Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

This passage occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, most recently August 12, 2018.

Summary:  It is summer, so I only offer a brief commentary here.  I mainly want to look at the words related to grace!

χαρις (grace; 4:29)  The word grace appears a number of times in Ephesians.  I want to consider what this particular writer (okay, I get it, there is a lot of debate about whether Paul wrote this letter.  If it turns out not to be Paul, the person who wrote it was a spiritual genius and student of Paul).  I am going to break down grace a bit, which is theologically impossible, but I think it is a necessary intermediate step

  • Out of the richest of grace, we have redemption through the blood on the cross (1:7)
  • Grace is revealed in the resurrection of Christ and us (2:6)
  • Grace is the revelation of the mystery of Christ (3:2)
  • Grace is imparted through faith (2:8) and leads to a life of good works
  • Grace becomes a way of life, building others up (4:29) and giving grace to others through forgiveness (4:32)
  • Grace, one might argue, is that which predestines us (1:6)

Grace isn't conferred in one moment, but becomes the vehicle, it seems through which the Spirit works; to put it another way, grace is the heavenly currency that can never be earned.

χαριζομαι (give freely or even forgive; 4:32)  This word typically does not mean "forgive" but means "be gracious" or "be generous", which includes forgiving one another.  I like this word here first because it reminds us that our forgiveness toward our neighbor is not an abstraction but must bear fruit in real life.  Second it connects to the broader theme of grace!

εχαριτωσεν (from χαριτοω, meaning "bestow freely"; 1.6)  The writer declares we have been freely bestowed with God's blessing through Christ.  The only other New Testament appearance of this word is in Luke's Gospel, to describe Mary as the "highly favored."  Turns out that in Christ we are all highly favored, bears of God's word to the world.


Tuesday, July 24, 2018

John 6:1-21

This passage occurs in the RCL "Pentecost"/"Ordinary"/"Proper" Season, Year B, most recently Summer of 2018, for July 29, 2018.
 
Summary: 
John 6 is vital for understanding the ministry of Jesus and the church.  First, Jesus' work builds on the Old Testament.  With this story, Jesus revisits the Passover.  Yet Jesus renews and redirects the OT tradition.  In the case, Jesus presents himself as the one who provides the bread.  The Gospel message is not found simply by making this academic comparison, but by driving it home toward proclamation: God provides, he becomes the Passover lamb, taking away the sin of the world, for you...even when all you felt like was a wasted fragment.

Links to Passover:
The key to this passage, I believe, is 6:4, where John says the Passover is near.  Further links to the Passover:
*The last verse of chapter 5 also references Moses and people not listening to him (whole book of Exodus)
*Jesus and then others cross the sea because they have seen the deeds of power (Red sea crossing)
*Jesus feeds the people from basically nothing (manna in the wilderness)
*Jesus even uses the food from the smallest boy (akin to a passover!!)
*John refers to this meal of bread with the term Eucharist

Key words:
χορτος ("hay" or "grass", 6:10):  They are sitting on grass.  They believe themselves in a forsaken place, but are surrounded by God's bounty!

συναγαγετε ("gather"; 6:12):  It is interesting here because Jesus tells the disciples to gather the missing pieces.  This is in the mission of the church, to gather the missing pieces. What intensifies this connection is the verb for gather, which is literally:  synagate -- synagogue them!  Lead them into the community centered on the Word!

κλασματα ("fragments"; 6:12):  It seems strange the bread fragments are so valuable.  Was Jesus a spend thrift??  It seems that Jesus has a spiritual meaning here.  I think it is fair to say the fragments represent us, broken pieces, whom God has blessed, broken and then gathered into one.

ευχαριστω ("give thanks"; 6:23):  While neither the words "Holy Communion" nor "Eucharist" appear in 1-14, the word Eucharist does appear in 6:23:  "The place where they had eaten the bread after Jesus had given thanks [eucharisted]"  Christians took up this word in a different manner -- Paul begins this in 1 Cor 10:16.  They transformed the word for Thanksgiving and turned into a significant meal -- much like America's November holiday!  In this case, Jesus is taking the world's oldest Thanksgiving meal and giving it new meaning.  The full meaning of this meal will not be clear until Jesus forgives Peter on the beach -- with bread and wine again -- that our Eucharist meal is one of Thanksgiving for the work of Jesus Christ, his forgiveness and resurrection.

απολλυμι ("perish" or "lose"; 6:12):  Fascinating here -- Jesus discusses the collecting the fragments, lest they get "lost".  The word here for lost also means "perish" as in John 3:16 or John 18:9, "I did not lose a single one whom you gave me."

