Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Matthew 28:16-20

This passage occurs both in the Narrative Lectionary and the Revised Common Lectionary (Trinity Sunday).

Well, this passage clarifies a few things:
* Jesus did have to suffer
* The law still exists in the new creation
* Commissioning is just as important as proclamation
* Baptizing is subordinate to making disciples; yet Baptism binds us to God
* The resurrection changes God's name
While we are at it, let's also clarify two other things
* The Trinity was in Matthew's Gospel
* Some, not all, doubted

Okay, I will be less pugnacious, but Matthew brilliantly closes out of his Gospel.  Only five verses, but it really does tie together so much of Matthew's writing.
Key Words

ορος ("mountain", 28:16)   Mountains show up at many key points in the Gospel of Matthew:  The sermon on the Mount, the tranfiguration and the betrayal of Jesus.  Matthew may be connecting some of the "dots" within his story here.  I wrote about this in my comments on Matthew 5 as well.

εταξατο ("command" from τασσω, 28:16)  Even after the resurrection, the concept of obedience still exists.  I write this because recently I've been engaged in some discussions with "hyper" Lutherans who want to functionally deny the role of the law within the new creation.  The law still exists; the new creation does the law.  But okay, let's avoid this discussion and actually get to something that we can preach:  Living as a disciple means obeying, even as we doubt.  (See below for more on law and Gospel post resurrection)

προσεκυνησαν ("worship", from προσκυνεω, 28:17) and εξουσια ("authority" or "power", 28:18). The President of Luther Seminary once gave a great sermon linking this passage (Matthew 28:16-20) with the temptation of Christ.  It will be on a mountain that the devil offers Jesus all authority if Jesus would worship him.  Poetically, here it is on a mountain that the disciples worship him as the hear that Jesus has all the authority.  The point of the sermon (by Dr. Richard Bliese) was that devil tried to convince Jesus that suffering wasn't necessary for his authority and glory, but Jesus would have none of it.

εδιστασαν ("doubt", from δισταζω 17)  Back in chapter 14, Jesus rescues a sinking Peter and asks him why he doubted.  Here we are, after the crucifixion and resurrection, and doubt still lingers.  Interestingly, Jesus does not rebuke them for their faith (or even false worship) but simply puts them to use and offers them the promise of his presence.  What is Jesus response to failure on the part of the disciples?  Commissioning and promise.  I would argue that in both John 22 and Matthew 28, Jesus not only hands over the promise but also employs people.  This to me suggests that law can function as Gospel when it lets us know that Jesus cares about us.  In other words, when someone tells us to quit smoking, we can hear this as law but also as love in that the person cares about us.  The failure of church to commission people is a failure to communicate God's love for them.  Ultimately I would argue that it is the promise of Jesus' presence that will give them the strength to carry out this command!

μαθητευσατε and βαπτιζοντες ("teach" and "baptize", 19)  Interestingly, the only imperative verb in verse 19 is "make disciples."  The rest are participles that likely describe the verb "teach."  [Grammatically you can argue that "go," although not an imperative, functions like this because of its position.]  In the Greek, baptizing and teaching are not imperatives, they are participles that describe the manner of making disciples.  This is true in the parish too; we make disciples by baptizing them and teaching them.  One should not press too hard here because even if "baptize" only modifies "make disciples" it is still commanded to us by Jesus!  However, it reminds us that Baptism without teaching is not what Jesus commanded. 

I would also add that the purpose of our teaching is making disciples...Do we look at Christian Education as formation??

Side note on the verbs here:  The main verb (μαθητευσατε ) is in the plural (second person).  No one of us is commanded to make disciples.  It always take the community to accomplish this task.

εις το ονομα ("into the name" 19)  Two points here.  First off all, there is only the most scant evidence that Matthew's Gospel did not originally have the Trinitarian name.  All the major manuscripts have it.  In fact, each and every manuscripts has it.  The main evidence against it consists of one or two Greek Fathers who don't include it when they cite Matthew, most importantly Eusebius.  However, Eusebius wrote around 300; the Didache (110 AD), which heavily quotes from Matthew's Gospel includes the name Father, Son and Holy Spirit within its Baptismal formula. (The Didache also use the word "into" and not "in" reflecting Matthew's language)

Second point, we are baptized into the name of God.  There is something that happens in Baptism that joins us to Christ.

μεθ υμων ("with you"; the word μεθ is μετα but the letters change before a vowel, much like "a" becomes "an", vs 20).  It is a good reminder that Jesus offers a plural promise here:  "With all of you."  More importantly though, the words "with you" appear in the middle of the words "I am."  "I am" or εγω ειμι can also signify the name of God (see one of the previous' weeks entries on this).  Here though we find the construction "I with you am."  In the middle of God's name is "with us."  I would argue that God's name has been changed by the death and resurrection of Jesus.  God is forever bound to humanity in a way that God was not before (see tearing of temple curtain).  Even if the whole name of God thing seems like a stretch, Jesus is indicating that after the crucifixion and resurrection he is truly Emmanuel, or God with us, as the angel declared in the beginning of the Gospel. 

Grammar:  How Greek often switches subjects.
In verse 17, Matthew says that "some doubted."  He actually doesn't use the word "some," but the words οι δε.  These two words simply mean "The and."  How did the translators get to "some" from "the and"?

This particular construction (δε ("and") following the word οι/ο ("the")) almost always implies a new subject.  Often times Greek writers will do this; perhaps to save space because it is quicker to write "ο δε" then to write out "the other person I was just writing about."  This device, I assume, almost functioned like a period or a paragraph start; "attention reader, new subject."  For example, Matthew uses this construction back in verse 16 to switch the narrative from the Jews to the disciples. We have a paragraph marker there, but in the original Greek, which lacked punctuation, this didn't exist. 

In verse 17, the question becomes, who is Matthew referring to when he switches the subject? We are not told of anyone on the hill.  It seems the only option is to assume Matthew here switches from all eleven disciples to a smaller group within that.  While a minority think he means all the disciples (and thus is NOT switching subjects), most people assume he is referring to a subset within the disciples.  Regardless at least some of the people on that hill are doubting...and Luke tells in Acts they all keep moving forward with the team!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

The Narrative Lectionary begins the Year 4 cycle with this lesson.  The Revised Common Lectionary includes it for Holy Trinity Sunday (Year A); it is also in the Easter Vigil
Summary:  I'd like to offer in Genesis 1 order is not a bad thing.  The enemy seems to be a lack of structure, authority and clarity.  To be brought into God's creative task, namely, to be reestablished in his image, is to be brought into the task of organizing creation.  It seems like much of the creative task of today's world, if not today's church, is the breaking free of authority.  But fragmented or autonomous living is not the intention of God's creation.  I do not argue, nor do I think Genesis 1 justifies, huge systems that simply promote uniformity if not excessive consumption of resources.  Yet, I think Genesis 1 does speak against our universal, but particularly 21st century American, notion of autonomy as the goal of the human, if not even the spiritual human.

Key Words/Concepts:
ברה (b-r-h, "create", Genesis 1:1, 1:27, 2:3)  The Bible uses many words to describe God's creative activity in Genesis 1.  Surprisingly, many of the words are common verbs that Adam, other humans and the rest of creation do:  speak, name, divide and bring forth.  This is not the case with "barah."  Only God can create, not just in Genesis, but throughout Scripture.  The use of verbs throughout chapter 1 suggests there is something co-creative about creation, but yet God's creative capacity as the creator stands beyond any other entity in creation.

As a side note, in Psalm 51, when David prays for a new heart, the verb is "barah", suggesting that a new heart is only possible from God.

רףה (r-ph-h, "bear fruit", Gen. 1:22, 28).  I like this verb because it reminds me of Jesus' injunction to "bear fruit."  But in this particular story, I find it helpful to remember that just as God tells humans to be fruitful, he also commands the birds and fish the same way.  Creation is not simply our domain!

צלמ (ts-l-m, "image", Gen 1:26,27).  The NET captures discussions about this topic very well, crouching its discussion within the confines of the book of Genesis:  The "image of God" would be the God-given mental and spiritual capacities that enable people to relate to God and to serve him by ruling over the created order as his earthly vice-regents.

משל (m-sh-l, Gen 1:18 as verb; 1:16 as noun).  There are a whole series of words relating to power and authority in these verses.  Many of these words are poured over and often critiqued in a post-colonialism world.  I appreciate what the TWOT (Bible works) gives a helpful insight on this verb: "There is no specific theology to be drawn from the meaning of the word. Yet the passages cited and the seventy or so others not cited demonstrate the importance of the principle of authority, the absolute moral necessity of respect for proper authority, the value of it for orderly society and happy living and the origin of all authority in God, himself. Authority is of many degrees and kinds. It has various theoretical bases. It originates in God. Man has no authority at all as man but simply as God's vice regent."
While our society today may be very afraid of power in the hands of super governments and super corporations, there is an instinct in the OT, certainly in Genesis, that anarchy is not a good thing.  Indeed, creation is a story of God providing order over chaos.  Of course ancient man needed to subdue creation.  "It was a jungle out there."  But of course too, the total destruction of habitat for countless animals was also not desired either.

