Holy Scripture: Revelation

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Like many, my preconception of Revelation has to do with the end of the world, the end of time. It has to do with the Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth, which was a big sensation in the 60s and 70s. I read part of it recently and it is mostly not about revelation but how the Soviet Union was predicted in Daniel, as well as the rise of China, etc. 

I grew up around the fervor of the Left Behind series of books. A long series with talk of the Rapture and the Anti-Christ and as I studied theology I learned about Dispensationalist theology. The idea that history is fixed with a certain set of dispensations beginning with innocence under Adam, and the Conscience from the Fall to the Great Flood and on and on until the dispensation of grace in which we currently live which will be followed by the Millennial kingdom (which is not a kingdom of millenials).

These ways of reading the book of revelation are not stupid ways. We cannot dismiss them out of hand. If you look at a chart of this interpretation, this is as complex as a diagram of an atom or a protein molecule. This way of reading Revelation, though, is very modern. It began in earnest in the early 19th century with a man named John Darby.

It must be stated clearly, though, that these readings do not go back to the 1st century. This is not how the earliest Christian read this book. Whether you grew up in the church or you are still not sure about this God thing, there is something in this book for you.

Revelation is about our identity more than anything else. What is the source of our identity? The book of revelation is both in the future but already present. It is soon and near but has, in part, already occurred in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

This isn’t just about the future but about reality, our reality right now. It is about contrasting true and false views of reality. As Richard Baukham writes, “The book of revelation counters [a] false view of reality by opening the world to divine transcendence.” It comes back to our identity. Are we primarily citizens of the world, citizens of the US, citizens of Austin, or are we primarily citizens of heaven. There is a destiny beyond the present. And, can we start living into that destiny now. 

Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega. That is a beautiful phrase but what it means is that Jesus is our beginning and Jesus is our end. When Jesus says ‘I am the Lord of the Sabbath’ in the Gospels, he is saying that I am the one who created. I am over creation. When we practice sabbath, we admit and offer ourselves to our creator. Thus the importance of sabbath rest. Jesus is staking his claim as Lord of heaven and earth.

That is, Lord of our time, our rest, our work. And then all of our life can be redeemed. It is not just our future but our present.  As Richard Baukham says, “It is John’s readers concrete, day-to-day world seen in the heavenly and eschatological perspective. As such, it functions as a counter to the Roman Imperial view of the world.”

So we have the Roman view wherein you have to give sacrifices to the Roman gods, have to give fealty. And then you have the Christian view. The view of the triune God that you were created in the image of God for something more. For something more. 

The Book of Revelation is first a series of letters to seven churches: to Ephesus, and to Smyrna, and to Pergamum, and to Thyatira, and to Sardis, and to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea. Here is a map of where this churches were. Usually, if you are going to do a sermon series on revelation, it looks at each of these churches.

So the Book of Revelation is a series of circulating letters, it is also a prophecy of what can happen. It is also an apocalyptic. Apocalypse means what has been revealed. Apocalypse means revelation. It does not mean the end of the world. If I hold this current in front of you and then it drops, that is revelation. That is what is going on in this book. It is not just that the time is set in the future, but that our eyes are being open to reality. The fact that Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega. Our beginning and our end, and that the forces of destruction do not have final say over us and offers us that rest. As well, we are offered the body and blood of Christ at this table. We are also offered the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation at this table. At this table, we have a foretaste of our heavenly feast, as well as food for the heavenly kingdom here. This world is being made new. This world is being made holy. This meal is more than our present. This meal is our future.

God offers us freedom from those limits. God shows us and tells us that those limits are from our head and from the world, there are not from God. That nothing is impossible for God. 

When you are done, there are two stations with water. I want you to go as you feel led to put your preconceptions in the water and watch as they dissolve away. 

God offers us freedom. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega. Our end is not in destruction but in the God who is love. 

Holy Scripture: The General Epistles

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Much of the Reformation centered on how to interpret the letters of Paul. James, 1&2 Peter, 1,2,3 John, and Jude were afterthoughts. In fact, Martin Luther thought that James was a letter made of straw and if he had the choice, he would remove it from the Bible.

The Wesleyan tradition has placed a large emphasis on James and on the idea that faith without works is dead. John Wesley didn’t see James as advocating works-righteousness, or the idea that we are saved by our works apart from grace. But that we cannot claim the grace in our life if we are not responding to grace through the works of mercy and the works of piety. It is not enough to be baptized, go to church on Sunday, and then live the rest of the week like a practical atheist.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:22-25)

The Epistles of Peter are quite strong of language but bring a different perspective to a lot of the same themes that Paul covers. Like the rest of the General Epistles, they do not contradict Paul but offer different perspectives on following Jesus in the aftermath of the resurrection and ascension. What should we do? How should we be? How should we live?

The Epistles of John contain perhaps the second most famous verse in the bible after John 3:16: God is love. The love of God and the connection between love and God reveal the deep consonance between the General Epistles and the Epistles of Paul, especially 1 Corinthians 13’s famous ode to love.

