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

May
2017

Mother’s Day, and a Woman’s Place

This Sunday is Mother’s Day–the second Mother’s Day since my Mom, Mary Louise Tuell, joined the Church Triumphant.  My mother was a deeply loving, very shy woman.  Yet her love for people, and her love for the Lord, overcame her shyness.  I never think of my Mom without remembering her favorite passage of Scripture, 1 John 4:18:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.

Because of God’s perfect love burning in her heart, Mom overcame her fears, and went back to school to become a Registered Nurse.  She was a leader in our local church, responsible for starting our prayer chain (a ministry that is still going strong), and a persistent voice for outreach ministry.  Because of her example, Mother’s Day has become, for me, a reminder of God’s call to and through faithful women.

 

We at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary were honored this week to have the new Bishop of the Western PA Conference, Rev. Cynthia Moore-Koikoi,  on our campus.  Bishop Moore-Koikoi preached, taught, prayed over our graduating seniors, and shared insights with our community.

In a question and answer session over lunch, she reflected sadly that there were pastors in our conference preaching and teaching that women ought not be in our pulpits, or in positions of leadership.  This despite the fact that since 1956 (the year that I was born), the (then) Methodist Church has been ordaining women, a practice expressly continued in 1968 when the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren churches joined to form the United Methodist Church.

Indeed, Methodist women have been in ministry since the birth of our movement.  Although he faced severe criticism for doing so, John Wesley himself gave permission for Sarah Mallet to preach in 1787, holding her to standards no different than those expected of all Methodist lay preachers.

Pioneering, dynamic Methodist preachers such as Jarena Lee were recognized as evangelists or local pastors, even though they were mostly barred from ordination in the various denominations that would form the United Methodist Church (the former United Brethren being an occasional exception).

Jarena Lee has been particularly on my mind in recent days.  A letter supporting Bishop Karen Olivetto from her alma mater, Drew Theological Seminary, contained these stirring words:

We are reminded of that powerful moment in the early 19th century when Jarena Lee went to Bishop Richard Allen of the AME Church to ask him to license her to preach. Bishop Allen told Lee no, that the Book of Discipline ‘did not call for women preachers.’ In response, Lee prophesied, ‘O how careful ought we to be, lest through our by-laws of church government and discipline, we bring into disrepute even the word of life.’

That, of course, is the rub.  I suspect that those preachers to whom Bishop Moore-Koikoi referred in her remarks would object rather stringently that they are following (as they would put it), “not the traditions of man, but the Word of God.”  They have a point, of course:  1 Timothy 2:8-15 denies women the right to preach or lead, because “Adam wasn’t deceived, but rather his wife became the one who stepped over the line because she was completely deceived” (1 Tim 2:14).

The problem is, that is actually not what Genesis 3 says at all.  There, the man and the woman alike (as well as the snake!) are held accountable for their actions.

Indeed, from the very beginning of the Bible, women and men are alike affirmed.  Where the King James Version of Genesis 1:26 has God say, “Let us make man,” the Common English Bible has “Let us make humanity” (Gen 1:26).   This is not, as some might claim, political correctness, but accurate translation. In Hebrew, if I want to say “man,” I can say it: the word for “man” is ‘ish. But the word used here is not ‘ish but ‘adam, which means not “man” but “humanity.”  It is particularly important that we translate ‘adam correctly, because Genesis 1:27 goes on very plainly to state:

God created humanity [adam] in God’s own image,
in the divine image God created them,
male and female God created them.

Both masculinity and femininity, both maleness and femaleness, are reflections of God in this text. There is no basis here for placing women under men. To be sure, Israel’s traditions were not always equal to this insight!  Yet here it is, at the very beginning of the Bible.  Sexism has no place in God’s rightly ordered world.

The Old Testament is filled with surprising stories about strong women taking the lead.  Miriam, Moses’ sister, was a prophet (see Micah 6:4, which describes Miriam alongside Moses and Aaron as leading the Israelites to freedom). The prophet Deborah (Judges 4-5) unites the tribes of Israel against their enemies. Ruth, a poor Moabite widow, takes the first step in proclaiming her love to Boaz, and becomes the ancestress of King David.  Esther risks her position and her life to stand up for her persecuted people.

