wrote in my letter, is this:

It is my prayer that we can study together, carefully and prayerfully, attentive as Rev. Greenway rightly says to our tradition, but also applying our God-given reason, and listening to the experiences of our sisters and brothers. We may not ever agree in full. But perhaps we can find sufficient concord in the Holy Spirit and Holy Scripture to recognize one another as sisters and brothers.

AFTERWORD:

First, I am now on a year-long sabbatical from my position at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  For the duration, my blog entries will be more scattered than they have been previously.  I ask for your patience, and for your prayers for the research projects in which I am now engaged.

Second, here are the two responses to my letter, in full:

Kris Bishop (see also the comments section of my previous blog):

I’m honestly trying to see things from your perspective, but it seems that you are trying to say that apples are oranges and oranges are pears. Apples are not oranges; oranges are not pears. Hermeneutics is like this as well. A lot of things changed from the OT to the NT – a paradigm shift. We cannot look at an OT passage (an apple) the same way we can look at a NT passage that is intended to be universally interpreted, since the new paradigmatic interpretation is already applied to the passage (this is an orange). The pear is when the passage in the NT is meant for a specific purpose, place, time, scenario, etc.

We cannot say that just because we don’t follow dietary law of the OT that NT laws no longer apply or should be reinterpreted. The OT was full of adumbrations that needed to be illuminated in the NT. When Peter saw the unclean animals in the vision and was told to eat (Acts 10), the dietary law was shown to have a true purpose to point forward from the time of separation from the Gentiles to the time of inclusion of the Gentiles. Further, dietary laws are to be interpreted in light of the NT explications: “…commanding to abstain from meats…” even though “it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:3-5) or Romans 14:14 that says that “there is nothing unclean of itself”.

We also cannot say that we interpret something listed as a “work of the flesh” or as “sin” as something that was given as specific instructions to a specific church. If the Bible were to say to “suffer not a HOMOSEXUAL to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” (1 Timothy 2:12) we would have to interpret, because for a person to “be in silence” is impossible to follow 100% of the time – it was obviously meant for a specific time or situation. In this case, we would have to identify the situation that a HOMOSEXUAL wouldNOT be able to be quiet and/or to teach.

If the Bible were to say that “…A BLACKSMITH…shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:7 1Timothy 1:10, and Romans 1), we would need NO interpretation. A person who works as a BLACKSMITH is obviously doing something wrong in this example. It has nothing to do with how he/she was born or was nurtured; it has to do with what he/she does. A person can be born with proclivities toward being a BLACKSMITH, may have the talent to become a BLACKSMITH, and may even be nurtured and trained as a BLACKSMITH, but then he still has a choice to become a BLACKSMITH by taking on the role of a BLACKSMITH. A person can be born with a predisposition to alcohol and be in an environment that encourages drinking, and still choose not to drink. I see homosexuality as the same thing – being active in a lifestyle is different from having certain temptations that may lead to that lifestyle.

The Apple here is the dietrary laws; the orange is the “shall not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven” situations (to include HOMOSEXUALITY), and Pear is the questionable one of silence for women. They are all to be treated Hermeneutically differently, but the Oranges are black-and-white, and only the apples and pears are gray. If we cannot draw a line at homosexuality as sin with such black-and-white language as there is in the NT concerning HOMOSEXUALITY and other sins (1 Corinthians 6:7; 1Timothy 1:10, and Romans 1), then is it even possible to draw a line that defines sin? I think not. And if there is no way to define sin, then “let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die (Romans 15:32).”

Joe Stains (from his Facebook page):

Church-related friends are most likely to recognize the connection to this essay I wrote in response to an article recently distributed by Dr. Steven Tuell of Reconciling Ministries. It is part of an ongoing dialogue. Anyone interested is welcome to read.

ORTHODOX SCRIPTURAL VIEWS DO HAVE GROUNDING

In mid-May the Reconciling Ministries Network of Western Pennsylvania posted a positional article on use of scripture by Dr. Steven Tuell, a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, in response to an article by Dr. Jeff Greenway of the Wesley Covenant Association.

This article is a response to Dr. Tuell’s, with concern for a balanced overview of scriptural interpretation in general, and its application to the current, pressing issue before our church and society regarding LGBT acceptance. Many credentialed writers have presented on all sides of these issues, after all, and the conversation must continue.

