Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Jude -- Introduction and commentary

Jude has been attributed to Jude (Judas), younger brother of Jesus and James from earliest times. He writes as an old man late in the first century. The purpose of the letter is to refute some false teaching that has arisen in churches under his care. Jude parallels 2 Peter and quotes from at least two extra canonical sources (The Assumption of Moses and The Book of Enoch.) This is a cyclical letter and was intended to be read in many churches. Key Learning: Right doctrine leads to right living.

 The author does not identify the actual "false teaching" but again, like 2 Peter we can surmise the heart of the difficulty. People have come saying that what we do with our bodies has no consequences because the flesh is not eternal and will not go on to glory anyway. This teaching rises out of Gnosticism. The Gnostics taught a dualistic understanding of the universe. There is good and there is evil and they are relatively equal powers. This was later refined to teach that all matter (all material things) are evil and that only the Mind or Spirit is good. They taught, consequently, that Jesus, the Son of God, could never have stooped to become flesh and blood for to do so was to put on evil. Therefore, they taught, he only "appeared" to be a human. If the flesh is of no consequence than whatever I do -- indulge in whatever kind of orgy I choose -- has no consequence because only the mind and spirit matter. This teaching exists today in the teachings of Christian Science.

This is in contrast to a core Christian doctrine called the Incarnation. The Bible tells us that God created the material world and called it "good" (see Genesis 1 and 2). We know from the Gospels that God became flesh and dwelt among us -- that Jesus was God with skin on. Matter and material things are not inherently evil. I am a created being -- and uniquely created. God made the animals to be pure flesh. God made the angels to be pure spirit. God made me to be both at the same time -- flesh and spirit united in one body. What I do with my body has a direct impact on my spiritual side -- what I do with my spirit also has an impact on my flesh. They cannot be separated -- until we pass through death to eternity.

2 Peter 3

The Thessalonian letters address the same issues as chapter 3. Scoffers at the Church has taken notice that the church has been saying (at the time of 2 Peter's writing) for 75 years that Jesus is coming back soon. After 75 years (which would seem a long time rather than soon from a human perspective) it would seem that perhaps he is not coming (see 3&4).  The author's response is that the concept of "soon" and "time" are irrelevant to the Eternal One. One day is a thousand years and a thousand years are as a day. I am going to preach on 9/2 about what follows here -- the Lord is not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance (9). I believe that. It is not God's will or intent that any human being should die outside of the purpose for which we were created. It is not God's will that any of us should live or die outside of God's love and grace and mercy and life! The implication, and an obvious one, is that, even so, some do. In 2 Peter's understanding the reason for Jesus delayed return is to give more people time to come to know and follow Jesus.

The author then reminds us that the return of Christ will be sudden (like a thief) and when its over its over. He ends the letter with a reminder to keep the faith and to hang on to what you have come to believe.

2 Peter 2

Now to the heart of the letter. There were multiple battle grounds for the early Church. The church fought persecution from the Roman Empire; the early church fought slander and malice from proponents of other religions; the church had to fight to keep its story straight and its theology in line with what Jesus actually taught and the Apostles actually passed down. There were many other philosophical ideas that fought against Christian orthodoxy. Chapter 2 is a argument against "false prophets". In condemning the false prophets the author resorts to some interesting examples. It is noted that angels were not spared when they rebelled; the ancient world, in Noah's time, was not spared; Sodom and Gomorrah were not spared; and the few that were spared were those who managed to hang on and be faithful. The author then compares the false prophets to Balaam (from Numbers).

The issues here were pretty common and 2 Peter alludes to a few of them. It was being taught that because Grace covers all sin we are free to do what we want and to sin with impunity. This argument was leveled against St. Paul as well. It was being taught that Jesus never really came in the flesh (he only appeared to be a human being). It was being taught that Jesus was not really the Son of God and that his powers were only temporary. As is true in any era a certain percentage of people are led astray by novelty, by ideas that sound "more interesting" and by things that tickle the ears and the imagination. We are no different. Keeping our hearts and minds on Christian orthodoxy (while listening to the voices on the edges and those who are pushing the boundaries) is a great, but important challenge in our world today.

The warning for beginning the journey and turning back or turning to something else is pretty harsh. The author says "For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than, after knowing it, to turn back form the holy commandment that was passed down to them (21)."

