Monday, May 23, 2016

Luke 7:1-10

This passage occurs in the RCL, Year C, most recently May 29, 2016.
Summary:  Like so many passages in Luke, there is layer of meaning regarding faith, healing and the Word of God; there is also another layer of complex social dynamics.  Luke presents cultural rules and norms that are both being obeyed and broken.  How to preach this?

One possibility is to ignore the social dynamics and focus on faith and healing (ie, preach as if you were preaching from Matthew's Gospel, in which the story is simpler!)  
1)  Jesus heals, even through the prayers of others;
2)  Faith in Jesus changes everything; outsiders can have faith too.

Another way is to portray Jesus action over-and-against the social reality of his day.  The world then and today is a messy, complex and broken place.  The world is one of haves and have-nots; of powerful people with agendas ( those days a decree went out from Emperor...)  In spite of all of this, Jesus compassion and power triumph!

Key Words:
λαος ("people", 7:1).  The word means "the people", as in the commoners.  Luke pays careful attention to the λαος (36 references; Matthew 14; Mark 3 and John 2).  This word sets up quite a contrast to Jesus interactions the rest of the pericope, where he is dealing with the leaders, religiously and politically.  This reminds us that while Jesus cares for the commoners, he also cares about the leaders too.  Compared to him, we are all chumps ;-)

δουλος ("servant" or "slave", 7:2)  Because American history is defined by our freedom from England and then the freedom of slaves, we tend to value "freedom" greatly.  Furthermore, we look with disgust on the entire concept of slavery.  While I do not defend slavery, it is worth pointing out that within Greco-Roman culture slavery meant something different than American antebellum plantation-style slavery.  At the very least, not all slaves were abused and many were considered part of the house.  The centurion will even call the slave his "παις" or child; he considers the slave "εντιμος" or honored; so honored in fact, he seeks out Jesus' healing.  This is a reminder that economic and social boundaries both then and today are often complex.  More generally, the whole scene is one that really puts the preacher in a tough spot -- it is clearly a different world, one that we cannot imagine.  An occupying army general asks the local Jewish healer for a favor regarding his boy-slave and then is found, bizarrely, to have more faith than anyone. 

διασωζω ("save" or "heal"; 7:3)  The root word here is σωζω, or save.  It has dia- as a prefix.  This prefix can intensify a verb, like adding the adverb "thoroughly."  The point is that Jesus' salvation includes earthly healings.

αξιος ("worthy"; 7:4; appears later as a verb in 7:7)  A reminder of the honor-shame dynamics in this culture (of which I know little).   I do feel comfortable making two points though.  First, it seems questionable whether Jesus should have been doing this healing for a non-Jew, especially a member of the opposing army.  In fact, one must wonder about the relationship between the Centurion and Jewish leaders; could then even speak to each other directly?  This is a difficult point for us to address or even consider as Americans.  Second, Jesus power is overturning the cultural expectations of everyone.

πιστις ("faith"; 7:9) A reminder that faith is not a belief in a set of abstract principles, but trust in the divinity of Christ and the salvation he brings.

Two small notes on verb construction that point toward something deeper:
παρακαλεω ("encourage", 7:4).  This verb is in the imperfect suggesting repeated action.  It is unclear why they needed to repeat the request -- perhaps because they felt it important, or because Jesus didn't want to do it.  But something about their continued urging moves Jesus.

μη σκυλλου ("no longer be troubled", 7:6) A reminder about the negative present imperative:  μη + present imperative means "no longer" ie, you were doing this, but stop and continue to stop this.  (Often used in the construction "No longer be afraid" when angels begin speaking to humans.)

Lastly, two words that come into English related to health
υγιαινω -- "hygiene" (the υ has a rough breathing mark)
ιαομαι -- "iatry" like "psychiatry"

1 Kings 18:20-39

This passage occurs in the Narrative Lectionary Year 2 (most recently:  Nov 8, 2015).  This passage also occurs in year C of the RCL (most recently May 29, 2016)

Summary:  The coolest thing in the Hebrew is reconstruction of the altar by Elijah.  While Elijah is known in this passage for his courage, the Hebrew suggests he is also a healer.  In fact, Elijah's work on the altar could really be seen as a model for understanding the necessary healing of the church today.  First, it connects the people to God's work in the past; Second, it connects people to God in prayer.  Third, it symbolizes the intended transformation of the people:  a house of seeds, nourished by water and sent ablaze by fire.  I don't want to miss the counter-cultural courage of Elijah; I just want to uplift Elijah's capacity to rebuild.

