Monday, May 31, 2021

Mark 3:20-35

This passage occurs in the RCL "Pentecost"/"Ordinary"/"Proper" Season, Year B, most recently Summer of 2021.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

αδελφος (brothers, but meaning brothers and sisters ; 3:32)  I offer this word as an example of what forgiveness does:  It creates a new family.  

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

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

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Romans 8:12-25

This passage occurs as a New Testament Lesson in the RCL "Pentecost"/"Ordinary"/"Proper" Season, Year A, most recently July 2020.   A portion of it (Romans 8:12-17) occurs on Holy Trinity Sunday in Year B, most recently May 2021.

Summary:  Paul describes in some beautiful and novel ways our relationship to God through the work of the Holy Spirit.  First, Paul uses the word adoption (υιοθεσια); he, alone among NT writers, uses this concept to talk about our relationship to God.  Second, Paul uses a string of "συν" verbs to talk about our togetherness with God:  We have inheritance, suffering and glorification WITH Christ.  Lastly, Paul says we have the first-fruit of the Spirit.  EVERY time before this, first-fruits went to God to appease him.  Now, God is offering us the first-fruit (απαρχη) of the Spirit.  I am still pondering the interpretation of verse 23, but it is clear that Paul is pushing the dimensions of the God-humanity relationship in new (and strange) directions, made possible by the work of the Holy Spirit through Christ.

Key Words:
υιοθεσια ("adoption"; 8:15, 23)  Paul employs the imagery of adoption to describe our relationship with God.  Rather profound, not only because of the metaphor itself, but because Paul had no Biblical antecedents.  Paul claims that our adoption comes with rights, including inheritance and glorification.  (oh, yes, and suffering too).

ει ("if"; 13, 25)  This word is often translated as "if" but it can also mean "since."  For example, in verse 25, it would be a much more natural reading in English: "Since we hope for what we have not seen, we wait in patience."  I've written about this word before in grammar reviews, but in this passage it does have an impact on translation, especially in verse 13.  [Basic review:  "ει" with subjunctive verb means "if"; with an indicative verb it can range from "if" to "since under the condition of X."  The verbs in vs. 13 are indicative, so we have some flexibility.]  If you read verse 13 with "if" it reads like a moral imperative:  sin and die or put to death the body and live.  But if you read it with "since" it makes a much more Lutheran reading:  "Since you are sinning, you will die; since you, by the Spirit, putting the deeds of the body to death, you will live."  In other words, Paul may simply be describing a situation rather than prescribing a situation.

ματαιοτης ("futility" or "vanity" 8:20)  This is the main word of the book of Eccles. in the OT.  I think keeping it as "vanity" might be a better translation.  This is life before Christ:  not simply dark or evil, but vain and rather pointless.

απαρχη ("first-fruit"; 8:23)  Paul employs this word in a striking way.  Normally this word refers to the choice part of the sacrifice offered to God.  God explicitly commands this part; the rest can be used for secular (i.e. our) use.  Paul says that we now have the first-fruit of the Spirit.  There a number of ways to read this passage (I assume) but one that strikes me is this:  We have Christ, the first fruit sacrifice of God.  This means the age of sacrifice is over.  We no longer have to live in fear of appeasing God, but we can live as his children, assured of his mercy and grace.  Another way to think of it is this.  The Spirit is the first-fruit, in the sense of the Spirit is the down-payment, the promise, the sealed legal papers, of our future glory with God.  This word remains an enigma to me, but it is clear that Paul is pushing beyond the bounds of its normal cultic and OT usage.

σαρξ:  (Note:  This is a much longer entry)
Paul uses σαρξ three times in this passage (8:12 (twice); 8:13). It seems to have a variety of meanings concretely and abstractly related to “flesh.” Although Paul uses the word in various ways, in Romans he tends to offer a negative view of σαρξ, presenting it as hostile to the purposes of God.

BDAG suggests a variety of meanings for σαρξ ranging from purely physical to more abstract. Although BDAG suggests that Paul uses σαρξ to signify a variety of these possible meanings, it also indicates that

“in Paul’s thought especially, all parts of the body constitute a totality known as sarx or flesh, which is dominated by sin to such a degree that whatever flesh is, all forms of sin are likewise present, and no good thing can live in the σαρξ.”

