Moving in a New Direction

I have been working to sustain daily Bible study for two months now.  It’s been a good experiment so far.  However, I now need to move in a new direction.  I will still be trying to sustain daily Bible study; however, it will now shift to being Bible study related to the text for the worship service where I will be preaching.  For 2017, that means I’ll be in the Gospel of Matthew because we made the decision to be in the Gospel of Matthew for most of 2017.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Deuteronomy is Moses’s final sermon to the people he helped deliver from Egypt. The first five books of the Bible—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—compose a unit. That unit is called Torah.

The storyline of Torah is important.
Genesis begins with the creation of the world, the stories of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah,  Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, and the story of Joseph. Through Joseph the  descendants of Abraham ended up living in Egypt where they became despised and ultimately  enslaved and so God used Moses to deliver the people out of Egypt and to the Promised Land— except that through some strange quirks, Moses wasn’t allowed to actually lead them into the  Promised Land. He would die without fully arriving at his destination.
 He knew this was going  to happen and so delivered this sermon. 

Torah is a word that usually gets translated “Law.” As in Psalm 1:2—And the delight
of the Godly is in the law of the Lord and in that law they meditate day and night. But translating the word “Torah” as “law” is misleading. 

First of all, it’s misleading because when you say  “law” today people think of lawyers, and police officers, and federal tax code. And the “laws” in  the Bible deal with some of that but there are lots of different laws in the Old Testament—not  just the ten commandments. For instance Leviticus 11:12, that you’re not supposed to eat any  fish that doesn’t have fins and scales. That means no shrimp, no clams, and not Lobster. However,  Leviticus does say you can eat any kind of locust, katydid, cricket or grasshopper. Leviticus  19:19 says “Do not mate different kinds of animals, do not plant your field with two kinds of  seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of materials.” Today our understanding of  biology, sustainability, and fashion would cause us to see these laws as unnecessary at best and plain wrong at worst. 

Leviticus seems to be the source of a lot of other problems really. It  would be nice to just get rid of it, except the verse preceding the one about mixed fabrics says “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge but love your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus said that  alongside the command to love God the command to love neighbor summarizes the entire Torah. So what do we do with these laws now? The laws cover every aspect of life—cooking,  eating, clothing, planting, family relationships, the laws of the government, and the relationships  between nations. And while we may find their specifics problematic their scope remains  instructive. 

Christians today tend to suggest that there are big places where God doesn’t have  much input. I’ve heard people say—may faith has nothing to do with my politics. The Moses  who delivered this sermon at the end of his life would say, Really? Christians today will say,  God doesn’t care about how I do my shopping. Moses would say, “Really?” Many Christians  want the sort of faith that can be confined to one day a week—Sunday. And then not the whole  day—because we’ve got some other things we want to have time on Sunday to do. Moses would  say, “Really?”  

Notice how Moses emphasizes the dailiness of the choices we make to serve God to
choose blessings instead of curses and life instead of death. Verse 15—“See, I set before you  today life and prosperity, death and destruction.” Verse six day “For I command you today to  love the Lord your God.” Verse 18, “I declare to you today.” Verse 19, “Today, I call heaven  and earth as witnesses.” “Now choose life.” The choice between life and death and blessings and  curses seems like a once-for-all choice but in truth it is a series of choices that we make on a  daily basis as the refrain of “Today” echoes throughout the text and throughout our lives. 

Would  it be possible to look at each day as a day when you make the decision to submit the choices you  make to the guidance of God? What would happen if you made choices about what you wear on  the basis of that which best honors the God you serve? What would happen if you ate in a way  that revealed your accountability before the Living God who has redeemed you? What changes  would be required in terms of what you read, what you watch, what you listen to if these daily  decisions were made on the basis of whether those activities lead to blessing or curses?  

