Lectionary Reflection for the First Day After Pentecost: Trinity Sunday

This excerpt comes from Psalms 1-50 (BTCB) by Ellen Charry, commenting on Psalm 8:1:

The two clauses of 8:2 sit uneasily together. The first is one of the most arresting phrases in scripture—“You established strength from the cries of babies and nursing infants”—after which the poet rushes to a shockingly different context—“for the sake of your enemies to make an end of the enemy and avenger.” How are they related? Early Christian and Jewish commentators labored over this verse, especially its insistence that God established his might (ʿōz) through the weakest and most dependent of creatures, human infants, who yet mature to become its most powerful.

Here I follow the path begun by Augustine and Calvin to interpret this challenging verse. A reasonable translation would read these clauses in reverse order: “For the sake of putting an end to enemy and avenger you established strength in the cries of the defenseless and suckling infants.” Without the parallelism, this translation offers an arresting “take” on the consequences of observing one scene for a particular set of onlookers. The cries of the weak and helpless are so poignant and compelling that they pierce the heart of those who might summarily take advantage of them. Their very existence proclaims the majesty of God, and that is what inhibits those who would harm them.

Enemies of the helpless are, after all, enemies of God. Not only the vastness of heaven and earth but also the weakness of God’s children testify to the majestic power of the Creator, and that testimony, through their cries, converts God’s enemies into precisely the Christians Augustine seeks. Calvin is correct; helpless infants can bring down the enemies of God, that is, transform them until they cease being vengeful against the weak. Psalm 8:2 is thus a piercing elaboration of 8:1, which claims that earth and sky tell the splendor of God.

 

©2015 by Ellen T. Charry. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Day of Pentecost

Cover ArtThis excerpt comes from Acts (BTCB) by Jaroslav Pelikan, commenting on Acts 2:1:

Although, as the defenders of orthodoxy had to acknowledge, there were not early liturgical prayers addressed to the Holy Spirit (→5:3–4) as there were to the Son of God (7:59), so that they could not use such prayers as proof texts for the deity of the Spirit (→4:24–30)—the great exception being the Gloria Patri, with variants in the prepositions that became themselves the occasion of controversy—the definitive formulation of the dogma of the Holy Trinity by the First Council of Constantinople in 381 eventually gave rise to such prayers to the Holy Spirit. Before the formal opening of the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom the priest prays to the “Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who art everywhere and fillest all things”; and in the Latin West, probably in the ninth century, there arose this prayer for the fullness that the Holy Spirit grants:

Veni, Creator Spiritus, Come, Holy Ghost, Creator blest,

mentes tuorum visita, Vouchsafe within our souls to rest.

imple superna gratia, Come with thy power and heavenly aid,

quae tu creasti, pectora. And fill the hearts which thou hast made.

It is sung not only at Pentecost, but for ordinations and for the opening of synods and church councils—and any church council that sings it at its opening must be prepared to deal with the possible consequences! It is also the text for the first movement of Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony.

The sneer “they are filled with new wine” (2:13) and Peter’s dismissive and even humorous (→12:13–16) response to this canard, “These men are not drunk, as you suppose, it being only the third hour of the day” (2:15 TPR), do call to mind the contrast drawn by Paul between the right and the wrong way of being filled: “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” (Eph. 5:18–19). It is right to want to be “filled” with something, and the drunkard quite properly recognizes that human nature stands in need of some power that will take it out of itself (as alcohol and drugs do). But this need also includes the requirement that such fullness will in the process not corrupt and destroy it (as alcohol also does), but fulfill it by loosening the tongue and making it sing—but “to the Lord.” As Cyril of Jerusalem paraphrased Peter’s words here, “They are drunken, with a sober drunkenness, deadly to sin and life-giving to the heart, a drunkenness contrary to that of the body; for this last causes forgetfulness even of what was known, but that bestows the knowledge even of what was not known.” This paradox was to become a theme especially in the literature of Christian mysticism in both East and West.

 

©2005 by Jaroslav Pelikan. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

This excerpt comes from Revelation (BTCB) by Joseph L. Mangina, commenting on Revelation 22:17:

The cry of “come!” is threefold. The first utterance is that of the bride, anticipatorily embodied in the worshiping assembly, crying out in expectation of the bridegroom’s coming. The terrors and beauties disclosed in John’s visions serve only to heighten longing for the arrival of that day. The second utterance is that of the individual worshiper, who is invited to speak with the bride, and indeed as the bride. No one who has heard the Apocalypse and is willing to “keep the words of the prophecy” should be excluded from the feast. To invert Bonhoeffer’s famous saying, we could say that while grace is not cheap it is free—as free as the waters of life, which flow from the throne of God and the Lamb to anyone who is thirsty. This third member in the triad does not bid the listener to say “come!” but simply to come, to slake one’s thirst at the waters that cannot be bought. Revelation is a book that draws many sorts of boundaries: between the church and the world, between the holy and the unholy, between the life appropriate to God’s people and the life of Babylon. The urgent call to holiness of life is reiterated in these closing verses (22:11, 14–15). Yet like the gates of the city, the doors of the church are or should be fundamentally open. All are invited not to “come as they are,” but to come as the bride. John would have been bemused at the notion that seriousness about witness and seriousness about Christian holiness are somehow in competition. In fact, they demand each other.