When the passages Dr. Tuell cites, and the issues they represent, are viewed in a larger context of covenant history, we find different implications from those offered in his article.

Mosaic law was variously civil, ceremonial, and moral. Its revisions came with major, covenant-altering episodes:

1) Execution of Old-Testament civil penalties essentially ended with the Babylonian invasion. Thus, for instance, the Sanhedrin needed Rome to crucify Jesus.

2) Second Isaiah’s new allowances for permission to enter the envisioned New Temple were based on his new
understanding of Israel’s divine purpose in history—a light to the nations (Isaiah 49:6, 60:1-3); a house of prayer for all people who hold fast to the Lord’s covenant (Isaiah 56:4-8).

3) Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection introduced the radical New Covenant—the ultimately worldwide Kingdom of God. Ceremonial law became obsolete. He declared all foods clean. Sabbath obedience was re-oriented. Discussions about vengeance were about its morality rather than civil legitimacy; Moses restricted it, and Jesus went to the motive, offering a counter-approach for New Covenant disciples.

4) With respect to moral law, however, Jesus’ teachings—especially in Matthew 5—actually raised the bar for his followers. The consistent principle there took obedience from outward action to inward motive. Thus those innocent of actual murder are not off the hook while harboring malice, those innocent of actual adultery must still answer for harboring lust, etc. Men (the only ones allowed at the time to divorce) had no moral right to cut loose their wives except for adultery. Those teaching to relax the moral code “will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” Those not embracing the higher moral bar “will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Dr. Tuell goes on to suggest that the Church already has co-opted practices contrary to scripture in positions regarding divorce, Christian sabbath, and female leadership. It would be redundant to re-articulate the biblical and theological bases for these practices, which long-since have been made in other venues. In brief observation, though:

1) Divorce by any measure is a consequence of our fallenness. Jesus accepts divorce in the case of unfaithfulness (Matt. 5:32); but it is always, as our Discipline also states, a tragic result of our human brokenness. Conscientious believers recovering from it testify to recovery from sin that induced the divorce before being ready for a new start.

2) Christian choice of Sabbath is based on Jesus’ identity as Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:27f), the consistent practice of Christians to gather on the first day of the week, (eg. Luke 24 and John 20, Acts 20:7, I Corinthians 16:1f.}, the omission of Jewish Sabbath in the letter to Gentile Christians in Acts 15, and the dismissal of preoccupation with the issue, Colossians 2:7. Effectively, only Jewish Christians in the New Testament observed Jewish Sabbath.

3) Scriptural references regarding female leadership are not unilateral. Dr. Tuell mentioned only the situational
passages against it, sans the balancing references in its favor, eg. Judges 4:4,8f.; Romans 16:1-2; and Joel 2:28f. (quoted also by Peter in Acts 2:17f.).

Dr. Tuell cites these perceived contradictions as if to suggest that, since we have already taken liberty with these issues, we are now free to take it wherever we choose. These are not compelling analogies to the “elephant in the room”, as Dr. Tuell dubs it.

First, to be clear, the issue at hand is not about whether practicing homosexuals have been in pews. Nor is it about whether we are called to love people in spite of sin. The questions are:

1) Is homosexual practice sin?
2) If so, is it of a kind that precludes one from Christian leadership?

Tradition and the historical weight of scriptural interpretation say yes to both, evidenced by the consistency of Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and pre-20th Century Protestant positions on the matter. Wherever the practice is explicitly mentioned in scripture (mainly Leviticus, I Corinthians, and Romans), it is described with unambiguous repugnance, across over a thousand years, from Jewish distinction as God’s people to Gentile Christian witness in a morally pluralistic culture. The revisionist view has arisen in the 20th-century West, in the context of the Sexual Revolution’s new ethic, and the desire of the Western church to recover former rapprochement with the increasingly secularized ambient culture. It is the revisionists’ contrast to this historically consistent exegetic—not simplistic conservative interpretation—that raises the WCA’s question about revisionist priority for biblical faithfulness.