 

 

The Risen Christ and the Lord’s Table

Luke 24:13-35

What might the Lord’s Supper represent in addition to representing his death on the cross?  I’ve been thinking this week about other ideas that the service of bread and cup might convey.  It is a celebration of creation, a point of reconciliation with one another, a celebration of the whole life of Jesus, and a time to confess sins—both personal and collective.  Today, I am mindful of the way that the bread and cup celebrates the presence of the Risen Christ.  I am drawn to a story toward the end of Luke’s gospel where Jesus—in his resurrection—appeared to two disciples in the breaking of bread.

Jesus came to two Disciples as they walked toward a village called Emmaus.  We are not entirely sure where Emmaus is.  Within the seven-mile radius of Jerusalem there are several villages that could have been Emmaus.  We aren’t quite sure which one might have been the town to which Cleopas and another Disciple were walking.  Jesus had many Disciples in his life–not just the twelve that are most familiar to us.  There were seventy sent out on a mission to whom Jesus gave the instruction, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Luke 10:2).

The word Disciple means student, but not the way we normally think about a student as one who goes to a teach to learn accounting or piano or home repair.  Students committed themselves to teachers in such a way that they modeled their life after their teacher.  Cleopas and his traveling companion were Disciples of Jesus.

Surely, they had been there one week earlier when Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey.  Maybe they picked up branches and spread their cloaks and shouted Hosanna–blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.  They would not have been in the upper room when he broke bread and shared the meal of bread and cup.  But they knew that shortly after that meal Jesus had been arrested.  He had been hurried through a fake trial.  He had been handed over to a Roman governor named Pontius Pilate.  Pilate’s soldiers had beaten Jesus, given him a cross to carry to an ugly hill outside Jerusalem, they had bound his body to that cross and pierced his hands and feet with nails.  These two Disciples who were moved by Jesus to commit their lives to him knew that Jesus, their teacher, had died. We resonate with the experience of exile and the bewilderment of loss.

And that’s where Jesus encountered these two Disciples as they were walking along the road to Emmaus.  Christ enters those moments–often unrecognized–to tell a different story that brings us to the edge of new creation.  They had recounted everything that had happened to Jesus, but they assumed the story ended with the tomb.  Jesus did not dismiss any of the suffering or pain associated with that.  But rather than portraying this as a senseless tragedy, he explained to them how it was necessary. His death on the cross was necessary because it confronted the human rebellion against God’s plan.  His resurrection was necessary because through it, God gave humanity a chance to reconsider our rebellion and turn to him.   His death on the cross was necessary because it showed us that we cannot save ourselves and we are thoroughly dependent on God.  His resurrection was necessary because through his resurrection Jesus showed that the God of creation would recreate.

The new creation beckons us to live according the new life.   The Resurrection is more than a resuscitation.  It is more than a miracle that provides a happy ending to an unhappy event.  It is through the resurrection of Jesus that we have the promise of Christ’s presence with us here.  The resurrection is the sign that we are constantly on the verge of new creation.  Jurgen Moltmann began his important work, In the End—the Beginning: The Life of Hope this way, “Christian hope is the power of resurrection from life’s failures and defeats.  It is the power of life’s rebirth out of the shadows of death.  It is the power for the new beginning at the point where guilt has made life impossible.  If we remember that, we shall not give ourselves up, but shall expect in every end a new beginning lies hidden.  Yet we shall only become capable of new beginnings if we are prepared to let go of the things that torment us, and the things we lack.  If we search for the new beginning, it will find us” (p. 7).   That search brings me back to the Table week after week where I may experience the presence of the Risen Christ.

 

Who is at the table?

One of Paul’s teachings concerning communion has come to dominate our thinking about the Lord’s Supper. He wrote, “Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28). Many of us have made this a time then to scan our personal lives in order to assess our sins, but Paul’s view of communion examine was probably more communal. 