"Us" - Let us create mankind in our image.  There are a number of ways to think about this verse.  One possibility is that the "us" reflects the Trinity; another is that the "us" is the "royal we"; another is that the "us" reflects angels, ie, the heavenly court.  I don't think we will ever solve this linguistic and theological conundrum.  However, I offer another idea and that is that God is saying to the rest of creation, let's create out of you something in my image.  Given that humanity comes from genetically and is dependent biologically on the rest of creation and that creation has already been involved in creation itself, I think this makes sense.

נתנ (n-t-n, Gen 1:17, 1:29) The final statement of God about creation is that it is a gift!

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

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! 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Luke 24:44-53 (Ascension)

This passage occurs for Ascension in the RCL, all three years; sometimes this is marked on a Thursday other times it takes the place of Easter 7.

Summary:  Normally good-byes are sad.  But not the Ascension!  Luke wants to point out a few things about the ascension.  Namely that it is a commissioning; a celebration; and a crescendo.  A closer look at the Greek suggests this often overlooked story is vitally important for the Christian understanding of God in Christ Jesus.  In fact, as I read Luke's account of the Ascension this year (2013) I am realizing I have improperly truncated the Gospel.  The Gospel must include forgiveness and resurrection but also the sending of the Holy Spirit who brings us into the witness of the Gospel.  But if that just sounds too much for your Lutheran piety, you can go with this:  Jesus knows that preaching forgiveness will get us into trouble because the world cannot handle law and Gospel.

Key Words:
μαρτυρες ("witness", from μαρτυς, 24:48) The Greek word there for witness is "martyros," from which we get our word Martyr.  It originally had a simple legal connotation, as in give testimony, or generally, to speak on someone's behalf.  Yet in the Christian context, it very quickly came to mean suffer for this proclamation, including Jesus himself.   So Jesus says (literally), "You are martyrs of these things."  This is the ultimate commissioning:  You will go out and testify to the resurrection and forgiveness of sins and be persecuted for it.

χαρας ("joy", from χαρα, 24:52)  Luke uses this word more than other authors.  It is significant that worship of the ascended Christ still fills the believers with great joy.  Luke makes the point:  Just because Jesus isn't here on earth doesn't mean we cannot worship him. In fact, worship of the risen (and ascended Christ) still fills the believers with joy.  Jesus ascension means unlimited access instead of only local contact; hence the possibility of a universal church.

προσκυνησαντες ("worship", προσκυνεω, 24:52)  For all of the times Luke has Jesus praying, this is the only instance where people are worshiping in his Gospel.  The only other mention of the verb is in the temptation of Christ where Jesus declares we must worship God alone.  For Luke, the ascension confirms Jesus' divinity in a way that allows the disciples to worship him as God in way even his resurrection did not.  The ascension completes his first mission on earth: his suffering, his resurrection and his commissioning.  Now he shall return to be exalted and come again in glory.

διηνοιξεν ("open", 24:45)  We saw this verb last week in Acts account of Lydia's Baptism.  It is interesting that this word is associated in Acts and Luke with understanding the Word.  It also suggests the need for proclamation, because the Scriptures need to be opened.  They are not self-explanatory.

καθισατε ("sit", καθιζω, 24:49)  The disciples are told to "sit" until the Holy Spirit comes.  Part of the Christian life is waiting.

δυναμιν ("power" from δυναμις. 24:49)  This word comes into English as dynamite.  Christ calls us to be both the martrys and dynamite for the world.  The two seem related in tragic ways; yet, Christ does not call us to cause suffering in others, but simply to suffer for others as the world persecutes the news of forgiveness and resurrection.

Grammar concept:  hendiadys; or in this case, hendiatris
Hendiadys refers to the literary device of using two words to mean one thing.  For instance:  "formless and void" of Genesis 1 means "a whole lot of nothing!" or perhaps more accurately, "chaos."

In this case, Jesus refers to Scriptures by calling them:  Moses, Prophets and Psalms.  Here he is referring to all of the OT, not simply Gen-Deut; 12 prophets and Psalms.  He is laying out the Tanakh (Torah, Prophets and Writings) division of Scripture.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

1 Peter 3:13-22

his verse appears in the RCL for Easter 6A, most recently May 21, 2017

Summary:  The Greek in this passage is quite difficult, so much so, in fact, that it reads more like a puzzle.  I've tried to identify some meaningful pieces of the puzzle.  Once you put them together, you get a clear image:  God saves us; our job is to do good and share the good news.  Repeat:  God saves.  I also explore the meaning of the some of the key words.

Key words:
ζηλωται  ("zealotai", adjective meaning "be zealous", 3:13)  The word for "be eager" is "zelotehs," ie, be a zealot. It is a reminder that we are not simply encouraged to do good, but hunger for righteousness!

τον φοβον αυτων (meaning "the fear of them, 3:14)  Interestingly, this phrase is translated, "Do not fear what they fear." But it literally reads, "Do not fear their fear..." in an age of fear, this perhaps a more helpful translation!

απολογια (apology, meaning "defense", 3:15)  The word for defense here is "apologia" (ie apology); the word here for "reason/accounting" is "logos." In some ways our apology for the faith, our defense is not simply a negative word but finally is the logos, or Christ.  In other words, we are not really defending something but giving away the word, who is Christ.

απαξ ("hapax" (rough breathing) meaning "once and for all", 3:18)  Basic idea:  Jesus does not have to die again.

ζωοποιηθεις ("zoo-poietheis" meaning "make alive", 3:18)  There is also another word in this verse: "zoopoie-oo." "To make alive." This verb in the New Testament appears almost exclusively in the context of the Spirit.  Furthermore, it is only God who makes alive! Yet in the previous verse, we were called to "do good" (agathopoie-oo). A reminder of our calling -- do good and give a witness; and the Spirit's calling - to make alive.

αντιτυπον ("antitype" meaning "prefigure", 3:21) The word for "prefigured" is "antitupos" (anti here does not mean apposed but pre)

σωζει ("sozo" meaning "save", 3:21)  The verb "save," used in conjunction with Baptism, is in the present tense.  This means that it does not simply save at one point, but continues to save us (a nice tie in then with the Gospel lesson about continual repentance).

συνειδησεως and επερωτημα (3:21)  The real question is what does the phrase "an appeal (επερωτημα) of a good conscience (συνειδησεως ) to God" mean. There is a lot of ink written about this construction; the word "appeal" is a less frequent word, making its intrepretation more challenging.  I suggest this verse is not about works-righteousness or some sort of baptismal pledge. It seems clear that the overall thrust of the passage is on the work of God through the resurrection to create life. And in the end, if justification by faith means the death of the sinner and the resurrection of the new creation, certainly this creation has a clear conscience before God.  Regardless, Baptism saves us through the resurrection of God; there is no sense that our good works save us!

Grammar Review:  When a sentence becomes a puzzle
3:13 This sentence is complex one in Greek; 1st of all, the word for "do bad" is a substantive participle; the word for "good" is substantive adjective (the good) and the verbs are all out of order...In this case, one might really need to look at other translations even to get started.  Break down what one knows and then see if one can put it together:
Και τις ο κακωσαν υμας εαν του αγαθου ζηλωται γενησθε
Και and
τις The accent marks will tell you if it is a pronoun (any, a, certain) or a question (who/what/where).  In this case, you have a question mark at the end, so it makes it easier to figure out it is a question.
ο κακωσαν υμας The one who does you bad/harm
εαν  If
του αγαθου of the good.  Why is this in the genitive?
ζηλωται ...it looks like a verb, but it means 'zealous'  In this case we can go back and figure out that seeking and good go together: seeking the good
γενησθε are (in subjunctive)  That this is in the second person tells us that the subject of the sentence is "you."
So...And what the one who does you harm if of the good seeking you are?
Or  "What becomes of the one doing bad to you if you are doing good?
Phew!  Again, break down what you know and use other translations to help!

Monday, May 15, 2017

Acts 17:16-31

This passage is found in the Narrative Lectionary, Year 4 (Most recently May 18, 2014)
This passage, really Acts 17:22-31, is also found in the Revised Common Lectionary, Easter 6A)

Here is some commentary on the speech:  http://lectionarygreek.blogspot.com/2011/05/acts-1722-31.html
Also, here is a link from my travels to the aeropagus a number of years ago:

In this blog post I focus on the terms Epicurean and Stoic.  I think we all know many of these two stripes

Επικουριος (17:18)
Basically:  Lead a "happy" life, which consists not in lust but in moderation and keeping one's nose clean.  The gods exist, but don't interfere with human life; talk of good life makes sense, but talk of judgement and other-worldly salvation makes no sense.