2 Peter 1

The letter begins with a description of our call to follow Jesus (3-15). Notice we are given "great promises" that allow us to "escape from the corruption of the world (4)". What intrigues me is that what follows requires choice and effort on my part. He even uses the phrase "For this very reason, yo must make every effort . . . (5)". This is the great paradox of the Christian journey. God has given us the gift of salvation, of new life, of eternal life, and of abundant life . . . it is a gift, it is not earned or deserved. But this gift is just the beginning of the journey. The goal of the journey is to become like Jesus and that requires constant choice and effort on our parts. The point of the journey is to be transformed -- remade in the image and likeness of Christ. It requires constant reminders (12). This is why reciting prayers like the Lord's Prayer or the creeds is an important part of our life in faith. Reciting the creed reminds us of the things in which we have come to trust and believe -- and, frankly, we need to be reminded.

The second half of chapter 1 (16ff) is a report of the experience Peter had on the mount of transfiguration (see Mathew 17). The author is reminding his readers that he did not just make this stuff up, but, instead, was there, saw the glory, heard the voice of God -- he actually knew Jesus. Somehow that changes things.

2 Peter Introduction

This is the introduction to 2 Peter I wrote for my Ugandan friends:

2 Peter is written in the form of Peter’s last will and testament and is a passionate defense of orthodox Christian doctrine. This letter is very different from 1 Peter in tone, style, and thematic elements and is generally believed not to have been written by Simon Peter, brother of Andrew. The author could have been a disciple of Peter’s. It was written late in the first or even early in the second century. In defense of Peter’s authorship is its place in the canon and that early church tradition accepted Peter as the author. It is difficult to determine where and to whom the letter was written. Key Learning: When Jesus returns, the world as we have known it is over.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

1 Peter 5

1 Peter concludes with encouragement for "Elders". The role that is described here would be that of the Pastoral leader of a congregation. In the United Methodist tradition we who are called, trained and ordained to the pastoral office are called Elders -- probably because of this and other New Testament passages. The Elders are to tend to the flock of God that is in our charge -- imagine what all of that means. It means teaching and preaching, it means organizing, it means comforting the afflicted and it probably also means afflicting the comforted. It is a caring role and it is also a prophetic role. We must do this with humility and to fully trust in God. Verse 7 is popular and I just noticed, for the first time, that it is written in the context of giving the Elders directions: "Cast all you anxiety on him, because he cares for you." It is good that the worries, fears, anxieties and struggles of the congregation are not mine to carry -- I cast them all on God as God cares for me.

The letter concludes, as do most of the New Testament epistles with a blessing and a greeting. Notice that the sister church is said to be in Babylon (5:13). Babylon is the ancient evil of Old Testament times and has long been destroyed. The early Church (and many Jewish authors during this time as well) used the title "Babylon" to describe any evil empire or government that was oppressive. Since the Christian movement is being persecuted by the Roman Empire at this point in history it is pretty clear that the author means Rome. Your sister Church in Rome sends you greetings. It is a way to for the author to say where he is without really saying where he is. Is Babylon the city of Rome or is it the entire empire?

Monday, August 27, 2012

1 Peter 4

Chapter 4 addresses two issues: The first is a reflection on the transformed life. The point here is not that the "living like the Gentiles" (2) has become illegal but that, in the light of the unspeakably marvelous love and grace of God. living like that (licentiousness passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing and lawless idolatry) has become irrelevant, dare I say silly. Why would we stoop to petty and insignificantly transient pleasures when the eternal pleasures and joy of heaven have been opened to us here and now?

1 Peter goes on to suggest that since the "end of all things is near" (7) we should use the time the world has left to usher in the kingdom of the heavens and diligently work for the transformation of our lives and of the world around us.  Notice that this happens through love for each other (8); practicing hospitality without complaining (9); serving one another (10); and speaking in such a way as to glorify God and extend the kingdom (11).

The second issue in 1 Peter 4 resumes the key theme of the epistle at 4:12 by returning to the discussion of "suffering as a Christian." Unlike the modern world the ancient theology understood that suffering was an inevitable part of the everyone's journey and that suffering had transformative and redemptive qualities. The world was transformed through the suffering of God's only begotten Son, our sufferings in the name of that Son help to transform the world as well. Many ancient Christian writers believed that the soul's journey through this life required suffering to temper and form and shape it for eternal glory. It is an idea that is not often discussed and preached in the modern world (at least in affluent USofA) but I think is a Biblical way of looking at our struggles that gives meaning and purpose.