In sum, these letters are brief but powerful, worthy of continued reflection and prayer.

Holy Scripture: Hebrews

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As I have mentioned before, most of the New Testament is written in a common Greek called koiné. The letter to the Hebrews is a little different. It is more complex grammatically than most of the New Testament. For many years it was thought to be another letter written by Paul, but it is not written by Paul.

And there is so much to it! So much. It begins with a flourish called a florigelium which is a set of quotations next to each other.

In the past, God spoke through the prophets to our ancestors in many times and many ways.In these final days, though, he spoke to us through a Son. God made his Son the heir of everything and created the world through him. The Son is the light of God’s glory and the imprint of God’s being. He maintains everything with his powerful message. After he carried out the cleansing of people from their sins, he sat down at the right side of the highest majesty. And the Son became so much greater than the other messengers, such as angels, that he received a more important title than theirs.

After all, when did God ever say to any of the angels:

You are my Son.
        Today I have become your Father?

Or, even,

I will be his Father,
        and he will be my Son?

But then, when he brought his firstborn into the world, he said,

All of God’s angels must worship him.

He talks about the angels:

He’s the one who uses the spirits for his messengers
        and who uses flames of fire as ministers.

But he says to his Son,

God, your throne is forever
        and your kingdom’s scepter is a rod of justice.
You loved righteousness and hated lawless behavior.
        That is why God, your God,
        has anointed you more than your companions with the oil of joy.

And he says,

You, Lord, laid the earth’s foundations in the beginning,
        and the heavens are made by your hands.
They will pass away,
        but you remain.
They will all wear out like old clothes.
        You will fold them up like a coat.
They will be changed like a person changes clothes,
        but you stay the same,
        and the years of your life won’t come to an end.

When has he ever said to any of the angels,

Sit at my right side
        until I put your enemies under your feet like a footstool?

Aren’t all the angels ministering spirits who are sent to serve those who are going to inherit salvation? (Hebrews 1)

The letter of Hebrews is where the most theological work is found concerning the nature of Jesus. It is deep and intense and complex. Translations differ on a number of passages because the Greek itself is so complex. When reading Hebrews, we must remember the advice of St. Augustine, to always interpret the more confusing passages with the more clear ones. I encourage this letter to you in this way. A good study Bible is also helpful. It is not challenging to faith as much as comprehension. It is worthy of study and contemplation and prayer. Chapters 11, 12, I especially return to again and agin.

Holy Scripture: The Pastoral Epistles, the Letters to Thessalonika, and Philemon.

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The earliest letters of Paul, and thusly, the earliest parts of the New Testament are his letters to the Church in Thessalonika. They are brief and direct and hold a lot of the marks of Paul’s latter writings. It is shocking, at least for me, to imagine early and later writings of Paul. Yet if you read 1 Thessalonians and then Romans, you can see a clear development of ideas.

Now what must be said clearly and firmly is that just because Paul develops his theology does not make any letter less than Scripture. Each is holy and God-Breathed. There are many ways of reading Scripture. One powerful of studying Paul’s journeys more is seeing how Paul was a person like we are. Paul was not special on his own. Paul was made special through grace. Paul was made an apostle through grace.

The Pastoral Epistles, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus are almost universally acknowledged as not being written by Paul the Apostle but by one of his students. This is only problematic if your view of the holiness of Scripture has more to do with Paul than God. 2 Timothy 3:16 is the verse often used to explain what Scripture is. Pseudonymous authorship was common in the ancient world even up to the early modern period. We do not read them because of how great the writers were but because God is here.

But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. (1 Timothy 6:11-16)

Holy Scripture: The Letters to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians.

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When I was at UT, I was in a small discipleship group at the Texas Wesley. One of the first things we did together was to read the General Electric Power Company, which is pneumonic for Paul’s letters to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. We were asked to read one book each day for a week. That is, to read the whole book of Galatians every day for a week, and then move on to Ephesians the next week.

It is a powerful experience which I would encourage any to take because by reading the same passage multiple days in a row, we more embody the Scriptures and the power of Paul’s words. Each letter is dense with possible life verses and other insights that can cover much of our situations in life. Galatians and Ephesians are a little longer and cover a little more ground. Galatians is a little more autobiographical and contains Paul’s most robust wrestling with Torah and what the law means for Christians. It also includes one of the exemplary passages of Paul’s radical universal view of the good news of Jesus Christ in Galatians 3:28-29:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

Ephesians covers similar territory form another direction, emphasizing the unity of all in Christ: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:1-2).

Philippians is a little shorter, but contains two of my favorite passages in all of the bible. The Christ hymn of Philippians 2, and the hymn of joy in Philippians 4. The Christ hymn is thought to predate Paul’s writings and could be the first hymn to Christ written down.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)

And then finally

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:4-9)

Wow.

And then to end with Colossians I find very fitting, for here is the good news of Jesus Christ presented as clearly as possible.