NET Bible: 
An Epicurean was a follower of the philosophy of Epicurus, who founded a school in Athens about 300 B.C. Although the Epicureans saw the aim of life as pleasure, they were not strictly hedonists, because they defined pleasure as the absence of pain. Along with this, they desired the avoidance of trouble and freedom from annoyances. They saw organized religion as evil, especially the belief that the gods punished evildoers in an afterlife. In keeping with this, they were unable to accept Paul's teaching about the resurrection.
Epicurus believed that what he called "pleasure" is the greatest good, but the way to attain such pleasure is to live modestly and to gain knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of one's desires. This led one to attain a state of tranquility (ataraxia) and freedom from fear, as well as absence of bodily pain (aponia). The combination of these two states is supposed to constitute happiness in its highest form. Although Epicureanism is a form of hedonism, insofar as it declares pleasure to be the sole intrinsic good, its conception of absence of pain as the greatest pleasure and its advocacy of a simple life make it different from "hedonism" as it is commonly understood.
Epicureans do not deny the existence of God, simply that the gods have moved on and are unconcerned with human life; His materialism led him to a general attack on superstition and divine intervention. 

Στοικος (17:18)
Basically, lead a virtuous life.  This is difficult, but seed of good in each of us can be fostered to overcome evil.  God is in everything.  Although at odds with Epricureans, both stress an avoidance of passion.

NET Bible:
A Stoic was a follower of the philosophy founded by Zeno (342-270 B.C.), a Phoenician who came to Athens and modified the philosophical system of the Cynics he found there. The Stoics rejected the Epicurean ideal of pleasure, stressing virtue instead. The Stoics emphasized responsibility for voluntary actions and believed risks were worth taking, but thought the actual attainment of virtue was difficult. They also believed in providence.

Wiki on Scotism vs Christianity: 
The major difference between the two philosophies is Stoicism's pantheism, in which God is never fully transcendent but always immanent. God as the world-creating entity is personalized in Christian thought, but Stoicism equates God with the totality of the universe, which was deeply contrary to Christianity. The only incarnation in Stoicism is that each person has part of the logos within. Stoicism, unlike Christianity, does not posit a beginning or end to the universe.
Stoic writings such as the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius have been highly regarded by many Christians throughout the centuries. The Stoic ideal of dispassion is accepted to this day as the perfect moral state by the Eastern Orthodox Church. Saint Ambrose of Milan was known for applying Stoic philosophy to his theology.

σπερμολογος (17:18):  Seed talker, but more literally, sperm-logos.  For someone who simply picks up scraps of info; a babbler.
κατειδωλον (17:16):  Full of idols.  kata intensifies words!

Monday, May 8, 2017

John 14:1-14

This passage occurs during the Easter Season in the Revised Common Lectionary, year A, most recently May 14, 2017.
"I am the way, the truth and the life."  These three words in Greek are as multilayered as they are in English.  In fact, I put no special entry for them.  What does truth mean?  What does life mean?  What does way mean?  Perhaps the best story to explain this is found in the book of Acts, with our doubting Philip.  In the eighth chapter, the Spirit works with Philip in some profound ways! On the way, he preaches the truth and the Eunuch is given the life.  He does the work of Christ.  Does this satisfy you?  Well, don't let your hearts be troubled because, just like Philip, God works through us imperfect, doubting and sinful disciples to preach the truth to people, on the way, that they might have life, and have it abundantly. 

Key Words
ταρασσεσθω ("troubled" or "grieved", a form of ταρασσεσθω, 14:1).  Jesus himself will be grieved in John 12:27 and 13:21.  Here though he tells the disciples not to grieve.  Perhaps this a beautiful example of the communicatio idiomatum (the exchange of properties between God and man in Jesus Christ on the cross, often called the Glorious Exchange by Luther).  Jesus takes on our grief so that we don't have to grieve anymore.

πιστευετε ("believe" or "trust" 14:1).  This is a second week of class vocabulary word.  However, it is worth pointing out that in the Gospel of John, faith is never a noun, but is always a verb -- believing.  Faith is always an act, never a concept!

οικια - μονη  ("house" and "rooms" 14:2)  The NRSV butchers this one.  Yes, a μονη does mean a dwelling place and does come from the Greek for dwell/abide, μενω, a word of great importance in John's Gospel.  But it sounds so abstract!   οικια does not mean mansion, but I suppose if God lives there, its a big house. 

αρκει ("satisfy," form of αρκεω, 14:8)  Philipp earlier complains that a huge amount of bread wouldn't be enough to satisfy the crowd; now he claims that seeing the Father will satisfy him.  Obviously Phillip doesn't get it.  You might even say that this is Phillip's grand Peteresque moment.  Philipp will go out and on the road, preach the truth and give the eunuch the waters of life.

εργα ("works," 14:12)  Yes folks, faith does make works.  It is worth pointing out that here, there is no subjunctive in this sentence.  Simply, the one who is believe will do works

What I ought write about here is Greek subjunctive, but alas, I've done that a lot recently.  So let's turn to a new subject.  In Greek, you do not need to specify the subject because the verb conjugations reveals this to the listener/reader.  In fact, the subject is often dropped, especially when the subject is clear from the context or it is "I" or "you."  So, for example, in 14:7, the English reads:  "If you know me, you will know my father."  If you read the Greek, you will read:
ει εγνωκατε με και τον πατερα μου γνωσεσθε
Notice the lack of "you."  The verb endings reveal the subject as "you" to the Greek reader/listener.  However, in verse six, when Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth and the life" he includes the subject, the pronoun "I."  He says, εγω ειμι.  The word εγω is unnecessary because ειμι means "I am."  Normally the use of a pronoun with a conjugated verb is simply done for emphasis.  To be translated "I, I mean I, am the way."  Something else may be going on here though!  In the OT, God will also use the phrase εγω ειμι to name himself.  Like in Exodus 3:14  "I am who I am" begins with εγω ειμι. Often times in the Gospel, Jesus seems to refer to himself as God by calling himself εγω ειμι.  Like in Matthew 14:17 Jesus tells them not to be afraid as he walks across the water, for "It is I" or in Greek: εγω ειμι.  Peter responds by calling him κυριε, which means Lord, another name for God, and then Peter follows him out of the boat.  In John 18:6, when Jesus refers to himself as εγω ειμι, all the soliders fall in reverence, because Jesus is declaring himself God.  So, what about John 14:6 and the other εγω ειμι sayings in John, of which there are many?  Are these all declarations of Jesus divinity?  Yes!  John does play on this ancient name for God, but in Jesus Christ we continue to discover anew God's identity:  Here, the way, truth and life.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Psalm 23, take 2

For Good Shepherd Sunday I've looked at Psalm 23.  Given people's emotional resonance with the Psalm, this passage does not call for one's "exegetical underwear."  That said, reading the actual Psalm presents more "earthy" image than the bucolic landscape scene the Psalm often conjures in our minds.  There is wet grass to be eaten, wine to be poured, death to be encountered and God's disciplining rod to be felt slamming into our side. To put it another way, God doesn't simply want to paint pictures, but truly revive our soul that we might return to his temple, time and time again, even in our everlasting life, made possible by the Good Shepherd.

Instead of key words, I offer a translation with commentary.

Verse 1:
"Yahweh shepherds me.  I do not lack."

The word "LORD" in Hebrew is Yahweh. This most of us know; I think two things are worth reflecting on here. First is that in English we always put the word "The" in front of the "LORD." In Hebrew it simply reads, "Yahweh is my shepherd." Second, we read the "LORD" with a certain complacency unimaginable to early readers of this.  The Hebrew reader replaces "Yahweh" and always says, "Adonai"

The word "Shepherd" is a verbal noun in Hebrew, that is, it is a participle (shepherding) that has been fixed into a noun. Thus, every time you read the word "Shepherd" in the OT, you are reading something much more akin to, "The one shepherding." If you notice the Vulgate and Septugint translation of this verse actually leave the word as a verb: "The Lord shepherds me."  Although telling people their favorite Psalm has been mistranslated is unlikely to be helpful, it is worth noting that God's work as a shepherd is an action!

The word for lack here,חסר, (kaser) is also used in Deuteronomy 2:7, when God says the people lacked nothing.   At this point the people were in the wilderness and had been for years.  A reminder that what God says we need is probably different from our own estimation.

The Greek (and Latin) add the word "nothing."  The Hebrew simply reads: "I am not wanting..."  The "nothing"; but I it implicit enough in the language that I do not consider this a translation foul!

Verse 2:
He makes me rest in meadows of lush grass; he leads me beside still waters.

I've translated this as "lush grass" and not "green pastures."  The word "green" as in "Green pastures" does not appear in the Hebrew.  The word is "grass." God is not simply giving us a pretty picture, but food!

The second half of this verse is often translated, "He leads me besides to still waters."  However poetic, this does not fully capture the idea.  The Hebrew here, מנחה (minukah), means "resting place." As Bible Work's TWOT dictionary says: "Basically the root nûaµ  (which means resting place) relates to absence of spatial activity and presence of security, as seen, e.g. in the ark which "rested" on Mount Ararat (Gen 8:4),"  The NET prefers the more active "refreshing" but I think the words, "still waters" captures the sense of rest that comes from utter trust.

Verse 3:
He restores my soul.  He leads me in paths of righteousness for his glory.

The word "restore" is the reason I find Hebrew so wonderful but so frustrating. If you look at the word in English, you might have no clue that its root is שוב, which means to turn, even to repent. The sentence could read, "He turns my soul."  This is the verb used in the phrase, "Return to the Lord your God!"  Here God is returning our soul to him.