In the Gospels, Jesus continually demonstrates concern for women.  John’s gospel describes the remarkable story of the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at the well, talks with him, and becomes the first missionary! Jesus’ movement was supported by women (Luke 8:2-3).  At the end, even when his disciples had forsaken him, the women remained, at the cross and at the tomb, so that it was women who were the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection.

In the letters of Paul, everywhere that the apostle offers personal greetings, he mentions women, by name.  Romans 16 provides several fascinating examples: Paul greets Phoebe, who he calls a deacon (the CEB reads “servant,” but notice that this is the same Greek title given in Acts to male leaders like Philip and Stephen), Prisca and Aquila (a husband and wife ministry team; here as elsewhere, Paul breaks convention by mentioning the wife, Prisca, first), Mary, and most remarkably, Andronicus and Junia, another husband and wife team who are “prominent among the apostles”–Paul refers to Junia here as an apostle!

In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Paul insists that Corinthian women follow custom by wearing a head covering while prophesying: emphasizing a distinction between women and men.  Still, this passage presupposes that women were speaking in the churches–Paul just wants them to do so respectfully!

Most remarkable of all is Paul’s bold proclamation in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  Since, for Paul, all of us have access to God through Jesus and Jesus alone, every earthly hierarchy has been overthrown.  All of us approach God on an equal footing, women and men alike.

Viewed in the context of the whole of Scripture, then, we can understand the attitudes expressed in 1 Timothy 2:8-15 without feeling bound by them.  Jarena Lee’s prophetic words refute biblical as well as Disciplinary legalism.  I know that a woman’s place is in the pulpit because I have known and heard women preachers, and found them to be inspired by the Holy Spirit.

AFTERWORD:

It is a point of pride for me as a West Virginia United Methodist to celebrate, and share with you, the origins of Mother’s Day:

Apr
2017

I Have Come to Love the Darkness

Thomas doesn’t get a lot of respect.  If someone calls you a “doubting Thomas,” you can bet that they aren’t complimenting your critical acumen!  A “doubting Thomas” is foolishly skeptical, rejecting a truth that is apparent to everyone else–like Thomas, missing the resurrection.

No, Thomas doesn’t get a lot of respect: except from Jesus!  Jesus never condemns Thomas.  Indeed, Jesus shows up, specifically, for Thomas.  Jesus invites Thomas to touch him, to put his finger into the wounds of crucifixion that his glorified body still bears–to experience directly the reality of Jesus’ resurrection.  For Jesus, Thomas’ doubts are not the problem they may be for us.

But why should doubt be a problem for us?  After all, people of God in all times and places have known that faith and doubt are not opposites: indeed, deep faith and profound doubt can occupy the same heart.

In just a few weeks, we Methodists will remember May 24, 1738, when John Wesley’s heart was “strangely warmed” at Aldersgate, and he knew the assurance that Christ “had taken away my sins, even mine.”  Yet in 1766, years after Aldersgate, Wesley wrote in a letter to his brother Charles,

“[I do not love God. I never did]. Therefore [I never] believed, in the Christian sense of the word. Therefore [I am only an] honest heathen, a proselyte of the Temple.” 

The parts in brackets were written in the Wesleys’ private shorthand–as though, even in a private letter to his brother, John was deeply ashamed of this confession!  John Wesley had doubts.

Saint Teresa of Calcutta was famed for her life of selfless service to the poorest of the poor in Calcutta’s slums.  Yet, in letters she wrote to her confessors and superiors, published after her death,  she revealed the depth of her personal struggles with doubt, darkness and fear:

Please pray for me—the longing for God is terribly painful and yet the darkness is becoming greater. What contradiction there is in my soul.—The pain within is so great—that I really don’t feel anything for all the publicity and the talk of the people. Please ask Our Lady to be my Mother in this darkness. 

Mother Teresa had doubts.

None of this should be any surprise to followers of the crucified Lord, who cried out from the cross,

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Mark 15:34//Matt 27:45).

Even Jesus had doubts.

Our problem with doubt may actually be a problem with faith.  We are likely to confuse “belief,” that is, intellectual assent to a concept, with “faith:” the commitment of one’s life.  After all, “doubt” and “belief” are opposites.  If faith is belief, then, doubt is an obstacle to faith in God!  But what if faith is not belief?

Our Bible translators don’t help us much!  Throughout this Sunday’s Gospel reading (John 20:19-31), the Greek verb pisteuo is translated as “believe”which can be the sense of this verb, but it would better be rendered, “have faith.”  Nineteenth-century Bible scholar Joseph Henry Thayer wrote that pisteuo expresses “the conviction and trust to which a man is impelled by a certain inner and higher prerogative and law of his soul.”