Friday, August 24, 2012

1 Peter 3

Like Paul in the Pastoral Epistles, 1 Peter addresses domestic relations. In keeping with the cultural and social conventions of the time (in both Hebrew and Latin culture) the husband was the head of the household. In modern times we often hear the restrictions of "accepting the authority" and miss the grace displayed in the same passage. Men (7) are to honor their wives as "heirs of the gracious gift of life." That is to say that men and women have equal standing in faith and in the context of a household of faith -- each husband and each wife ought to treat one another as embodying the holy presence of Christ. I have long believed that those who "enforce" the submission/authority passages are those who are the most unwilling to treat one another as bearing the incarnate Christ. 1 Peter's appeal to modest in dress and trusting in inward adornment is a reminder to us all that God is not impressed with our fancy clothes and cleaned up externals -- God looks at the heart.

3:8 and following returns to the central theme of 1 Peter; the theme of being patient in suffering. Here he makes an excellent point -- again, remember, that the people reading this letter in the late first century are enduring violent persecution at the hands of the government and "religious" opponents. The Christians are suffering simply for being Christians -- a situation that exists in many places in the world even today. 1 Peter suggests that if we are punished for doing something wrong we have received our just due. However, if we suffer because we have done right (that is followed Jesus Christ) then we are more like him in that moment then we ever imagined we could. Jesus was innocent, blameless and sinless and yet suffered the crucifixion for us all. Many early Christians believed that martyrdom and enduring suffering because one was a follower of Christ was not "evil" but counted it was counted as a privilege to suffer at Christ did.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

1 Peter 2

We are the chosen people. It is the most often misunderstood aspect of the Bible. The two testaments of the Bible tell the same story. In the Old Testament God is forming a people for Himself. These people are identified as descendants of Abraham through Issac and Jacob. The entire Hebrew Bible is the hammering process necessary for the formation of this people. The people were to be special, chosen and a beacon of light to the rest of the world. The "light to the Gentiles" and the "blessed to be a blessing" aspects of this people were the most frequently neglected.

Move to the time and ways of Jesus and we find that God is still forming a people for himself. Instead of forming a people through the ties of blood and family history in the New Testament God is forming a people through the ties of choice and baptism. In the new covenant we choose to be followers of Jesus and through baptism are marked as his sons and daughters. Once we were nobody . . . now we are somebody.

Among the more controversial aspects of 1 Peter 2 is the admonition to "honor the emperor" (17) and to endure suffering when we have done the right. In many ways the understanding of changing the world through non violent methods can be found here. Like Jesus, when we are abused and beaten for doing what is right we do not retaliate -- we bless. We do not curse -- we pray for the persecutor. We strive to live good and godly lives in all areas of our existence. Remember that the context of 1 Peter is a time of significant persecution of Christ followers in Asia Minor and that the first readers of this letter would have been enduring great difficulties and struggles through these persecutions. The advise of this letter is to hold on, trust God, and be like Jesus.

1 Peter 1

Post for August 22

The focus of chapter 1 is a reminder of the implications of believing in and following Jesus. This is summarized in verse 3-4 "By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading kept in heaven for you,"  The heart of our faith and the hope that sustains us is seen in the resurrection of Jesus.

Because of this new hope 1 Peter issues a call to holy living. By following Jesus we give up the old ways, desires and indulgences and move toward holiness. The common mistake at this point is to focus on the external behaviors that presumably reveal one's holiness. The truth is much more interesting. Holiness is an inside job. If I just focus on the "holy people don't do the following or always do the following" legalistic aspects that often get emphasized then I will never move toward true holiness. True holiness is becoming like Jesus Christ and this process is worked from the inside out. I become holy by getting close to the Holy One and through the transformation of my heart and soul I begin to exhibit this holiness in my external life. To put it another way: the deeper in love I am with Jesus the more I will love the people of the world (whatever their state of grace) and the more I will work to bring the Kingdom of the Heavens to earth. One cannot have the first without the second -- spiritual depth without missional engagement is a phantom and pipe dream and is often lost in a self centered spirituality. However, missional engagement without moving toward holiness is social work and not biblical Christianity.