Two other tid bits:
6:9 The words for bread and fish here (krithinos and opsaria) denote common bread and fish, almost like "cheap bread and fish tidbits"

6:17 The word σκοτια is darkness; that is what is occurring here; yet, John 1 said the darkness could not grasp/overcome the light!


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Mark 6:14-29

This passage occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, most recently for July 15, 2018

Summary:  It is quite odd that this story appears as a lectionary text.  There are no words or teachings of Christ.  I will pair this up with Jesus feeding everyone immediately following all of this.

It is quite striking the contrast between the work of the powers in this world and the powers of Christ:  Throw a banquet for pleasuring the wealthy with sex and macabre vs feeding the poor; decapitation of the noble; recapitulation of all things, including human failings, into the cross.

Some words of juxtaposition:  Herod's meal vs Jesus' meal
Note I will also bring in Ephesians 1:3-14, which is the selected New Testament paired with this Gospel.  

ενεχω ("hold a grudge", 6:19) The word for "hold a grudge" is literally "have-in (ενεχω)" kind of like have it in for someone.  Jesus, on the other hand, has compassion (6:34)

αγιος ("holy", 6:20) There is an odd juxtaposition this week: Ephesians says we will be holy before God; here John is considered holy (αγιος) before Herod.

δειρνον ("banquet", 6:21) Herod throws a banquet here (δειρνον). The next chapter Jesus will throw a meal for his disciples and the 5,000.

μεγιστασιν χιλιαρχοις πρωτοις ("magistrates, high captains and 'the firsts', 6:21)  Mark really lay it on thick here letting us know the power and status of the guests.  Quite a contrast to the poor nameless masses whom Jesus serves.  Interestingly, the word for "groups" as in Jesus puts the people in groups is πρασια, which Liddel Scott says is "properly a bed of leeks: generally, a garden-plot."  Instead of divisions Jesus puts them into groups for planting!!

ηρεσεν ("please" from αρεσκω, 6:22)  Herod's main goal it seems, is to please himself and his guests.  Jesus goal is not to please himself but to χορταζω (satisfy!) the people.  This is a distinction worth pondering.

περιλυπος ("grieve", 6.26) Herod is deeply grieved (περιλυπος), the same word of Jesus in the Garden (I am deeply greieved).  Interesting to observe how quickly Herod goes from enjoyment to grief.  This is a reminder about a world in which pleasure becomes our main objective, for its trills are fleeting!

αποστελλω ("send", 6:27)  Herod sends (like as in sends an apostle) to order the execution of John the Baptist.  Jesus on the other hand, sends his disciples to feed people.

αποκεφαλιζω ("behead", 6.27) Herod orders John αποκεφαλιζω (beheaded); this then presents a fascinating juxtaposition between the Ephesians 1 text and this one; Jesus ανακεφαλιοω (Eph 1:10, recapitulates, brings all things together, heads all things up) whereas all Herod can do is decapitate.

Some other minor comments:

6:14 Herod hears that Jesus' name has become known (or manifest: phaneros/φανερος). Jesus warned in 3.12 not to make known (phaneros) what had happened; and that in 4.22, things will be made known. Well, now things have been made known and the result is not good.

6:14 The word "dyanmis" (δυναμις) continues to "manifest" itself in Mark; here it is in the plural which means it should be translated miracles.


Monday, June 25, 2018

Mark 5:21-43

This passage is found in the Revised Common Lectionary, year B, Pentecost Season (Most recently July 1, 2018).  Also it is found in the Narrative Lectionary, Epiphany Season, Year 2.  (Most recently January 24, 2016)

Summary:  This story is classic Mark:  A power struggle is at hand, between Jesus and the world, between the crowds and the religious leadership, between life and death, between despair and faith.  In the end, Jesus will serve as champion, or perhaps in a surprising way, a calm, peaceful and loving savior.  Regardless of what tact one takes in working through this passage, one should wrestle with what it means to "save."  This passage, like most in Mark, suggests a far bigger definition of save than our typical religious discourse!

Key words:
συνηχθη (aorist passive from of συναγω, meaning "gather", 5:21).  This verb has a clear English cognate:  Synagogue, where folks were gathered.  In this case we have two synagogues -- the unofficial gathering (συνηχθη) around Jesus and the synagogue (συναγωγος).  Mark lets us know that the real power is in the gathering around Jesus.