Key words:

פסחים (from "pesach", meaning "hobble?"; 18:21 and 18:26)  This verb is crazy here.  This word is likely a homograph, where two words are spelled the same, but have different meanings.  (Like "bear" can have two meanings in English). The more common word with this spelling comes into English as "pass over", as "Passover."  Elisha is playing on this here?

More likely, it means "be lame" or "hobble."  In this sense you could translate this as "How long will you waffle between..."

The other possibility is "dance"  The TWOT suggest,
"1Kings 18:21, "how long 'halt' ye (KJV) between two opinions?" Another suggested translation is, "how long will you 'hobble' on two crutches?" (i.e., Yahweh and Baal). (3) 1Kings 18:26, "and they (the priests of Baal) 'leaped' upon/'hobbled' upon the altar, " presumably a reference to some kind of pagan ritual dance. V.P.H."
-> How long will you dance between two gods?!

Either way, waffle or dance could be pretty powerful stuff (okay, both a bit poetic, but we are talking about Elijah here.  Gird your loins and preach it.)

בשם ((really ב+שם), shem, meaning "name"; 18:24)  What is at stake here is really the "name" of the LORD.  The name of the LORD does not simply mean the pronunciation, but the reputation of the LORD.  Is the God of Israel the faithful God, the living God, the true God...the answering God?  Or not?

ענה (meaning "answer" or "respond"; appears 8 times in this passage).  Baal does not answer.  God does.  This is the crux of the matter for ancient Israel as it is for us today.  Does God respond to us?

רפה ("rapa", meaning "heal"; 18:30) This word is translated here as "repair."  However, it is normally translated as healing.  If we are to rebuild churches, we need to heal them.  Heal them first with their sense of the past by reaffirming God's presence in their history; second, heal them with prayer.  Third, heal them with water (Baptism); Fourth heal them with fire (Holy Spirit); heal them with hope -- expect the church to be the seeds of the future.

בית סאתים זרע (three words meaning "house of grain seeds"; 18:32)  Elijah has the people built a moat around the alter big enough for two bags of seed.  The Hebrew opens up another layer of interpretation.  The literal Hebrew is this:  "Make a healing (or trench) as a house of grain seed, two bags, circling the altar."  The altar will be circled as by a house of grain.  What a beautiful image of the church, an alter surrounded by a house of seed grain, nourished by water, by prayer and by the fire of God!
And yes, in 18:38 the actual Hebrew word does mean lick; the waters were licked!

Monday, May 16, 2016

John 16:12-15

This passage occurs in the RCL for Holy Trinity Sunday, Year C, most recently May 2016.

Summary:  This is not my favorite Holy Trinity passage; in fact, I think one needs to be really careful not to use this passage counter-productively.  The use of the word paraclete (παρακλητος), often translated as advocate, suggests our need for a lawyer before our heavenly judge.  While a legal metaphor of salvation may make sense in other contexts, let us be perfectly clear:  In John's Gospel Jesus is not describing the Holy Spirit as our defense attorney before God the Father as judge.

Rather, Jesus presents the Holy Spirit as the abiding and living presence of God for the believers, particularly the whole community as they encounter and are challenged by the world.  The Holy Spirit will continue the work of Jesus through the disciples.  To put it another way, the Holy Spirit will make us holy, making us alive in Jesus Christ, both individually but also collectively.  This is the work of the third person of the Trinity: to bring us into the life of God.

Key Words:
παρακλητος (paraclete, 15.26 and throughout John 15 and 16) The word parakletos for the Holy Spirit is a tough one to crack! The noun literally means "one called along side of." Originally it meant a "legal assistant." Hence the affinity for the term advocate.

Yet, the whole field of words related to parakletos pushes against a cold, judicial term, especially in terms of our relationship with God.