1 Peter Introduction

Here is the introduction to 1 Peter that I wrote for my Ugandan friends:
1 Peter was written to the scattered congregations of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey.) The primary theme is for Christians to “stand fast” and to learn to rejoice in whatever sufferings they are called upon to suffer for the name of Jesus Christ. Although some authors question whether Simon Peter, brother of Andrew, was the author of this letter, most scholars believe he wrote this letter from Rome during Nero’s persecutions (after AD 64.) If Peter did not write this letter, it could be dated during any of the subsequent persecutions under Emperor Domitian (AD 81-96) or Trajan (AD 98-117.) Suffering is inevitable for human beings, but our suffering can be graceful and redemptive

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


This is the introduction I wrote on Philemon for my Ugandan friends:

Philemon is a very personal letter from Paul. It is a plea for the life of Onesimus, whom most scholars presume to have been a runaway slave. This letter was written while Paul was under house arrest in Rome (AD 61-63.) The situation for a runaway slave under Roman rule was dire. Punishment for the slave was often severe. Paul is sending Onesimus, the presumed runaway, back to his owner, Philemon, with this letter asking Philemon to receive Onesimus without punishment. Philemon was a man of some standing and a convert to faith in Christ under Paul’s ministry. Although Paul does not speak against the institution of slavery, this letter indicates a trajectory against slavery is developing in the growing Christian movement. Faith in Jesus Christ no longer allows us to live life as we always have lived. In Christ there is no longer slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female.

There is not much more to say about this very short letter except this: It is difficult for modern readers and modern Christians to read in the bible an assumption that human slavery was legal, common place, and considered "normal". It is also difficult for modern readers to read the Bible and find little if any condemnation of human slavery. One of the hardest things to do is to read a document in its historical context and not read it through our own "assumed to be enlightened" view points. Paul does not openly condemn slavery -- but he does change the values and the rules around which Christians approached the issue and that change created a trajectory that gradually eliminated the legalized practice of human slavery in predominantly Christian communities. That slavery is still in existence today (legally and illegally) is a great evil and one that Christ followers should work against at every opportunity. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Ephesians 6

Put on the whole armor of God. The first century world was a world of stories and parables. When Jesus is illustrating the most critical points related to the Kingdom of the Heavens he resorts to short pithy stories and parables rooted in the agrarian culture of the time. When Paul is concluding this letter to the Ephesians he was looking for one, obvious and commonly seen example of what it would mean to be fully equipped as a Christ follower. I can imagine as he thought of what to use that he saw the chain on the end of his arm and the Roman soldier at the other end of the chain. We put on the whole armor of God so that we can stand against the enemy.

Belt of truth -- for the Roman soldier the belt is what holds it all together. The belt holds the breast plate in place, it holds the sword in place as well. We gird ourselves with the truth. Even though the world is in a relativistic age and does not recognize truth in any ultimate sense, the Christ follower holds fast to the historic and essential truth of the Christian faith. One might start with the creed. Or, even simpler, to recognize that the God who created the universe is a good and loving God.

The breastplate of righteousness -- this is body armor and protects the soldier from frontal attacks. The Christ follower is not covered with his/her own righteousness (it is not our own goodness that protects us). Rather, we are covered with the righteousness of Jesus Christ. This is what protects us from the enemy -- not our own strength, not our own power, not our own goodness; but what Christ has done for us.

The shoes are the gospel of peace-- for the soldier footwear and footing were essential for survival. If a soldier lost their footing and fell in a battle situation it was likely that the solider was not going to survive. The Christ follower is encouraged to note that we stand, not on the aggression of our hearts but on the Gospel of peace. If the good news of Jesus Christ does not bring peace, work for peace, and practice peace we have no where to stand.

The shield of faith -- the Roman soldier carried a large triangular shield. These shields were soaked in water and the wood was layered cross grain. The water and cross grain absorbed the flaming arrows fired at you in battle. The wood stopped the arrow and the water quenched the flame. The shield was designed to interlock with other shields so that the army could create "shield walls" on the battle field. A lone soldier had little hope of survival. Standing together there was strength and hope. This shield -- big enough to hide behind -- is faith. Faith is trust and for the Christ follower it is trust in God. We lock our shields together in faith so that we may stand in difficult times and challenge the gates of hell.

The helmet of salvation -- this protected the soldier's head. Arrows and swords, stones and clubs would be coming at your head (kill the head kill the body). This helmet protected you from most assaults. As Christ followers our protection is the assurance that we belong to God and are returning to God. Salvation here also means wholeness -- we are whole and entire in our relationship with Christ and one another.