The Theological Lexicon of the New Testament offers a similar assessment: “Paul treats the flesh – the inferior part of the person – as the locus of the passions and covetousness.”

In the beginning of the book, Paul seems more neutral on flesh.  His argument against flesh grows!  For example, although Jesus is the descendant of David according to the flesh, he is designated son of God in power according to the Spirit (1:4). Indeed, faith, not our fleshly ancestry in Abraham, provides us with justification (Romans 4:24; Paul reiterates this point in chapter 9). Paul even writes that the inward – real – circumcision is not in the flesh, but in the heart by the Spirit (2:28-29). It is clear that even when Paul uses σαρξ in a more neutral manner, he views it as incomplete, if not incompatible, with God’s purposes and the work of the Spirit.

Although Paul uses σαρξ throughout Romans, it overwhelmingly appears in the middle of his letter. Here Paul explicitly describes σαρξ as hostile to purposes of the God. He writes, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh (7:18).” Most of chapter 8 negatively contrasts the flesh against the Spirit. For example, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace (8:6).”

In conclusion, Paul uses this word generally and also specifically in chapter 8 of Romans to describe something in our human nature opposed to God and the work of the Spirit. Paul seems more concerned with what it does (causes us to sin) than what it is (some entity in us). The Spirit will not work to improve the flesh, but the flesh and its works must be put to death.

Translation/Grammar Review:  συν verbs
Greek can easily make new verbs by combining prefixes to existing verbs.  In English, we could do this too, but perhaps not as easiliy:  "Co-suffering" would make sense, but it would be bad English.  But in Greek writers will often add suffixes freely to verbs to slightly modify their meaning.  Paul does this a number of times in this passage, see, for example, verses 16, 17 and 22.  Here Paul adds the prefix συν, which means "with" to a number of verbs.  Some words in English still have this prefix, for example:  "synergy" or "syntax."   But mostly in English we have words with the Latin "con" or "co" as their prefix (which also means "with").

At first, you might not notice the verbs because you don't see συν.  Don't worry!  The problem is "n" is a weak sound, so it often gets dropped -- in every language.  For example, it is not "con"operation, but cooperation.  It is not "con"munication, but communication.  The "n" is dropped or moved to another sound.  (In Hebrew this makes certain verbs very difficult to detect after they have been conjugated). 

This happens in verse 17: συγκληρονομοι, συμπασχομεν, συνδοξασθωμεν.  The point for translation is that you have to try to capture, in both 16-17 and 22 the great amount of "co"working that is happening:
We are "co" witnesses (16); "co" inheritors"; "co" sufferes and "co" glorifieders (spelling intentional).

Monday, May 24, 2021

Isaiah 6:1-8

This passage occurs on Holy Trinity Sunday in Year B, most recently May 2021

Summary:  This passage beautifully contrasts Uzziah and the Lord as kings of Israel.  What emerges is a profoundly beautiful version of God's holiness...and also love for this world.  It is also a deeply political passage, reminding us, as Psalm 146 says, do not put your trust in princes; Yet Isaiah is not given permission to abandon this world (or the temple, or the state!)  This is a great word for us in 2021, as we recover from a year of death, a year in which our cynicism grew by leaps and bounds.  God has not given up on the world!

Key Words
- Contrasting Uzziah and the Lord
שנח-מוח ("year of death", vs 1)  This passage begins with an ominous wording:  "The year of death."  This will set up the contrast for the living Lord.  Someone asked in the comments if this word order was significant.  Perhaps I make too much of it, but it further adds to the contrast:  Death of earthly king.  Life of eternal king.  A nice connection to the Gospel passage paired with this, John 3:16

Also interesting to consider in 2021, given that we have lived through a year of death!

המלך ("king", vs 1 and vs 5)  Whether the people cried to return to their fleshpots in Egypt or called on Samuel to anoint a king, the question for Israel is always:  Who is your king?  The king on the "so-called" throne has died but the living Lord abides.  This is a king who is worshiped by eternal messengers

מלא ("full", 6.4) The word "full" is used three times in this section; the robe fills the temple; the house is filled with smoke; the earth is filled with God's glory.  It is a reminder that with God there is always abundance even amid deep scarcity.