14.16 The parakletos is a gift from God
14.17 The parakletos will be with us, even abide in us forever
14.26 The parakletos will teach you and cause you to remember the words of Jesus
15.26 The parakletos will witness about Jesus
16.8 The parakletos will prove the world concerning sin, righteousness and judgment.
16.13 The parakletos will guide you on the way
16.13 The parakletos will listen to the Father and Son
16.14 The parakletos will glorify Jesus
16.14 The parakletos will make Jesus known

Interestingly, the Vulgate does not even use the term advocate to translate parakletos, instead transliterating the word "paracletus." In fact, the Latin does translate the word "parakletos" from the Greek into the Latin "advocatum" once, and this is from 1 John 2.1, where the sense is different. Indeed, here the idea is Jesus interceding for us against the judge of the Father concerning our sins; in John's Gospel the idea of the parakletos has nothing to do with a legal metaphor before God the Father, but the enabler of Christian before the world of unbelievers.

Furthermore, a look at the verb παρακαλεω, the related verb for the noun παρακλητος, really brings home that this word (really word field) is not primarily about legal matters:
Isaiah 40.1 "Comfort, comfort my people, says your God."
Psalm 23 "Your rod and staff, they comfort me."
Proverbs 8:4 "To you, O people, I call and my cry is to all that live."
2 Corinthians 1:3-4  "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation,  who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God."

αληθεια (truth, 16.13). The Gospel of John uses the word truth a number of times. Jesus is full of truth (1.14 and 1.17) and the truth shall set you free (8.32) but what is the truth? The best I can tell, John's Gospel asserts few things as "truth". In fact, little if anything is actually specifically stated as true, but if you do some work around times when "truth" is being debated, you can conclude a few things:
The truth is: The Word of God (1.14)
The truth is: Anyone who sins is a slave to sin (8.34); the consequence of sin is death (8.24)
The truth is: By believing in Jesus, we have life (8.24)
The truth is: Jesus and the Father are one (8.26)
The truth is: Followers of Jesus hear his voice (18.37) and walk in the light (8.12)
The truth is: Jesus is King (18.37)

To put it another way, it turns out that only some really essential things are declared/implied as truth in the Gospel of John.

οδηγεω (guide, 16.13) The verb here for "guide" is "hodege-oo" which means "hodos+ag-oo"=lead on the way; the verb is used in describing Philip's interaction with the Eunuch, where the Eunuch invites Phillip to show him the way of understanding Scripture.

Romans 5:1-11

This passage (or portions of it) occur frequently in the Revised Common Lectionary, including Holy Trinity Sunday in Year C.

The English reader will catch what Christ does:  In an unjustified act of love, Christ justifies us and the Holy Spirit pours out love into every aspect of life.  The Greek helps the reader see when this all happens.  For example, whenever Paul refers to Christ's death in this passage, he uses the aorist tense.  This allows him to reference this event with great subtlety.  Yet the past event of Christ's death is not without present and future implications:  Having peace, having access, standing in grace and boasting in hope. Faith is connecting the past event of our justification and our current reality of peace, grace and even pride in God with the future hope of our salvation.

(Challenge:  Go through and highlight each verb in a different color based on tense. A very interesting pattern emerges, especially with the aorist tenses…It may be tough to explain in a sermon, but for your own personal good, this is a worthwhile exercise.)

Key Words:
διακιαωθεντες ("make right," passive aorist participle of διακιοω, 5.1)  Paul begins the whole train of thought with the verb “justify.” Because it is in participle form, most translators make it an adverbial phrase, “Since we are justified…” But I think any phrasing here loses a bit of steam. It can and should just read: “Justified therefore by faith we have peace with God through our lord Jesus Christ.”  In other words, Paul does not mess around, but simply begins with justification.  Also worth noting that the verb justify, as always, is in the passive.  We do not justify ourselves; only God justifies.  It is also in the aorist, pointing toward an event in the past, namely, Christ's death.

A further note on the meaning of the word:  The verb justify in English often means to make an excuse for or rationalize away.  This distorts the English ear from hearing Paul's intended words!  The word justify in Greek here has a deeper sense of making right, bringing into right relationship, bringing about righteousness.  (English has two words "righteousness" and "justification" for one Greek word!)  My sense is that while people do not articulate Luther's problem of a lack of righteousness before God, we still live in a world hungry for right relationship with God and with others.  Unfortunately, we have robbed God of his judgment role, but not gotten rid of the role of judgment in our lives; we simply have transferred it to other people - our boss, our neighbors, our family, our kids, the person down the street with the nice car.  It seems that true peace, acceptance of ourselves, God's role in our lives and fellow humans, requires us to let God be the judge...the only judge...the only judge in whom there is mercy.

εκ πιστεως ("of faith" 5.1)  We are justified out of or as a result of faith; See my post on Romans 1 for more about translation issues with this phrase .  Fine, but whose faith is Paul talking about? Jesus or ours? This is a trickier question in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In this case though, especially in light of 4.24, I would argue Paul seems to be speaking about the faith of humans in God.

καυχωμεθα  ("boast", from καυχαομαι, 5:2, 3, 11)  Only Paul boasts; James specifically tells us not to!  Clearly we are not supposed to be braggerts, but Paul is okay with us boasting in the Lord.  Have you bragged about God recently?  As Psalm 107:32 says, "Let them exalt him in the assembly of the people and praise him in the council of the elders."

δoθεντος (διδωμι, aorst paritiple, "give" 5.5) Paul uses an interesting tense here with the word “given” in that “we are given the Holy Spirit.” One would have expected a present or perhaps a perfect tense, but Paul again puts it in the aorist. Throughout this section, Paul is using the aorist tense to point toward the event of our justification – the cross.  It might seem that Paul is suggesting we get the spirit at Christ's death.  However, the spirit is not given to us in Christ's death, but rather through our Baptisms, as Paul will suggest in 1 Cor 12:13.  I believe Paul here is setting up his argument in Romans 6, that our Baptism and Christ's death are linked.

συνιστησιν ("present" or "demonstrate"  5:8)  This verb is significant not for its meaning, but for its tense. The cross was not but IS a show of God’s love for us. A reminder than even if it is a once and done matter, we always need this demonstration of God’s love.

σωθησομεθα  ("will be saved", future passive of σωζω, 5:9)  The verb save is in the future here. The cross did not save us but will save us! In fact Paul generally avoids the idea of salvation as a past activity, but views it as a present, on-going reality that will reach culmination in the future. Yes, the cross did save us from hell.  But it did more than this!!!

οργης ("wrath" from οργη, 5:9)  The word God is not used here; although it is hard to understand where the wrath comes from if its not from God.

κατηλλαγημεν (aorist form of "reconciliation"; 5.10) Reconciliation (katallass-oo)…the favorite metaphor for liberals in the church! Worth pointing out: Reconciliation required Jesus’ death.  I think it is also worth pointing out that reconciliation is more of a personal and judicial term.  This is not to argue against forensic justification, but that Paul wants to press beyond simply an easing or erasing of previous sins/tension in the relationship.  Too often forgiveness on the cross can become a past event that gives a future hope, rather than leading to what Paul sees it as, namely a past event with a future hope that creates a present reality.

Grammar Review:  Past tense:  Aorist, imperfect and perfect

This passage is an excellent passage to examine verb tenses. Go through and highlight each verb in a different color based on tense. A very interesting pattern emerges, especially with the aorist tenses…It may be tough to explain in a sermon, but for your own personal good, this is a worthwhile exercise.

Moreover, Greek has three ways to speak about past action.  Technically, four, but the pluperfect is rarely ever used.  The most basic way is through the aorist.  The aorist describes an event.  Within in a narrative, this normally describes a simple action most easily translated by the simple past (Christ died).  The aorist can be more flexible than this, but 90% of the time, it is describes a simple event that occured in the past.  In geometic terms, think "point."

The imperfect describes an event start started in the past and whose action continues.  "Jesus began to teach them" or "Jesus was preaching."  In geometry, think a "ray."

Most interestingly, Greek's perfect tense functions in a past-present manner.  It refers to a completed past action than still has a present impact.  Like "I got dressed."  The action is past but the state of being continues.  So in this passage, the love is poured out (5.5); the love is still flowing from our hearts.  The past action creates the current state of love that is being poured out. 

The present tense is almost always the most interesting because the writer is intentionally connecting two time frames in a manner difficult to convey in English.  However, in this section the aorist might be the most interesting because Paul uses it always to refer to Christ's action onthe cross.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

This passage occurs in the RCL's year C passages; it also occurs as one of the last passages in the Narrative Lectionary's Year 2 cycle.  In the Narrative Lectionary it is partitioned as 1 Corinthians 12:1-13
Much has been written about spiritual gifts.  A few brief reflections/directions for preaching:
- Everyone has gifts.  For those that think they have no spiritual gift, ask them if they can confess Jesus as Lord.  If so, then they have spiritual gifts!
- Gifts are to work together. (The Greek suggests this in vs 1-11; the rest of chapter 12 makes this abundantly clear)
- Gifts are for others, although how far outside of the church spiritual gifts go is a long and complicated debate.
- Faith (and love) are gifts, nothing we can do to earn them.

Key Words and Grammar Items:
πνευματικος ("spiritual", 12:1) The first word here for "Spiritual Gifts" is "pneumatikos," an adjective that means spiritual. It is transformed into a noun here (technical note: by the placement of the definite article before it). But the word "gift" is not used. In fact, the word for gift later on is "charisma." So really, this should just read: "Concerning the spiritual things."  If you translate this as spiritual gifts then, in some ways, you are suggesting that all things spiritual are gifts!

εθνη ("Gentiles", 12:2) The translators render "ethne" here as "pagans" instead of "gentiles." A reminder of the tension, inherent in 1st century Christianity, between Jews and Gentiles.  To be non- Jewish was to be an "ethne" (and ethnic) and not part of God's family!

ειδωλα (plural form  of "idols", 12:2)  Although there are some examples of true worship to statues, generally idols function a bit different in our culture than in 1st century paganism.  However, we still have idols!  We may not have a temple with a large marble statue of Venus or Pluto in our towns, but definitely still worship the idols of beauty and money!

Grammatically, this sentence is really odd and I've even read that it is considered a manuscript error because it reads so strangely.  The NRSV nicely puts it, "however you were led." Paul uses the "αν" marker to show contingency and then uses two verbs: you were led, leading away. A poetic way to say: Whatever the heck road they led you on.

διακονια ("ministry" or "service", 12:5)  This word is becoming increasingly difficult to translate.  It has a non-religious origin, deriving from a waiter who serves.  More generally it can to mean service; the New Testament certainly uses it as a term for serving others.  For the church over the centuries the word has been picked up by a whole group of people who have dedicated their life to service (Deacons and related terms).  Part of the challenge in translating the word is inherent in the tensions around service (the concept and not the word).  Service can mean formal providing but it can also mean outpouring of mercy; furthermore, how the service conveyed by this term in the New Testament connected to the Word, proclamation and the Church?  In short, to translate διακονια as "ministry" makes it "churchy" something that it was not originally; to translate this as "service" derives it, perhaps, of the religious meaning Paul and others wish to imply.

This particular passage highlights the challenge of translating this word.  Luther's German, Tyndale and the KJV translate this not as "service" but as "office" or "administration."  While this translation seems to make service overly formal, it opens up the door for profound thinking about vocation -- each of our "offices" in life is an opportunity for serving others.  With this translation of διακονια as "office" Luther captures Paul's dynamic and far-reaching sense of the breadth of God's gifts.  Whether this is a fair translation is up for debate.  But no doubt Luther clearly connects vocation, even secular vocation, to spiritual gifts and service to the Lord.

ενεργεω ("energιζε", 12:6) The translations move in all sorts of directions here, but the word underneath all the working/doing by God is "energy."  This is perhaps a nice connection into people's lives -- from where does our energy come to survive the treadmill called life?

συμφερον ("good", 12:7) The English translators tend to add the word "common" before "good"; Paul's term "sympheron" is more neutral, as in "profitable" or "beneficial"; furthermore, it does not necessarily mean "common" and the word "common" is not in the Greek.  When this word appears elsewhere in Scripture, including its almost identical usage in Hebrews 12:10, it is not translated as "common good."  What then gives them permission to translate it as the "common good"? is my conjecture.  The word is a combination of two words συμ meaning "with" (the "n" in συν becomes an "μ") and  φερον meaning "bear" as in bearing fruit (John 15).  This word means then "bear together" or "produce together."  These gifts were given for the mutual harvesting of gifts!

