Seeing and hearing the Spirit: Lectionary Reflections for the Feast of Pentecost, 2013

This week’s readings are here.

On the Feast of Pentecost, our attention turns to the Holy Spirit, whose coming to the disciples we remember this day. Each of the three readings offers its own distinctive perspective on the Holy Spirit. With our focus on the drama of tongues of fire and the miraculous speaking in tongues, we tend to overlook the readings from Paul and John.

While Luke and John offer significantly different understandings of the Holy Spirit, there is one way in which they converge. In today’s gospel reading, we hear “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (Jn 14:25). Later Jesus will say, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (Jn 16:26).

We see that very thing happening in the Book of Acts, as the Holy Spirit repeatedly leads the disciples to make new discoveries about the Spirit’s power and about the meaning and extent of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. There are moments when we see the radical action of the Spirit, when Philip baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch; when Peter baptizes Cornelius and his family, and in Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. We see the Spirit working both on a cosmic scale and on a personal level, as with Paul’s conversion. But we also see the Spirit working as Luke writes. When Peter quotes from the prophet Joel in today’s reading, there are two significant alterations from the original text, which reads:

Then afterwards
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

Peter (or Luke) changes the introducton from “then afterwards” to “In the last days” providing an urgency, an eschatalogical focus to the events of the day. Second, where the verses in Joel end with “I will pour out my spirit;” Peter (or Luke) adds “and they shall prophesy.”

There is a significant interpretation and adaptation of the passage from Joel to fit this new context. It’s evidence of early Christians re-reading and appropriating for new uses the familiar texts of the Hebrew Bible. It’s also evidence of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit to, as Jesus puts it in John, “guide you into all truth.”

There’s a danger here, of course. There’s a tendency among many (progressive) Christians to appeal to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit (“The Spirit is doing a new thing”) whenever they seek to introduce innovation in doctrine or practice. The lesson in Acts (and John) is that the Holy Spirit can’t be controlled: “The Spirit blows where it wills” (Jn 3:8). The Holy Spirit may certainly be doing a new thing, but that new thing may not be something we are comfortable with, just as many of the disciples weren’t comfortable with Peter’s actions regarding Cornelius. I’ve often thought that it’s best to declare the Holy Spirit’s working only from the benefit of hindsight, when we can look back on events in which participants couldn’t necessarily see clearly, but were certain they were heeding the Spirit’s call.

Paul offers us a glimpse of an appropriate caution. In Romans 8, there’s a sense that the Spirit sometimes speaks on our behalf, or speaks with us; and that when it does so, we are incorporated in Christ (a spirit of adoption making us children of God and joint heirs with Christ). At first glance that might seem to lead to an even more self-interested understanding of the Holy Spirit. But Paul adds, ‘if in fact we suffer with him.” So he brings it back to the cross, to power made perfect in weakness.



Monday in Holy Week: The Anointing

The Gospel for Monday in Holy Week is John 12:1-11. John’s version of the story of the Anointing, it differs in significant ways from the story told in Mark’s gospel and read as part of the Passion Narrative in yesterday’s services. In both gospels, the story takes place in Bethany, but John puts it in the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, while according to Mark it is in the home of Simon the Leper. John identifies the woman who anoints Jesus as Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, while in Mark she remains anonymous, though Jesus says of her: “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” Even the timing is off. In Mark, it takes place two days before the Passover; in John six. In Mark, she anoints his head; in John his feet.

Each author shapes the story to his purposes (for contrast compare the version in Luke 7:36-50). But in spite of those differences, Mark and John interpret the story similarly. For both, her act of anointing is connected with Jesus’ burial. As I read, and then listened to the Passion Narrative yesterday, I was struck again by the importance of the women in Mark’s story. Here is one, ministering to Jesus, foreshadowing his death and burial. At the cross, women looked on from afar. Mark says that “These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.”

Again, at the burial. Mary Magdalene and and Mary the mother of Joses looked on.

The dramatic act of anointing of Jesus captures our imagination as it captured the imagination of the gospel writers. We want to fill the story out, give it some deeper meaning. So Luke’s identification of the woman as a sinner ultimately led to the tradition’s identification of this woman as Mary Magdalene, the repentant prostitute. But in Mark’s story, there’s none of that. And in John, it is Mary of Bethany, one of Jesus’ closest and dearest friends.

As powerful as the notion of a repentant sinner anointing Jesus, I find the idea of a female disciple, a follower of Jesus doing the anointing even more compelling. Those women disciples in Mark continued to follow Jesus to the cross and to his burial and were witnesses of the empty tomb.