המןבח ("altar", 6.6)  First point:  the word for altar comes from the word for sacrifice.  This connotation, clear in both Greek and Hebrew, is lost in English.  The sacrament of the altar then, is the sacrament of the place of sacrifice.  

Second point:  Uzziah ends his life with leprosy, punished by God for attempting to make a sacrifice -- instead of the priests -- in the temple.  (2 Chronicles 26)  Uzziah tried to claim to much power -- state and temple -- and God would have none of it.  A reminder that the kings of earth always try for more than is granted to them.  Also interesting that it will be the altar, where Uzziah sinned, where Isaiah will be commissioned to preach.

- Some further thoughts on holiness:
קדיש ("qadesh" meaning "holy", vs 3)  Hebrew does not use many adjectives; it simply repeats words to add emphasis.  To use a word three times means something is really holy.   This is the only time that the word Holy is repeated in the entire OT; in the book of Revelation the phrase will be used again threefold.  The use of holy three times here suggests that the temple is the location of the fullness of God's glory on earth -- heaven on earth!

It is also worth pointing out that Isaiah is acutely aware that he is unclean and not holy.  What keeps him unholy, most noticeably, is not simply his own sin but the collective sin.  

שרפים ("Seraphin" meaning "angels", 6.2)  The word "Seraphim" comes from the Hebrew word for snake, which comes from the Hebrew verb, "burn"; this is in fact, what the Seraphim will do, burn pure the lips of Isaiah.  This is terrifying image of angels!

As Fausset's Bible Dictionary says:
"3152.01 Isa. 6:2,3. God's attendant angels. Seraphim in Num. 21:6 means the fiery flying (not winged, but rapidly moving) serpents which bit the Israelites; called so from the poisonous inflammation caused by their bites. Burning (from saraph to burn) zeal, dazzling brightness of appearance (2 Kings 2:11; 6:17; Ezek. 1:13; Mt. 28:3) and serpent-like rapidity in God's service, always characterize the seraphim..."

צבאית ("Sabboth" meaning "army", 6.3) The word "Sabboth" or "hosts" here does not mean dinner or Sabbath; it means legions of war.  This is fascinating the long form of God's holy name in the Bible includes a title of war.  I believe this must be contrasted with Isaiah 2, where the swords will be transformed into plowshares on the mount of Lord.  God's "warrior" side is always a secondary or penultimate side, designed to purify and cleanse.  Obviously the problem is that people always believe their war is to purify and justify terrible atrocities.

כפר ("cover" or "atone"; 6:7)  Isaiah's sins are "blotted out" or "cleansed" or "covered" depending on the translation.  The root word here means atone.  It is interesting that the literal meaning of atone in Hebrew is cover, as in Noah covered (same word) his boat with pitch.  What might that mean to understand our sins as being covered?

שלחני ("Send" in this case (שלח) with (ני) on the end for "me!", 6.8)  We are forgiven and sent out into the world.  This idea of being sent is not a concept made up in the Gospel of John (or anywhere else in the New Testament.)  It is core to the prophets.  God gathers -- in this cases draws us into the temple -- to cleanse and send us.  Our holiness - our sanctification - is all about being made useful to God.  Why does God cleanse Isaiah?  Ultimately for the redemption of Israel.

Holy Trinity Sunday: John 3:1-21, Romans 8:12-25 and Isaiah 6:1-8 (Year B)

There is a lot of rich and beautiful imagery, word play and of course, theology in this week's passages. (Holy Trinity for Year B).

John 3:
This is a broad look at the story of Nicodemus.  I find an interesting connection with the Holy Trinity Isaiah text in this way -- In Isaiah, there is a death.  The story of Israel's people seems coming to a grinding halt, if not end.  But God is King and so the story moves on.  In the same way, Nicodemus' story seems at an end; but God is King; the Spirit is ALIVE and so the story moves on.
breaks down John 3:16
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.

Romans 8:12-25
is a very thorough review of Romans 8:12-25.  Summary:
Paul describes in some beautiful and novel ways our relationship to God through the work of the Holy Spirit. First, Paul uses the word adoption (υιοθεσια); he, alone among NT writers, uses this concept to talk about our relationship to God. Second, Paul uses a string of "συν" verbs to talk about our togetherness with God: We have inheritance, suffering and glorification WITH Christ. Lastly, Paul says we have the first-fruit of the Spirit. EVERY time before this, first-fruits went to God to appease him. Now, God is offering us the first-fruit (απαρχη) of the Spirit. I am still pondering the interpretation of verse 23, but it is clear that Paul is pushing the dimensions of the God-humanity relationship in new (and strange) directions, made possible by the work of the Holy Spirit through Christ.

Also, here is the link to my previous work on Isaiah:

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

John 15:9-17

This passage occurs in the RCL Easter Season, Year B, most recently May of 2021.

The Greek in this little section unlocks many possibilities that the English disguises.  First, the Greek reminds us that Jesus is speaking to a group, not just individuals.  Second, various words for love are used here.  This reminds us that in Christ, divine love means love of humans, even if it comes to laying down one’s life.  Third, Jesus here actually says he lays us down.  The Greek totally covers this one up; he does not simply declare the heroics of his own death, but tells us he has chosen us to die and bear fruit.

Key Words:

φιλος ("friend"; 15.13;14)  Often the word "φιλος", related to φιλεω, is seen as a lesser type of love than αγαπη.  While there may indeed be a distinction, 15:13 brings them together:  αγαπη plays itself in acts of love for φιλος.  So, either we can rule out the possibility of a distinction between the two... or we can see a tension here that is beautifully resolved.  If we take αγαπη to mean divine love, than we are left with this -- what is divine love?  Sacrifice for humans.  Where do divine love and human love meet?  In the cross!  Where do divine and human love meet?  In the lives of the disciples as we live out Christ's command to love one another, through the trials of life.

ψυχη ("life" or "soul"; 15:13)  Jesus uses the word here that we often translate as "soul" or "mind," as in "psychology."  Its use in this verse reminds us it can also mean "life" in its entirety.  To think of it another way, when Jesus dies on the cross, he is giving up everything, not simply his body. ... Likewise I think we will also give up everything.  (or sentimentally, mothers for sure give up everything!)

εκλεγω ("choose" or "select"; 15:16).  This word does mean choose, really elect.  It also shows up in Ephesians 1:4; 1 Cor 1:27-28 and also significantly, in Jesus' Baptism in Luke where God declares him the chosen one.  The word noun form of this word also shows up in Romans (8:33; 9:11; 11:7 and 28) and elsewhere.  God's choice, not ours.

εν υμιν ("in you"; 15:11)  Throughout this section, the verbs (and pronouns) are in the second person PLURAL.  Jesus says abide in me as I abide in all y'all.  Or even "among all y'all."  Helpful to remind people that abiding in Jesus has a communal dimension.

τιθημι ("lay down" or "appointed"; 15:13 and 15:16) This verb comes up at some very powerful times in John's Gospel: John 13, when Jesus lays down his cloak to wash his disciples feet.  In this case:  the verb that Jesus uses for "appoint here" is "τιθημι"; this is the same verb that Jesus uses when he says, "I lay down my life." In other words, a more natural translation is:  "I lay you down." 

Jesus has laid down his life, now he lays  the disciples down that they would bear fruit.  The translation of "appoint" is disappointing because the average reader misses the connection.  Just as Jesus laid down, so will he lay us down. 

Maybe not key, but I found it interesting: 

μεινατε (aorist form of "abide"; 15:9)  The word μενω appears throughout John's Gospel.  I've written about its significant in many other posts.  What I find fascinating here is its particular form:  aorist imperative.  Typically aorist imperative is used for simple commands or commands that would have a finite point or ending:  fill the water jugs or fetch the donkey.  Yet here Jesus is telling the disciples to "abide in him" in a short-term (?), simple (?) or bounded (?) fashion??  None of these quite make sense.  Especially since the verb μενω appears in the present tense regularly throughout the Gospel of John.  The father abides with Jesus (14:10); Jesus abides with the disciples (14:25) and the Spirit is abiding with them and will be with them after he is gone (14:17).  In each of these cases, the verb is on-going, suggesting that God's presence is on-going.