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant. (Colossians 1:13-23)

That’s it. There are some challenging portions throughout these books. Some passages that have often been misread, but the point is here in the cross and resurrection of Christ. Jesus is the Son of the Living God, one with the Father, who came to reconcile us with God.

Amen.

Holy Scripture: The Letters to Rome and to Corinth

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Jesus is risen, what should we do? The Book of Acts is one attempt to answer this question. The letters of Paul another. Instead of retelling a history, Paul responds to the needs of a real community. The three longer letters of Paul (Romans, 1 Corinthians, and 2 Corinthians) hold the most developed forms of early Christian theology. They are each sometimes called The letter to the… or the Epistle to the… because they were each written to a certain people. Epistle is simply and old-fashioned word for letter. As well, there is no internal title to the text. The titles and chapters and verses are given by later scholars.

Most likely, all three longer letters were written near the end of Paul’s life, around 51-52 AD. The Letter to the Romans holds a special place in the History of Methodism in that it was after hearing a portion of Martin Luther’s preface to Romans at a Moravian house meeting that John Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed. Each letter is many chapters long and filled with long and challenging exhortations and descriptions of God. Each is overwhelmingly laced with the grace of God above everything else. Instead of describing the letters in more detail, I want to share a selection from my favorite portions of each letter: Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15, and 2 Corinthians 5

First from the Letter to the Romans

So what are we going to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He didn’t spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. Won’t he also freely give us all things with him?

Who will bring a charge against God’s elect people? It is God who acquits them. Who is going to convict them? It is Christ Jesus who died, even more, who was raised, and who also is at God’s right side. It is Christ Jesus who also pleads our case for us.

Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

We are being put to death all day long for your sake.
We are treated like sheep for slaughter.

But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.

(Romans 8:31-39, CEB)

Now from the First Epistle to the Corinthians

Listen, I’m telling you a secret: All of us won’t die, but we will all be changed— in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the final trumpet. The trumpet will blast, and the dead will be raised with bodies that won’t decay, and we will be changed. It’s necessary for this rotting body to be clothed with what can’t decay, and for the body that is dying to be clothed in what can’t die. And when the rotting body has been clothed in what can’t decay, and the dying body has been clothed in what can’t die, then this statement in scripture will happen:

Death has been swallowed up by a victory.

Where is your victory, Death?
Where is your sting, Death?

(Death’s sting is sin, and the power of sin is the Law.) Thanks be to God, who gives us this victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! As a result of all this, my loved brothers and sisters, you must stand firm, unshakable, excelling in the work of the Lord as always, because you know that your labor isn’t going to be for nothing in the Lord.

(1 Corinthians 15:51-58, CEB)

And finally the Second Epistle to the Corinthians

If we are crazy, it’s for God’s sake. If we are rational, it’s for your sake. The love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: one died for the sake of all; therefore, all died. He died for the sake of all so that those who are alive should live not for themselves but for the one who died for them and was raised.

So then, from this point on we won’t recognize people by human standards. Even though we used to know Christ by human standards, that isn’t how we know him now. So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!

All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation. In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation.

So we are ambassadors who represent Christ. God is negotiating with you through us. We beg you as Christ’s representatives, “Be reconciled to God!” God caused the one who didn’t know sin to be sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God.

(2 Corinthians 5:13-21, CEB)

Holy Scripture: The Acts of the Apostles

What happens after the world has changed? Where do we go? How should we live? What do we do now?

The Acts of the Apostles is a continuation of the narrative of the Gospel of Luke, but it is also something radically different. Instead of presenting the Life of Jesus, within the Book of Acts, we have an account of the aftermath of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It begins in the following way:

Theophilus, the first scroll I wrote concerned everything Jesus did and taught from the beginning, right up to the day when he was taken up into heaven. Before he was taken up, working in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus instructed the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed them that he was alive with many convincing proofs. He appeared to them over a period of forty days, speaking to them about God’s kingdom. - Acts 1:1-2

Jesus then tells the disciples to stay put in Jerusalem because something amazing is about to happen. Pretty soon, we have the first bureaucratic step in the history of the church, which is to find a replacement for Judas. Then they gather in Jerusalem for the Festival of Booths, and all heaven breaks loose.

Acts is full of these wonderfully vivid narratives like Pentecost, the martyrdom of Stephen, Philip and the Ethiopian, but more than anything else, Acts if filled with the life of Paul the Apostle. We read of his early persecution of the Christians and of his later conversion and the missionary journeys which he undertook to share the good news which had changed his life.

Most of the New Testament is made up of the letters of the letters of Paul, but here in Acts we have a way to both add to them context, and see the life of faith from a different perspective.

The same Holy Spirit which rushed over the crowds at Pentecost is present for us today. That is beautiful and daunting. But we are not alone. When we search the Scriptures of the Book of Acts, we find a God who is present for those who follow God’s son. We find a world turned upside down.

Holy Scripture: John

For most of my life, John was my least favorite book of the Bible. I loved the concreteness of Mark or the poetry of the Psalms. Even the genealogies of 1 Chronicles interested me more than John. It seemed vague and wandering and unsure of what it wanted to be. 

