Friday, April 11, 2008

A Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (April 13, 2008)

[These passes are designed to help all worshiping with us at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio to prepare for Sunday worship. Because we use the Revised Common Lectionary, as slightly modified by Lutherans, I also hope that these brief ponderings will help others too.]

The Bible Lessons:
Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

The Prayer of the Day:
O God our shepherd, you know your sheep by name and lead us to safety through the valleys of death. Guide us by your voice, that we may walk in certainty and security to the joyous feast prepared in your house, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

General Comments:
1. The Fourth Sunday of Easter is always Good Shepherd Sunday on the Church calendar. The Gospel lessons for these Sundays are all different for the three years of the Church Year. But all come from John 10.

2. The first lesson for the week, as is true throughout this Easter season, is from the New Testament book of Acts, not an Old Testament book, as is usually the case. More on that text below.

3. The Acts passage and the one from First Peter present an interesting contrast. We read that in the very first days of the Church's life its members enjoyed "the goodwill of all people," maybe not to be taken literally, but certainly reflective of the high esteem in which the first Christians were held. Having come through Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection and the first Pentecost with their faith not only intact, but made stronger by God, they were appreciated by the Jerusalem community.

But by the time Peter writes his letter to the dispersed churches of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), Christians are subject to official persecution and social shunning. Peter writes his letter while imprisoned in Rome. It had become illegal to be a Christian, the Church's confession, "Jesus is Lord," called atheistic, because Christians would not acknowledge either Roman deities or the emperor as "Lord," ultimate boss.

In any and all circumstances, whether accepted or not, Jesus Christ is our Lord.

4. Three of the four appointed Scripture passages refer to Christ as our shepherd. It's a little tough for us today to identify with this imagery. Even few people who live in the countryside these days have much connection with livestock. More on the possible meanings of the imagery below.

5. Acts 2:42-47: The text begins on the first Pentecost. By this point in the narrative, Peter has preached, the people have asked what they must do to be reconciled with God and so have life, Peter has told them to repent and be baptized in Jesus' Name, and 3000 heed this call, powered by the Holy Spirit.

The text tells us then about something of the life of the early Church and how those around them responded to it.

6. Two things especially should be noted here, I think.

First of all, the first Christians, through the power of the Holy Spirit in the Church, were engaging in the wonderworking that made up part of Jesus' ministry. Jesus never performed His signs or miracles in the same way twice and there were a diverse numbers of signs He performed. There was a similar diversity in the signs performed by the early apostles.

As applied to church life today, I think that it's important for us to remember that, through the Holy Spirit living in Christians, Christ is still in the miracle making business. But it is, in my estimation, to think that miracles, meant to be signs of Christ's lordship over sin and death, are meant to be commonplace. As someone has said, if miracles happened all the time or any time we took it into our heads that they should happen, we wouldn't call them miracles; we'd call them ordinaries, as in ordinary, everyday stuff.

Furthermore, the unique character of each Biblical miracle should caution us against ready acceptance of the absurd spectacle, seen on some televangelist's shows, of assembly line miracle working, seemingly desperate souls, "slain in the spirit" by microphone-wielding charlatans who "heal" all comers in precisely the same way.

The second thing to note is how the Church is obeying Christ's directive in Acts 1:8. There, Jesus, about to ascend to heaven, tells the first disciples: will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
After the Spirit came, Jesus said, the Church would be empowered to do its mission in the world, being His witnesses with the aim, of course, of making disciples.

But they were to start their work in Jerusalem, among God's own people, the Jews (or Judeans). (This underscores Luke's particular emphasis on the continuity between the Old and New Testaments. In fact, I doubt that Luke would even like the terms Old and New Testaments. To Him, Jesus was simply the fulfillment of what God had planned for the whole human race from the beginning. To work reconciliation between Himself and alienated humanity, God always planned to call a people of His own into being, the Jews. He always planned to cultivate faith among these people so that the world would know that our lives are made right not by what we do, but by trusting in and being reconciled to God. He always planned to send a Savior among these people in order to bring salvation, life, and hope not only to them, but to the whole human race.)

After establishing itself in Jerusalem, the Church called the Spirit's prompting to move out in Judea at large, then to Samaria, the onetime "Northern Kingdom," and to the ends of the earth.

I like the way Leonard Sweet describes the mission of the contemporary Church. We are to be "glocal" about our mission, local and global. We begin, in the case of Saint Matthew, with Logan. But we also reach out to Hocking County, the United States, and the world. We do that not only with the dollars we give to local ministries, the World Hunger efforts of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and so on, but also through our personal participation in sharing Jesus right here.

7. Psalm 23: Chris Haslam has a brief, thorough summary of this familiar psalm. He writes:
In the ancient Near East, the king was seen as shepherd (vv. 1-4) and as host (vv. 5-6). God faithfully provides for his sheep, and constantly cares for them. He revives our very lives (“soul”, v. 3), and guides us in godly ways (“right paths”). Even when beset by evil (“darkest valley”, v. 4), we have nothing to fear. God’s “rod” (a defence against wolves and lions) protects us; his “staff” (v. 4, for rescuing sheep from thickets) guides us. The feast (v. 5) is even more impressive, for it is in the presence of his foes. Kings were plenteously anointed with oil (a symbol of power and dedication to a holy purpose.) May God’s “goodness and mercy” (v. 6, steadfast love) follow (or pursue) him (as do his enemies) throughout his life. He will continue to worship (“dwell ...”) in the Temple as long as he lives.
8. 1 Peter 2:19-25: I wrote this a few weeks ago regarding the New Testament book of First Peter:
First Peter, one of my favorite books of the Bible, is a letter meant to be circulated among Christians living in Asia Minor, located in what is today Turkey and part of the Roman Empire. Traditionally, it's been believed that this letter was written about 62AD to Christians facing persecution and marginalization for their faith in Christ.
9. Our lesson from First Peter is part of a bigger section of the letter, running from 1 Peter 2:11 to 3:12. This section is an example of what New Testament scholars call household codes.

