Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Revelation 7:9-17

This is the Gospel passage for All Saint's Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A.  Most recently Nov 1, 2020.

Some words/language constructions I found interesting 

αριθμησαι (form of αριθμεω, meaning "to count", 7:9)  This word has a clear English cognate:  arithmetic! The point here is that the writer records carefully how many people from each tribe will be in heaven.  Then the seer says, wait, no, they can't be counted!!  A lot of people make it to heaven :)  For a funny view of what heaven with many cultures might look like, you can see the cartoon Simpson's Heaven.   Laughing aside, this verse is a powerful reminder that early on the church understood its mission to exist far beyond its own culture and time.

λευκος (meaning "white", 7:9, 7:13).  There is an increasing discomfort with the use of "white" to describe things that are pure.  This is because of how we have often divided the world into skin-tone groups -- races -- with "white" being on the top of the pecking order.  Thus, when churches use "white" albs, use white lilies and associate white with holiness, this could potentially communicates that white skin tones are likewise more holy.  A few thoughts on this:

  • White never refers to a skin-tone in the Bible.  In fact, if skin is white, it is diseased.  (See Leviticus 13).  Most of the characters in the bible have far more olive toned than white toned skin
  • The image in revelation is for people from every nation and language; it is not a forced mono-culture
  • People in the bible almost never would have anything pure white for clothing.  It would be been incredibly expensive to produce and keep clean.  "Such as no one on earth could bleach them" is how Jesus' transfiguration clothing was described in Mark's Gospel.  Bright white clothing would not be reserved for undergarments like in today's America, but would have been spectacular to behold.
  • The whiteness is often associated with incredible brightness - like a star!
In short, there is no sense that the Biblical writers are trying to reinforce a notion of hierarchy based on skin-tones.  This is not to say we should not be aware of the "world in front of the text" and how people hear the constant association of white with holy.  But the Bible itself is not communicating any superiority based on white skin tones.

φοινικες (φοινιξ, meaning "palm branch", 7:9) The word for palm branch here is literally "phoenix"!  Now, in John 12:13, the people wave these before Jesus, so translating it as "palm branch" seems fair, especially within the biblical context of triumphal celebrations for a king.  However, I find it very amusing and poetic to imagine that in heaven we each get our own phoenix in celebration of the resurrection!

φωνη μεγαλη (meaning "loud voice", 7:10) The words for loud voice is literally "mega phone."  It is interesting to consider, in an era of protests and megaphone, what words are we putting through our megaphones?

σκηνωσαι (aorist form of σκηνοω, meaning "to shelter", 7:15).  The word for "shelter/spread tent" is "skeno-oo" which is from the Greek for tent. In the beginning of John's Gospel (1.14), Jesus is said to have "dwelt" or "tented" among us, drawing on the OT idea of God's tabernacle presence. Now however, the dwelling is not among them, but upon them.  The movement of Revelation is not God away from the earth, but of heaven toward earth, ultimately culminating in the presence of God being with the people.

εξαλειψει (meaning "wipe away", 7.17)  The word "wipe away" or "destroy" (εξαλειψω) is also found in Acts 3:19 and Col 2:14, where Jesus wipes away our sins.  Jesus comes to wipe away both our sin and sorrow.  It is not an either/or.

Grammar note

περιβεβλημενους (περιβαλλω, meaning "robe", 7:9)

The participle for "robed" is in the perfect. It happened in the past but still effects the present states, namely, that they are robed. Here it is used as a circumstantial participle; in 7.13 it will be used as a substantive.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

This passage occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, most recently October 2020.

Summary:  I have never preached on this passage before, but I wonder if it should be read at every ordination, for it lays out two fundamental challenges of ministry

First, to minister only for God's approval:  "But just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts."  (1 Thessalonians 2:4)

Second, to minister by giving not only our words, but ourselves.  "So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us."  (1 Thessalonians 2:8)

This is such a challenge -- to give our hearts, but not let those to whom we give our hearts be judge of us!