Lastly, a Trinitiarian argument:
I believe that 12:11 this is the strongest statement in the NT that God is Holy Spirit. For the Holy Spirit is said here to "ενεργεω" (energize) the activities, "διαιρεω" (distribute) the activities, which he "βουλεμαι" wills.  Paul locates the will of God in the Holy Spirit!  Moreover, in verse 7, the distributions are done by God who energies them. Same thing!

Monday, May 9, 2016

Pentecost (Acts 2:1-11)

Here is a re-direct to my updated post from 2013.

In a nut shell, I find the church of Acts 1 to be very common:  A deeply loving and truly faithful community that doesn't outreach.  How can the Spirit move us from Acts 1 to Acts 2?  How can we as leaders be involved in this process?

Acts 2:1-11

Summary:   Luke's use of language in his first two sentences of Acts chapter 2 sets up an incredible contrast.   Verse one captures the togetherness of the pre-Pentecost community; verse two shows the Holy Spirit bursting the community into the world.  As I contemplate the church over the centuries, I wonder if we always stand between verse 1 and 2; full of love and community, but waiting for the awesome movement of the Spirit to push us outside of ourselves.   Moving churches out of their walls is a Herculean task, but God is up to it!

Image one: The pre-Pentecost community (Verse 1 captures all of chapter 1)

ομου + επι το αυτο ("together" and "all together") Luke uses a rather redundant phrase. Both halves mean "together"; in English he basically wrote "They were together with each other in the same place." Luke wants to drive the point across that they were united. It is important to note that a united church is not a church in mission; a united church is a church waiting for mission.

(Snarky side comment:  The church of Acts 1 may as well be called First Lutheran Church of Jerusalem.  Great doctrine.  Great fellowship.  Perfect Committee Structure.  No outreach.)

εν τω συμπληρουσθαι (συμπληροω; fulfill)  To the point: By employing this particular construction, Luke makes it clear that they did not simply come together on Pentecost, but they had been together for a while. A few other points here about the verb fulfill:
* The verb fulfill occurs three times in just a few verses. The days of Pentecost were being fulfilled; the house was filled; now the people are filled.
* The verb is in the present  suggesting it is ongoing action; especially when paired with an imperfect as the main verb. The notion suggested here is that they have been together (rather obediently!) since Jesus told them to wait.
* Purely grammar note: Chapter two begins with an articular infinitive using the construction, εν τω + infinitive which means "During the ..." In this case, the verb is "fulfill."

Summary, Luke does not simply imply "The group was assembled for the celebration" but rather, "As the day of Pentecost approached, they were continually together in the same place."

Image two: The Spirit comes [vs 2 (and the rest of Acts)]

ηχος ("sound"; literally echo!) The Spirit comes as an echo...that has reverberated across the years.

φερημενης (φερω; "carry") The wind that comes is a carrying wind; a wind that will carry the disciples outside of their walls.

βιαιος ("violent") When this word occurs in the OT, it describes the wind blowing back the waters during Exodus.   Maybe that is one metaphor for the Spirit's activities during the 21st century: Making a way through the troubled waters for the church. Interestingly, this word is used in classical Greek to describe the "power" or "strength" of Hercules. This may also be a way to think about the Spirit -- overcoming the Herculean task of getting Christians to leave the door. Sometimes this might take shaking things up a bit!

To put this together, the Spirit carries with it...a hint of upheaval...that echoes across the centuries.

A few other points:
ευλαβης ("devout"; 2:5)  The men in Jerusalem are considered "devout".  Interestingly, Simeon was labeled as devout as well -- a rather rare term in the NT (only used four times). As Jesus was revealed (as a baby) to a devout man, the church was revealed (as a baby!) to a devout man.

ιδια διαλεκτω ("Our own language" literally "the idiom dialect"; 2:6) Luther hits the nail on the head: Muttersprache.

ακουω ("hear"; 2:6,8 and 11)  This verb means listening. Perhaps the more important activity of the Holy Spirit is working on the ears of the listener!