Holy Week invites us to enter into the drama of Jesus’ last days. We do it on Palm Sunday as we wave our palms and shout “Hosanna.” We do it as we listen to the story of the passion and take part as members of the crowd. We do it day by day, as we remember the last week of Jesus’ life, re-enact the first Eucharist and the footwashing, the crucifixion and burial.

The story and its re-enactment invites us to enter into it, to take our place in the story. But it also asks us how we will participate, which roles we will take on. Will we flee and abandon Jesus like the twelve and the young man who ran away naked? Will we watch from afar as Jesus dies and is buried? Will we take our place at Jesus’ feet, anointing them for burial today, and washing them on Maundy Thursday? Where will we stand? Where will we walk? Where will we kneel?

Lectionary Reflections: Proper 28 Year A

The Hebrew Bible reading for Proper 28 in the semi-continuous reading is Judges 4:1-7. I was surprised to learn that this is the only reading from Judges in the entire three-year lectionary cycle. That means some of the great stories of the Hebrew Bible might not be encountered by ordinary churchgoers–the Samson cycle, for example, or the story of Gideon.

Judges belongs to a larger historical work that spans the books of Joshua through II Kings (not including Ruth). They’ve given it the tongue-twisting name of the Deuteronomic History, because it tells the history of Israel and Judah from the conquest to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile in the 6th century BCE. It was written during the Exile to explain why the Exile happened.

Judges plays a central role in this story. It’s a collection of stories, some of them stories of heroes, others occasionally seeming like folktales. Each episode follows a similar pattern. A judge dies (judges are as much military rulers as judges in the contemporary sense) and the land falls into chaos with the Israelites suffering from foreign invasion and abandoning the worship of God. They cry out and God raises up a new judge who defeats the enemy and establishes a period of peace; but when he (or she) dies, the cycle repeats itself. The book helps to explain why monarchy was needed, but there is also something of a critique of the Israelites, had they been faithful to God, they would not have needed the strong hand of a monarch. The last verse in Judges expresses it well: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes (21:25).

So the question becomes, why of all the possible stories in Judges, is this one included? That’s a puzzle of its own, for it really isn’t a story at all, but the beginning of a story involving two women, both of them also involving military victory. Deborah is a judge and prophetess, who leads the Israelites (with Barak) into battle. Interestingly, of all the judges mentioned in the book, it is only Deborah who is shown actually “judging:” “She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment” (4:4)

Nestled between this scene and the actual battle is another story–the assassination of the Canaanite general Sisera by Jael a woman who, after offering him hospitality, kills him with a tent peg. The Deborah story concludes with what may be the oldest part of the Bible, the Song of Deborah (5:2-31). In it, Deborah is called “mother of Israel.” The story concludes with the observation that “the land had rest forty years” (5:31).

No doubt, this story is included in the lectionary because it shows a powerful and important woman, Deborah, a judge and prophetess, and calls us to remember that God calls both men and women to leadership roles. The nature and exercise of authority is a theme that has run through the Hebrew Bible readings from the story of Moses to this point and it will continue to dominate the history of the Israelites throughout the monarchy.

It’s an issue for contemporary Christians as well. Shaped by our culture and historical context, models of authority from politics and the corporate world contribute to our notions of the proper exercise of authority in the church. On the other hand, in the gospels, Jesus offers a very different model of authority: “I am among you as one who serves” (Lk 22:27).

Choose you this day whom you will serve: Lectionary reflections on Proper 27, Year A

This Sunday, we will be observing All Saints, so our scripture readings will not be a continuation of the texts we’ve been reading. That’s a shame, because all three of them are rich. Both I Thessalonians and the Gospel reading have to do with the Second Coming, while the reading from Joshua 24 is the culmination of that book. All of the readings are available here.

I can’t read Joshua’s speech without thinking of our house in South Carolina.

We purchased our house from fundamentalists. Even though we liked the location, the layout, etc, there was one detail that almost broke the deal. On one of the living room walls was stenciled in large letters: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Now you may think there’s nothing problematic about that verse, that it is a worthy sentiment. But think about it for a moment. Joshua has given the Israelites an ultimatum: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” And to buck them up, to set an example, he continues, “as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Do you get it yet? He is making that decision, not just for himself, but for everyone who lives with him—his wife and children, and any slaves. A worthy sentiment? Perhaps, but only if you think the only views that matter are those of the senior adult male.

The first thing we did after closing was paint over that stenciled verse; it took two coats, and still Corrie really wanted me to perform an exorcism on the entire property. After all, underneath that paint, those words remained. Our discomfort with them wass no accident, not just an example of the centuries and the cultural changes that separate us from the book of Joshua. For in their original setting, they were meant to bring discomfort to those who heard them first.

Joshua is largely unfamiliar to us today and the primary reason is that it tells a story that is deeply disturbing to many twenty-first century Christians. It records a version of the conquest of the promised land—with gory details of battles, and perhaps even worse, it records God taking initiative in those battles and demanding the complete destruction of the native population. It resonates uncomfortably with our own nation’s history of settling the continent of North America, defeating and destroying native populations in response to a belief that this land, like Canaan was given us by God. It also raises uncomfortable questions about waging war in the belief that God is on our side.

In fact, there is much more to the book of Joshua than the conquest, and even there the story it tells is much more complex than a quick skimming would suggest. The Israelites did not succeed in displacing the native population, as the later books of Judges, Samuel, and Kings relate, throughout the period of the monarchy, Israel lived among other peoples, and probably over time assimilated many of those people into their nation.

In these last verses of Joshua, we have the culmination of that story of conquest and settlement. This reading is extracted from a larger story, a dramatic covenant ceremony. Much of what was omitted was a recounting of the history of the Israelites—from Abraham and Jacob, through their slavery in Egypt, and the conquest of Canaan. After recounting those mighty acts of Yahweh, Joshua presents the people with an ultimatum: choose to serve Yahweh, or the gods of Mesopotamia, or the gods of the Canaanites. This story hearkens back to the events at Sinai, when Yahweh appeared to the Israelites and gave them the law.

In a way, it’s an odd story, because it implies that the Israelites’ commitment to Yahweh was less than total. In fact, it suggests that it is only now, after entering into and possessing the promised land, that Yahweh demands they give up their allegiance to other gods. But on another level, it is a reaffirmation of that faith, coming about at the end of a lengthy struggle, and centuries of unfulfilled promise. Yahweh had promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that they would possess this land; Yahweh had promised Moses and the Israelites as they suffered under Egyptian oppression, that they would be given a land flowing with milk and honey, and now finally, it was theirs.

The authors and editors of Joshua were writing the history of Israel from a vantage point hundreds of years after the fact, and hundreds of miles removed from the promised land. They were writing in Babylon, exiled after the destruction of their homeland, and they were trying to understand those events and to reflect on them theologically. So they developed a theology of promise and fulfillment, of a covenant made at Sinai, reaffirmed here at Shechem, but broken by centuries of unfaithfulness. Yet they hoped for a return to Jerusalem, their faith in Yahweh allowed them to imagine a future back in a restored kingdom.

Lectionary reflections on Proper 26, Year A: Entering the Promised Land

This week’s readings are here.

We’ve been using the semi-continuous readings from the RCL this summer, which have taken us from God’s promise to Abraham that he would possess the promised land, up to now, Joshua 3, when the Israelites finally cross the Jordan and enter the land. I’ve not had the opportunity to do much more than allude to the readings from the Hebrew Bible in my sermons over the past few months. I won’t be preaching on Sunday, and if I were, I probably wouldn’t say much about Joshua, but this dramatic scene, and the one which precedes it, deserve attention.

In last week’s reading from the last verses of Deuteronomy, we heard of Moses’ ascent of Mt. Nebo, his first and only sight of the Promised Land, and his death. It’s impossible for me to read this text and not think about the speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr., on the night before his assassination.

The book of Joshua carries the story forward. In this week’s reading, the Israelites cross the Jordan River. At the same time, it resonates deeply with earlier stories, especially the crossing of the Red Sea. There are thematic and linguistic parallels–the rare Hebrew word used in v. 13 describing the waters as standing “in a single heap” is also used in the Exodus account of the Red Sea, to give just one example.

Joshua is a problematic text on many levels. It tells the story of the Israelite conquest of Canaan, and of God’s ruthless demands that the Israelites utterly destroy their enemies (and God’s punishment when they don’t). It has been used over the centuries to rationalize other conquests, such as the American conquest of Native Americans (witness the number of place names from Joshua used by settlers for towns in the US). The story, however, is more complex than that, for in fact the Israelites did not utterly destroy and displace all of the land’s inhabitants. Many survived and thrived, and the book of Judges offers evidence of the continuing presence of non-Israelites in the land. Still, it is worth pondering the influence of Joshua’s portrayal of the Promised Land and Holy War on the American psyche.

There are other important theological themes present in Joshua, among them the succession of authority from Moses to Joshua, that provide food for thought for contemporary Christians.