Deuteronomy 6:4 has for generations been a confession of faith for Judaism.  Traditionally, it has been rendered as “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.” But it is better translated, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”  Similarly, the Latin verb credo, from which we get our word “creed,” doesn’t mean, as it is usually rendered, “I believe,” but rather, “I set my heart upon.” The difference, as church historian Diana Butler Bass observes, is “a shift from information about to experience of.”  Indeed, in her revolutionary book Christianity After Religion,  she writes:

A great modern heresy of the Church is the heresy of believing. Christianity was never intended to be a system or structure of belief in the modern sense; it originated as a disposition of the heart.

The lectionary texts for this second Sunday of Easter drive this point home.  So, Psalm 16:4-5 is not about abstract theologizing, but about making a choice: committing to the LORD, rather than to “another god.” The Psalmist writes, “The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot.”  That is, I have placed all my eggs in this basket!  I am all in on the LORD–and have experienced God’s goodness myself.

In 1 Peter, the genuineness of our faith (1:7), tested and proven like gold in a smelter’s furnace, is revealed not in our beliefs about Jesus, but our love for Jesus:

Although you’ve never seen him, you love him. Even though you don’t see him now, you trust him and so rejoice with a glorious joy that is too much for words. You are receiving the goal of your faith: your salvation (1 Peter 1:8-9).

Can doubt and faith indeed live together, in the same heart?  In same letter where John Wesley says, “[I never] believed, in the Christian sense of the word,” he also affirms, “I find rather an increase than a decrease of zeal for the whole work of God and every part of it,” and urges his brother Charles, “O insist everywhere on full redemption, receivable by faith alone; consequently, to be looked for now.”

So too, Mother Teresa could write,

I have come to love the darkness. – For I believe now that it is a part, a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness & pain on earth. 

We are, to say the least, uncomfortable with darkness, in our own lives, or in someone else’s.  As Donald Gowan ruefully observes,

Christian worship tends to be all triumph, all good news (even the confession of sin is not a very awesome experience because we know the assurance of pardon is coming; it’s printed in the bulletin). And what does that say to those who, at the moment, know nothing of triumph? 

But when tragedy strikes (as, inevitably, it will), we have no use for Pollyanna optimism, for shallow, saccharine assurances that all will be well.   In this Easter season, may we, like Thomas, discover that the glorified, risen Jesus still bears the wounds of the cross.  This triumphant Jesus is the same Jesus who on the cross cried out in his despair.  The Easter Jesus of light and glory is the same Jesus who descended into the darkness of death–both his, and ours.  Jesus enters into the midst of our struggle, loss, pain—and yes, even our doubt!—to show us that God is with us even there – perhaps, especially there.  In our own times of doubt and struggle, may God’s Spirit reveal Christ right alongside us, and enable us to say, with St. Teresa, “I have come to love the darkness.”

AFTERWORD:

Thanks to pastors Scott Shaffer and Ben Phipps, and to the people of Faith UMC, for inviting me to preach and worship with them this week!

 

Apr
2017

Easter

April 16: Easter Sunday

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.  And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.  His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.  For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.  But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.  Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”  So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.  Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.  Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (Matthew 28:1-10).

Apr
2017

Holy Saturday: In Between

Holy Saturday, April 15

I am one who has seen affliction
under the rod of God’s wrath;
 he has driven and brought me
into darkness without any light;
 against me alone he turns his hand,
again and again, all day long.

He has made my flesh and my skin waste away,
and broken my bones;
 he has besieged and enveloped me
with bitterness and tribulation;
 he has made me sit in darkness
like the dead of long ago.

 He has walled me about so that I cannot escape;
he has put heavy chains on me;
 though I call and cry for help,
he shuts out my prayer;
 he has blocked my ways with hewn stones,
he has made my paths crooked.

The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it
and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,
‘therefore I will hope in him’”
(Lamentations 3:1-9, 19-24). ,

This reading from Lamentations is an odd passage, beginning in despair (“he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light”), yet ending in hope (“ ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him’”). As such, it is perfectly appropriate for Holy Saturday, this odd, in-between day in the church calendar bridging the sorrow of Good Friday and the rejoicing of Easter Sunday. Early Christians wondered what Jesus was doing on this day between death and resurrection. 1 Peter 3:18-20 declares, “He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is eight persons, were saved through water.”