Soul, here נפש, (nephish) can mean a variety of things, but certainly not the idea of a wispy part of us that lives on after we die.  The Hebrew is trying to get at the core of our being; the NET tries to get at this by saying, "He restores my strength."  I think soul is fine, but you can see how the English ends up making this whole Psalm more "spiritual."

The word "name" as in "Name's sake" might be a little weak here. The word שם in Hebrew "Shem" means name, but in the sense of "reputation" or even "glory."

Verse 4:
Though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.

How does one translate "Valley of the shadow of death"?  I again defer to the TWOT dictionary, which is so helpful here: "It describes the darkness of eyelids tired from weeping (Job 16:16), the thick darkness present in a mine shaft (Job 28:3), the darkness of the abode of the dead (Job 10:21ff; Job 38:17), and the darkness prior to creation (Amos 5:8). Emotionally it describes the internal anguish of one who has rebelled against God (Psa 107:10-14; cf. Psa 44:19ff [H 20f]). Thus it is the strongest word in Hebrew for darkness." Shadow of darkness is probably too weak a translation, but the idea here is that it encompasses more than death.  The NRSV tries to get at this by writing, "Though I walk through the darkest valley" but really, for the average reader, "Valley of the Shadow of Death" gets at this...

The Hebrew here juxtaposes two words:  rod and comfort.   נחם (nakam, comfort) is a lovely word, but I'd like us to slow down and considering Bible Work's BDB definition of שבט (shebet), used here for "rod":  rod, staff, for smiting; for beating cummin ; as (inferior) weapon; fig. of  chastisement; national; individual. b. shaft, i.e. spear, dart. c. shepherd's implement, club; used in mustering or counting sheep.

Strange that this would be comforting!

Verse 5:
You prepare a table in the presence of those wishing me harm; you anoint my head with oil; my cup is full of wine

The phrase "in the presence of my enemies" delights the investigator!  It has the sense of "in front of my enemies."  I have read this Psalm many times but it never caught me that the table is not simply prepared privately amid trouble but literally, in the presence of enemies the person is having the table set!  Also the word for enemies is another verbal noun.  Much like shepherding, this word has an active connotation; the enemies are actively seeking your down-fall!

(heehee) The word here for "oil" is also "fat" and the word here for "overflow" is "saturate," so here we have a feast with saturated fats :-)  In fact, the Greek uses the word "made drunk."  There is something a bit almost vindictive about this verse:  "I am getting drunk thanks to you in front of those who hate me!"

Note:  The NET Bible has a long commentary on the word "anoint" and why the use "refresh" instead.  I will save that for the very hungry, but suffice to say, the Hebrew literally reads, "He fattened the oil on my head."

Verse 6:
Surely goodness and love will pursue me all my days and I will continue to return to the house of the Lord for all my days.

Sometimes translated, "faithfulness" חסד, kesed, means "love-in-constant-action-over-and-against-people's stupidity."  To avoid a mistranslation, translators often avoid "love" because that is such an emotional word.  However, it is more than faithfulness.  Also, that it is חסד means that the subject (or possessor) is God! 

"Follow" is too passive for רדפ.  It means pursue, like pursue enemies!

The Hebrew literally reads, "I will return in(to) the house of the Lord."  I like the image not simply of dwelling but of returning to the house of the Lord.  The verb is in a continuous tense, so the idea here is that just as God's goodness and love pursue the person, the person returns to God's temple.  Furthermore, the continuous nature of the verb allows us to imagine, in a way that is probably untenable to the Hebrew mind, always returning to the house of the Lord, even after death!  The literal translation probably leans more toward "all the days of my life" instead of "forever" but again, I think this continual tense of the verb allows us to imagine the idea of a forever returning to God's holy presence.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Luke 24:13-35

This passage occurs in the RCL during Easter (Year A, B and if you like, C).

A very moving piece of Scripture.  You might argue it is the "ultimate" piece of Luke's Gospel, bringing together so many themes:  importance of hospitality, completion of OT salvation and vitality of worship to name a few.  This passage can often be seen as a "trump" card for the importance of Holy Communion because the disciples recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread.  However, a few curiosities.  First, Jesus does not use the word eucharist here, which he does at the last supper.  Furthermore, the resurrected Christ shows up to the disciples not in the breaking of the bread, but in the proclamation of the Word as they tell each other Jesus is risen!  Finally, when Jesus first gives them the bread, it is not after the breaking but after the distribution that their eyes are opened.  They had to know that Jesus was for you in order to know Christ.  Ultimately though, this theological masterpiece cannot be used against communion, but I want to point out that for Luke, everything good and wonderful (including praise, the power of the Word and the importance of intimacy, even relationship with Christ and the community) is included!  To put it more eloquently:  This passage is about way more than breaking bread.  Likewise, Holy Communion is about more than breaking bread, it is about praising God in Glory, proclaming the death and resurrection of Jesus and finally, by the Holy Spirit, recognizing Christ did this for me and my brethren.

Key Words:
συν (preposition meaning "with"; but it can also be combined with verbs to slightly change their meaning; three such verbs appear in 24:14,15)  By using these words Luke plays on the sounds the words makes but also strongly suggests those on the road were together.

λυτρουσθαι ("redeem," present infinitive form of λυτρομαι, 24:21)  This verb means redeem in a the "ransom" sense of the word.  The Bible uses this word to talk about people redeeming property with payment.  People can also make a redemption payment to God to avoid punishment for their sins (see Number 35:31).  In Exodus, in fact, the people must pay a ransom to God to avoid a plague (30:12).

A few other points:
- Redemption can avoid punishment but not ultimate death:  Psalm 49:8-9 For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice that one should live on forever and never see the grave.  (NRSV)  The idea of redemption into eternal life seems a human impossibility. 

- God was not the only one from whom redemption could be sought.  For example, God redeems (same verb) the people from slavery in Egypt (2 Sam 7:23, Deut 13:5).  In this sense, God redeems from an agent hostile to God's will for the people.

- It is worth point out that Luke employs the idea in a different manner here than in Mark 10.  In Mark, Jesus is the redemption (the thing paid to do the redeeming, 10:45).  Based on the structure of this sentence in Luke, Jesus is the one doing the redeeming.  This small distinction raises great question for Christians:  Who was Jesus redeeming Israel from (Rome?); why was Jesus redeeming them?  What was the payment (his suffering?)?  Who did God possibly have to deal with?  But if you don't want to go there, keep it simple:  Jesus gave his life that you might be redeemed, namely, set free from sin and death.

Ultimately, I think any transactional sense of Jesus' work on the cross has clear biblical roots, but also real limits.  I wrote about this word extensively in a post on Mark 10.

δοξαν ("glory" accusative of δοξη, 24:26)  This word has many layers; originally meaning "opinion" it can also mean "splendor."  Yet in the NT, borrowing from the OT, it also means the amazing presence of God!  Luke uses this word at some key passages to point toward the glory related to the presence of God and his kingly splendor:  Glory of Christmas Angels (2:9/2:14); Devil's promise (4:6); Transfiguration (9:32); Palm Sunday (19:38); Second coming (9:26/21:27)

προσεποιησατο ("pretend" aorist of προσποιεω, 24:28)  So, can Jesus pretend?  Yes!!

μενω ("abide," used twice in 24:29)  Although a more essential word in the Gospel of John, this word still carries import here.  The disciples invite Jesus to abide with them.  Not in their heart, but at their table!

εγνωσθη ("know" aorist form of γινωσκω 24:35)  I point this verb out because Luke changes it from the earlier "recognize" (επιγινωσκω).  I cannot figure out why Luke draws this distinction, other than to say: If you know Jesus, you will recognize him; if you recognize him, you know.  To put it in familiar Lutheran terms:  To know Christ is to know his benefits.  When it comes to these words, I am not sure if I know the difference, even though I recognize it...

κλασει ("breaking" dative of κλασις 24:35; in a verb form κλασας 24:30; also sounds like the name Κλεοπας)  It is in the breaking of the bread that the disciples recognize Jesus; worth pointing out, however, is that it is also in the proclamation of Jesus resurrection (vs 35-36) that Jesus shows up.  Luke does not neglect a theology of the Word!  It is also worth pointing out that the first time they recognize Jesus, they do so, not in the breaking of the break, but while the bread is being distributed.  Based on the verb tenses you get:  Taking the bread he blessed it.  After he broke it he was distributing it.  And their eyes began to be opened (or became opened).  The point here is that breaking the bread may not be the only "magic" moment when Jesus shows up.  In other words (I know I am pushing it here), it was only when they heard the for you that the recognized Jesus.

ευλογησεν ("blessed" aorist form of ευλογεω in 24:30; comes into English as "eulogy")  Clearly Luke plays on the idea of communion (taking bread, giving thanks, breaking it and giving it to the disciples).  However, at the last supper Jesus gives thanks (ευχαριστω, 22:19).  Again, I recognize the difference, but not as sure why Luke has Jesus use a different verb.