Even through seminary, I did not take the Gospel of John that super seriously. There were passages I liked, of course, but I always told myself that I was more of a Mark and Matthew kind of guy. 

Full time ministry changed that for me. As I started administering communion, the words of Jesus around communion in John 6 had more meaning. As I preached funerals, the words of John 14 became so deeply life giving. As I performed weddings, the words of John 2 held power.

As well, as I began to teach others of the Trinity, the Gospel of John became the ultimate source and resource to explain the amazing mystery and power of our God who is Three-in-One

The Gospel of John begins at the beginning, before the beginning. It begins in poetry and power with the Logos, the word, the reason, the meaning, becoming flesh. Logos is a challenging word to translate into English. Logic is a direct cognate. Word is often used, but a word describes the separate words on this page, it does not describe how meaning is made from the words on the page. 

In the beginning was the Word
    and the Word was with God
    and the Word was God.
The Word was with God in the beginning.
Everything came into being through the Word,
    and without the Word
    nothing came into being.
What came into being
    through the Word was life, 
    and the life was the light for all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
    and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. (John 1:1-5, CEB)

The story of Jesus is more than the story of an old teacher and the people who followed him. The story of Jesus is the story of life and light creating everything and fighting off the darkness of corruption which wishes to smother that light. 

After reading the other gospels (referred to as synoptic because they all look at the life of Jesus in a similar way), John blows away our expectations and presents a Jesus both God and man, both Alpha and Omega, both teacher and savior. 


Holy Scripture: Luke

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Whereas Matthew begins with genealogy and Mark begins with a declaration harkening back to the Genesis 1, Luke begins in the historians way: “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us…” Luke, commonly thought to be a doctor, looks at the story of Jesus from the view of history and he makes it a history. But not just any history. Luke shares with us the history of the true LORD of all.

Kyrie, the Greek word for Lord, has an important religious history that plays itself out in the Gospel of Luke. In the Hebrew Scriptures, there are of names for God, but the most important by far is referred to in Hebrew as Hashem (or the word) and in Greek as the Tetragrammaton: YHWH. Some people pronounce the name but this is deeply offensive to Jews so I try to avoid it.

Alright, hopefully you are staying with me. In worship, when reading the name, in Hebrew it is referred to as Adonai, which means Lord, and Kyrie in Greek. In all of the Gospels, Jesus is referred to as Adonai, but this takes place most especially in the Gospel of Luke.

Here in this Gospel, we have a deep connection to God the Father. Much of the time, this can be missed if you go into the Gospel thinking Luke is a historian and thinking that Lord is a secular term instead of a deeply religious one.

Luke is also full of songs. The first chapter with the annunciation of Mary and Benedict contain two of the most beautiful songs in human history (fight me!). The parables throughout Luke are deeply rich, including the Prodigal Son.

Luke is also the same author of Acts and we see in that book a continuation of many of the themes in this Gospel. It is an exciting practice to read Luke-Acts together, seeing the ways that the words of Jesus carry into the life of the early church. And for us today, we can look back to see how the words of Jesus, the reality that Jesus is Lord and God, can effect and impact us today.

Holy Scripture: Mark

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Jesus gets to the point. One of the stunning qualities about the Jesus revealed in the Bible is his directness of speech. At no place is that clearer than in the Gospel of Mark. Mark begins in the middle of things. There is infancy narrative, no Christmas, no escape to Egypt.

It begins with an announcement and a quote from Isaiah 40 and Malachi 3: Look, I am sending my messenger before you. He will prepare your way, a voice shouting in the wilderness: “Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight.”

Then we get John the Baptist, the call of the disciples, and miracles and ministries. Stuff happens in Mark. Stuff happens immediately. In Greek, the word euthus means immediately is used a lot Mark, so often that it is rarely translated because in English it seems redundent. Stuff happens immediately.

Another key aspect of the Gospel of Mark is what is known as the Messianic secret. Jesus doesn’t toot his own horn a lot. In fact, over and over he tells people not to share a miracle with anyone. Jesus is not a salesman. His actions are deliberate and done for the people involved.

Finally, Mark ends abruptly. The oldest manuscripts end with the angel telling Mary and Mary Madeline: “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

That is it. Running away and being frightened. Later manuscripts add verses 9-20 but I find the starkness of Mark beautiful. This Gospel cuts through adornments to bear witness to the brutal wonder of the life of Jesus Christ. God is revealed not in comfort but in the immediate action of a Nazarene carpenter. Something different is going on. This is not a normal story. The world is turning upside down. 

Holy Scripture: Matthew

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A testament could also be called a testimony. The Newer testimony of God for us continues the story of the older testimony of God for us. This is what we have with the Gospels. Much as the Torah, the first five books of Moses are the preeminent texts of the older testimony of God to us through the Jewish people. The Gospels are the preeminent texts of the newer testimony. This is where Jesus is revealed.

The Gospel of Matthew, the Good News that Matthew shares with us begins with something rather jarring to modern eyes: a genealogy of Jesus Christ from Abraham and David up until his birth. Matthew serves as a bridge from the prophets to the apostles. There is not a pre-birth narrative in Matthew, though the book contains some infant narratives not found elsewhere. The wise men come in Matthew. As well, there is a flight to Egypt that is not present elsewhere.

The twentieth century has been filled with theories about authorship of the Gospels and the order in which they were written. A prominent theory posits a document called Q which contains sayings found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. Mark is universally regarded as the earliest Gospel with various scholars speculating over the order of the other Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the synoptic Gospels because they look at the life of Jesus in roughly comparable ways. The Gospels of John is held out as something different and is commonly thought to have been written later in the 1st Century.

Because it starts with the Genealogy, many scholars believe that Matthew was written for a Jewish audience. Like the rest of the New Testament, it is written in what is called Koiné Greek, or common Greek. That is, this is the Greek of the commoners not of the elites. If you remember the musical My Fair Lady, it is more the language of Eliza Doolittle than of Henry Higgins.

There is a power and directness in the original language. One of the struggles with translations like the King James that make the entire Bible sound beautiful and regal is that the original language is not regal at all. It is basic and direct. Some books (like Luke-Acts and Hebrews) use more formal language and syntax, but overall, the language of the newer testimony is not very high. It is to the point and to the point of the people. God is not here for the special but for us. God is with us no matter where we are.

Two of my guiding scriptures are found in the Gospel of Matthew: Matthew 5 and Matthew 25. These texts continue to challenge and reveal more of God’s love to me. As well, they convict me about how to serve and lead God’s people today. These are texts set apart. The more I return to them, the more I get out of them. The less I return to them, the less I really am myself.

Holy Scripture: Minor Prophets

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Like a lot of the language in the Bible, the minor in minor prophets does not refer to these books being less important than others. The minor prophets are not minor of importance just as the major prophets are not major in importance. The minor prophets are short and the major prophets are long. In Hebrew, they are referred to as the Twelve. They are Hosea, Amos, Micah, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. These books are not long but they are rather deep in meaning and quite jarring to read. The first book, Hosea, begins with God calling the prophet to marry a prostitute. Amos 1:-4 says “The Lord proclaims: For three crimes of Damacus, and for four, I won’t hold back the punishment, because they have harvested Gilead with sharp iron tools. I will send down fire on the house of Hazael…”

Jonah is by far the most often quoted and read of the minor prophets in the modern church, but I think that has as much to do with its narrative structure as it does with the content.

Neither major nor minor prophets are easy to jump into. And this, I feel, is important. The bible isn’t there to be easy. God didn’t give us the revelation of Holy Scripture to simplify things for us. Nor is every chapter and book a helpful list of aphorisms or fables.

What is important to remember, as well, is that there is not a different God in the Old Testament from the New Testament. There is not an angry God long ago and then a God of love later on. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the same of God of all creation is the same Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We always must remember not to judge Scripture too quickly. If something seems harsh or confusing, it probably is, at least, confusing to us in 2018. That does not mean that it is incomprehensible. Instead, with eyes on the God is who love in Jesus Christ.

The Christian Bible is structured differently than the Tanakh, or the Jewish scriptures. The Tankh ends with 2 Chronicles with Cyrus’s decree:

"This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: "'The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up, and may the LORD their God be with them.’" (2 Chron 36:23, NIV)

The Christian Scriptures end the old Testament with the Minor Prophets, specifically, with the book of Malachi. “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” (Mal 4:5-6, NIV).

The prophets lead to the Messiah. The speak in the midst of exile and pain and point to a hope found in God, who will come. They are not just history but point to the shattering of history in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is and was and is to come.

Holy Scripture: The Major Prophets

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Major prophets is not a name inherent to the text of the Bible. In fact, most names for every book come from later scholars and readers. The division of manor prophets and minor prophets is fairly intuitive, but would be clearer (though less noble) as wordy prophets and succinct prophets. There was never a time when Jeremiah’s mom and Micah’s mom were at a party and Jeremiah’s mom made a big deal, saying, “it is so wonderful that Micah is a prophet now, though, of course, my son, Jeremiah, is a major prophet. It’s not his fault there aren’t more major prophets…”

The major prophets consist of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Each text is enormous with a lot of textual issues. The Greek Septuagint version of Jeremiah is 1/8 shorter than the Hebrew Masoretic text. It gets more complicated because the Septuagint is from the 2nd Century BC while the Masoretic text is from about a thousand years later. All translation is challenging, but no bit of translation can make up for the difference. What is interesting is that when the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the last century, there were fragments of Jeremiah in Hebrew that matched the Septuagint more than the Masoretic text.

Is one version more right than another? Is the Hebrew more authentic than the Greek? There is one way that we can be tempted to rule in a certain direction. Martin Luther certainly was, but I personally think that it was because Luther’s Hebrew was much better than his Greek.