Some Greek that is interesting in both verses:

δεδοκιμασμεθα (passive perfect form of δομιμαζω, here translated as both "approved" but also "tested")  This verb appears twice in verse 4 -- We have been tested (passive) and later God tests (active) us.  The testing it seems, is for a purpose -- God wants to entrust us with the Gospel. It is also interesting that the word test is in the perfect tense, which is Greek means that a new state has arisen as a result of the verb.  The clothes have been put on, the stone has been rolled away, etc.  We have been transformed and changed by the act of God testing and approving us.  But God's approval is not done in an "alien" or "distant" way, but is involved in a process of testing us.

πιστευθηναι (passive from πιστευω, here translated as "entrusted).  First, it is interesting that the word in the active means trust, but is also translated as believe.  It is a reminder that this verb is not about intellectual cognition but trust!  They have been entrusted to pass on the Good News)

αρεσκοντες (form of αρεσκω, here translated as "please")  Liddell Scott offers this definition: " to strive to please; to accommodate oneself to the opinions, desires, interests of others."  This is a great reminder for us during COVID that we cannot minister seeking to please everyone!  We seek to please the Lord.

ονειρομενοι  (form of ονειρομαι, translated here as "long for")  This word is a super rare word, likely a form of another word slightly more common.  Regardless -- it means long for.  Couldn't find sexual connotations, but it is about desire.  This is true in ministry as well -- a deep desire for the community (and their approval)!

ευδοκουμεν (form of ευδοκεω, translated here as "please") and αγαπητοι (beloved).  You may have seen these words together, for God declares of Jesus:  This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.  Paul uses this language to talk about his care for the people!

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Matthew 22:34-46

This passage occurs in the RCL "Pentecost"/"Ordinary"/"Proper" Season, Year A, most recently October 2020.
Summary:  I suppose one could go to great lengths to parse out the Greek meaning of the words, "heart", καρδια, "soul," ψυχη, and "mind," διανοια.  After discovering that they mean different things in Greek than in English you learn that Jesus wants us to...drum roll...Love God and love our neighbor with everything we've got.  This is probably not much for a sermon, but I find it comforting that Jesus wants us to love God with our minds.  In my formation and candidacy, I was often made to feel guilty about my intelligence as if somehow, I just needed to be a big ball of emotions to serve God.  One of my professors, Dr. Henrich, pointed out that in this passage, we are called to love God with our mind.  This was an incredible word of Gospel to me.  Intellectual exploration of God's Word is okay too!  Funny how law can be heard as Gospel sometimes...

Key words:
διδασκαλε ("Teacher", 22:36)  Thanks be to God Jesus wasn't simply a teacher, but also the savior.  However, let us not dismiss the idea of Jesus as teacher.  The word teacher appears throughout each Gospel a total of 48 times.  What can we learn from Jesus this week?  One might understand Jesus' teaching role as salvific (if we just followed Jesus' teachings, healing and life would follow); but I would like to understand it in more dialectical and unsolved relationship.  Jesus is the world's greatest teacher of human wisdom and law.  Jesus also teaches though that finally the law is not enough to save us.  However, we cannot avoid the teachings of Jesus, including when it comes to ethics.  

αγαπαω ("Love" 22:37)  One can parse the word love a number of ways.  What is interesting here is that αγαπη, which is often thought to refer to divine love, here refers to neighborly love.  A reminder that in the kingdom of God, love doesn't remain on heaven, but comes to earth.

καρδια ("heart", 22:37)  In Greek, the heart is NOT the center of emotions, but of will.   

ψυχη ("soul", 22:37)  BDAG points to the broad nature of this word.  The soul is, perhaps best said, that which makes flesh alive.  The Bible will use the word ψυχη to mean more than simply "the ghostly blue vapor" of our existence.  Perhaps another way:  our essence?  Hard to nail down...