καιομενη (present passive participle of καιω 24:32)  While God often makes things burn out of his anger, I think the best recollection for this verb is the burning bush -- it was not consumed, but the Word of God kindled it brightly!

Grammar review:  Negative questions
Greek shows questions with a ";" mark.  Some sentences can be very tricky because we miss this!
Also, in Greek, a question can include a negative.  Depending on the wording, the question expects either a no or yes answer.  In English we have something similar, in that a question can expect a yes or no answer, but it is the word order, if not inflection, that reveals this information in English:
"You don't think that is a good idea, do you?" (Expects a no answer)
"Don't you want you some ice cream?"  (Expect a yes answer)
In Greek, the distinction is easier!  When they use "μη" they expect a no answer. When they use "ου" they expect yes.
So, for example, when Jesus asks the question, "Grapes are not gathered from throns, are they?" the Greek uses a μη (7:16, technically μητι). 
Again, if it has a "ου" it expects a "yes."  The only challenging part is that ου can show up as ουκ when it appears before a verb; also ουχι is a more intense form, like "REALLY PEOPLE, the answer must be yes..."

In this 24:26, Jesus asks the question about the necessity of his suffering:
ουχι ταυτα εδει παθειν τον χριστον και εισελειν εις την δοξαν αυτου;
Because the sentence (really a question!) begins with ουχι it expects a "yes" answer:
"REALLY PEOPLE, wasn't it necessary for the Christ to suffer this and then enter into his glory?"

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

John 20:19-31

In the RCL, this passage appears on Easter II (April 23, 2017)

Summary:  This is a rich enough story to preach on every year.  There are so many directions!  I am struck by a strange wrinkle in John's Greek that leaves Jesus with a new title:  "Jesus of locked doors."  The literal Greek offers one this translation possibility; the narrative certainly pushes us in this direction.  But this text is a gold mine of words and images to preach on!

Key Words:
λεγει ("speak", 20.19)  The verb here for "speak" is the present tense, which suggests repeated action: He continually was saying to them, "Peace be with you."

υμιν ("you all" in the dative, 20:19).  The Greek leaves out the word "is" in the sentence, simply declaring "Peace to you."  Hence, the Greek is a bit more ambiguous here as to whether Jesus is offering a blessing or making a statement: "Peace is with you" could work. All that the Greek has is "Peace to/for/with/by/in you."

θυρα ("gate", 20.19)  The word for "door" or "gate" here is θυρα; this word is used in other Gospels to talk about the entrance to Jesus tomb.  It can be hard to make cross-Gospel connections, so a bit simpler:  Jesus calls himself the θυρα, or the Gate in John's Gospel (10:1-9).  See also:

κεκλεισμενων ("locked", 20.26) The text literally reads: "The Jesus of locked doors/gates came stood into the middle of them." This is a very odd placement/case of the expression "locked doors/gates."  It may modify the circumstances under which Jesus came (ie, Jesus came in after the gates were locked), but it might also modify Jesus.  This is the more exciting possibility:  It could read "Jesus came while the doors were locked" or "Jesus of locked gates came." The former is the more likely translation, but John seems to suggest the latter through his narrative.

αποστελλω vs πιμπω ("send", 20.21) Jesus here will use different verbs for the father's sending and his sending of the disciples, αποστελλω vs πιμπω .  Don't read into this.  John just likes to use variety. See 8.29 and 17.18 for examples of Jesus using these verbs interchangeably.

ενεφυσησεν (aorist form of "breath-in", 20.22)  The verb "breath-in" is a rather rare verb in biblical Greek, appearing once in the NT and nine times in the OT Greek.  Significantly, in the OT it shows up in Genesis 2:7, when God breathes into the humans; in 1 Kings when Elijah revives a boy and also in Ezekiel 37, when God's Spirit breathes into the bones.  The disciples are coming alive!

αφεωνται & κεκρατηνται (perfect forms of αφηιμι & κρατω, meaning "forgive" and "hold", 20.23) The verb tenses of "forgiven" (αφεωνται) and "bound" (κεκρατηνται) are in the present for the disciple's actions, but in the perfect tense for the result -- the effect is lasting. Actually, the tense for forgive is in the aorist and the tense for bound is present.  This suggests that binding/retaining a sin takes energy -- we have to keep it up...I think this is true on an individual level, where retaining a sin takes energy as we hold a grudge. I think this also is true on a societal level, where calling something a sin and continuing to claim it as such takes energy too. 

ου μη ("no-no", 20.25) The ου μη that Thomas uses is a strong future denial meaning "ou meh," as in "will never."

οκτω ("eight", 20.26) The number eight here is a reminder that Christians gather on the 8th day, the day after the (Jewish) Sabbath, the day of resurrection.  Baptismal fonts have eight sides...

απιστος ("unfaithful", 20.27)  Thomas never "doubts" as a verb. The word doubt is not used, but rather, unfaithful! Jesus says literally, "Do not be unfaithful but faithful."  Side note:  I've often wondered if Thomas struggled to believe the resurrection more emotionally than intellectually because he knew exactly what it meant if Jesus had been raised -- they would all have their lives totally changed...exactly what happened to Thomas, even traveling to India to proclaim Jesus is Risen!

Monday, April 10, 2017

Easter (RCL and NL)

Here are links for Greek commentary on the resurrection accounts in all four Gospel
Matthew 28:1-10
Mark 16:1-8
Luke 24:1-12
John 20:1-18

A teaser from the posts on Luke 24:1-12
προς εαυτον ("to himself"; 24.12)  Most translators take the phrase, "to himself" to mean "to his possessions," namely, Peter's house (including BDAG).  Hence they translate it "Peter went to his house."  Yet, Peter does not necessarily go to his home. It literally says, "He went away to himself." This could just as naturally read, "He went away by himself." As the KJV puts it "wondered in himself."  Most translators likely base their translation on John 20:10, where it is more clear that the disciples went home.  But Luke's imagery is of Peter walking away by himself, pondering these events, likely without any real direction in his wanderings.
Luke's presentation of the Resurrection story gives us permission to struggle with the Good News.  It is so good, so amazing, that even the first disciples struggled with it.

A teaser from the posts on Matthew 28:1-10 and Mark 16:1-8:
εσταυρομενον ("crucified"; 6).  This word is also in the perfect, meaning an action happened in the past that still describes the state of affairs.  The angel declares that even though he is risen, Jesus is still in the state of being crucified.  You are seeking the crucified one; he is risen.  Jesus is alive but he still has the wounds in his hands.

My pastoral thought, reflecting on the Greek, is that the women have the courage and compassion to go to the tomb.  It can be easy to make Easter into a day when we criticize those who focus on the grave; who focus on grief.  I think as Christians we have the power to grieve because we have hope.  In short, we can say good-bye and miss them because we will see them again.

A teaser from the post on John 20:1-18:
μνημειον ("tomb", 20:1)  This word comes from the Greek for memory (like English "mnemonic" is something that helps you remember).  The complaint almost reads, "They have taken Jesus out of my memory!"  There is something to play with here, about memory and loved ones.  Jesus isn't just a memory; your loved ones aren't just a memory.  Jesus is alive!

Monday, April 3, 2017

Palm Sunday (RCL and NL)

Here are links to Palm Sunday passages.

Triumphal entry in Matthew's Gospel:
εσεισθη  ("shake" in 21:10; aorist form of σειω)  This word comes into English as "seismic."  The events of Holy Week shake the city and their aftershocks still continue to reverberate around the world two millennia later.

Philippians 2 reading:
μορφη ("shape" or "form"; 7, 8)  If you look up this word, you will find it appears twice in Philippians, once in verse 7 and once in verse 8.  Jesus had the form/shape of God; took the form/shape of a human.  Sounds good.  However, later on in Philippians, Paul comes back to this word, but using it with the prefix συν (the -n becomes a -m...see note below) .  First, in verse 3:10 where he says that he is being συμμορφιζομαι-ed into Christ's death and later when he is  being συμμορφος with Christ's resurrected body (3:28).  Paul moves from talking about the form of Christ to the co-formation of the believer, both into suffering, death and then resurrection.  I think the word μορφη can be used to guide one's reflections on the whole letter:

Triumphal entry (really aftermath) in John's Gospel
And from vs 19:
ωσαννα:  From the NET Bible:
"The expression hosanna, (literally in Hebrew, "O Lord, save") in the quotation from Ps 118:25-26 was probably by this time a familiar liturgical expression of praise, on the order of "Hail to the king," although both the underlying Aramaic and Hebrew expressions meant "O Lord, save us." As in Mark 11:9 the introductory hosanna, is followed by the words of Ps 118:25, "blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord."  ... In words familiar to every Jew, the author is indicating that at this point every messianic expectation is now at the point of realization. It is clear from the words of the psalm shouted by the crowd that Jesus is being proclaimed as messianic king. See E. Lohse, TDNT 9:682-84."
If there is a particular text for Palm Sunday someone would like me to look at, I would glad review this.  It is just strange because there are so many possibilities for churches this day.

Blessings on your ministry in the next two weeks.

Monday, March 27, 2017

John 11:1-45

This passage is found in the Revised Common Lectionary for Lent, Year A and All Saint's Day, Year B  (Most recently for April 2, 2017); The All Saints reading is shorter, verses John 11:32-44.

Summary:  This emotional passage does not need to deep exegesis to understand.  But as always, the Greek amplifies the emotions, especially of Mary.  Furthermore, the Greek offers some poignant connections to other parts of John's Gospel.

Key words:

ερχομαι & οραω (11:32 and 11:34, also 1:39; 1:46; 4:29; 19:33; 20:8 "Come and see").  These two verbs come together a number of times in John's Gospel. A quite impressive list actually:
A) When Jesus begins his ministry and calls his disciples.
B) When the woman at the well returns to her hometown to invite others (different cognate for "come");
C) When they bring Jesus to Lazarus' tomb.
D) When they find Jesus on the cross.
E) When they come to the empty tomb.

John's Gospel invites us to come and see, even Jesus on the cross and finally the empty tomb.  The result of coming and seeing is believing.

In this passage, however, the two words come together in two very emotional ways.  The more obvious one is when they invite Jesus to see the tomb of Lazarus.  The more subtle one is that Mary came (ηλθεν) and saw (ιδουσα; note feminine participle endings may be more difficult to spot, sadly).  In this case, she falls at Jesus feet (see next note).  She has done what a disciple should do, she has come and seen. What happens when we come and see, not in intellectual or hopeful curiosity, but in grief?

ποδος (from πους, meaning "foot" as in words that have "pod" in them; 11:32)  Mary will fall to Jesus feet twice in a short time.  Mary cries at Jesus feet in this story; after her brother is revived, she will fall to Jesus feet to anoint them.  Twice she worships at Jesus feet; the first in lament for her situation; the second in lament for Jesus situation.

Two other powerful scenes happen at Jesus feet.  The other is when the women (including Mary) gather at the foot of the cross.  The last is when Mary (Magdalene) stoops down to where Jesus' feet were in the tomb.  Also, in chapter 13 of John's Gospel, Jesus will wash the disciples' feet.  In short, if there are feet involved, it is likely an emotionally charged passage, relating to the profound cruciform servant-hood of Christ and his followers!

κλαιουσαν (from κλαιω, meaning "weep" 11:33)  Simple point:  People in the Bible cry.  We give so little permission for people to cry today.  Jesus himself cries here (11:35; it is a different word, εδακρυσεν) but don't get caught up in that.  Death produces tears even from the Lord of Life.

ει...αν (if, if; 11:33)  Mary has a particularly harsh construction of Greek here for Jesus.  This combination of ει...αν indicates "a hypothetical that is actually false."  In short, it should best be translated, "If you had been here, WHICH YOU WERE NOT, my brother would not have died."

εμβριμωμενος (from εμβριμαομαι, meaning "snort in", 11:38)  This word means "admonish in anger" visually in the sense of a "horse snorting."  I think its this word that has given rise to all sorts of terrible interpretations that Jesus is really mad in this passage that they don't believe.  I think this is kind of nuts.  I think a better translation is simply this:  "Jesus was so worked up about this death that he looses control of his breathing..."  To put it another way, Jesus does the uncool thing of lose control of his emotions.  Unlike the rest of humanity, when Jesus' gets angry, no one is hurt, but the deepest emotion, love, and deepest power, resurrection, is unleashed.

Lastly, if this passage were not for all Saints, it might be worth focusing on what it means to unbind Lazarus, but I think the interaction of Mary is where its at!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

John 9:1-41

This passage occurs in the RCL during Lent (year A), most recently March 26, 2017.  This passage also occurs in the Narrative Lectionary for Transfiguration Sunday, most recently 2014.

Summary:  Jesus' claim to be the light of the world doesn't simply put him above it all.  Rather it puts him in the midst of it all, even amid people's problems and divisions.

Some key words:

ημαρτεν (aorist form of αμαρτανω, meaning "sin", 9:2 and 9:3)  A few comments here
- The Pharisees want to ascribe sin as the cause for problems in this man's life.  Jesus says that this problem is really an opportunity for God's glory.  There is always a tendency in us to ascribe God's judgement to a situation rather than see things as an opportunity for transformation and God's goodness.
- Afterwards the Pharisee's obsession with sin and the law means they cannot see God's goodness at work.  This is a passage that personally challenges me.  I can easily find fault in situations rather the see God's goodness.

επτυσεν πτυσματος ( "spit" (aorist form) and "saliva", 9:6)  In order for Jesus to give man sight -- to be the light of the world -- he must spit.  John uses the word as a noun and verb to make sure we picked this up.

οφθαλμος ("eye", 9:6)  This word appears 10 times in these verses.  I especially like the phrase "open my/your eye."  I can't help but think that John wants to draw attention to the physicality of everything.  Jesus is literally touching this man's eyes!

νιψαι ("wash", from νιπτω, 9:7)  This word comes back into John's Gospel at another interesting juncture:  When Jesus washes their feet!  Again a reminder that being the light of the world, washing people, is a very humble and earthly task.

αποσυνάγωγος (literally apo-synagogos, meaning "banish from synagogues", 9:6)  This word appears three times in the Gospel of John (12:42, 16:2)  John is the only biblical writer to use the word.  It is hard not to imagine that this was becoming an issue for people as John's Gospel was being written -- that claiming Christ was getting people kicked out of their religious communities.  It is a reminder that claiming Christ has a cost.

ευρων (from ευρισκω, "find", 9:35)  In the very next story, Jesus talks about how he is the good shepherd.  Well, in the Gospel of Luke we hear about a shepherd that finds lost sheep.  Here Jesus is finding lost sheep.

φος ("light", 9:5)  One can go many directions with light.  It is interesting to see where the word light appears in John's Gospel.  Almost all the time there is a contrast of living in the dark vs living in the light.  Can we read John's Gospel (and preach on it) without getting into the current cultural clashes over a variety of issues?  The Jesus of John's Gospel is a prophet in many ways, who speaks out against the church and culture of his day.

Here are the light passages in John that reference light vs dark

John 1:5: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it
John 3:19:  This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.
John 8  Jesus says he is the light of the world, but immediate the pharisees protest against this
John 11:9-10  But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.

John 12:35-37 Jesus said to them, "The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going.  While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light." After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.  Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him.

John 12:46
I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The economics of church decline (and rebirth?)

So we've all read countless blog posts about all of the sociological and cultural reasons the mainline church is dying.  I would like to take a different approach, one based on economics (and one that focuses on my denomination).  I do this because I believe that economics may help us see the necessity of certain solutions.

I also write this on St. Patrick's Day, because I believe that part of the secret to the Irish monks was their capacity to develop an economic model that allowed for mission.

Economics is all about supply and demand...and we have a supply problem

Right now, the Lutheran denomination that I am a part of, the ELCA, is facing a huge crisis of supply in terms of its pastors.   This year there are far, far fewer pastors available for placement than in previous years (Like we have enough pastors for less than 1/2 of vacancies we have).  This is sadly not an aberration, but a trend.  Furthermore, we are just about to face a huge way of boomer pastor retirements.  We are probably producing a third of the pastors we need to. 

I'm sure we could find numerous blogs that talk about all the cultural reasons why younger people don't want to go to Seminary.  I want to propose a simpler and economic solution:  It costs too much money.  Seminary requires three years of study and unit of Clinical Pastoral Education.  There is also an internship year that offers a monthly income of $1,600+housing if you have to move.  Even though many Seminary students get scholarship help for tuition, the real cost of Seminary is simply living for those years without significant income.  When I worked in the financial aid office at my seminary, we estimated that tuition only represented 1/3 of the total costs of Seminary.  I had friends that graduated with 5 figures of debt from health insurance alone.  And that was 10 years ago!  It is also worth remembering that Seminary bills come on top of existing loans that many people have from undergraduate.  It is not uncommon for students to come out with $80 to $100K of debt.  (At 5% for ten years, that is $850 a month).  My sense is that we've been saying this for years, namely, that Seminaries are too expensive and that debts are too high.  I think the people not in Seminary heard us!

(Sad irony, the church wants to become more diverse.  To the extent to which wealth and race are correlated in our country (which they are), we end up pricing out non-white students at a faster rate than we price out white students).

(Second side point:  Many people talk of bi-vocational pastors -- "tent-making" to use Biblical language.  I am really skeptical of the desire or capacity of people to accrue so much debt and go through so much education for a part-time gig.)

Solutions proposed help, but not enough

I want to commend some of the solutions:  Trim overhead at seminaries through various mergers; allow more students to work at churches during seminary; give students financial coaching to improve the personal finances.  While such moves are noble (and surprisingly painful), we cannot cut costs by ten or even twenty percent and double the Seminary student population.  We would need solutions that cut the cost of Seminary by 50 to 60% -- like entirely new models, such as, say a national seminary that had one room satellites in every synod. 

I confess a fair amount of grief as I write this.  I had a "Hogwarts-like" experience at Seminary.  But I truly believe those days are over.  The solutions we are engineering will not provide the necessary and drastic reductions in cost we need.

