There’s that word again

As I mentioned several weeks ago, the word “church” rarely occurs in the Gospels.  The English word shows up five times, all in Matthew’s Gospel.  Twice (18:15 and 18:21) is is used to expand the gendered Greek word for brother to “member of the church.”  The other three occurrences (16:18 and twice in 18:17) are direct translations of the Greek word ekklesia, which generically meant an assembly or a gathering of people.  When I read this word in Matthew’s Gospel, my very faint Biblical criticism streak begins to show, and I wonder, if only for a moment, if these are really authentic words from Jesus or Matthew’s later attempt to wrap the teaching of Jesus around the institution that followed his resurrection and ascension.

My first stop down the rabbit hole of ekklesia in Matthew was Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament 2nd ed., which showed no textual controversy on the word in 16:18.  Next, I went to Ye Olde Anchor Bible Commentary on Matthew co-authored by W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann.  Albright was a polymath who was well versed in archaeology and German Biblical criticism, and began the project that has become the Anchor Bible Series, now 120 volumes strong.  Over his many years, his archaeological research led him to believe more and more of the scriptural story and rely less and less on historical critical reading of the Biblical narrative.  Knowing that, it makes sense that his volume on Matthew would argue, “It is hard to know what kind of thinking, other than confessional presupposition, justifies the tendency of some commentators to dismiss this verse as not authentic.  A Messiah without a Messianic Community would have been unthinkable to any Jew” (1971 ed., p. 195).  In the end, Albright and Mann suggest that ekklesia may be the Greek translation of “kenishta, which in the Syriac versions is used for both ekklesia and synagogue” (p. 196).

I warned you this was a rabbit hole.

article-2302057-1907c136000005dc-720_634x464

What does all this tell us?  Well, first of all, it is a reminder that Biblical study is worth it. There are words we find in the English translations of scripture that leave us scratching our heads, wondering how and why they say what they do.  It is worth the preachers time to do some digging, in order to come to better understand the meaning behind these words.  It is also a warning to be wary of bringing a desired outcome to one’s study.  I’d have bet a whole dollar that Matthew wedged the concept of church into his Gospel, but it seems that in the time of Jesus, the idea of an ongoing community of disciples wasn’t beyond reasonable thought.  Finally, it tells us that Peter’s confession and subsequent commissioning means something.  If Jesus really did think this thing would be perpetuated by a community, which it seems he did, then he needed to make plans for the future, and it was upon Peter’s declaration of Jesus as the Messiah that the institution would be built.

For those of us who continue to be a part of that ekklesia, this is the most important bit.  It isn’t about keeping buildings built or salaries paid or denominational shields protected, but all of this exists for one reason only, the same reason Matthew had in mind when he translated Jesus’ words into Greek, to empower a community of faithful disciples to go and proclaim that “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Advertisements

A Biblical Anachronism?

marty-mcfly-in-back-to-the-future-playing-a-gibson

Movies that take place in the past always run the risk of including some sort of  unintentional anachronism – that is, a chronological inconsistency.  For example, in this famous scene from the 1985 film, Back to the Future, Michael J. Fox’s character, Marty McFly plays “Johnny B. Goode” at the 1955 Enchantment Under the Sea Dance where his parents first met on a Gibson ES-345 guitar that wasn’t introduced until 1958. (1)  This is usually the result of poor research by a prop department or a lack of availability of something of the era.  More often than not, the general population doesn’t notice the flaw because most of us wouldn’t know a) what model guitar that was and b) when it came out.  And, quite frankly, most don’t care either.

Most.

There are always a few folks who do notice and do care, and so lists like Mental Floss’ “15 Obvious Movie Anachronisms” are published and the general public giggles at both those who notice such things and the multi-billion dollar movie industry that can’t spend the five minutes checking these things out.

If people don’t care about anachronisms in movies, I’m certain that nobody at all reads their Bibles looking for the same.  Yet, here I am, that one weirdo, who always struggles with the disciples initial reaction to seeing Jesus in the story of Jesus walking on water, which we will hear read on Sunday.  The NRSV renders it this way.

“But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear.”

Every time I read that part of the story, I wonder to myself, “did first century Jews believe in ghosts?”  It is well established that thoughts about the afterlife were still very much in flux in first century Judaism.  The Pharisees, Jesus’ main adversaries in Matthew (and another anachronism, but that’s for another post), believed in resurrection, angels, and spirits (Acts 23:8), while the Sadducees didn’t believe in any of those things.  Further complicating the issue is that the word translated as “ghost” in the NRSV is a hapax legomenon in the Canon of Scripture.  It appears twice in the Gospels, but it seems Matthew took it directly from Mark when he brought this story into his Gospel.  Thayer tells us that the word is common in Greek literature, appearing in Aeschylus, Euripides, Plato, Dionysius Halicarnassus, Plutarch, and others.  In Greek, it seems to mean something more like a supernatural appearance, which flows well from its Hebrew equivalent that connotes a vision.