διανοια ("Thoughts" or mind, 22:37):  As I stated in my summary, I want to point out that Jesus wants us to love God with our mind.  Also interesting is that God admits fulfilling this is impossible.  In Genesis 8:21 God says that all our thoughts (διανοια) are bent on evil.  Eph 2:3 and 4:18 are similiar.  Interestingly, in Jeremiah 31:33, God says he will put the law into our minds.  All this points out that not simply our "hearts," but our minds, are also a battle ground for God, a place that needs rebirth.  (In fact, this word is often translated from the Hebrew word that means "heart" because the ancient Jewish thought located thoughts in the heart).

χριστος ("annointed" 22:42).  This is a very common word in the NT.  The reason why I bring it up here is because most of our thoughts about the word "Christ" are not what the listener's in the OT would have heard.  

What I wrote in the blog shortly after seminary:  They would have expected someone to replace David as a true king over Israel.  The spiritualization of his role was a NT development.

What I would write in now (2020):  The word Messiah was a loaded term that encompassed the deepest hopes of ancient Israel for the one through whom God would bring fulfillment of long-standing promises.  The challenge is that people living in Jesus' day understood differently how God would do this (although there was probably less disagreement about the end result).  There was certainly a faction that believed the Messiah would be a military leader who would overthrow Herod.  But this was not universally understood in this way.  Regardless, no one was articulating the idea that the Messiah would be a crucified rebel.

The spiritualization of this role is not  New Testament development.  That Jesus came to "take us to heaven" is a much later development.  All first century Jews, including Paul and Jesus, would have understood the Kingdom of God as heaven breaking into earth, rather than us escaping earth to get to heaven.

Grammatical review:  "Hendiadys"
A Hendiadys is a very fancy way of saying "using two words to mean one thing."  Literally from the Greek:  "One through two."  An example of this might be from Genesis 1:  "Formless and void."  They both essentially mean the same thing.  Put them together and you get:  "A whole lot of nothing." 
In this particular passage, we have a hendiadys typical of the New Testament: 
ο νομος και οι προφηται (22:40)

The law and the prophets.  This is the NT way of referring to the Old Testament.  Sometimes they will include the Psalms, but more often, just these two sections.  So Jesus isn't simply saying, "All of the commands and words of the prophets hang on these two commandments" he is saying, "the whole Bible that you know of depends on this."

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Matthew 22:15-22

This passage occurs in the RCL "Pentecost"/"Ordinary"/"Proper" Season, Year A, most recently October 2020.

Summary:  One does not find the Greek words for church and state in this passage, even though this passage is used to justify all sorts of behavior and relationships between church and state.  What is mentioned though is the word "εικον" meaning icon, or image.  The tempters of Jesus, forgetting Genesis 1, say that the coin bears the image of Caesar.  They answer the truth, but not the whole truth.  An image of man is still an image of God.  Money, whether it says, "In God We Trust" or "Caesar" or anything, isn't exempt from God's creation.  It still has to do with humans and how we live in this creation, and thus it still belongs under God's dominion.

Freedom note:  I am using this passage to launch a Reformation 500 series on the Freedom of a Christian.  I pick this passage because Jesus discusses that even those of us free in Christ still have responsibilities before other people.

Key words: 
παγις ("hunter's trap", used as a verb, 22.15) The word for ensnare comes from the root for trap. What a cruel image of the pharisees trying with metal jaws, to trap Jesus. 

Interestingly, by possessing a coin with the image of Caesar on them, one could argue the Jewish leaders here are already worshiping an idol.  This is especially true given the cult of the Emperor and the fact he was viewed as a god.  They were carrying around images of a foreign god!!  Furthermore, they set up a bogus system whereby you had to trade you Roman money for Jewish money to buy sacrifices.  Thus the temple profited from this exchange.  Jesus traps them as he reveals their sin and their entanglement with the Emperor.  Herod was a puppet king of Rome...but even the Pharisees benefit from the Roman tyranny because so often they are in places of power.   So Jesus is showing that they play in the Emperor's sandbox all the time. They want to trap him and in the end, they lay a trap for themselves.

αποστελλω ("send" 22.16).  The literal phrase here is that his enemies "apostled their disciples," a reminder that Jesus is not the only one with apostles and disciples...