The church in was probably in the tradition of sharing a full meal with one another whenever they gathered for their weekly worship service (1 Corinthians 11:17-21). Some came early enough that for them the table was big and the food was plentiful and the wine flowed. And they ate and ate and ate and drank until they were drunk. When the others came they found their fellow Christians drunk and the food almost gone. They would scrape together barely a handful of food to eat and a few drops of wine to drink. It was humiliating (1 Corinthians 11:22). And Paul said such a table is not the table of the Lord. A meal where some people have excess and other people have too little is not the Lord’s Supper.

We have often interpreted Paul’s words concerning the need to examine ourselves before receiving the bread and cup of the Lord as a time to do personal and private
examination of our hearts. But the sins Paul names were not private sins. They were public. The Christians who had resources had managed to humiliate the people who had little. The church had become fractured on the basis of human differences. People sought their own good and not the good of others. This, Paul said, could not be the way God intends for us to interact with each other within the body of Christ—in the Church. He reminds them of the fullness of what Communion is supposed to be and how large the table of the Lord really is.

Living Bread

The service of bread and cup goes by several names.  It’s called Lord’s Supper, Communion, Eucharist, Breaking Bread, and meal of remembrance just to name a few.  Different churches share this ritual in different ways.  Some churches take Communion every week.  Some churches take the Lord’s Supper once a quarter.  Some church do not have physical elements—i.e., actual bread, actual wine or juice—that they share.  But for all churches, the bread and cup symbolizes Jesus Christ.  It represents the body and blood of Christ.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).  And that is where many Christian’s mind goes.  Communion is about Christ’s death on the cross.  Certainly that’s a huge part of communion, but really Christians need to be thinking about the whole life of Christ at the moment of communion.

John 6

John 6 is a good text to help us remember that the whole life of Christ—his incarnation, teaching, signs, fellowship meals, death, burial and resurrection are all represented in communion.  John’s gospel does not include the story of Jesus providing new meaning to the Passover meal.  In John, the what’s recorded of the final meal is that Jesus washed his disciples feet (John 13).   There’s not a lot of overlap between John and the other three gospels.  But, one of the places of overlap concerns the feeding of the five thousand.  All four gospels tell the story of Jesus feeding the 5000.  That doesn’t mean that John isn’t different even here.

In John’s telling of the feeding of the 5000, Jesus follows up that miracle (and that shared meal) with a discussion of himself as the living bread.  He describes himself as living bread three times in John 6.  In   John  6:35, he said, “I am the bread of life.” John 6:41, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” John 6:48, “I am the bread of life.”  Jesus compared himself to the manna that the Israelites ate as they journeyed from Egypt to Israel.  This food did not lead to eternal life.  The people who ate it eventually died.  However, the people who consume the body and blood of the Son of Man experience eternal life.

Lord’s Supper and Eternal Life

This is not to suggest that communion itself equals eternal life.  Jesus uses this as a metaphor.  “I am the bread of life” is one of several “I am” metaphors Jesus uses.  He also said, “I am the living water” (chapter 4), “I am the good shepherd” (John 10).  “I am the vine” (John 15).  What Jesus makes clear in this story is that believing in him—truly trusting one’s life and ordering one’s existence around Jesus—is like receiving living bread that grants eternal life.  While John 6 is not an explicit Eucharistic text.  Its use of the bread symbol can help us think more broadly about what we celebrate in the Lord’s Supper.  The bread and cup do point to the death of our Lord, but they also point to the whole life and its meaning for us.

 

Food Courts and Pagan Temples

Perhaps you’ve seen the video of a flash mob choir singing the Hallelujah Chorus in a mall food court.  It’s a beautiful and courageous display of faith in a secular context.  I’m struck by the first young lady who begins to sing alone.  She’s talking on the phone.  Even singing alone she conveys the sense that she’s there with someone else.  There are places less sacred than food courts at shopping malls . . . but not many.  The movement of Handel’s glorious praise of Christ into such a secular context puts a bit of a lump in my throat.  I think about mall food courts whenever I think about the teaching concerning communion in 1 Corinthians concerning meet sacrificed to idols.  I’m not sure that there’s any historical resemblance.  It’s just the image that comes to mind.