©2010 by Joseph L. Mangina. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

This excerpt comes from Revelation (BTCB) by Joseph L. Mangina, commenting on Revelation 21:22-24:

The vision reaches its surprising climax in John’s report of something he does not see, namely, a temple. The city has no need of a temple, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” Their radiance is such that even the illumination provided by sun and stars is superfluous. Special sacraments are no longer necessary, because in the new eon “all truth will be openly and perfectly revealed” (Aquinas, Summa theologiae 3.61.4 §1). The life of the city will not point to God, it will be in God. But John’s remark that “[the city’s] lamp is the Lamb” permits us to say something St. Thomas does not: in the age to come, the vision of God will be mediated through the risen, glorified flesh of Jesus. The heavenly city is not the end of the church, for the church is simply God’s people. It is, however, the end of religion, the demarcation of sacred space from profane space and liturgical time from ordinary time, for the purpose of making present the absent god.

But perhaps the most unexpected thing of all in the new Jerusalem comes in the lines that follow: “By [the city’s] light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.”

How did these kings get here? Are these the same kings who consorted with Babylon and participated in the beast’s warfare against the Lamb? While the kings in the present passage do not seem to be inhabitants of the city, they are evidently welcome in it. This scene, in fact, represents the eschatological fulfillment of Christ’s identity as “the ruler of kings on earth” (1:5). The Messiah rules not only over his people Israel, but over the goyim. Christ’s exercise of power radically differs from that of the earthly city, as Bernd Wannenwetsch comments: “Rome/Babylon’s wealth was extorted from all the world, in the New City the kings of the earth are said to bring their glory into it—of their own free will.”

©2010 by Joseph L. Mangina. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

This excerpt comes from Psalms 1-50 (BTCB) by Ellen Charry, commenting on Psalm 23:

Just as Ps. 8 is an oasis amid laments that focuses our attention on the glorious creation, so Ps. 23 is another oasis focusing our attention on the paths of righteousness that are the goodness and grace of God, which cannot be broken through by adversity.

This perspective casts further light on the ambiguous preposition neged of 23:5. If the oil and wine of the table prepared is the righteous path of life that God lays down for the sake of his name, neged truly means “against”

the adversary of fear—that is, against the fear of losing one’s moral and spiritual grounding in the face of adversity. This is the fear that is stilled by the care-taking shepherd. The “sheep” lack nothing (23:1) because God supplies the need that truly enables them to dwell in his house throughout their lives.

The tracks for a morally strong life are secure. This reading carries us back to Ps. 1 that links happiness to God’s teaching. Considered in light of Ps. 23, that happiness is the freedom from the fear that one might become one of the evil ones whose deeds and malevolent aspirations haunt the lament psalms.

 

©2015 by Ellen T. Charry. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Third Sunday of Easter

This excerpt comes from Psalms 1-50 (BTCB) by Ellen Charry, commenting on Psalm 30:

The theology and the pedagogy of this psalm are different depending on how one fills in the identity and circumstance of the complainant and of those rejoicing. This common observation is one of the great advantages of the Psalter. Its persistent ambiguity invites a wide variety of applications to people in all manner of circumstance, as the various commentators recognize.

The general point of the poem combats the experience of abandonment seen in Pss. 13 and 22 by proposing that God pays attention and is compassionate to those who cry for help and are faithful. The theodicy question is never far from those who suffer. The psalmist celebrates physical and spiritual resurrection in which those whose time of trial has passed look back on their misery to see God’s steady hand at work in their lives.

To enjoy God’s eventual favor, however, one must be patient—a lesson that pertains not only to individuals but also to whole communities, as the Jewish commentators’ association of this psalm with the rescue of the Jewish people in the book of Esther makes clear. A Christian version of corporate rescue appears in Samuel John Stone’s hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation,” which employs Ps. 30:5b in the third stanza:

Though with a scornful wonder men see her sore oppressed,

By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed;

Yet saints their watch are keeping, their cry goes up, “How long?”

And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.