Did the disciples believe in ghosts?  I can’t be sure.  Certainly, they experienced Jesus on the water as something supernatural, something they would not normally expect to see, something worth being scared witless over, but I wonder if our 21st century understanding of ghosts (see Ghost Hunters, Paranormal Witness, and Scooby Doo) create an anachronism in the story that clouds our understanding in an unhelpful way.  Or, maybe I’ve just fallen down another infamous Steve Pankey rabbit hole.  Either way, there’s another 500 words for you to ponder.


NB. If you are an astute reader of this blog, you’ll note that I wrote on this topic, with much more certainty, three years ago.  I only realized it when I saw that “Ghosts” was a tag I had used before.  But that’s why you read, isn’t it?  To see what new useless thing I’ll glom on to next.

Supersaturated life

6

You may remember from high school science class that a supersaturated solution is one in which more of something is dissolved in a liquid than could be under normal conditions.  The solution sits in supersaturation unless and until something acts upon it to force the excess to precipitate out, or, more spectacularly shown in the gif above, crystallization occurs.  If you have ever enjoyed a piece of rock candy, you have experienced a crystallized supersaturated solution.  In two of our lessons on Sunday, we learn that the Kingdom of God is something like that.

Psalm 23, everybody’s second favorite Olde English thing (next to a good Thug Life tattoo) is often remembered for the “valley of the shadow of death” in verse 4, but I love Psalm 23 because of verse 5.  The Book of Common Prayer translation reads thusly,

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.

God’s grace supersaturates our lives such that feasts can be enjoyed right in the midst of our enemies.  Our heads, like those of kings, are anointed with oil.  Our cup runneth over.  The Hebrew word there is literally translated as “saturated.”  Its root word carries connotations of abundance, soaking wet, and drunkenness.  The cup that God has prepared for us, even in the valley of death, right in the sight of our detractors, remains abundantly full.  In God, even in the midst of hardship, our blessings are supersaturated.

Our Gospel lesson from John 10 suggests something similar.  Jesus, you’ll recall, is standing in the presence of his enemies when he tells the man born blind, the Pharisees, and anyone who would here, that he has come into the world so that we might have abundant life.  The Greek here suggests excessiveness, superabundance, and even superfluousness.  God’s grace acts as a supersaturated solution in our lives.  When acted upon by outside forces, it sometimes precipitates out so that in the midst of hardship we can see it, taste it, and feel it.  Sometimes, the pressure to lose sight of it is so great that it might have to crystallize in spectacular fashion.  I think maybe that’s what miracles are all about.

This Sunday, we will hear about the overflowing love of God.  We’ll be reminded that even in the hard times, God’s grace does not shy away.  Once again, we will bring to mind the gift of abundant life that God offers each of us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Even as we give up on resurrection accounts, we will hear of the power of Easter,  the abundant resurrected life that God desires to pour out on all of humanity.

Jesus does more than save you

Sunday’s Gospel lesson is probably better suited for a Bible Study or academic lecture than it is a sermon.  As John is wont to do, the language that makes up this two day interaction between Jesus and John the Baptist and his disciples is careful, studied, and layered in meaning.  One could take 45 minutes to unpack the verb meno which is translated as “stay.”  A whole class could be devoted to the word Jesus uses for “looking” when he asks the two men “What are you looking for?”  But what struck me late yesterday afternoon as I perused my go-to sermon prep resources occurs much earlier in the story.

As the scene opens, it is some time after the baptism of Jesus.  We don’t actually get that story in John’s Gospel, just JBap’s interpretation of it.  We can’t be sure how long it has been since that momentous day.  It isn’t clear if this story happens before or after Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, but we do know that the experience left a lasting impression on John.  As he sees Jesus once again approaching the River, John says to anyone who will lesson, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  Again, you could spend an entire Bible Study trying to discern what it means to call Jesus “Lamb of God” (a phrase that only occurs in John 1), but what I have found fascinating is the word that gets translated as “world,” cosmos.

kramer

Cosmos not Cosmo

Translating cosmos as world is already a step to point out the broadness of Jesus’ salvific activity.  To say that he came to take away the sin of the world would already be contrary to the prevailing wisdom of the Judaism which thought that God’s grace was given to the Jews exclusively.  To say that God’s grace extended to the whole world means that God’s love is poured out upon Gentiles, heathens, and depending on your political persuasion, Republicans or Democrats.  <Gasp>  But here’s the thing, cosmos carries a much broarder meaning than simply “world.”  What Jesus did wasn’t simply take away the sin, that is offer salvation to, the world, Jesus came to set right the entire universe that God created.