σωθη (aorist passive subjunctive of σωζω, meaning "save"; 5:23).  In American Christianity, the word save almost always connotes a future state, often hell, from which one is "saved."  In this case, the word σωθη is best translated "heal", as it can be in Greek.  A few points here:
- In the Bible, saving and healing are neither distant linguistically nor conceptually.
- Salvation grows out of faith.  In both stories, faith is needed.  In the second story, Jesus supplies the faith when we have lost it.
- Salvation is necessary for living.  It proceeds it grammatically in vs 23 and in our lives!
- Salvation brings new life.  In both stories, Jesus salvation brings NEW life.
- Salvation does not simply come from the spoken word.  In the later case, Jesus speaks and the girl arises.  But in the first case, simply the touch of Jesus heals the woman.  Jesus is the incarnate word -- when we think about how to heal people, it it not only our words, but also our touch.
- Saving is also for this life; I do not mean to juxtapose the importance of ultimate salvation against earthly in-breakings of the Kingdom of God.  They are related.  We can embrace the work of our savior in this life time.  The NET Bible writes, "This should not be understood as an expression for full salvation in the immediate context; it refers only to the woman’s healing."  Again, there is a real discomfort among Christians about talking about the work of Jesus Christ outside of life after death. 
To put it another way, I am becoming more convinced that when people show up at church on a Sunday, they are dying.  One could argue, they are already dead.  They need to be saved, that is, encounter the living Christ and hear his word, in order to live.

ελεγεν (imperfect of λεγω, meaning "say", 5:28)  The woman is repeatedly saying to herself -- not once -- that if she touches him, she will be healed.

μαστιγος ("whip" or "illness", 5:29)   The word for "disease" here comes from the word for whip; as in Jesus was whipped.

εξ αυτου ("of him", 5:30).  Here I beg to differ with the translation, "The power went out from him."  The Greek here does not say this.   It reads "The from him (εξ αυτου) power went."  The positioning of "of him" means that it modifies the noun (power) not the verb (going-out).  The translators are lumping this preposition in with the verb and missing the connection between Jesus and the power.  Furthermore, this "of/from him" (εξ αυτου) power is kind of interesting...the power that arises from him?  Again, the preposition εκ/εξ can describe all sorts of relationships that encompass movement from/out of/originating in.  The power originating in him?  The power arising out of him?  The power belonging to him?  Regardless, the power is connected to Jesus, not simply in the air!

"Get up".  In vss 41 and 42, two words are used to describe the young girl getting up:  either εγειρω in vs. 41 or ανεστη in vs. 42.  Both are words used for resurrection in the New Testament; the reaction of those around, εκστασει (if you sound it out in English, ecstasy!), is that of the women at the tomb in Mark 16.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Mark 4:35-41

This passage occurs in the RCL, Year B (Most recently June 24, 2018)
 
A guest post for this week by Rev. James Rowe of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Kingston, NY

The assigned Gospel reading for this Sunday (Lectionary 12) is the powerful story of Jesus calming the storm. By itself, it is a wonderful story. But knowing the surrounding context can be quite helpful. This story begins with the little phrase "on that day, when evening had come" (4:35a) which means that Mark has set this story as a continuation of the parables of the kingdom Jesus has just spoken (4:1-34). In addition, it also serves as the introduction to story about the Gerasene demoniac (5:1-20), the first Gentile encounter Jesus has in Mark's Gospel.  The calming of the storm can serve both as a reflection on what the kingdom is like and also as an introduction to what it means to live in that kingdom as disciples.

Mark's Gospel tends to use the disciples as foils to Jesus, people who witness the unbelievable in Christ again and again and still struggle to understand who he is and what he is up to. Mark 4:35-41 highlights that usage in a few ways. First, Jesus is referred to as "he" (αυτον) as distinct from the  disciples.  Second, when they wake up Jesus, they do not refer to him as "Lord" (κυριος) but as "Teacher" (διδασκαλος) which seems to imply that the disciples still do not know who he truly is. 
Finally, the question of the disciples ("Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" 4:41b) goes unanswered, both showing their unbelief and also giving us readers a question to ponder as Jesus will soon be casting a legion of demons into pigs and ultimately into the sea he has just overpowered with a word.

When it comes to preaching this text, it could be interesting to end the sermon with the same question: "Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?" We preachers tend to tie our sermons off with pretty bows and end with "amen" or some Pauline phrase, but Mark's Gospel gives us a variety of texts where the lack of conclusion opens us up to the possibility of what God is doing in the "storms" of the world and in our lives. 

Rob's response to Jim's post:
In Jim's post, he put something in parenthesis that I wanted to unpack.  He wrote, "The Greek for awake is actually 'arose'."  Indeed, the word here is εγειρω, which also means raised up or even resurrected.  Once again, a subtle foreshadowing of the unfolding mystery in Mark's Gospel.  In this passage of Jesus calming the storm, the word μεγας (mega, meaning big) shows up three times:  a BIG storm; a BIG calm and a BIG fear.  When Jesus power is revealed, it brings both calm and fear, an ironic, if not dialectical combination of emotions.  Perhaps the bigger the demonstration, the bigger the fear!  This also points to the resurrection in Mark's Gospel, when the full revelation of Jesus power is accompanied by great calm in the tomb but also also fear in the first witnesses (φοβεω, Mark 16.8).  

One other little grammar point on fear:
Cognate Accusative:  This fancy term is when the verb and object both are from the same word, like "I rode a ride."  It is considered bad English, but is quite common in Hebrew and in NT Greek.  In this case, Mark says they "feared a big fear" (εφοβηθησαν φοβον)  The weird conjugation of an aorist passive 3rd person plural makes this tough to see.  But it is really simple:  They feared a big fear!


Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Mark 4:26-34

This passage occurs in the RCL "Pentecost"/"Ordinary"/"Proper" Season, Year B, most recently Summer of 2018.
 
Summary:  When I first studied this passage for preaching, I was just finishing my first year of parish ministry.  At that point, two things stood to me.  First, the motif of "death and resurrection" in the first parable and the idea of "service to the neighbor" in the second parable.   As I re-read this passage in 2012, I focused more on how this passage relates to congregational leadership and fostering faith.  This year (2015) through, I propose that Jesus is the mustard seed that dies to become the tree.

Key Words:

Some words on church growth and leadership:
βαλη (from βαλλω; "thrown", 4:26)  The most famous "sower" parable, which is found earlier in chapter 4, has a professional sower "sowing" (σπειρω) the seed.  In this parable, we simply have a man throwing the seed.  This reminds us that the sowers of the Word need not be simply authorized and trained clergy, but that God chooses the foolish and insignificant to do the work of the Kingdom! 

Side note on Google:  Part of Google's success as a company is their willingness to try things.  They have created a culture where people are willing to throw stuff on the wall and see what sticks.  In fact, when it comes to advertising, Google encourages companies to try as many permutations of their wording as possible to see what works.  Churches tend to be much more cautious.  These parables encourage us to try stuff without as much planning!

ελεγεν (from λεγω; "was speaking", 4:26) The imperfect tense is used here to portray Jesus speaking; this means that Jesus likely was repeating these parables more than once! Throughout this section, Jesus speaks in the imperfect tense, suggesting that he did not simply say this word but repeated it.  In order for Jesus to get his message across, he needs to say it over and over.  To go back to Google; Jesus has to try it in many ways to get it through!

αυτοματη ("automatically", 4:28)  This is a humble reminder for all pastors that growth in the church is not a result of our own efforts, but the will of the Spirit, manifesting itself!

Some words on death and resurrection, as well as classic Lutheran themes:
καθευδη and εγειρηται (εγειρω)  ("sleep and awake", 4:27):  These words can also mean to die and to rise.  This is a reminder that those of us that sow the seed will also experience death and resurrection.  I know I have often felt crushed as a pastor by the inability of people to hear the word.  And then risen to new life through worship and the Word!  It also strongly suggests daily dying and rising to live out our vocation of sharing the Word.

χροτον...πληρυς σιτον ("grass...full grain"; "4:28")  I am going to go out here on a limb, but I think this parable shows that sanctification and justification, while of the same movement, are not entirely the same.  To be raised up (justified) does not suggest that God's work in our lives is done.  The grass, while growing, must still grow into maturity. As χροτον (grass) it could still be eaten, but it will take time in order for it to become σιτον (seed itself) that could be used for next year's harvest.  Similarly, we are reborn in Baptism and renewed in our weekly confession and forgiveness; God's Spirit still works on us, through this renewal, to transform and grow us, so that we might be of use to our neighbor.  All metaphors are imperfect, but the emphasis here is not simply on the moment of receiving faith, but growing in the soil of the Word.  As a confessional Lutheran, I would want to add that growth means more faith, which means simply becoming more dependent on God.  To put this in a sound bite:  the taller the plant...the more it needs it roots.