Embedded deep in this poem is a report of the kind of spiritual maturation that Calvin seeks for his readers. In my reordered version of the poem, the speaker starts out as one who thinks he will never stumble, only to uncover his own weakness when he does. Perhaps from the perspective of Christian piety, the turning point is when the speaker realizes that he cannot pull himself out of the pit into which he has fallen and that only divine mercy can pull him out.

 

©2015 by Ellen T. Charry. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Second Sunday of Easter

This excerpt comes from Revelation (BTCB) by Joseph L. Mangina, commenting on Revelation 1:4-8:

The words “grace . . . and peace” begin this process. Grace and peace! These are words we do not often associate with the Apocalypse. Many would say that there is more divine wrath than divine mercy here, more violence and bloodshed than peace. Nevertheless, I think we need to take John at his word. Even if the usage is a borrowing from the conventions of early Christian letterwriting, it says something important.

John does not write with hostile intentions toward the churches. He is but an ambassador of the one who is the source of all grace and peace and who—in another performative utterance—bestows these gifts upon the listener. Grace and peace are the very content of this apocalyptic irruption into our world.

This ultimate sender of the letter is now named. In other New Testament letters, such as Paul’s, the formula “grace and peace” would be followed by “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” These expected words do not appear, however. Instead, John offers greetings:

from him who is and who was and who is to come,

and from the seven spirits who are before his throne,

and from Jesus Christ

the faithful11 witness,

the firstborn of the dead,

and the ruler of kings on earth. (1:4–5)

A moment ago we were hearing a letter being read aloud, John offering greetings to the churches. We now learn that John is only penultimately the source of this communication. The real source of the letter is God. Even this turns out to be more complicated than we might think, for alongside God we also hear of Jesus and of the mysterious “seven spirits.” Each of these three elements, in turn, is internally complex.

The Father is named with reference to his relation to present, past, and future; Jesus is called witness, firstborn, and ruler of kings; and the spirits are seven rather than simply one. John has not simply expanded the Pauline greeting, he has deepened and enriched it in puzzling ways. The first thing we notice is a proliferation of threes. Beyond the ones just cited, the ascription of Christ shifts into a doxology (1:5b) that yields three further sets of three:

him who loves us

has freed us from our sins by his blood

has made us a kingdom

he is coming with the clouds

every eye will see him

all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him

All this is rhetorically powerful. The number three is a universal element in myth and folklore. In fairly tales there are always three sons, three trials, three rings of power. But there is more than simply folklore going on here. As the doxological language and the liturgical “amen” (1:6–7) suggest, we find ourselves in the atmosphere of early Christian worship, an eschatological atmosphere permeated by a longing for Christ’s future coming. At the heart of Christian worship is the God who is one, but one by being three—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Worship is the primordial home of the Christian confession of God as Trinity.

As Robert Jenson remarks, the “habit of trinitarian naming is universal through the life of the church. How far back it goes we cannot make out. . . . It appears to have been an immediate reflex of believers’ experience of God. It is in liturgy, when we do not talk about God but to and for him, that we need and use his name.”

©2010 by Joseph L. Mangina. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for Palm Sunday

This excerpt comes from Psalms 1-50 (BTCB) by Ellen Charry, commenting on Psalm 31:14-18:

Of all the commentators, Theodoret alone recognizes the distinction the psalmist makes between sin and impiety. The speaker, while admitting his sin, still counts himself among the faithful. The belief that sin cannot efface faithfulness is the basis for the speaker’s appeal:

Then he shows the form of the redemption: Lord, let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your mercy [31:16]: when you make your appearance, gloom is immediately lifted. Lord, let me not be confounded, because I called upon you. Let the ungodly be put to shame and cast down to Hades [31:16–17]. From this we learn that the sin is very different from impiety; hence the mighty David beseeches that he be freed from the shame caused by the sin, but those addicted to impiety be sent in shame to their death.

Although all are sinners, it may be that not all sinners put themselves in God’s hands, feeling shame before God. Those who look for relief may seek release not from divine disapproval but from the public shame that accrues from public misbehavior.

 

 

©2015 by Ellen T. Charry. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

This excerpt comes from Psalms 1-50 (BTCB) by Ellen Charry, commenting on Psalm 32:

The repeated opening word of the first two verses of this psalm carries the reader back to the first word of the Psalter and forward to the Matthean Beatitudes. One who believes that one’s sins are not held against one is truly blessed by God’s grace. This thought is the heart of Luther’s doctrine of justification by grace through faith. However, it is also quite close to Luther’s doctrine of imputed righteousness, which might be better called a doctrine of imputed sinlessness when one considers the phrase, “blessed is the person whose sin (ʿāwn) God does not think about.” God ignores it.