With Isaiah, most scholars divide the book into 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Isaiah due to the language being used and the topics under discussion. 

So there are textual challenges here. If our faith is week, they could be terminal. If our faith is in the integrity of the Bible rather than in the life-giving love of Jesus Christ and the revelation of God found in the Scriptures, it could be terminal. But to read the Bible as Holy Scripture is to see it all as God-breathed, to read God present here in ways beyond our control or mastery. God is present in the Septuagint and in the Masoretic. God is present in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Isaiah. God is present throughout the Prophets. 

The prophets have hard words for the people of Israel and hard words for us today. These books are not easy to read. One of my teachers used to call Isaiah the 5th Gospel. As Christians, Jesus is found throughout the prophets and it is not very hard to read him there. We should seek God not just in the simple and direct texts, but in the challenging and confusing ones. There is fruit to be had for our lives and our faith. 

Holy Scriptures: The Poetical Books

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What is a poem? This is not as simple a question as it seems. English language poetry used to be the kind of thing people read to each other after dinner but with the advent of radio and television and the internet, popular consumption of poetry has been radically limited. And yet, there is a modern distinction between poems and songs that would be irrational in the ancient world. The great epic poem, the Odyssey, was sung for hundreds of years before it was written down. Ancient poetry, as well, focused on different devices than English poetry. For instance, instead of emphasizing rhyme and meter, Hebrew poetry emphasizes parallelism. For instance, in Psalms 29:1 


Give unto the LORD, O ye mighty,
give unto the LORD glory and strength.


The last word of each line parallels each other. 

Another great poetic example is the entirety of Psalm 119. The longest chapter in the bible is an acrostic of the Hebrew Alphabet all the way through. 

The poetical books of the Bible are generally considered to be Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. I would be put Lamentations in there, but not everyone does. 

What is important is that these books were not written to relay information. They had a different purpose. In the early church, leaders would teach people first Ecclesiastes because the hard look at life was the most similar to what everyday people experienced. Then, they would teach the Proverbs showing the way of wisdom. And finally, after years, they would allow people to read the Song of Solomon. The idea being that you must be mature in your faith to understand the Song and not be moved to temptation by the fleshiness of it. 

We have in the Psalms, as well, the book mostly heavily cited by Jesus Christ in the Gospels. It is also referred to as the songbook of the church. In Psalm 12:6, it says “The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.” This the basis of the ancient Liturgy of the Hours. The 7 prayer times taken up by monks and nuns in the early church. My own prayer life is heavily shaped by this practice.

The poetry books of the Bible are still Holy Scripture but they do not cease to be poems. They are meant to be spoken and shared, to evoke and provoke, to guide and emote. If you read the Psalms like you read Genesis or Judges, you are missing the point. Yet God is found therein and God speaks to us all from the pages of these poems. 

Holy Scripture: The Histories

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History is a contentious term. It seems simple enough. If you think to your grade school studies, history was an account of what happened in the past. But whose account matters? This is not as simple a question as ut may seem.

As well, what happens that deserves to be recorded and what happens that deserves to be forgotten? James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses, is over 700 pages all taking place in one day. 

The first Western histories were written about wars and contained speeches that people did not say. These were not seen as false but incomplete.

Most histories followed in these same lines of the Greeks. They focused on battles and heroes and great men and great villains. 

This began to change in the mid-19th century when histories began to focus on data and attestations and accurate reflections of what happened.

It is not a coincidence that modern history rose hand in hand with modern photography. The existence of a photograph gives the viewer the possibility of accuracy. But anyone who has ever taken a picture knows that it is not entirely accurate. Choices are made. The camera is pointed in this direction and not that. The focus is on this spot and not that. 

All of this is important when we look at the histories of the bible. The entire bible is not history, but a number of books are: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. 

These books cover the history from the entry of the Hebrew people into the promised land, to the Babylonian captivity. And yet some of the history overlaps, especially 1 & 2 Chronicles and 1 & 2 Kings. The Kings are continuations of 1 & 2 Samuel, clearly following in the sam narrative trajectory. Chronicles covers similar periods but from a different perspective and with some foci. 

As well, there is one pretty glaring contradiction between 

1 Chronicles 21:1-2 (ESV)

 Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel. So David said to Joab and the commanders of the army, “Go, number Israel, from Beersheba to Dan, and bring me a report, that I may know their number.”

and 

2 Samuel 24:1 & 2 (ESV)

Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” So the king said to Joab, the commander of the army, who was with him, “Go through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, and number the people, that I may know the number of the people”

Now one way to read this is proof of the fallibility of Scripture another is to read Satan as adversary in this verse but as the personification of evil everywhere else in the Bible. 

Both of these readings I feed deeply insufficient. I don’t have a complete answer but my response would be to try to find out what is being said rather than look for verification of some prior assumption about historicity based on modern assumptions. 

When we enter the strange world of the Bible, we are not entering a textbook or a rule book but the space where God is revealed. To read it as a history textbook is to misread it. To read it as ancient irrelevant myths is to read it. How we read it as the word of God can only be learned and lived through the life of the people of God.

Holy Scripture: Torah

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The first five books of the Bible are called the Torah. Torah is a Hebrew word which means law or instruction or way. It is all of these words and more. The Torah is also called the Pentateuch or the Five books of Moses. Each of these refer to Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. 

These books are different. They are sacred. They are holy. They start before creation and follow the creation of everything with the fall and the flood and the calling of Abram and Sarai. From there, the story continues through Isaac and Jacob and the 12 brothers before moving to the slavery in Egypt, the calling of Moses, the Exodus, and the wanderings in the wilderness. Leviticus covers the law in detail while Numbers and Deuteronomy give two different accounts of the journey from Wilderness to the cusp of the Promised Land.

Torah is the holiest book of Judaism. Any other sacred writing has a secondary footing compared to the Torah. The Talmud, the holy set of enormous books that drives much of Jewish thought consists of commentaries upon commentaries upon the Torah. 

How are Christians supposed to understand the Torah?

This is not a simple question. A deeply complicating factor has been the history of anti-semitism in the church. This wicked distortion has read Paul as a self-hating Jew and read the law something wicked and strangling upon the people. In this poor view, law is contrasted with spirit, which is good and lovely.

In practice, it separates the God of the Old Testament from the God of the New Testament. One is a God of rules, another of Love. This is wrong. The scriptures which Jesus and all the New Testament authors speak of are Torah and the rest of the Old Testament. There is only one God. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is the God of Jesus Christ who is love. 

The law is not just telling people what to do but a gift from God about how to live. It has been distorted and can be, but everything can be distorted. The devil quotes scripture back to Jesus. Instead of dismissing the law, we must look at how Jesus uses the Torah, how we are taught that not one jot or tittle will fall away of the law. 

Instead of dismissing scriptures that we don’t understand, we should pray and seek God’s wisdom. We should remember what Paul says in Romans that the Gentiles are grafted onto the tribe of Abraham in Christ. Christians do not replace Jews. The New Testament does not replace the Old. If you read the Torah and are confused, I encourage you to write down questions, take it slow, talk to me or another you respect about what is going on. Jesus is revealed in Torah in amazing ways. It is not just a story or a law but a gift from God that continually enriches our lives.

Holy Scripture: Lectio Divina

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While the first use of the Bible was in corporate worship, early in the life of the church, certain Scriptures were used by the faithful for personal devotion. Without a printing press, the Scriptures had to be copied by hand and so full copies of all the books of the Bible bound together were rare. However, different verses and chapters were much easier to share from person to person, from community to community. As well, ancient practices of memorization were rather astounding so that a person could have Paul’s letter to the Galatians, for example, for a week and have the entire thing memorized. Then they would be able to share the text with another person 

Personal devotions did not look like they do today. There were not a lot of personal reflections on top of the scriptures. Instead, verses were prayed in detail in the practice that has now become known as lectio divina. Verses came to exist as a way to pray the scriptures. Paul did not write verses or chapters in his manuscripts. Chapter numbers and verse numbers came from later editors who wanted to distinguish what should be prayed corporately (the chapter) and what should be prayed personally (the verse). This is, of course, a rough simplification of a phenomenally complex process. 

Lectio divinameans holy reading in Latin. To practice lectio divinais to take a verse, like Galatians 3:27, for instance: “All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” (CEB). You read the verse. You read it again. You focus on one word the sticks out to you. Maybe clothed. What does it mean to clothe myself with Christ? You pray about it. The point is not comprehension nor getting to what Paul meant. The reading is holy. It is good. How is God speaking to you through it?

God offers the Bible through the community of the followers of Jesus Christ known as the church. The entire Bible is not handed to Paul as God hands Moses the tablets or as Jibreel hands Mohammed the Quran. This doesn’t make the Bible less valid but places its validity and truthfulness less as a stand-alone object and more on the community in which it is read and proclaimed, and the Triune God which is revealed therein. 

Lectio divina is only part of the gift of scripture but it is important. God offers himself to us. God offers the Word of God in the form of words on a page or words recited. What an amazing gift? 

Holy Scripture: The Lectionary

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Before the Bible was the Bible it was read in worship. Lectio means ‘I read’ in Latin and so the lectionary was the set of readings for a specific day. Some of the earliest manuscripts in existence are not full books of the bible but readings for specific days. 

The most used lectionary today is called the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). It was created in 1992 by the Consultation on Common Texts, an ecumenical group from a number of different denominations. 

The RCL consists of a set of readings for each Sunday and Holy Day of the year, beginning with the first Sunday of Advent. It is a three-year cycle so every three years, we return back to the same text again. Yet three years is a long time of daily life. A lot can happen in the world in three years. Karl Barth said that preachers need to have a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other because to preach is to make the Word of God alive for the people who hear you. 