The sword of the Spirit (the word of God) -- both a defensive and an offensive weapon for the soldier. The sword was broad. For the Christ follower we do not attack the wiles of evil in the world with our our wisdom or intelligence (although it does all come to bear). Instead we stand on the revealed word of God. But be careful here: this is not a "I'm right and you're wrong" kind of word. The word of God speaks of unity and inclusiveness as well as choice and judgement. There is balance in the word and we would be ill equipped if we only focused on one aspect of the word and not the whole gospel.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Ephesians 5

"Be imitators of God . . . and walk in love, as Christ loved us . . ." The essential guidelines for this new life in Christ is to be students of Jesus and to learn to walk as he walked and to love as he loved. The challenge is, in fact, impossible for us to do alone. It is not possible through human effort alone to live up to this standard. Only with God's help, support, grace and the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit can we ever attain this goal. And, yet, it is the goal: to become as much like Christ as we possibly can. We strive, we try and at the same time we surrender, we turn for help, we lean and trust in God. It is the only way.

5:3-20 has to do with rejecting pagan worship in and around Ephesus. Ephesus was the home of the temple of Artemis (one of 7 wonders of the ancient world). Artemis was a fertility goddess and was worshiped through engaging in ritual fornication with the temple priestesses (aka prostitutes). St. Paul's admonition to leave the dark and walk in the light, to abandon fornication and impurity and all other forms of idolatry is all about not returning to the rituals and practices of the worship of Artemis. In Ephesus the major religious obstacle was Artemis worship and the major philosophical obstacle was the teachings of Gnosticism.

The directions for the Christian household (5:21-6:9) is one of the most misunderstood and maligned passages in the New Testament. It was common for first century writers of all philosophical flavors to include in their writings some practical, real life, applications of what they are teaching. It is often misinterpreted and usually misused in the modern world. The controlling phrase in this passage is 5:21 "be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ." Remember that the verse is not the basic unit of the Bible and that the Bible must be understood in light of itself. When Paul says "wives be subject to your husbands (22)" and 25 "Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church" and 6:1 "children obey your parents in the Lord" and 6:5 "slaves obey your earthly masters" we have to understand this in dialogue with other things Paul has said. For example,  "in Christ their is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Galatians 3:28)." When we are subject to one another through the Church, our homes and in life, the oppression and violence that has been done the name of "being subject" is revealed as the non biblical evil we thought it was.

I have often thought that the biggest problem with this passage is that people are worrying about everyone else's instructions instead of dealing with their own. If husbands loved theirs wives as Christ loved the church they would earn and preserve the respect they believe they deserve. When we begin to treat one another with the dignity and respect, in all circumstances and situations, that every human being deserves. These things rather quickly sort themselves out.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Ephesians 4

This chapter gets to the heart of Christian living. We are reminded that Christ followers are called to a life of unity (1-6). This unity is expressed in the common elements of  One body, One Spirit, we are called to One hope of our calling: One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism and One God and Father of all (3-4). We are able to live into this unity because we are able to "lead the life to which we have been called (2)" and because we are able to do this with a humility and patience and gentleness "bearing with one another in love (2)". Christian unity does not mean we are all in lock step agreement on everything. Christian unity exists because we approach what we believe with humility and because we are willing to bear with one another in love.

The discussion of spiritual gifts, in this case the leadership gifts of Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor and Teacher, is essential to the life and growth of the Church. 1600 years ago under the leadership of Emperor Constantine the concept of "Christendom" was born. In Christendom the role of the Pastor and other leadership was to care for the flock and to provide spiritual services to the "christian" community. This model is dreadfully far from the original purpose of the leadership gifts. In 4:12 is the leadership job description: Apostles etc. exist "to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ." In short, the Pastor's role is to equip the congregation to do the work of ministry -- not to do it for them. Martin Luther in the 1500's tried to reclaim this biblical concept with his insistence on the priesthood of all believers but, in a Christendom world view, this concept was doomed to failure. Even in the more egalitarian United States (as it came to be) the churches continued to be pastor as doer of ministry model rather than Pastor as equiper of ministers biblical model.

The purpose of leadership and the spiritual gifts (listed here and in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12) is to build up the church and to raise Christian Disciples. The bottom line is always going to be maturity. I have seen way too many long term Christians who have no spiritual depth and I have been around way too many congregations who are wide but shallow in their faith. This Sunday (8/19) I am going to speak about this matter of Christian maturity and how we can more faithfully and effectively grow up in our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Some of the hallmarks of this maturity can be seen in verses 25 - 32. We learn to speak the truth, we encourage, we watch our language, we put aside anger and wrangling and slander and malice and learn to practice kindness in our dealings with one another. We practice forgiveness.