υποκριτης ("actor/hypocrite", 22.18) The word for hypocrite means actor, or one who plays a part.  (He answered above the others from stage.)  This is not necessarily a negative word, but in the NT it is used exclusively that way.  Jesus isn't interested in actors, but real people with real sins that need real forgiveness.

εικον (image/icon, 22.20) The word here for "head" or "portrait" here is literally "eikon," (icon!) which means image. So the question is whose image? If it is a human head, the answer could just as easily have been "God." (See Genesis 1!)  As Christians we must always seek to serve the creator behind the created governments of this world...yet while still acknowledging the reality of human government and laws!

τα του θεου (the things of God).  The word 'things' is implied here, for it literally reads, "the(se) of God."  While this is straight-forward Greek grammar that we don't have in English -- where we would need to include the word "things", there is something a bit trickier going on here.  Grammatically, it is worth asking -- what is the connection between "the(se) things" and "God"?  "God" is in the genitive case and this opens up many possibilities.  Do we give God back the things that come from God? The things that belong to God?  The things in this world which are for God?  The grammatical possibilities seem endless, underlying the more theological question:  What belongs to God? 

The best answer it seems, is from the Psalms:

The earth is the LORD's and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it  Psalm 24:1

Translation/Grammar review:  Idioms
"The things of God" is not the only idiomatic construction in this passage!

Some things in a language are simply impossible to translate literally.  This week Jesus is told, "You do not look into the face of people."  This doesn't sound so nice.  It simply means, "You don't look at exterior things."  (Which is a positive assessment).  He is also told he doesn't care about nothing.  Missing from this idiom is the word "opinion."  Jesus doesn't care about the opinions of others, in the sense that he acts free from petty judgments of others.  You could take them literally, and perhaps derive some meaning; that said, with idioms, it is often best to let professional translators do the work...

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

 This passage occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, most recently Oct 18, 2020.

Summary:  Paul begins his letter to the Thessalonians with a strong note of Thanksgiving.  It is interesting to note that Paul gives thanks for the people in Thessaloniki and how God is at work among them.  We are used to giving God thanks for nature or perhaps things, but here Paul practices gratitude for other humans!  God is alive, Paul radically claims, and lives through, in, with and under the people.

Key Word

ευχαριστουμεν ("give thanks", 1.2)  Paul begins his letter as he begins and ends so many letters -- in thanksgiving to God!  It is a helpful and humbling reminder that even in times of trial, we are called and inspired to give thanks!

εργο(ν) της πιστεως (work of faith, 1.3)
κοπο(ς) της αγαπης (labor of love, 1.3)
υπομονη της ελπιδος (endurance of hope, 1.3)

A couple of notes.  First, the trifecta of faith, hope and love is also famously part of 1 Corinthians 13.  Second, all of these examples are in the genitive, meaning that the relationship between the two words must be interpreted by the reader.  I would argue for a subjective genitive, where the thing in the genitive is the subject:  faith's work, love's labor, hope's endurance.  Or perhaps more of a source genitive -- work from faith, labor from love, endurance from hope.

εκλογνη ("elect", 1.4)  What is translated as a verb "elect"  is actually a noun. It simply reads, "knowing, under the circumstance that you are loved by God, your election." The election here is not about politics, but about God's choice to love us and work through us.

δυναμει ("power", 1.5)  The word "power" here is "dynamis." This word comes into English as dynamite!  It can mean miracles when used in the plural, but in the singular it means power.  Power for Paul, especially in Corinthians and Philippians relates to the power of the resurrection and faith working in us to endure difficult times. The power is displayed in the basic miracle that we believe! (1 Cor 2:5) 

εξηχηται ("go forth", 1.8)  The word for sound forth is "ex-echeo-mai"  Notice the word echo in the middle! Their faith is echoing all over Europe, both the Northern part (Macedonia) and the Southern part (Achaia)

θε(ος) ζωντι (living God, 1.9)  This is a nice participle in Greek -- living! It is in the dative because it describes the word "God" which in this case is also in the dative.  

But the significant thing is that God is alive.  We do not worship a historical fact, we worship and serve the living Lord!