Corinth had several pagan temples where meat would have been sacrificed.  If a person ate at the temple, they would be participants in the pagan worship.  But what about a person being invited into a home where the meat had been bought at a pagan temple?  Did that count as participation in idolatry.  This was the kind of question that pushed at the seams of the early church in Corinth.  The church there contained some Christians who would have had strong convictions about delineating their lives from that of pagan idolatry (1 Corinthians 8:7).  The church also contained other Christians who would have thought it less consequential.  It’s just meat.  What difference did it make where it came from when one had come to know the Creator through Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 8:6)?  Paul in effect agreed with the group who believed they were at liberty to eat meat sacrificed to idols without participation in idolatry, but taught that if such an exercise of freedom were morally troubling to another believer, Christians ought to restrict their own freedom for the sake of their fellow Christians’ conscience.  This is the ethical backdrop for what Paul says about communion in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17

“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?  The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?  Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of one bread.”

The reason that Christians cannot simply exercise their freedom without regard to the needs of others is simple—Christ has made us one.  The communion that we share is not done in isolation.  It is done in union with (that’s what the word comm-union means).  We are united with Christ and through our union with Christ we are made one with other followers of Jesus Christ. I’m always a little troubled when people refer to communion as their own “private time with God.”  Solitude, meditation, private prayer all have an important role to play in the Christian life.  Jesus himself would often withdraw alone to pray.  Yet, the Lord’s table is meant to symbolize the drawing together, the sharing of life with one another.

Paul’s resolution to the question of how to navigate the tricky waters of the pagan context of Corinth was to place Christ ahead of all and understand the human relationship not in terms of who’s right or wrong, weak or strong, free to do as they please or bound by conscience, but in terms of how we mutually care for one another within the unity we have in Christ.  It matters who is present and to whom we are connected when we take the bread and cup.  Like the young woman beginning Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus in the food court of a mall talking on a cell phone, we begin our spiritual lives connected to others.  Through baptism and communion, we join ourselves with fellow believers.

Communion Celebrates God’s Creation

I serve in a denomination that takes the Lord’s Supper each Sunday and almost every other we worship together.  Several years ago when I was still new to this denomination, I had responsibility for talking about the Lord’s Supper to a group of lay people.  During the discussion, one lady said, “I don’t always want to think about my sin at Communion.”  I’ve thought about that conversation ever since.  The symbolism and witness of bread and cup is bigger than the call to examine ourselves and reflect on Christ’s life poured out for the forgiveness of our sin.

Obviously, there’s no Lord’s Supper in the Old Testament.  There is Passover which was the context of the Lord’s Supper.  And there is the story of Melchizedek (Genesis 14) who comes out to Abraham and offers him bread and wine.  But, from the First Testament we would emphasize God as creator and provider.  Isaiah 55 is a good text to think about at the Lord’s Supper.  Isaiah 55 belongs to the second part of Isaiah (40-66).  Where the first part of Isaiah deals with the call to repent and leads up to the exile; the second part of Isaiah stresses the hope and restoration of Israel.  Isaiah 55 begins with the call to come, “Come, buy and eat.”  God as creator has provided for us in remarkable and beautiful ways.  Isaiah 55:10-11 uses the image of God as creator to speak about God as the giver of the word.  “As the rain and snow comes down from heaven and does not return to it without give seed for the sower and bread for the eater so is my word that goes forth from my mouth.”  It emphasizes that relationship between God’s verbal witness and the creation that God governs.  It is a beautiful affirmation of God as the one who provides and who sustains creation.

Communion also is a celebration of God’s provision and blessing.  One of the earliest communion prayers from an early Christian book called the Didache talks about the “grain on a thousand hillsides” coming together to make the loaf of bread.  It is a way of acknowledging that the bread we receive in communion is the product of God’s creative work.

Nazareth or Bust.

Matthew 2:19-22 is the kind of story we might be tempted to overlook.  In Matthew’s storyline the predecessors to Jesus had been named, the announcement of Jesus’s birth had been given to Joseph, the Star appeared and so did the Magi, and protection had been granting to Jesus, Mary and Joseph, but sadly not to everyone else.  In a murderous rage, Herod had lashed out against the Magi’s decision to circumvent him and had all the children of the area killed.  After Herod’s death, Matthew explains how Mary, Joseph and Jesus made their way back to Nazareth.

The story might seem to answer some loose end questions like why is the Lion of Judah living in Galilee and why is the heir of David’s throne not living in Jerusalem or Bethlehem at the very least. Luke told us how a family from Nazareth got to Bethlehem; Matthew told us how a child born in Bethlehem made his way to Nazareth.  And through it all, it appears to be that God protected Jesus’s life so that he was safe throughout.

We should take note of at least one significant element.  This story completes the story of Joseph—the earthly father of Jesus.  Joseph received three or four messages from Angels in dreams.  First, that he should marry Mary (1:20); the second time that they should flee and go to Egypt (2:13); in verse 19 and again in vs. 22.  I would contend that these two are part of the same dream message.  This brings it in line with the  others.  In each there is a warning from the angel in a dream, Joseph immediately obeys each time, and in each one a link is drawn back to the fulfillment of prophesy.  In this instance we are not sure about which prophesy he’s talking about.  It could be a reference to Isaiah 11:1. The word branch resembles the word for Nazorean.  It could be a reference to Numbers 6 and the Nazarite vow.  It could be that Matthews people were familiar with the early nickname for Christians given them by Syrians—Nazoreans.  Whatever was in Matthew’s mind, we do not know.  It’s not a clear reference to scripture.

I believe it’s Matthew’s way of saying that Angels do not redirect God’s path at their own volition.  They come bearing the message that the long awaited King has arrived.  Along the same lines, I believe that this story reveals the connections between the coming of Christ and the Hebrew Bible–what Christians call the Old Testament or First Testament.  Joseph is a model for us.  In every instance, he obeys the word that come from the angels every time. And from his simple act of obedience, the larger meaning of Jesus’s life begins to take shape.

Tables prepared before enemies

Have you ever wondered about the expression in the 23rd Psalm, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies”?  We know we are to love our neighbors and love one another.  But two times in the New Testament the words, “Love your enemy” are recorded.  One of those is  Luke 10:27-28. Jesus elaborated on this command saying—”Love your enemies.  Do good to those who hate you.  Bless those who curse you.  And pray for those who abuse you.”  In these elaborations we have an explanation of what love means—it means to do good, bless and pray for.  And there are those to whom love is directed—those who hate, those who curse and those who persecute.  This is exactly what Jesus did on the cross.

Jesus proclaimed a Kingdom of God in which the law is love.  People rejected this assertion of God’s of authority.  That rejection of God’s vision of love is sin.  And Jesus encountered humanity’s rejection of God’s authority.  God could simply overpower our rejection.  God could squash us under a righteous thumb.  But, such a torment would betray the very principles of the Kingdom Jesus came to proclaim.  So instead of retaliation and suppression, Jesus encounters the cross as the ultimate act of the world’s rebellion and Jesus’s response to rebellion is the embodiment of Christ’s own teaching.  He died to reconcile; he died in order to show the full extent of God’s love.  That Jesus would choose to do good to those who hate him, bless those who curse and pray for those who persecute and in so doing endure the cross rather than betray all that he had proclaimed.

A second century Christian leader Justin Martyr mentioned this command frequently.  A third century leader named Tertulian said, “Our religion commands us to love even our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us . . . for everyone loves those who love them.  It is unique to Christians to love those who hate them.” Love is God’s nature; the love of God is Christ’s embodiment; and it becomes then the expectations for us.   When we learn of what Christ has done for us, we return do that for other.  The Lord prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies that we may invite our enemies to the table and make them into friends.