So why here an aorist command?  I found one online source that argued an aorist active imperative:  "means the action that the verb is describing is the result of something that happened in the past and it gives rise to the action that you are commanded to take in the present."  This would make sense in this case, but I am not sure that one could argue that all active aorist imperatives have such linearity programmed into them; or that there is any command which is not the result of previous action in some way!  I will continue to explore this.

I suggest that this verb is in the aorist because Jesus is asking them to stay with him during his trial.  He gives the same command to the disciples in the garden in the synoptics.  (Also then in the aorist: Matthew 26:38 and Mark 14:34).  Also, the aorist use of "love" suggests that Jesus is referring now to the cross.  It feels like a more intimate and immediate command:  Stay in my love for I am going to lay down my life for you.

Grammar concept: Uncertainty vs contingency with ινα

15.11 The translators here come up against a difficult matter. The ινα ("hina") clause forces the Greek to use the subjunctive.  In English the subjunctive shows hypothetical or possible outcomes:  If I win the lottery, e.g.  But in Greek the point of the subjunctive is not always to show uncertainty about the outcome but rather the contingency.  With ινα the subjunctive signals the latter matter is dependent on the former matter. In short, your joy is "contingent," not on fate or randomness, but on the fact that these things were said:  "I have said this to you so your joy is complete."

When we add in English, "Your joy MAY be complete" to translate the subjunctive mood, we are expressing UNCERTAINTY while the Greek wants to show CONTINGENCY.  Nothing is uncertain about our joy now that Jesus words have been spoken.

Acts 10:44-48

Summary:  The larger narrative about Peter and Cornelius continues to fascinate me.  While we consider it obvious that God loves non-Jews, Peter needs some serious convincing.  This is crucial in our world today, in which we are constantly plagued by us vs them and truly God-is-with-us-and-not-them mentality.

I do not think this passage can be preached on without the rest of Acts 10, so my reflection hopefully offers some helpful connections to the early passages

Key Words:

τον λογον (the word, 10:44)  Throughout his Gospel and Acts, Luke makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is connected to the Word.  The Spirit is not acting independently of the Word.  This is a huge theological point that Christians continue to ignore and debate.  

I would like to make the point more basically for today's ministry context:  Salvation comes from outside of ourselves.  It does not derive form our feelings or our reason, but it is an external gift.

οι εκ πετιτομης πιστοι ("the of circumcision believers", 10:45)  They are no longer quite Jews, these believers in Jesus.  Yet the are still culturally (and physically!) distinct.  It is also interesting that the particular construction could also read:  "Those who trust, resulting from circumcision."  Luke almost suggests their faith is still in their ethnicity and culturally constructed laws rather than Christ.  This is still incredibly relevant for today.  Luke's point is that this interaction is not simply changing the "εθνη" ("gentiles", 10:45) but also the original Jews who believed in Christ.  They must learn in their soul what they had been preaching, that God's love was truly for all.

εκκεχυται (poured out, 10:45)  This hearkens back to Peter's sermon on Pentecost, in which he foretells the outpouring of the Spirit.  

Strange insight:  In Luke's Gospel, Jesus warns that new wine in old wine skin will cause the wine to be poured out.  Perhaps in light of Acts, we realize this is not a bad thing.  The old wine-skins, as it turned out, needed to be burst!

γλωσσα(ις) (tongues, 10:46) In parts of the early church and still to do this day, speaking in tongues is considered evidence of the Holy Spirit.  While many of us would reject this, it is worth asking -- what do we consider to be evidence of the Holy Spirit in our lives?

εν τω ονοματι (in the name, 10:48)  Certain Christian sects will only baptize in the name of Jesus because of what happens in Acts.  It is powerful that Luke doesn't clean up Peter here and use the full name of the Trinity.  Again and again we see Luke willing to show us the evolution of the church, through ups and downs, as it begins to solidify its confession of Christ.