Furthermore, we also will need a huge number of non-pastors who will assume theological, pastoral and programmatic leadership.  How can we train them at low cost?

We also have a demand problem
We also are facing a huge shift in the demand for pastors.  Let's do some basic math.  For many years 80-100 people in weekly worship attendance was a stable number for congregations.  At this size, you could afford a pastor.  You probably had a sexton, an organist and a secretary, all of whom were part-time and one of whom was (quasi)-volunteer.  It was tough but it worked.  This number worked out well because 100 people in weekly worship probably equated to about 150 people significantly involved in the ministry. 150 people is a nice number for a tribe.  One pastor can connect this many people. 

Then health insurance costs started spiraling.  This really impacted congregations.  Even if you took in the same amount (adjusted for inflation) with 80-100 in weekly worship, you could not meet your budget any more.  Health insurance for most churches is 10K greater than it was 20 years ago (again, even adjusted for inflation).  Again, even if you had as many people (which most churches don't), giving the same amount (most churches have lost money to skyrocketing number of non-profits), and you didn't have the massive deferred maintenance bills from building expansions in the 1960s and 1980s (you are lucky), you would still find yourself short.  You probably need 120 to 130 people in weekly worship to now afford a full-time pastor with full-time benefits.

But this is problematic because this begins to be a larger tribe than one pastor can handle.  Especially if you consider that most people come to church less frequently than they did (but still consider themselves integral to the congregation).  That 125 per week needed to pay the bills equals 200 to 250 people who are involved in the ministry.  Which, even for a raging extrovert, is too large for pastoral care. 

My point here is that we are beyond the need for a good stewardship series and even better discipleship.  In every industry there are stable size points.  Our stable size points shifted drastically in the last 20 years.  We must shift how we approach our basic models of ministry. 

Impact of these shifts

Congregations have done a number of things to cope with this problem:  cut their minister's compensation (making them 3/4 time; hoping they have a spouse who can pick up the health insurance costs); added online giving; tried stewardship campaigns; deferred maintenance even more; begun living off endowments; or cutting mission support, especially money to the larger church. 

All is not lost: The healthiest churches, including pastoral size ones, are figuring our ways to create secondary income sources, partner with other ministries to share staff and developing lay leaders to take on traditional pastoral roles.  But the fact is that the basic model -- one pastor, one congregation, one building (especially an old one) does not add up any more.  There have to be other income streams, additional staff or volunteers taking on significant leadership.  Congregations need to find strategic partners to share costs, resources and staff.  This may mean our church looks like it did 100 years ago, with far more 2 and 3 point parishes.  Or it may mean our church looks like it did 250 years ago when ordained clergy were the aberration and not the norm.

While this analysis focuses on pastoral size congregations (which were the bread and butter of my denomination), the same math is hurting larger congregations and smaller congregations.   Larger congregations are moving to a point where they have fewer and fewer full time staff and more part-time staff.  Smaller congregations are often calling part-time retirees who are on Medicare; or they find themselves needing to move from a two-point to a three-point parish to pay for a pastor, which means they now have a video sermon on Sunday.

In short, while the overall size of the church has decreased, the demand for pastors has decreased even faster as the math tilts against congregations.

A new equilibrium?

So, we may end up with an equilibrium point where we have fewer pastor spots and fewer pastors.  Good right?  No, actually pretty horrible!  What to do with all of the churches that don't have pastors, especially smaller churches?  How to make pastoral size churches feasible?  How to staff large churches when associates become so rare?  How do we give future leaders the time and community they need to mature into strong proclaimers of the Gospel?

What I would like to see happen:
1)  We implode the seminary system to produce something drastically cheaper.
2)  We expand drastically the number of lay-ministers/TEEM pastors who do not need the full seminary to lead worship at our smallest congregations.
3)  We do mission starts that from the beginning focus on cooperative ministry and sustainability, recognizing that the hoped for norm -- the traditional pastoral size model -- is not viable.
4)  We begin fostering and authorizing lay leadership to assume an incredible number of tasks reserved for pastors, especially related to pastoral care and even worship.
5)   Congregational leaders will be blessed with the patience to renew our congregations; we will also be blessed with the courage to try to new models.
6)   Congregations find ways to partner with other churches, non-profits and even businesses to create not simply economically stable situations, but ones that are oriented toward mission.
7)  The Holy Spirit revives our congregations and our people grow in faith, hope and love.

What I think will happen
1)  Money to the synod and national church will continue to dry up.  DRY UP.  Large congregations will replace the synods and national church as the leadership in what remains of the denomination.
2)  Large churches will use seminaries less and less and begin training their own leaders.
3)  Small churches will worship without pastors or they will close.  Many pastors who are currently sent to rural or poor congregations only serve three years in those places (statistics on this are pretty strong).  Pastors out of seminary will skip this step and go right to larger congregations in wealthier communities.
4)  We will talk about minority and poverty ministry, but the only places that will be able to afford attractive calls will be wealthy and primarily white communities.  Healthy congregations will grow as the vast majority of congregations shrink.

Monday, March 13, 2017

John 4:1-42 (woman at well)

This passage occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Lenten Cycle (most recently March 19, 2017); in the narrative Lectionary, Year 4, Lenten Cycle.
Summary:  Chapter 3 and 4 couldn't be more opposite:  man vs woman; Pharisee Jew vs sinful non-Jew (a dig at the Samaritan people, Jews intermixed with five other tribes); night vs day.  There is fertile ground here for many sermons.  What struck me this time was the continuity in both chapters regarding the notion of salvation, and life -- it is found in Christ; it begins now here on earth. 

A question this text leaves me pondering:  How does Jesus convert her?  He says to her brutal truth:  her religion isn't complete and she is a sinner.  What converts her?  What converts all of them?  Simply his word of promise?  Actually, he is only proclaimed as savior after he stays with her.  I suggest it is also his vulnerability, his admission that she can help him and finally, his willingness to be with them.  To evangelize entails meeting people where they are, but also staying where they are until they are ready to move ahead.

Low hanging fruit:
ωρα εκτη (sixth hour, 4:6)  This means noon.  Don't miss the obvious symbolism.  Nicodemus comes at night (chapter 3); the woman comes in the day (chapter 4).

γυνη Σαμαριας (Samaritan women, 4:7)  Again, don't miss the obvious symbolism.  Samaritan woman means total outsider; someone powerless in the whole system.  Obvious symbolism again:  Nicodemus gets a name; this woman doesn't.

Slightly more interesting:
εις τον αιωνα ("eternally," literally "into this age," 4:14)  This really struck me.  The word for forever or everlasting in Greek means "into this age," literally that which keeps going into this age.  In short, when we hear "forever" we assume this means "life after death," but nothing grammatically or even theologically in John's Gospel, certainly in this chapter, suggests this.  This is a continuing theme in John's Gospel:  life in Christ begins now and continues even through death.

σωτερια ("salvation" in the sense of saving, preserving, delivering, 4:22; σωτηρ 4:42)  Christians again assume that salvation means heaven, specifically life after death.  The word in Greek means saving, simply delivering, including if not primarily a very earthly sense.  John's Gospel includes resurrection and this is ultimate salvation, but this does not cover the entirety of Jesus' ministry.

μενω ("abide" 4:40) This is theme word in John's Gospel.  In this case, it was only after he abided with them that they declared him savior of the world.  This is a reminder that to me that the promise is truly incarnational.  In order for us to do better evangelism, we have to meet and STAY with people where they are.

κοσμος ("world" 4:42) A reminder that even though salvation comes FROM the Jews it is FOR the world...see last week's post -- http://lectionarygreek.blogspot.com/2014/01/john-31-21-nicodemeus.html  The world doesn't love God!

Monday, March 6, 2017

John 3:1-21; Nicodemeus

This passage occurs in both the Narrative and Revised Common Lectionaries.  The Revised Common Lectionary breaks it up into two separate passages; the narrative leaves it as one.

Summary:  I don't know if one truly can summarize John 3.  It is the chapter of all chapters in Scripture.  The Greek shows a number of interesting wrinkles in the text, each of which can help get at the core message about the work of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in saving the world.  Perhaps one little tidbit: eternal life doesn't begin after death in the Gospel of John.

Νικόδημος ("Nicodemus" vs 1):  It is worth noting that Nicodemus gets a name; the woman at the well in chapter 4 will not.  Nicodemus, like the woman at the well, misunderstands Jesus.  His story should end in chapter 3, but it does not.  It keeps going.  Because God is author of our story, our own failures do not end the narrative.  In chapter 7 Nicodemus will defend Jesus; at the end of the Gospel he will help bury Jesus (19).  Jesus invites people to come and see.  For Nicodemus, this invitation changed his life, as he came and saw, and was drawn in. 

Little side note:  Nicodemus' general confusion is emphasized in the Greek that he repeated says "How can it be that..."

ο διδασκαλος ("the teacher", vs 2)  Nicodemus calls Jesus "a" teacher; Jesus calls Nicodemus "THE teacher."  Obviously Jesus is catching Nicodemus in his words!