Some words I put together to think about Jesus Christ as the seed and the church as the plant:

καρποφορεω ("bear fruit", 4:28)  The point of our dying and rising is to bear fruit (Romans 7:4).  In fact, one could argue that the seed that is being sown in this case is not simply Scripture but Jesus Christ, because the verb for the maturation of the seed is "παραδοι" from paradidemi.  This word means betray, which is a word that links and moves the plot ahead in Mark's Gospel.  Strangely, this is the only time this verb appears with the word fruit; perhaps a further suggestion that Mark is referring to Jesus as the word of God that dies for us to become the tree.

αναβαινει ("ascend"; here meaning grow; 4:30)  Jesus does not say that "once the plant has grown" he says, "growS and becomeS and makeS" all in the present tense.  The growth of the mustard plant continues on and on.  In this sense, I see the mustard plant (in the parable) as something supernatural; I offer it is the church, born by the death of Jesus Christ.

πετεινα του ουρανου ("bird"..."bird of heaven"; 4:32)  The NET Bible suggests this phrase means "wild birds" as opposed to "domesticated birds."  Even if the NET Bible overstates its case, a few points we can make if we compare the tree to the kingdom of God to the Christian community on earth, to finally, a congregation:
* The tree does not live for itself; the Christian life is not a life lived for oneself.  This is true for an individual and for a congregation. (Vocation 101)
* To be the church is to host not simply nice people that "look like us" but all sorts of wild birds, maybe even ones harsh to the church!

Monday, June 4, 2018

Mark 3:20-35

This passage occurs in the RCL "Pentecost"/"Ordinary"/"Proper" Season, Year B, most recently Summer of 2015.

Summary:  For this week I have intensely looked at 3:29, "Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven."  While many other images and motifs stand out in this passage, I have noticed my lay people gravitate toward this passage.  First a correction in translation and then an explanation.  Long story short:  Forgiveness is complex, but awesome and possible.

New for 2015:  I added a bit more on the Holy Spirit.

First, a correction in translation:  3:29
NRSV/NIV, etc, read:  "But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin "

This is not correct.  The Greek literally reads: "Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, he does not have forgiveness eternally and is guilty of an eternal sin."
To make clear:
* The verb forgive is not used
* The word never (or its Greek equivalent ου μη) is not used
* The "But" to start of the sentence is δε, a very weak conjunction, often not translated; it normally indicates a change in subject more than a change in thought.

What this means:
Jesus never denies the possibility of forgiveness; he says this person is not in a state of forgiveness at when he/she deny the Holy Spirit.
However, denying the existence of the Spirit, which means denying the work of God to forgiveness sins, make the church and raise the dead, is not simply an earthly matter, but an eternal one.
Third, Jesus says that all sins can be forgiven (even eternal ones); however, one cannot deny the existence of God's activity in this world (the Spirit) and still receive this forgiveness. I would argue here that experiencing forgiveness is an act of faith.  See Babylonian Captivity of the Church if you think this is not Lutheran.  But to really solve this dilemma of forgiveness, let's press ahead

More on forgiveness
αφεσις:  (3:29)
Liddell-Scott offer a few images of this word in classic Greek:
1) a letting go, dismissal
2) a quittance or discharge from a bond: exemption from service: a divorce
3) a letting go of horses from the starting-post, and then the starting-post itself

Often times we as (Lutheran) Christians have focused on the second notion of forgiveness.  "The debt is paid."  Perhaps some Buddhists focus on the first -- simply "let go" of your anger.  But I think the third point is perhaps the most Christian:  Forgiveness is the letting go of us, setting us free for life in the Kingdom.

In this sense, the words of Jesus make the most sense.  If you don't believe in the Holy Spirit, and God's work of forgiveness, holiness, the church and resurrection, then you will never be free.  Ever. 

Yet ironically, this passage shows the Spirit at work; the church is being created, brothers and sisters in Christ, over and against hostility, disbelief and betrayal (vs 19)!

More on the Holy Spirit
ο πνευμα ο αγιος ("The Holy Spirit"; 3:29)
Mark only references the Holy Spirit a few times besides this episode in chapter three (NRSV):
1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
1:12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
13:11 When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.
12:36 David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared, 'The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet." '

One could argue that the Holy Spirit is conferred in Baptism and gives the ability to proclaim the Word of God (1:8 and 13:11).  However, it seems that this far too domesticates Mark's sense of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit pops up in times of conflict:  the ministry of John the Baptist (who will be beheaded); the temptation against Satan in the wilderness; casting out demons in chapter 3 and conflict with teachers of the law; prophecies about oppression; David's declaration about victory over enemies.  The Holy Spirit is still a source of comfort, but more in the battle medicine kind of way.  I think this speaks to Mark's theology of the cross.  Where is holiness found?  In the midst of turmoil.