This may not seem that important to you, and I’m not arguing for life on other planets, in case you were wondering (though I wouldn’t rule it out).  What this really means, at least in my interpretation, is that God really is in control of everything God has made.  It isn’t just that humanity messed up the earth through sin, but that through sin, everything was put out of whack.  In Christ, God sets the whole thing right again.  In Christ, the vision of Eden is restored.  In Christ, the harmony in which the Triune God made everything is restored.  Now, it may not seem like this is true.  There is still plenty that is out of whack – plenty of sin to go around – but the promise, spoken by the last Old Testament Prophet, John the Baptist, is that in Christ, all shall be set right again.

Entering into Passiontide

I am something of an anomaly in the Episcopal Church: a low-church liturgy wonk.  In fact, it is from my deep appreciation for the liturgy as it has been inherited and reformatted into the Book of Common Prayer (1979), that I draw my lower-than-most understanding of the Sacraments and sacramental acts.  It is from my interpretation of Thomas Cranmer’s evangelical zeal, that I find the space to experiment liturgically in the hopes of meeting the needs of a rapidly changing culture.  As usual, however, I’ve digressed.  As a liturgy wonk, I fell like I have a pretty good handle on most of the slang that get used by my brothers and sisters who are more fond of liturgical haberdashery than I, but yesterday, my high-church trained, but growing lower everyday Rector dropped a word that if I had ever heard before, I’d not paid much attention to: Passiontide, which makes up the last two weeks of Lent.2015-04-03 17.54.16-1

Passiontide rose to glory in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, which was the first Book to have the carry the title, beginning on Lent 5, even though the Passion Gospel was not read until Palm Sunday.  (To be fair, the appointed lesson, John 8:46-59 does tend to highlightthe passion of Jesus, which ultimately led to his Passion.) By the time of the 1979 revision, the term had fallen out of favor, even with the Roman Catholics, and it no longer appears in our text, but for preachers, the reality is that this penultimate week of Lent is our Passion Week.  By the time Monday in Holy Week rolls around, there won’t be much time to meditate on the suffering of our Lord, and come the middle of the week, if you’re anything like me, and I know most of you aren’t, you’ll have to skip ahead and write an Easter sermon full of Alleluias before Jesus has even washed his disciples feet.

As we prepare to read and preach on the Passion of our Lord according to Luke, it might be helpful to live into Passiontide.  Take some time to meditate on the narrative.  Maybe walk the stations.  Spend this week immersed in the Passion of Jesus, as you prepare to share the Good News of God’s self-giving love for all flesh.  As you do so, if you are in the Episcopal Church, you’ll note that choice must be made.  Will you read the Passion beginning with the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:14-23:56) or will you choose the shorter version, which skips both the Garden and Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:1-49)? This low-church liturgy wonk will be doing neither, choosing to use the rubric on page 888 and lengthening the shorter option to include both the Garden scene and Jesus’ burial (Luke 22:39-23:56).  Whatever option you choose, I pray that as you get a head start on walking the way of the cross this Passiontide, it might be for you the very way of life and peace through Jesus Christ our Lord.

When the version makes a difference

bible-study1

Aside from those who worship in King James only churches, the vast majority of Christians choose their Bibles based on no real preference other than maybe taste, ease of reading, and price point.  I have, from time to time, had parishioners who wished to buy a Bible as a gift ask me for my suggestions, and my choices are based on similar criteria, with the addition that I will always choose a translation over a paraphrase, ex. the Contemporary English Version is far superior for Biblical study to the Message.  The reality is that it doesn’t much matter which Bible you choose to read, so long as you are actually reading your Bible.

Note that I said “it doesn’t much matter.”  This morning, I found a case in which it might matter as our congregations listen to and we preach from Luke 13:31-35.  Towards the end of Jesus’ lamentation over Jerusalem, he speaks these words, which I found intriguing, “See, your house is left to you.”  I went in search on commentary on that text, assuming that Jesus was borrowing from an Old Testament source or maybe Luke had inserted a common Greek saying, but it seems nobody cares much about that phrase, except that somewhere in the middle of the 20th century, a word was removed from it.  The Revised Standard Version, predecessor to the NRSV which is common in Episcopal congregations, reads “Behold, your house is forsaken.”