ανωθεν ("again" or "above" vs 3)  'Above' is better here. Not simply because of the context (Jesus says you don't have to come out of the womb, but be born of the water and Spirit), but because above includes again.  If you are born from above, this is the second birth anyway!  We must be born again, but this birth isn't through human agency, but God alone.

πνευμα ("spirit" vs 5, 6 and 8)  The word Spirit is related to breath (see:  pneumatic in the word!), but also blow and wind.  So the verse that reads "The wind blows where it will" means "the Spirit blows where it will."  In fact, one could read it as "The spirit spirits where it will."

πιστευω ("believe" vs 15 and 16, etc).  Believe is only a verb in the Gospel of John.  It means trust; it is an action not a thing.  It is also in the present and active tense:  the one is who is trusting...

εχη ("have" vs 16)  The word here is in the present tense.  ETERNAL LIFE begins NOW.  It is not a future reality, but a present one found in Christ!  Whoever is trusting in God has life which continues into eternity.

κοσμος ("world" vs 16).  Throughout the Gospel of John, the world doesn't like God.  It doesn't understand God (1:10); it doesn't give like God (14:27) ; in fact, it hates God (7:7).  This is the world God loves!

Sunday, March 5, 2017

John 3:16

This passage occurs in the RCL Lent Season, Year A and B, most recently March of 2017.  It also occurs in the Narrative Lectionary Year 4 Epiphany cycle.
Summary:  We've heard John 3:16 a million times before.  For this week, I broke it down, word by word.  Awful for a sermon, yes, but a closer look reveals how this really is the Gospel in a nutshell.  Fun Greek fact:  The phrase eternal life is literally "eons of a zoo."  God's eternal party is a zoo!  Helpful Greek fact:  This eternal zoo is not a future reality, but a present one, available here and now.

John 3:16.  Broken down.

ουτως γαρ ηγαπησεν ο θεος τον κοσμον, ωστε τον υιον τον μονογενη εδωκεν, ινα πας ο πιστευων εις αυτον μη αποληται αλλ εχη ζωην αιωνιον

ουτως γαρ:  Two interjections, combining to mean:  "For in this manner"  Don't spend too much time here, we have bigger fish to fry

ηγαπησεν (αγαπη):  This word supposedly means divine, only from God love.  In this particular sentence that's what it means: divine, pure, gracious, awesome, life changing love.  Interestingly, later in this section people will love the darkness more than the light.  First, this shows that agape is not simply a divine thing.  Second, it reminds us how absurd (and misdirected) some of our love really is.

ο θεος:  God (think theos as in theology)

τον κοσμον:  The world.  This word in English is cosmos, like universe or cosmopolitan or cosmetic.  The point is that in the Gospel of John the world does not love God (John 7:7; 15:18,19; 17:14).  God's love comes over and against the world that does not like God

ωστε:  that.  Conjunction.  Don't worry.

τον υιον τον μονογενη:  only begotten son.  Nice like adjectival participle here.  The son, the only begotten.  If you break the Greek down you get :  mono-gene.  The only one who has the Father's genes are the son.  In this case, Christ is the only one who really is of the Father, who has his dna to love a world that doesn't love him back.

εδωκεν:  Gave.

ινα:  In order.  God's giving of his son had a purpose

πας ο πιστευων:  Substantive participle:  All who believe.  Because it is present tense we should make it:  All who are constantly believing.  Remember, in John's Gospel, believe is a verb; faith is a not a think, it is an action, a constant trusting.
εις αυτον:   In fact you cannot trust in something but have to trust INTO something.

μη αποληται:  Be lost, be destroyed.

αλλ :  but

εχη :  STOP.  read carefully: This is a present tense verb.  This means that we HAVE the eternal life, not we will have, but we HAVE the eternal life.  In John's Gospel life begins here and in as we, through faith, live in the son.

ζωην αιωνιον:  literally:  eons of zoo.  That is the grand goal of God:  eons of zoo.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Genesis 12

This passage occurs in the Narrative Lectionary, year 1 (most recently Oct 14, 2014); it also occurs in the RCL during Lent (Year A), most recently March 13, 2017.

Summary:  Abraham was asked to do a lot.  The English gets you here ('to a land I will show you' isn't very much to go on); the Hebrew intensifies this.  As I continue to read this story, I am also reflecting a lot on what "bless" means.  I do not think one can walk away, in this or other stories, from the material nature of blessings in the Bible.  However, the Bible already shows the direction of God's blessing, namely, our neighbor.  Perhaps if we wanted to be most Lutheran, we would argue that the true blessing is the promise that allows one to live by faith.

Key words
לך-לך  ("lake - la - kah", "go immediately," vs 1)  This is often translated simply as "go."  It literally means "go-go" or "get up and go."  In Hebrew, when you have two verbs in a row, the first verb is often adverbial, as in "in a 'getting up' kind of way, go."  Or, more poetically:  "Immediatedly go."  The whole section in the Hebrew Bible is called "Lake-la-kah."  (The Hebrew Bible didn't use chapters; instead it divided up scrolls into sections, naming them after a key word near the beginning of the section)   Also, Abraham will be given this same command in Genesis 22, the binding of Isaac.

One wonders if the angel's commands to Paul (then Saul) in chapter 9 of Acts are the same -- "Get up and go" in the sense of "go immediately."

Grammatically:  Keep an eye out for dual verb commands in the Bible; they may reflect a Hebrew way of speaking whereby one verb functions as an adverb. 

Theologically:  God isn't about discernment in this passage, but about decision.  There is a sense of immediacy!

בת-אב  ("bet av", "father's house," vs 1)  This term means way more than simply "dad's house."  It was the fundamental social unit and reality of a person's life.  Here is a website with pictures: 
I think for us in the West today, it is impossible to understand the impact of traditional and family on a person's psyche and worldview, and thus the significance of God's command.

ברך ("baruch", "bless", vs 2,3)  The first point I want to address is the meaning of the word baruch.  In Genesis, blessing can often be assoicated with material prosperity:
*  Genesis 39:5 From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the LORD blessed the Egyptian's house for Joseph's sake; the blessing of the LORD was on all that he had, in house and field.
*  Genesis 26:3 Reside in this land as an alien, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will fulfill the oath that I swore to your father Abraham.
*  See also Genesis 30:27

It also refers to children and descendents:
*  Genesis 1:22 God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas,   and let birds multiply on the earth."
*  Genesis 17:16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her."
* Genesis 22:17 I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies,
I would argue though, if you press the Bible harder, you discover that blessing means something more than a big house and big family. 
It also means fundamental human relationships based on complentary differences (yes family, but not necessarily size!)
* Genesis 5:2 Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them "Humankind" when they were created
* Genesis 2:3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
God's peace and presence
* Numbers 6:23-27   23 Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,  24 The LORD bless you and keep you;  25 the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;  26 the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.  27 So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.

Ultimately though, I do not think one can de-materialize the nature of blessings.  I think what good pastors and theologians can do is direct this blessing back to the neighbor:
* Deuteronomy 14:28-29 28 Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; 29 the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.
Or simply as God says here in Genesis 12 -- the whole world is to be blessed by Abraham!

Lastly, there is a rather technical point here about the translation here having to do with verb forms in Hebrew.  The question is whether to treat the verb bless as a passive (the nations will be blessed by Abraham) or reflexive, "in Abraham (or his name) all the nations will bless themselves."  The Greek goes with the passive here and that is how this passage is traditionally translated.  That seems fair and good, but perhaps it is also worth asking:  How do we actively bless ourselves through Abraham and his legacy?

NET Bible notes:
Theoretically the Niphal can be translated either as passive or reflexive/reciprocal. (The Niphal of "bless" is only used in formulations of the Abrahamic covenant. See Gen 12:2; 18:18; 28:14.) Traditionally the verb is taken as passive here, as if Abram were going to be a channel or source of blessing. But in later formulations of the Abrahamic covenant (see Gen 22:18; 26:4) the Hitpael replaces this Niphal form, suggesting a translation "will bless [i.e., "pronounce blessings on"] themselves [or "one another"]." The Hitpael of "bless" is used with a reflexive/reciprocal sense in Deut 29:18; Ps 72:17; Isa 65:16; Jer 4:2. Gen 12:2 predicts that Abram will be held up as a paradigm of divine blessing and that people will use his name in their blessing formulae. For examples of blessing formulae utilizing an individual as an example of blessing see Gen 48:20 and Ruth 4:11.
קלל and אאר  ("qalal" and "arar", "curse", vs 2) These words, although both translated similarly in English as "curse", are different.  The first, qalal, means "treat lightly" in the sense of "disrespect" or "disgrace."  The second, arar, means remove from blessing.  Rather than think of this verse than as those who swear mean things at Abraham will have bad things happen to them, its probably better to think of it this way:  Because Abraham is a blessing, and an agent of blessing, from God, to disregard Abraham is to remove oneself from God's potential blessings.  The question is whether the Bible (God really) means all the blessings in the world, or the blessings from Abraham.  I'd be inclined to the latter.  In short, the Bible does not seem to be indicating quite as harsh as a sentence as "curse those who curse you" suggests, but it does offer a warning.