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Philippians 4:1-9

This passage occurs as a New Testament Lesson in the RCL "Pentecost"/"Ordinary"/"Proper" Season, Year A, most recently October 2020.
Summary:  As I have stated previously, I view Paul's letter to the Philippians as a small treatise on sanctification.  You can find beautiful fruit in these passages, beloved words that evidence the Spirit's work in Paul to make him a little Christ for all of us.  What struck me this time around though was the profound way in which the community in Christ takes precedence in this passage.  Paul continues to offer many images of working together and community love, even calling his fellow Christian his "desired."  Paul doesn't conclude with his love of Christ, but the love Christ has given him for his fellow believers.  Our sanctification is precisely this:  OUR sanctification as the Holy Spirit moves us closer together in love and hope.

αγαπητοι and επιποθητοι ("beloved" and "desired" 4:1)  αγαπητοι is probably familiar enough to most Christians, especially those who work with Greek.  Paul calls his brothers and sisters in Christ who beloved.  Wow!  Yet, επιποθητοι is more startling.  This word comes from desire.  While we have seen the root verb elsewhere in Philippians (1:8; 2:26), no where else in the Bible do we find this term επιποθητοι!  This sense of desire can be positive, for example, the deer pants for the water like the soul desires God (see Psalm 84:3/Psalm 41:2).  However, Paul here is claiming the other Christians are his desired.  This truly is taking the mind of Christ -- when we love each so deeply that we can talk about a deep love for one another.  What does the mind of Christ and sanctification mean?  It means loving your neighbor, so much, that you desire to be with them like Christ desires to be with them, like their soul desires to be reunited with God.

και σε ("even you", 4:3)  Paul generally speaks in the second person plural throughout the letter.  Perhaps he is writing to someone specific; maybe he wants to drive home that these words are for each person.  Maybe its ambiguous so we all think, well, its my job to help those two women who are fighting.

συζυγε; συνηθλσαν; συνεργων ("yoked", "co-striving" and "co-worker", 4:3; the second is a verb, the other two adjectives)  Paul here presents us with a few images of the Christian life.  The first is from the idea of a yoke and can actually refer even to marriage.  The image of oxen plowing the field.  The next is to athletes in contest with one another.  The last is co-worker, perhaps the least descriptive, but you put the three of them together and Paul profoundly gives us some images of our life together!

γνωσθητω ("let it be"; imperative (command), 4:5 and 4:6).  There first time Paul uses this verb, it is telling us to let our gentleness be known to all people; the second time it is Paul telling us to let our prayers be known to God.  In this context though, I wonder if they are so exclusive.  I wonder if we read this through a western-post-enlightenment idea of worship that would have our prayers of thanks be those in private.  Part of our joy and duty, as Psalm 66 suggests, is not simply praising God in private but offering thanks in front of the congregation.

νοματα (from νοημα, meaning "mind", 4:7)  Paul has continually pointed toward the mind as a place of Christian activity -- to be of the same mind with each other and of Christ.  We often think of the heart as the place of God's work, but for Paul, the mind is also a place where discipleship happens!

Grammatical review:  "αυτο"
The word αυτο and its various conjugated forms (αυτου for example) can be a bit tricky for the reader.  First because another set of words, meaning this and that, looks very similiar but have different accents.  But it is also tricky because the word αυτο can mean three different things, even if it looks the same. 

It can function like a pronoun: αυτου for example, almost always means "him."  In this case, the pronoun is in the genitive, so it fully means "of him." It functions this way 95% of the time.
It can also mean "very."  This is when it stands alone (predicate position).  This is fairly rare.  An example of this is in Philippians 1:6 πεποιθως αυτο τουτο: "I am convinced of this very thing."
It can also mean "same."  It behaves like this when it follows an article.  Hence, in Philippians 4:2 you get:  το αυτο φρονειν: "The same thinking."  Paul actually uses this also in 2:2 and 2:18. 

Again, for 90-95% of translation, the word functions as a pronoun, but it can be helpful to remember these other uses.