The idea that after his death Jesus proclaimed the Gospel to souls in the underworld led in turn to the tradition of the harrowing of Hell: the notion that the risen Christ triumphantly descended to the underworld to deliver the righteous who had died before his coming into heaven. By around the eighth century, this confession was incorporated into the Apostles Creed; most Christians today recite the phrase “He descended into hell” or “He descended to the dead” as part of the Creed (although many United Methodists follow the Church of England in not doing so). Whatever we may think of this confession, it recognizes that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection transform all space and time, bringing salvation not only to those of us who live on this side of Easter, but to all the generations who lived before.

Prayer: Jesus, we know this place well: this Holy Saturday zone of ambiguity and unresolved tension. Many of our people feel trapped in just such a place of uncertainty. Help us to see your victorious life bringing possibility even into these shadow lands, and give us hope that we will be delivered into your marvelous light. This is our prayer in your own glorious name, Amen.

AFTERWORD:

Pope Francis has said of Holy Saturday:

The day of God’s silence–invites us not only to solidarity with all who are abandoned and alone, but also to trust in that faithful love which turns death into life.

May this be so for all of us.

Thank you to the Anti-Racism Team of the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference, who invited me to prepare these devotions, especially to my old friend Bob Wilson, who carefully read and faithfully critiqued each one, and to all of you who have walked with me through these Lenten meditations.  God bless you.

Apr
2017

Week 7: Holy Week “The Way of the Servant”: The Way of Suffering

 

Good Friday, April 14

See, my servant shall prosper;
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high.
Just as there were many who were astonished at him
—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of mortals—
so he shall startle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which had not been told them they shall see,
and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.
Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
 He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.

 Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
 By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.
 They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
     Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors
(Isa 52:13—53:12).

With the fourth Servant Song, we come to the end of Second Isaiah’s exploration of the way of the Servant. Now, we can at last see what the prophet has been up to in these Songs, as he pulls his many themes together into this final poetic masterpiece. The hiddenness of the Servant’s destiny is a consistent theme of the Songs, but the hidden work of the Servant is most powerfully expressed in this final Servant Song, where the nations look on the Servant in bewilderment: “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (53:2). But the major theme of this fourth and final Song is the Servant’s suffering:

He was despised and rejected by others;

a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;

and as one from whom others hide their faces

he was despised, and we held him of no account (53:3).

Christian readers have long seen the Servant of the Lord as Jesus. In Acts 8:32-35, when the Ethiopian eunuch asks if the prophet in Isaiah 53 speaks “about himself or about someone else,” Philip wastes no time in sharing with him “the good news about Jesus.” In 1 Peter 2:22-25, that writer alludes freely to the fourth Song, declaring of Jesus “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”  

Certainly, no Christian reader can consider today’s passage without remembering Jesus’ passion. But even the writer of 1 Peter, who sees Jesus’ cross in Isaiah 53, does not therefore think that we are relieved of the responsibility for walking in this way ourselves. Indeed, he writes, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). The apostle Paul as well understood this: indeed he could say, “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:19). In Wednesday’s prayer, we remembered that the writer of Hebrews calls Jesus “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (Heb 12:2). What might it mean for us to follow such a pioneer—to, in the words of the old Gospel hymn, “go with him, with him, all the way”?

Prayer: O Jesus, we do indeed want to go with you—but we are afraid of where your path leads. Remind us, as you reminded your first disciples, that your way of service is a way of life, not of death. O God, give us the courage to stand where you stand, alongside the oppressed, and to take up our cross, that we might inherit Christ’s eternal, invincible life. In the name of the Crucified, Amen.

Apr
2017

Week 7: Holy Week “The Way of the Servant”: The Passover

Maundy Thursday, April 13

“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt:  This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.  Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household.  If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats.  You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight.  They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it.  They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs.  You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn.  This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord.  For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord.  The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance” (Exod 12:1-14)    

All four Gospels connect Jesus’ last week on earth with Passover. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus’ last supper with his followers is a Passover meal (Matt 26:17-19; Mark 14:12-16; Luke 22:7-13). In John’s Gospel, Jesus is crucified on “the day of Preparation,” when the Passover lamb was slain (John 19:14). Pesach (the Jewish term for Passover) recalls the Exodus from Egypt; however, this meal is more than a memorial of Israel’s deliverance. As Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim understood (Emil Fackenheim, God’s Presence in History: Jewish Affirmations and Philosophical Reflections [New York: Harper and Row, 1972]), Pesach reenacts and reaffirms Israel’s root experience: the deliverance from bondage at the Red Sea that made them a people.

So too, when we Christians break the bread and share the cup, we reenact and reaffirm our root experience in Christ: it is as though we are there, with Jesus, at his final meal. We not only remember his death, we experience it—and the resurrection life that follows. Jesus’ last meal with his followers becomes a foretaste of the messianic banquet in the new age, to which we are also invited. But, as Jesus grimly warns, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 8:11-12). As we saw in our first week, in Joel 2:28-29, the body of Christ is larger than the small circle of those like us. Moreover, the table is Christ’s, not ours; we should be leery of presuming to bar from it those whom Jesus invites. May the Lord’s Supper truly be for us the Lord’s Supper, and not ours, where we can meet sisters and brothers we did not know that we had!

Prayer: “Eternal God, in the sharing of a meal
your son established a new covenant for all people,
and in the washing of feet
he showed us the dignity of service.
Grant that by the power of your Holy Spirit
these signs of our life in faith
may speak again to our hearts,
feed our spirits, and refresh our bodies.” In Jesus’ name, Amen.(Reprinted from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers, copyright © 2002 Consultation on Common Texts).

 

Apr
2017

Week 7: Holy Week “The Way of the Servant”: The Way of Discipleship

Wednesday, April 12

“The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
 The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
 I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.

 The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
 It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
(Isaiah 50:4-9a).

Translators struggle with the first verse of this Song: is the Servant given the “tongue of a teacher” (NRSV), a “skilled tongue” (JPSV), an “instructed tongue” (NIV), or perhaps the “tongue of the learned” (KJV)? Yet, when the same word, limmudim, appears later in the verse, it causes little controversy: “Morning by morning he wakens — wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught (Isa 50:4; emphasis mine). That, I propose, should also be the translation the first time this word appears: the Servant is given “the tongue of those who are taught”: that is, the tongue of a disciple. Confirmation comes from the purpose of this gift: “that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (50:4). Surely, a word of comfort comes most effectively from a fellow disciple, who shares my sorrow, feels my pain, and offers solace as a fellow sufferer.

In this Song, the Servant does not claim authority over others. Indeed, the Servant identifies with the outcast and humiliated, to the point of sharing their humiliation and suffering:

I gave my back to those who struck me,

                        and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;

            I did not hide my face

                        from insult and spitting (50:6).

The Servant’s suffering is not accidental, but purposeful. The Servant suffers deliberately, in solidarity with others, so that the vindication of the Servant becomes their vindication, too.

Unfortunately, today’s lectionary reading ends in the middle of verse 9, leaving the unfortunate implication that trust in God removes all our difficulties. The Servant relies upon the Lord, but that does not make his path clear, or easy. Instead, the Servant

walks in darkness

                        and has no light,

            yet trusts in the name of the LORD

                        and relies upon his God (Isa 50:10).

Certainly, in this week, no Christian reader can consider this passage without remembering how Jesus bared his back to the smiters, and offered his cheek “to those who pulled out the beard” (50:6). What might it mean for us to follow him as his disciples on the way of the Servant, to surrender authority and privilege, and stand with the suffering and oppressed?

Prayer: Jesus, in just a few days we will rejoice in the celebration of Easter. But don’t let us hurry to the empty tomb too quickly. Help us stay with the cross awhile, and ask how we may follow you, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (Hebrews 12:2). In your own holy name, Amen.

Apr
2017

Week 7: Holy Week “The Way of the Servant”: The Way of Obedience

Tuesday, April 11 

Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
 He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.
 And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
 But I said, “I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
and my reward with my God.”

And now the Lord says,
who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
 he says,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

 Thus says the Lord,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers,
“Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
(Isaiah 49:1-7)

In the second Servant Song, the Servant of the Lord declares, “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me” (49:1). This sounds very like God’s words to the prophet Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer 1:5). A revelatory, prophetic role is also shown by the power of the Servant’s words: the Lord “made my mouth like a sharp sword” (Isa 49:2; in Rev 1:16; 2:16; 19:15, 21, the word of the risen Christ is expressed in this same way).