Household codes existed as a literary form in the secular Roman world. They outlined the duties of subservient persons to their superiors.

But in the hands of first century Christian writers, the codes which employed the established literary form discussed responsibilities all Christians had toward one another and toward those with whom they interacted on a daily basis. They envision all Christians, irrespective of their status within society, treating one another with mutual submission: husbands and wives, parents and children, slaves and masters. For the sake of being a positive witness to outsiders and giving non-Christians no cause to reject Christ, the codes commend imitating Christ in relating to all people.

The codes that existed in the larger Roman world carried implicit threats of punishment, underscored by the fact that they were never directed at the superior member of a two-person relationship, only at the subordinate. For example, slaves were subject to the typical Roman household code, not the master.

But the household codes of the New Testament are significantly different. They might fall under a category of what some Lutherans--including this Lutheran--call the "third use" of God's law. The "law" in Christian terms, incorporating both the Old and New Testament, can be summed up as God's commands that we love God completely and love our neighbor as ourselves. On these two Old Testament laws, Jesus says, all of God's law is built. The law cannot bring a person a right relationship with God or eternal life because none of us is capable of keeping the law. That can only happen through the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, most famously summarized in John 3:16.

But the law has three main uses:
1. The Law is a mirror showing us the true state of our own lives and the distance we are from God, no matter how many religious works we may do or how wonderful we may appear to others. Here, the Law is meant to drive us to Jesus Christ. Knowing that we cannot save ourselves, we turn to Him for salvation.

2. The Law is a check on sin in the world, even among those who have no respect or knowledge of God. The Bible says that God's law is written on our hearts. While we are often deaf to it, we implicitly acknowledge its call for us to love God and love neighbor. As C.S. Lewis says, most human arguments involve disputes between parties, each of whom claim that they're in the right. But unless there were some implicit of understanding of what is right and what is wrong, the two parties would have nothing to argue about. Unless the law was written on their hearts, their tangle would be no different between the battles between two male bucks over a doe or a hyena fighting off a lion, a mere battle of wills and power. Without an agreed-upon set of standards, you couldn't use the term "argument" to describe their confrontation.

When oppressive or corrupt governments pull power moves, they may be flouting God's Law, but they always have a rationale at hand for their actions. Those rationales always implicitly acknowledge the existence of some objective standard of right and wrong and claim that they are either abiding by them or that, in a particular instance, a higher standard overrides the one violated.

3. The Law is a guide for those who are in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ and, grateful for forgiveness and everlasting life, seek to live in ways that are pleasing to God. This last use of the Law is, I think, what the psalmist has in mind when he writes:
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24)
This is what Martin Luther called living in "daily repentance and renewal," regularly bringing our lives before God and, in a process the great spiritual guides called examen, asking God to show us our sins, draw us to repent, and to renew our relationship with God.

The Law cannot bring life or forgiveness or hope. Only the Gospel can do that. But the Law, in all its uses, clears a path for the grace of God, offered in Christ.
10. The four major examples of New Testament household codes are Colossians 3:18-4:1, Ephesians 5:21-6:9, Titus 2:1-10, and the section identified in First Peter.

These codes, I feel, get misunderstood, misused, and misappropriated.

Some Christians, for example, claim that they mandate a male-dominated marriage and family structure. They overlook the mutual servanthood in the codes dealing with marriage. The codes have bigger fish to fry than changing the laws of the Jewish or Roman worlds on marriage, which were tilted to the man. Rather, they subversively posed the question, "Given the realities within which believers may live if married to non-Christians, how can the Christian, particularly the woman, win a hearing for Christ with their spouse?"

Some outside the Church and even those within who are trying to score debating points say that the codes endorse slavery. But acknowledgment doesn't confer endorsement. First century Christians lived in an environment in which slavery was the norm. The question before the members of this small, subversive movement that claimed Jesus as Lord was not how to go about abolishing slavery, but how to be a witness and to live faithfully for Christ in the midst of existing society. Slavery was a given. How then to live for Christ if you were a slave or a master?

11. Peter's basic point in our passage is that if you are a slave--slaves are who he is talking to here, as we see in verse 18, just before it--then make certain that you never suffer punishment for doing the wrong thing. Christ is glorified only when we suffer innocently. Let Christ's example hearten you in those circumstances, Peter says.

[For a great discussion of the New Testament household codes, see here.]

12. John 10:1-10: As I've said many times in these "passes," context helps us understand content. In other words, we better understand a particular passage of Scripture by noting what's going on the passages that come before it and after it. John 9 helps us understand our lesson. There, Jesus upbraids the Pharisees blind to what the once-blind man saw, that Jesus is Lord. Now, he talks about these blind shepherds who sometimes are misled by those who really don't know the Good Shepherd, confusing their words of religious legalism for the voice of Jesus. His true followers, His sheep, Jesus says, will never be mistaken about Him. They have come to know Jesus well. "I know my own and my own know me," Jesus will say in verse 14. In short, religious fakes can't pull the wool over Jesus' sheep!

[That's enough for this week.]

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