The idea is not that God himself has paid what one owes, as Anselm of Canterbury would formulate atonement soteriology for the West at the end of the eleventh century; Psalm 32:1–2 makes no mention of a price needing to be paid.  Still, the opening verses explain forgiveness as having one’s sins covered (ksûy), with the parallel in 32:2 being that sins are ignored by God.

In his core text on justification, Paul quotes Ps. 32:1–2 in Rom. 4:7–8 to advance the position that uncircumcised gentile men may benefit from the forgiveness the psalm promises “apart from works [of the law],” that is, without having to undergo surgery or even symbolic circumcision. The move is to encourage gentiles to become children of Abraham whose righteousness is reckoned to them, just as “David” speaks of having received it and offered it to the whole people of God.

Certainly the point is central to Luther, who wrote on it voluminously. In his 1521 comment on Ps. 32 he writes, “Here David says, in plain words, that all the saints are, and still remain sinners; and that they are justified and sanctified in no other way than this;—God of his free mercy, for Christ’s sake, is pleased not to impute their sins unto them, nor to judge them, but, to forget them.” Calvin cites 32:1–2 (often together with Paul’s use of them in Rom. 4) numerous times in his Institutes, in support of the Protestant doctrine of justification.

It may be noteworthy that Theodore of Mopsuestia, a Greek-speaking contemporary of Augustine, presents a rather “Protestant” view of these verses a millennium before the Protestant Reformation. In Ps. 32, David “teaches everyone, even if they are righteous, that they ought not trust in the merit of their actions nor attribute to themselves any good work. Rather, whatever good work they perform they should ascribe to divine grace and confess that God’s mercy is necessary for them, and should believe themselves blessed if they deserve to have God well disposed toward them.”

©2015 by Ellen T. Charry. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

This Just in: The Future of Our Faith

Cover ArtYounger Christians are leaving the church in droves, frustrated and disillusioned by the track record of American Christianity. Older Christians, who still lead most churches, are concerned about this trend. But the generations don’t see eye to eye on many things. There is a lot of talking and writing about the other instead of working to build bridges between generations so they can learn from each other.

In The Future of Our Faith, two evangelical leaders forty years apart in age discuss some of the biggest issues challenging Christianity today and into the future. The authors model and cultivate an intentional, charitable, and much-needed intergenerational dialogue as they discuss key issues that will define the church’s faithfulness in the next generation. Each chapter includes sidebar reflections from notable Christian leaders, including Christena Cleveland, Jim Daly, Jason Fileta, Christopher A. Hall, Jo Anne Lyon, Gabriel Salguero, Carol and Peter Schreck, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Jenny Yang. The book also includes individual and small group study questions.

Christians who care about the future of American Christianity will value this work, as will pastors, chaplains, and youth ministers who work with college and young adult ministries. It will also be useful in practical ministry classes.

 

Ronald J. SiderRonald J. Sider (PhD, Yale University) is the founder and president emeritus of Evangelicals for Social Action and senior distinguished professor of theology, holistic ministry, and public policy at Palmer Theological Seminary at Eastern University in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania.

Ben LoweBen Lowe is actively engaged on a number of justice issues and is the founding spokesperson of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. A graduate of Wheaton College, he has spoken on over fifty college campuses and is the author of Green Revolution and Doing Good without Giving Up. Visit his website at benlowe.net.

 

 

Praise for: The Future of Our Faith

The Future of Our Faith is simultaneously an invitation to accept the church as it is and to dream of the church as it could be.”—Shane Claiborne, author and activist

“I have long looked to Ron Sider for his wise counsel, and I increasingly look to Ben Lowe for his leadership on issues of faith and justice. At this critical time in the church’s history, I am grateful for their new book….An invitation and a challenge for us to partner across generations for the sake of the kingdom.”—Noel Castellanos, CEO and president, Christian Community Development Association (CCDA)

“A blessing to the church today and a model for the church to come.”—Karen Swallow Prior, author of Booked and Fierce Convictions

“If you care about the future of Christian witness in a post-Christian America, you’ll read The Future of Our Faith.”—Katelyn Beaty, managing editor, Christianity Today

The Future of Our Faith is a multifaceted examination of the hazards and hopes of our time across generational lines. Ron Sider and Ben Lowe are two of the best Christian thinkers I know. I can’t imagine a more dynamic duo to write a book like this.”—Jonathan Merritt, author of Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined

“While I don’t agree with everything in this book, the conversation here is thought-provoking and a great help for Christians seeking to analyze the world around us. The discussion between Ron Sider and Ben Lowe ought to remind us of what we are often sadly lacking in the evangelical church—cross-generational connection. I pray this book sparks many more conversations between older and younger Christians about the future of our faith.”—Russell Moore, president, Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission