Keeping Calm and Carrying On!

 

I have been deeply immersed in working through the issues surrounding the story of the woman taken in adultery, the so-called Pericope Adulterae (or PA for short), preparing to study Jeremiah with our parish Bible Study group, and working on the other blog post that went up today.

Working on the PA and how it fit in to the narrative of John’s Gospel caused me to change my original outline of the commentary. I had been intending to put the PA translation and commentary into an appendix and just leave John 7.53 through John 8.11 out. I realised that just wouldn’t work, though, and it was quite a surprise in my thinking. If you’re interested in the PA and its place in John’s Gospel, you may be interested to check out the new section, Section 8, of the gospel text and commentary over on wrestlingwiththebible.ca

Section 9 will also take some time to put into shape for the website. There is still a subsection unfinished. So it will take a bit to get Section 9 up. After that, I will be moving into totally unexplored territory, beginning with the story of Lazarus. I will try to keep up with the blog while this is going on, so continue to watch this space and check out the translation and commentary!

Jeremiah: About Reading the Bible in and for Our Time

 

Now the Christmas season is past, and Epiphany is well underway, our Monday night Bible Study group has resumed. In the Fall we read the epistle to the Hebrews, so it was time for another Old Testament book. We’re starting the book of Jeremiah, an unhappy and somehow very modern prophet! Jeremiah did not want to be a prophet. This isn’t an unusual response to God’s call in the Bible: Moses was not enthusiastic about the call to lead God’s people out of Egypt, and Jonah’s reluctance is well known. In Jeremiah’s case, the reaction is exacerbated by two things: his youth and the negativity of the message he was called to give.

Like other “writing prophets”, Jeremiah’s prophecy is distinguished by its contingency. In a particular time and place and set of historical circumstances, the word of YHWH comes to Jeremiah to warn that if the people of YHWH persist in breaking the covenant, they must expect the consequences. A similar message had been given by many previous prophets and gone unheeded. Over time however the window for real change had grown narrower: not just individuals but their whole social order was corrupt. When this had happened in the northern kingdom of Israel, the northern prophets were unsuccessful in changing their society and its people. So YHWH used the Assyrian conquest of the north as an instrument, however blunt, to correct the people of the northern kingdom and warn the people of the southern kingdom yet again. By the time Jeremiah was called to preach to the sourthern kingdom of Judah, that kingdom and its people were in as bad a state as the Israelites had been, or worse.

The Judahites believed, partly because they generalised incorrectly from YHWH’s deliverance of Judah and Jerusalem in the time of King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah, partly because they mistakenly believed the covenant with David’s royal line was absolute and not contingent upon the king and people alike adhering to the Mosaic covenant, that YHWH would never abandon Jerusalem and the Temple. Jeremiah had to tell them they were wrong, and he had to do it in the face of a royal theology and a religious system dedicated to telling them they were right. Who did they want to hear? If you guessed Jeremiah, you are wrong!

In trying to discern what aspect(s) of Jeremiah’s message can be applied to their own time, to our own time, students of Jeremiah and preachers often fail to honour the particularity of Jeremiah’s message. They and we are looking for a prophetic message that speaks beyond Jeremiah’s time and place to offer guidance in our troubled world. In Jeremiah’s preaching, does YHWH have a message for the age of Brexit and Donald Trump, for a time when some find that the centre has ceased to hold (as Yeats wrote), for a world undergoing rapid transition and change?

We must be careful not to content ourselves with facile platitudes about speaking “the truth to power”. Because that was part of Jeremiah’s prophetic mission, we can’t conclude that every oracle in his prophecies can be interpreted as speaking what we conceive to be the truth to the powerful! As Christians we affirm that the prophets can be understood on two levels: that in addition to the message that they brought in their own circumstances to their own time, there is a message within that message that speaks to later times, later events, in the life of YHWH’s people (including YHWH’s people the church). But classic Israelite prophecy, both the early prophets like Elijah and Elisha and the later prophets like Amos or Jeremiah, grew out of a unique relationship between YHWH and YHWH’s people which came to an end when all hope of reviving the monarchy was lost after the return from Exile. The classic prophets were part of how YHWH continued to call men and women to speak YHWH’s word and will to the people even after they were ruled by hereditary monarchs instead of leaders like Moses and Joshua.

To appropriate Jeremiah’s message, that is, to properly make it our own, we must crack open that historical matrix and reveal the word of YHWH that is its core. No modern secular state or its rulers, be it the USA, the EU, the UK, or Israel itself, stands in the relationship to YHWH that the Israelite people and their kings did during the time of the judges and the monarchy (whether united under David and Solomon or divided into Israel and Judah). We must put to one side what of Jeremiah’s words belong to such unique particularities of his time and place. So, for example, YHWH is not saying to us that failure to obey the Sinai covenant will result in the loss of our special relationship with a particular land. Our covenantal relationship with YHWH as Christians is under a new covenant, which Jeremiah himself foresaw. But just as there was no “get out of jail free” card for rejecting the Sinai covenant, Jeremiah speaks across the centuries to tell us there is no “get out of jail free” card for rejecting the new covenant. Instead Jeremiah warns us that we too are bound to YHWH by the covenant of our baptism and that we must live out that covenant in our lives or suffer consequences.

How do we carry out the work of discernment that allows us to put the particularities of Jeremiah’s own time and place aside and find the word of YHWH that speaks to our time? That work must be based on respect for the biblical text and its history. And it must also be carried out with love for YHWH and YHWH’s people in every age. It may end with us between a rock and a hard place, as it did for Jeremiah himself. We may end up repeating his call to become the remnant of YHWH’s people that still heeds the covenant in a hostile world. Our work may end with us speaking, as Jeremiah did, hard truths that no one wants to hear — speaking not to power, but to all but the few who welcome the call to repent and welcome the reign of God.

Advent is Here!

And so Advent begins! One Church year has ended, and a new one has begun. We approach the turning of the seasons, when the winter solstice marks the shortest day and the light begins its slow return, and at the same time we approach the fulfilment of prophecy in the birth of the Messiah and see afar off the fulfilment of future hope in the Messiah’s return. Advent is a season of contemplation, a time for meditating on the light of candles in the Advent wreath and the coming of spiritual light they signify. And above all it is a time of waiting, waiting to relive again the miraculous birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem of Judaea, waiting for the fulfilment of the ages in the Messiah’s sudden return.

In our modern day and age, our ability to contemplate, to meditate, and above all to wait, in Advent is compromised by the commercial machine that Christmas has become. The meaning of this birth and this second advent have been all but drowned out. We must work to carve out time for Advent, and not allow it to be hurried into Christmas, and Christmas busy-ness. We must learn expectant waiting.

This is hard. Our culture doesn’t teach us how to wait. We want rapid responses, to speed things up. And when we do have to wait for something, we want distractions from the annoyance or the tedium of the wait. Out comes the smartphone, and texting or social media or the like takes us away from the wait. We have not had an opportunity to develop expectant waiting. Perhaps this is why our Advent texts are full of reminders to stay alert and pay attention. After all, Jesus says, if the householder had known when the burgular was coming, they wouldn’t have gone to sleep and been robbed! If we are distracting ourselves with our smartphones, we’re in no better a situation than that householder, and just as likely to be surprised when the Day comes ‘like a thief in the night’.

But I’ll bet that when we were kids, we all knew what expectant waiting was, though we didn’t call it that. It was waiting for Christmas or birthdays to come. As adults, perhaps parents, we can still capture something of that sense of expectation, waiting for a loved one to receive a particular gift. But what if we try to focus on an Advent theme such as I’ve referred to above, the coming of light into a dark place, the promised birth, the return of Jesus? Wouldn’t that be worth waiting for, and waiting for in the same way that we wait for a child’s Christmas? Wouldn’t you be willing to wait for such a coming?

Think about that and what it might be like. Who might you wait for it with? Your friends? Your church family? What would it be like to wait for it? That is the experience of expectant waiting, Advent waiting. It’s our task as individuals, but also the task of the whole community, the whole Church, to enter into Advent in the spirit of expectant waiting. As you light your Advent candles, in your church or in your home, look for the light of Christ, coming into our lives and into our world, and wait.

Speaking the Truth to Power

My niece came up recently with a very intriguing question, in the context of the current US political climate: “So is there or is there not a Biblical mandate to speak truth to power at this time? “

The immediate answer would appear to be to appeal to the example of the OT prophets. But the classical Hebrew prophets’ responsibility to speak the Word of God, the Dabar YHWH, was predicated on the special relationship between the Hebrew Monarchy with YHWH, to which there is no analogy in any modern state. No theocracies here! Yet we all now rightly condemn the ‘official’ church of Nazi Germany for assenting to its crimes and praise the stance of the Confessing Church in resisting Nazism.

That seems to me to offer a model for the Christian citizens of any country when they see a conflict arising between their obligations as Christians, eg, their duty to God and their neighbours, and their obligations as citizens of that country, eg, to obey the laws of the land. When that rubber hits the road, we are obliged to chose the higher citizenship, that we hold in the heavenly Jerusalem, over the lesser, that we hold in any earthly country. That perspective puts the responsibility of speaking the truth to power not upon prophets only, but on all Christians, as frightening as that may be.

The first step would be to resist in every possible way the imposition of laws that seemed to violate the Gospel imperatives of love of God and love of neighbour and to say clearly and openly why, as Christians, they opposed those laws. And the second would be civil disobedience. Either could be personally dangerous; it isn’t necessary to look at as extreme an example as that of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany to know that. When the Freedom Riders and others in the American South in the 1950s and 1960s worked for civil rights and voting rights for black Americans, they were threatened, attacked, and in some cases murdered by racist organisations like the Klan and racist individuals. I very well remember how my own mother, who felt very strongly about civil rights and voting rights, had to choose between her desire to go to Mississippi and her family obligations, because my father was so ill and I was too young to take over that responsibility. So she found less dangerous but equally necessary work to be done with the League of Women Voters right at home in San Antonio. That kind of quiet, behind-the-scenes work for Gospel imperatives is itself a form of speaking the truth to power. Actions are themselves a form of speech when injustice is at issue.

At this point in the US, the group which has triggered these fears has not yet taken office, passed any laws, or made any regulations or policies. So now is an opportunity for Christian groups and individuals to speak about the statements or potential appointments that have raised fears, explain why they seem to point in a direction that is contrary to Christian values, that is, contrary to the love of God and neighbour. Ideally such interventions would suggest alternatives that are in keeping with the two great Commandments.

But there can be no doubt that, as Christians, we have an obligation to speak the truth to power in whatever way comes to hand (or mouth) in our own time and circumstances.

John 6 Now Online!

 

I’ve been very quiet for a while, but it’s because I’ve been working hard to get the next section of the translation and commentary ready. Now I’m pleased to tell you that this section (which includes all of John 6 – the feeding of the 5,000, the bread of life discourse, and more) is now up at wrestlingwiththebible.ca

Please take a look; I hope you read and share it!

A New Post!

I’ve just added a new essay to the “Bible 101” section of the site. It’s about the Bible and same-sex relationships. This is an issue that I’ve been engaged with for decades, since the 1970s in fact. The essay is based on a presentation I made back in 2002 or 2003 at Redeemer when we were considering blessing same-sex unions. However I think it should still be of interest, especially here in the Anglican Church of Canada, where we are currently involved in a canonical process to amend the marriage canon to permit same-sex marriages. If you’re interested in the topic, please head over to wrestlingwiththebible.ca and take a look.

Thoughts about Baptism

On Sunday we had a baptism. It was a particularly moving one: parents not just bringing their baby to be baptised but seeking baptism themselves. And it set me to thinking about the sacrament of baptism. I wrote earlier on the Wrestling With the Bible site about the Eucharist, but I, like many others, am unfortunately prone to give baptism less thought. I suppose it is because it occurs only once in our lives, often when we are too young to remember it.

I was lucky enough to remember my baptism, not because I am a prodigy but because I was 11 years old when it happened. That year I transferred in the middle of Grade 6 into a Roman Catholic school, and it created a major conflict for my mother. On the one hand her Baptist upbringing made her want to wait for my baptism until I was old enough to consent with understanding. But an ancestral fear of Roman Catholicism made her interpret as sinister the surprise of the school registrar that I was not baptised. So before I could be whisked away to the school chapel and initiated into the fearful rites of papacy, I was whisked into the minister’s office at St Luke’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio for the most excruciatingly bad explanation of atonement, redemption, and baptism I have ever experienced. Even then, ignorant as I was, I knew it was bad. All I remember now is that the explanation involved a runaway dog and someone buying it a licence to get it out of the pound. Not one of the classic theories, I believe. So I ended up, dressed in a white dress and gloves like a good Southern girl, listening to my godfather teasing me by saying that if my mother was still a Baptist I’d be soaking wet by then. My mother retorted then, as she would many times over the years, that she had been baptised and the rest of us had only been christened. The scorn in her voice is impossible to reproduce.

The important thing about my baptism is that it stuck. Despite the bad explanation of what it all meant, despite the fact that the idea hadn’t come from me at all, it stuck. Especially because I knew from the very beginning in my heart of hearts that I had not fully accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour, I could not fully believe in Jesus’ saving work. So I lied. To God. To the big J.C., as Whoopi Goldberg’s character calls him in Sister Act. This goes to show that even bad attempts to make theology child-friendly can succeed on some level. I came away from that talk with the minister and that short afternoon service (no baptisms at Sunday services in those days) aware that if I believed in the God of Scripture I had a choice to make: did I consent to and enter a relationship with the triune God, was I adopted as a child of God with Jesus as my brother and his Father my heavenly Father? Was I in short washed in the Blood of the Lamb?

In time I came to feel not so much that I had lied as that by allowing myself to be baptised I had promised God on some level that I would indeed come round to belief some day. I had given a pledge that someday I would redeem (so to speak). In fact it was never that I didn’t want to believe as that I could not believe, I could not reconcile belief with the world as I knew it. Finally 7 years later I did come to belief, and was confirmed and renewed my baptismal vows in St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Austin, where I was a university student. During those 7 years I had absorbed all sorts of religious information and ideas and emotions from many sources, my family, my Roman Catholic school, my father’s Unitarian church and my mother’s Episcopal church — we were a religiously eclectic family. But always in the back of my mind, like the Hound of Heaven in Francis Thompson’s poem, I was pursued by the thought of my promise.

In fact what had happened was that I had correctly understood one of the most important things about the sacrament of baptism: it leaves an indelible mark upon the baptised. In the liturgy we use now at Church of the Redeemer, the priest says when s/he makes the sign of the cross with chrism on the forehead of the newly baptised after the ‘sprinkling’, “I sign you with the sign of the Cross and mark you as Christ’s own forever.” I sensed that there was a change in me that would inevitably produce effects in my life and in my heart. The definition of a sacrament in the old Anglican catechism was that a sacrament is the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality. In baptism, the sign is water, since water cleanses, and the spiritual reality is that the soul is cleansed from the power of Sin, which separated it from God. Now, because of baptism the new Christian can share in the familial relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit that John described in his Gospel; like the branches of the parable, our trust in God expressed through baptism joins us to the life-giving vine.

Equally importantly, our baptism joins us in fellowship not just with God but also with other men and women who have experienced the same washing from Sin and union with God. We become part of a community that has pledged to relate to God, God’s creation, and God’s people in a new way. That’s why the new practice of holding baptisms at main Sunday services is so important. It makes the new Christian(s) known to their community in a special way and makes the community known to them. Now we are all part of the body of Christ and of its particular manifestation in a particular time and place, and we are bound to uphold one another and help one another grow in love of God and each other. Baptism makes us all part of the same family. And just as in a family, some members may be scattered all over the country while others are together in the same city or even the same dwelling, some members of our church family live and worship far away while others join with us in one particular parish, in my case, the Church of the Redeemer.

The experience of baptism, if we commit ourselves to its promises and work with one another to grow in trust and love toward God and our neighbour, is a life-changing one. And it can take years for the full experience to come to fruition. My baptism didn’t begin to bear any visible fruit for 7 years, and then suddenly my whole life was different and has never been the same.

Another Complete Section!

Today I uploaded the translation and commentary for chapter 5 of John’s Gospel, the story of the healing at the pool of Bethesda and the subsequent argument between Jesus and his critics. Please visit wrestlingwiththebible.ca to study this section. You can send me reactions through the blog comments or direct by e-mail to biblewrestler@wrestlingwiththebible.ca.

In my outline of the text, this comprises Section 6 of the text and comments: sections 7-9 are waiting for coding and uploading, and then I am back to translating and commenting with the story of Lazarus.

Another blog post is coming soon: the topic is baptism.

Reconciliation vs Judgement?

 

A couple of weeks ago I led a Bible Study forum at Redeemer that focussed on the story of Joseph, his brothers, and the famine in Egypt. Sometimes I have had difficulty with getting discussion going in these forums, but that night people seemed engaged by the topics and eager to discuss them. Something that really pleased me was that participants had noticed one of the same features that I had in the story: the extent to which the story is a tale of reconciliation among the brothers.

It seems especially important to me that the last major event before the Israelites go down into Egypt and, in the end, into the darkness of slavery and loss is this act of reconciliation among brothers. Too often we hear discussions of the ministry of reconciliation in the New Testament framed as though the very concept of reconciliation – whether with God or with our neighbours – is unique to the New Testament and not visible in the First Testament.

This is part of an oversimplification, almost caricature, of the Bible that depicts the First Testament as legalistic, presided over by a God of wrath and judgement, and the New Testament as teaching about love, presided over by a God of mercy and compassion. On the contrary, it’s very easy to find moving examples of love and mercy in the First Testament and quite frightening texts about judgement and wrath in the New Testament. It’s not just the story of Joseph and his brothers. The Hebrew Bible also contains Ps 23 or prophetic texts such as the final chapter of Hosea (in which YHWH lovingly assures YHWH’s covenant people of forgiveness) or Isaiah 40 (which begins with the beautiful “Comfort, O comfort you, my people”), both full of tenderness and compassion. Looking at the Gospels alone, we can easily find texts such as the wrath and judgement of the Little Apocalypse in Mark 13 (and in the Matthew and Luke parallels as well). As well, in such texts as Matthew 5.17-20 (where Jesus disavows that he has come to abolish the Law and the Prophets), and Luke 16.19-31 (the story of the rich man and Lazarus, in which the law and the prophets are seen to be the teachers of compassion), we can see that in the New Testament itself, the Hebrew Bible is presented in a very positive light, as exactly the source of the love and compassion that is characteristic of Jesus and his Father.

The proper conclusion to draw would seem to be that both Testaments teach us about love and compassion, about wrath and judgement. But as we read and study the Bible ever more deeply we learn that in the heart of God love and compassion are always stronger than wrath and judgement. Hence Jesus’ comparison between earthly parents and his heavenly Father: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7.9-11).

Why has this become such a wide-spread oversimplification when it is so easy to refute? Partly, I think, because it is an easy fall-back. In sermons and Bible studies we seize on to this oversimplification because it seems to present the difference between the First Testament and the New Testament in a nutshell. But instead it perpetuates a false way of thinking about the Bible and the Old and New Covenants and suggests thereby that one (the New) is superior to the other. It is a short step from teaching the superiority of one covenant to the other to teaching that the inferior one has been or should be replaced.

That is a very serious misunderstanding of the teaching of the New Testament. Jesus himself taught in the passage from the Sermon on the Mount to which I referred before (Matthew 5.17-20) that not one letter or diacritical mark would disappear from the Law until all was accomplished. Rather, he said that someone who broke one of the commandments or taught others to do the same would be called least in the kingdom of heaven. Now, we know there are some conflicts in the tradition about observance of the dietary laws and the sabbath in particular, but even taking that into account, Jesus clearly speaks of the Law with the greatest respect. The new covenant that he established was a fulfilment of the prophecy of Jer 31.31-4, so it derived its power and validity by its links with the Mosaic covenant and Israel’s covenant God.

All has not yet been accomplished: living in a time of suspense between the Resurrection and Ascension and the Second Coming, we wait in the tension between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ of which the New Testament writers are so conscious. What will happen when the fulfilment of which Jesus spoke has taken place we don’t now know, but in this in-between time we can be sure from Jesus’ words and actions that both the Old and New Covenants are valid. So we should be careful not to speak or act in ways that belittle either of God’s covenants or God’s covenant peoples.

Jesus’ Return to Cana

With the addition of this section of translation and commentary, covering Jn 4.4.46b-5.1 (a short section!), the first 5 sections of “Come and See”(covering 4 chapters of John’s Gospel) are now available at wrestlingwiththebible.ca. You can also read and study Sec 1 The Prologue (Jn 1.1-18); Sec 2 Witness and Call (Jn 1.19-51); Sec 3 New Beginnings (Jn 2.1-3.36); and Sec 4 Jesus in Samaria: The Living Water (Jn 4.1-42) I still have 4 more sections to add: Jesus and the Sabbath, Jesus and the Passover, Jesus at Tabernacles, and Deepening Conflict. This will take us to the end of chapter 10 of the Gospel. Lots of coding in my future!

I hope you find this resource (and the others on the website) useful. If so, please share the URL with others. And I would love some feedback! You can email me at biblewrestler@wrestlingwiththebible.ca or leave comments on any blog post.