There are widely-accepted boundaries around eligibility for Christian leadership. No church is likely to publicly endorse leaders known for present drunkenness, theft, gambling, or racism, for instance. In the realm of sexual practice, there also are boundaries honored by consensus: practicing adultery, polygamy, marriage to relatives, nonmarital relations, relations with animals, to name some. Most of these are biblically based, as is homosexual practice. If we make a singular exception for homosexual practice, we need a strong theological rationale for doing so. The culture has already started asking us about some of the others. If we pass on one, on what grounds do we continue to exclude the next?

Further, rearranging historically-accepted boundaries of moral behavior also should come with a watershed redefinition of covenant identity as it has in the past, on the scale of Temple destruction and exile in the Old Testament, or the Resurrection of Jesus in the New. Even in those critical events, it was ceremonial and civil—not moral frameworks—that were revised. Against the magnitude of those events, the Sexual Revolution or the affluent West’s cultural drift do not appear to stand tall.

One of the things seekers want deeply to know from Christians is what a godly ethical framework for living looks like. Many are earnestly willing to change much—sacrificially—in their lives to be closer to God. Traditionalists and revisionists agree on much of what this framework is. And most agree that we do people more good with clarity, and rescue from evil, than from redefining the boundaries of fidelity. The disagreement is not about whether to have boundaries, but rather about whether/where to shift them.

A deeper dialogue on what compassionate consistency looks like is our best hope for restored cogency of our witness in these confusing times.

 

May
2017

The Truth in the Bible

This Thursday, May 25, is Ascension Day.  On this day, we remember when, as the disciples watched, Jesus was taken out of their sight, and into heaven (Luke 24:50-51). In the Gospel reading for this day, Jesus tells his followers:

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Law from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”  Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures (Luke 24:44-45).

Here, Jesus calls to mind all three parts of the Hebrew Bible: Torah (the Law, or the books of Moses), Nebi’im (the Prophets), and Kethubim (the Writings, including the Psalms).  It seems unlikely that Jesus was speaking of specific texts pointing to himself.  Rather it seems that the whole of Scripture finds its fulfillment–its truth–in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.

The truth of Scripture is much on my mind this week.  The following is an open letter that I wrote, posted this week, responding to the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s statement, “The Bible is true.” I offer it for your consideration, particularly for my fellow United Methodist Christians as we prayerfully consider the future of our church.

Dear sisters and brothers,

As an Old Testament scholar who loves the Bible and whose ministry is devoted to studying and teaching Scripture, I have been most concerned about and interested by the middle of the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s tagline: “God is good, the Bible is true, promises should be kept.” Of course “the Bible is true,” if what we mean by that is that the Bible points us to Jesus, who is the truth (John 14:6). But people of faith often disagree on what particular Bible passages mean, or how they should best be applied. Does “the Bible is true” mean that only one way of reading Scripture leads to truth?

Rev. Jeff Greenway, a leader in the WCA, has recently posted a statement about Scripture on their web page, unpacking this claim (https://wesleyancovenant.org/the-bible-is-true/). His post indeed does seems to say, not only that the WCA’s reading of the Bible is the only right one, but that those who read the Bible differently don’t really care about the Bible at all. I do read the Bible differently than Rev. Greenway, yet I do love the Lord and the Bible—so I must say that I do not recognize myself in his post. Further, I do not believe that he, or anyone else in his movement, actually reads Scripture in the way that this post claims.

Rev. Greenway states, “The Bible clearly tells us that there are some things we should do, and some things we should not do, and consequences for both.” This is of course correct. But he goes on to say that “Somehow in the last forty years, our Western culture has decided that God’s Word and his will for us is no longer the truth.” Actually, however, questions about how to discern God’s will in Scripture began long before forty years ago. Some of those clear biblical statements are already called into question in the Bible itself, without denying either God or the force of God’s will. To take only two examples:

In Isaiah 56:3-5, the prophet includes eunuchs—men castrated by the Babylonians (see 2 Kings 20:18//Isaiah 39:7)—in the worshipping congregation, even though Deuteronomy 23:1 says that they are to be barred. The prophet does not deny the truth of God’s word, or the importance of the Law; rather, the heart and spirit of the Law (these are “eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, choose what I desire, and remain loyal to my covenant;” Isa 56:4 [CEB]) matters more to him than its letter.

In Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus says, six times, “You have heard it said,” quotes a passage from the Scriptures, and then declares, “but I say”—going so far as to set aside the law of retribution in Exodus 21:24, and the law concerning divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Yet Jesus too affirms the Law and the Prophets, saying “I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17 [CEB]).

Rev. Greenway says of those who (like me) read the Bible differently, “Some believe that those Scriptures that no longer conform to the norms of modern society are obsolete and without meaning. In essence, they want the church to proclaim to the world that in some places in Scripture, God got it wrong.” Yet the texts we have just considered both reinterpreted the Law for a new context (the time after the return from exile in Isaiah, first-century Judea under Roman rule in Matthew) without declaring the Law “obsolete and without meaning,” or saying that “God got it wrong.”

Rev. Greenway quotes from the NIV of 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is God-breathed [the Greek has a rare word, theopneustos, usually translated “inspired by God”]”—implying that the words of Scripture are God’s actual words, fixed and unchangeable. But that is plainly not how Jesus, or the prophet, or anyone of faith in ancient times read Scripture. Indeed, as the rather modest claims the author of 2 Timothy actually makes about Scripture reveal, he did not mean to suggest this either: “Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful [not, note, perfect, or infallible, or unchangeable, but “useful”] for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good” (2 Tim 3:16 [CEB]).

Indeed, none of us (including Rev. Greenway) actually read Scripture in this literal sense, applying it uncritically to our lives. All of us interpret Scripture for our contexts, and apply it selectively. So, we Christians worship on Sunday because we choose to honor our Lord by worshipping on “the Lord’s day” (Rev 1:10), the day of Jesus’ resurrection—but in so doing (particularly if we do yard work on Saturday!), we violate Sabbath law (for example, Deut 5:12-15). If we enjoy ham or crab cakes, we violate dietary law (see Leviticus 11). If we accept or charge interest on loans, we violate some of the Bible’s fundamental economic principles (for example, Exod 22:25; Deut 23:19-20; Ezek 18:8). We Christians might dismissively say that that is all Old Testament stuff, and that we live by the New Testament —but then, we are even more caught in a bind! The Gospels advocate a lifestyle of radical renunciation of the world–how many of us are prepared to “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor” (Matt 19:21)? Jesus, as we have noted, explicitly condemns divorce and re-marriage (Matt 5:31-32; see also Matt 19:3-9//Mark 10:1-12 and Luke 16:18), as does Paul (1 Cor 7:10-16). But our United Methodist Discipline upholds this practice—and how many of us truly believe that all divorced and remarried people are living in sin? The WCA affirms with all United Methodists the place of women in ordained ministry—but that too is a position contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture (for example, 1 Cor 14:33-36; 1 Tim 2:8-15). The point is that we can, and do, read and apply Scripture attentive to our context as well as the context of the biblical witness—without cheapening our respect or love for God or the Bible.

The unmentioned elephant in the room is hinted at by Rev. Greenway’s often stated “forty years” (with reference perhaps to the 1972 Book of Discipline, when the sentence, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” [¶ 161F, p. 111] first appeared?). What is the church to do about LGBTQ persons: in our pews, in our pulpits, and more broadly, about the legalization of same-sex marriage in every state of our republic? We cannot simply point at the Bible and say “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Consistency and honesty demand that we treat the biblical statements on this issue no differently than we do other texts. It is my prayer that we can study together, carefully and prayerfully, attentive as Rev. Greenway rightly says to our tradition, but also applying our God-given reason, and listening to the experiences of our sisters and brothers. We may not ever agree in full. But perhaps we can find sufficient concord in the Holy Spirit and Holy Scripture to recognize one another as sisters and brothers.

God’s peace,

Steven Tuell
Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

AFTERWORD

From Bishop William Boyd Grove, who ordained me, and will always be my Bishop:

On this date, May 24, 1738, which is 280 years ago, John Wesley had his heart warming experience at a prayer meeting in Aldersgate Street in London. He wrote in his journal, ‘At a quarter before nine, while someone was reading Martin Luther’s Preface to the Letter to the Romans, I felt my heart strangely warmed, and did trust that Christ had saved me from the law of sin and death.’ That experience produced a harvest; the Methodist Movement and the Methodist Church.