Matthew 22:1-14

This passage occurs in both the Narrative Lectionary (Year 1) and the Revised Common Lectionary (Most recently October 11, 2020).

Summary:  It is all about the right clothing.  The only clothing that can work at the heavenly wedding banquet is our Baptism.  While historical context might help make sense of this parable, I am not sure if that makes a good sermon.

Apologetic note:  Just because someone is thrown out doesn't mean they can't be invited a second time; or that we have permission not to care for them.

Key Words/Grammar insights:
καλεω (kaleo, "call" or "invite"; 22:3, 4, 8, 9 (14 as adjective)).  The word here for invited is simply the perfect of καλεω which means to call/invite. This word is used in various forms throughout the passage.  Jesus calls us to invite those willing to come because many of those invited were not interested.  A reminder that in all Gospels, but truly in Matthew, Jesus cares for people the world does not; the b-list people, so to speak.  The b-list people, you know, the beatitudes people!

τεθυμενα (tethymena, perfect participle of θυω, "slaughter" or "kill", 22:4).  This word can mean sacrificed.  If one were to go this route, then this parable could be interpreted within the paradigm of the conflict between Jews and early Jewish converts to Christianity:  Jesus has died (been sacrificed); many early Jews are not accepting him.  The temple is destroyed and that nation has fallen, perhaps as punishment for lack of conversion. This may be way to explain the passage, but I am not sure if this insight makes for a good sermon.  If one wants to go this route, one can also look at
εφιμωθη (aorist passive form of φιμοω, phimo-oo, "silence"; 22:12) Jesus will silence the Sadducees later this chapter (22:34).  This parable is not intended simply as a myth, but as a description, I would argue, of how Jesus' was and is being received.

ενδυω/ενδυμα ("clothe" as verb; "clothing" as noun; 22:11, 12).  Matthew's Gospel talks about clothing a few times (more than any other Gospel, incidentally).  We learn that John the Baptist is clothed in Camel's hair (3:4); we learn not to worry about our clothing (6:25-28); we meet the angels wearing white (28:3).  Which leads to the question -- what should one wear to the heavenly banquet?

To get at this, I did a word search on ενδυω ("clothe/wear" to find examples of people wearing stuff in the New Testament, especially as it would relate to the heavenly banquet.  I've included them and underlined the word as the NRSV translates as ενδυω:
1 Corinthians 15:54 When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: "Death has been swallowed up in victory."
Romans 13:14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Luke 24:49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."
Matthew 27:31 After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.
Ephesians 4:24 and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Ephesians 6:14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.
1 Thessalonians 5:8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.
Revelation 19:14 And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses.
Galatians 3:27    As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

To me, the only thing that can meet all of these criterion:  the gift of Jesus Christ in faith, love and righteousness, eternally pure and immortal yet also ready to die to the world, is our Baptism.

υβριζω (hubrizoo (rough breathing over υ), meaning "mistreat"; 22:6)  The word for mistreat here is "hubriz-oo," literally, have hubris.

Most haunting:

διακονοις (-ος, diakonos, meaning "deacon" or "attendant")  I find it haunting that the deacons are sent into bind and cast out the wicket.  Typically we associate diaconal or deacon work with humble service to the poor.  Perhaps it is a reminder that purging the world of evil is a deacon's work too.  But very disturbing!

Grammar note with some theological reflection, verse 22:5
22:5 shows two ways that Greek can show possessive; 

εις τον ιδιον αργον   his field (literally, the field of his own)

επι την εμποριαν αυτου    and his business (genitive αυτου signifying 'his')

It is interesting that those who don't want to come are into their own thing!  This is our problem today in the American church -- those we think should come seem plenty busy and satisfied with their life.  Yet eventually folks do come -- interestingly those originally not invited.   Perhaps a challenge to most American 'mission' efforts, which are designed around getting the busy to pay more attention to the church instead of inviting those in need -- those by the wayside.  Sure this type of ministry might welcome in lots of people who aren't ready for the Gospel.  But to whom are we not reaching out?