Yet, having made the Servant’s mouth “like a sharp sword,” the Lord hid him away “in the shadow of [God’s] hand” (49:2). Though the Lord had fashioned him “like a polished arrow,” the Servant found himself hidden in God’s quiver (49:2), so that the Servant cries, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity” (49:4). So too Jesus would cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46//Mk 15:34; cf. Ps 22:1). Not only is the Servant’s destiny hidden from the world, it is even hidden from the Servant himself!

The way of the Servant is hard—as it must be. How, otherwise, could the Servant truly stand with the abandoned, forgotten, God-forsaken ones? But God declares that the Servant will transform the world: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (49:6). Although we cannot see to its end, the way of the Servant leads through sorrow into joy, through darkness into light, through death into life. May the words of abolitionist Theodore Parker, quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, speak for us as well: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice” (Theodore Parker, “Of Justice and the Conscience,” in The Collected Works of Theodore Parker 2, 37-57 [London: Trubner, 1879], 48).

Prayer: Help us, O God, to follow you faithfully, even though the end of our road is not visible to us. Help us to trust you, and to follow you obediently, knowing that you do see our way clear. Through Jesus our Christ who set his face toward Jerusalem, Amen.

 

 

 

 

Apr
2017

Week 7: Holy Week “The Way of the Servant”: The Way of Humility

Monday, April 10

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
 He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
 I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
     to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
 I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
 See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them
(Isaiah 42:1-9).

Sometimes in this first Song, the Servant seems like a king. After all, God calls the Servant “my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (42:1). The Servant brings forth justice (42:1, 3-4), a kingly task in the Hebrew Bible (see Pss 72:1; 99:4; Isa 9:7; Jer 22:15; 23:5; 33:15; Ezek 45:9). Indeed, the Servant “will bring forth justice to the nations” (42:1), and “the coastlands wait for his teaching” (42:4); he is not only “a covenant to the people” (presumably, Israel), but also “a light to the nations” (42:6). The image is not merely regal, but imperial; the Servant is the ruler of the world.

Yet, on the other hand, the Servant’s task is accomplished quietly, without kingly pomp: “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street” (42:2). Royal power operates by force, or the threat of force. Yet the Servant acts so gently and quietly that “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (42:3). In our harsh and violent world, the way of gentleness and humility may seem doomed to failure. Yet it is the world’s Creator (42:5) who guarantees that the Servant’s mission, “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (42:7), will be accomplished. True peace and authentic transformation cannot be imposed by force. They come as astonishing gifts of God’s grace, made real in our midst by God’s Servant.

Prayer: We confess, O God, that sometimes we want to make a splash! We long to make a difference in our world, a difference that we can see. Remind us that you aim, not to make a splash, but to remake the world—and us too. That is slow, quiet, careful work, Abba. Grant us the humility to fit ourselves to that task. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:6-7), Amen.

AFTERWORD:

Four of the Old Testament readings for Holy Week are poems from Isaiah 40—55: a portion of this prophetic book commonly called Second Isaiah, set in the Babylonian exile. These four passages, Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-7; 50:4-11; and 52:13—53:12, all deal with the Servant of the Lord, a mysterious figure whose mission involves not only the deliverance of Israel, but also the transformation of the world. Christian readers have long seen the Servant of the Lord as foreshadowing Jesus Christ (see 1 Cor 15:3; Acts 8:32-35; 1 Peter 2:22-25), an understanding that may well go back to Jesus himself. But this does not mean that the prophet’s words had no meaning for his own time or people—or that they do not address us as well.

The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber suggested that the Servant Songs do not describe one particular person, but rather set forth the way of the Servant, a new understanding of Israel’s past and future particularly as revealed through suffering. The Servant’s way is “the work born out of affliction,” culminating in “the liberation of the subject peoples, laid upon the servant, the divine order of the expiated world of the nations, which the purified servant as its ‘light’ has to bring in, the covenant of the people of the human beings with God, the human center of which is the servant” (Martin Buber, The Prophetic Faith, trans. Carlyle Witton-Davies [New York: Macmillan, 1949], 229).  The way of the Servant is the path of redemptive suffering; the way of selfless, sacrificial love (Heb 9:12) which led Jesus inexorably to the cross. But the way of the Servant is not Jesus’ path alone. Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). This week, we will consider how we, too, are called to walk in the way of the servant of the Lord.