Not every church uses the lectionary but a lot of them do. Most every Episcopal, Catholic, Lutheran church uses it. Most nondenominational and Baptist churches do not. I usually preach sermons in a series and most preachers who preach this way do not use the lectionary. The pick and choose the text to fit the topic. Another form of preaching is called expository preaching. This involves following a single book of the bible over a course of many weeks or many years. Next week’s reading will always immediately follow this week’s reading. I like to use the lectionary to base a sermon series around. I don’t like choosing the text. I prefer to receive the text and present it in a new light. If it were just up to me, I would probably avoid certain sections. The RCL itself avoids readings that were prominent in older lectionaries (tough I like to put them back in). It gets down to whether we see the Bible as a tool or a gift. Is it a tool to be used how I see fit, or a gift that can transform me and you and the entire world?

The point of the bible is not to be a set of rules or a code of living. This exists within the Bible, but it is not the whole thing. I am going to be doing a series of blog posts on the Bible, eventually going through the entire Bible, yet I am starting with the lectionary because what the Bible is, first of all, is a series of readings with which to worship the Triune God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are revealed herein. The Bible is never changing yet always new and fresh. We do not stand above it. We receive it as grace. We don’t use it as a sword to guilt or manipulate others, we receive it and share and love it and worship our Lord with it, for here Christ is revealed for all ages. 

UMC Glossary: The General Commission on Communication & the General Board of Church & Society

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With all of these different boards and commissions and conferences, it can sometimes seem confusing when different boards or conferences say different things. What is important to always remember is that the only group that can speak for the United Methodist Church is the General Conference. There is no press secretary for the UMC, though there is a General Commission for Communications (UMCom). This group is responsible for the website, any press releases, and for resources concerning communication for local church. They provide a lot of helpful graphic design, web hosting, and church communication plans. Nevertheless, whatever is produced by UMCom is not authoritative for the whole church. 

The same can be said for the General Board of Church & Society (GBCS). This is the group tasked with supporting and carrying out what is declared in the Social Principles and the UMC Book of Resolutions. GBCS has offices in Washington D.C. and they function, in large part, as the lobbyists of the United Methodist Church. Sometimes there will be a statement made by someone who works for GBCS that is presented by news organizations as “The UMC claims that...kittens are cuter than puppies”. Well, not exactly. But any claim made by an officer of GBCS is not the UMC speaking. It is a distinction that is easily lost among press concerns and the thirst for controversy. At a previous appointment, there was a comment made by an employee of GBCS that caused me to receive about 15 emails and two people leave the church. People can understandably be upset and in that specific incident, the employee in question was later asked to resign, but still, GBCS does not speak for the church but helps the church speak to the world. 

We should not be silent in what we believe, nor should we act like we are alone. One of the great benefits of being a part of a larger church is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel with communications, as well, we coordinate with other churches to make sure our voice is stronger when we do speak up about injustice in this world. 

 

UMC Glossary: Discipleship Ministries

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One of the benefits of being in a connectional church is the resourcing and support that goes with it. That is, there are thousands of churches like Berkeley across the country and the world with people trying to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Discipleship Ministries is the new name of what formerly was called the General Board of Discipleship. Their mission is explicitly as follows.

[to provide] leadership and resources in the areas of spiritual growth and development, devotional literature, curriculum resources, Christian education, evangelism, worship, stewardship, and ministry of the laity. Discipleship Ministries oversees The Upper Room.

The most popular aspect of Discipleship Ministries is the Upper Room, which produces a number of Spirituality resources for individuals around the world. The Upper Room daily devotional is translated into 33 languages around the world. As well, people from around the world are able to submit devotionals. 

The Upper Room also coordinates Walk to Emmaus gatherings around the country, which many members of Berkeley have been involved in in the past. Here is how they describe the event.

The walk to Emmaus is an experience of Christian spiritual renewal and formation that begins with a three-day short course in Christianity. It is an opportunity to meet Jesus Christ in a new way as God’s grace and love is revealed to you through other believers.

The Walk to Emmaus experience begins with the prayerful discernment and invitation from a sponsor.  After one accepts this invitation they complete an application.  The Emmaus leaders prayerfully consider each applicant and in God’s time, the person is invited to attend a three-day experience of New Testament Christianity as a lifestyle.

Following the three-day experience, participants are joined in small groups to support each other in their ongoing walk with Christ.

 Through the formational process of accountable discipleship in small groups and participation in the Emmaus community, each participant’s individual gifts and servant-leadership skills are developed for use in the local church and its mission.  Participants are encouraged to find ways to live out their individual call to discipleship in their home, church, and community. 

The objective of Emmaus is to inspire, challenge, and equip the local church members for Christian action in their homes, churches, communities and places of work.  Emmaus lifts up a way for our grace-filled lives to be lived and shared with others.

Discipleship Ministries also resources pastors and church leaders on worship preparation and many resources for worship. This helps with planning songs, seasons, even worship series. Resources for New Church development is also provided by Discipleship Ministries. That means that churches like Berkeley can use the same tools that church plants are using to try and reach the unchurched in our community. 

Discipleship Ministries is supported by our apportionment dollars. Without their ministry and support, the church would be quite adrift.