There seems to be a considerable difference between “Your house is left to you” and “Your house is forsaken” or as other translations like the King James Version read, “Your house is left desolate.”  Digging into the Greek, the 1968 Interlinear of the RSV does not include eremos, the Greek word for “desolation,” and yet the English translation does.  In Bruce Metzger’s Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed., he notes that “The Committee judged that the presence of eremos in [several Greek manuscripts] is the result of assimilation to the text of Jeremiah* 22.5 or to the prevailing text of Matthew 23.28; its absence is strongly supported by [several other Greek manuscripts].” (pg 138).

This probably isn’t something the preacher would want to dive into from the pulpit, yet I find it an interesting example of those rare moments when the version we read really does make a difference.  In the NRSV, strongly supported by the Greek sources available from the second half of the 20th century, we find Jesus suggesting, in a very pre-destruction-of-the-temple-in-AD70 way, that God has left Jerusalem to its own devices; that if they want to find their way to the Kingdom, having rejected his long-standing invitation, they will have to do so on their own.  In most other texts authorized under Canon II.2, we find Jesus suggesting, in a very post-destruction-of-the-temple-in-AD70 way that because of their infidelity, Jerusalem has once again been laid waste.  Their desolation is the result of their rejection of Jesus and they are in many ways standing in exile yet again.

What version you read this Sunday might make a difference in your preaching, dear reader.  I hope you’ll do your homework, consider your sources, and proclaim the Good News of God’s love not matter which translation you choose.


 

*Thank you to  the Rev. Robert Black for helping me navigate the intricacies of the abbreviation system in the UBS Greek New Testament

 

Jesus Christ is Lord – a sermon

UPDATE: the audio is available on the Saint Paul’s Website.

There were some technical difficulties this morning, and I’m still not sure I’ll have audio to post. This week will be full of posts, so rather than wait and inundate my dear readers, I’ll go ahead and post the text of the sermon now, and hopefully update with audio tomorrow.

I’ve always had trouble with Palm Sunday, or as the 1979 Book of Common Prayer actually calls it, “The Sunday of the Passion [colon] Palm Sunday.” It is such a disjointed day, trying to capture in about an hour of liturgy, two of the major highlights in a week filled with non-stop action. Some of you remember when it wasn’t such a hodge-podge. Back when the 1928 Prayer Book was in use, the day may have been “commonly called Palm Sunday,” but following the long tradition of Cranmer’s 1549 Book, there was nothing Palm-y about it, unless you were the rare soul who spent two-and-a-half-hours attending both Morning Prayer and Holy Eucharist, and even then, you only heard the Triumphal Entry Gospel lesson. By the 1970s, people had stopped giving up their entire Sunday morning to attend interminably long church services. For most, the Sunday before Easter was like any other, only with a slightly longer Gospel lesson: The Passion was read, a sermon was preached, bread was broken, and everybody went home ready to take a few days off before returning on Wednesday for the Stations of the Cross. Meanwhile, liturgical historians had stumbled across fourth century evidence of ancient parades on the Sunday before Easter, in which people waved Palm Branches and remembered Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. Thinking that we should do the cool things people did in the early Church, they added the Liturgy of the Palms to a service that was really about the Passion Gospel, and voila, we’ve got the disjointed mess that is “The Sunday of the Passion [colon] Palm Sunday.”
In an attempt to ease the messiness, several years ago Keith and I decided to take Holy Week seriously as a whole week. We fudged this service just a bit by pushing the Passion Gospel to the very end, making it the transition moment from our shouts of “Hosanna,” to the week-long struggle that will end with shouts of “crucify him!” No matter how much fudging we do, however, the liturgy for Palm Sunday is still, in my opinion, a disjointed mess. Like Jesus riding two donkeys at the same time in Matthew’s Palm Sunday account, we attempt to straddle the majesty of the King of kings parading into Jerusalem and the “so-called” King of the Jews being whipped, beaten, mocked, and hung on a cross. As I once again struggled with this awkward balancing act, I went back the lectionary and found myself drawn to the Philippians lesson for two compelling reasons. First, it reminded me of the hymn, “He is Lord,” which we sang every Sunday after communion in the somewhat charismatic parish of my youth. I can still see Father Bill standing behind the altar, arms raised high in the air as we sang, “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Second, and more importantly, this beautiful mid-first century hymn about Jesus the Christ can help us embrace today’s weird mix of joy and sorrow.
We hear this lesson from Philippians 2 fresh off the high of rustling palm branches and “all glory, laud, and honor.” Jesus is the Son of David, the one who comes in the name of the Lord. In other Gospel accounts, he’s named the King of Israel. On Palm Sunday, Jesus had everything he needed to take over the Temple, overthrow the Chief Priests and mount a battle against the Romans. He was at the height of his power and authority, but he knew that military might was not his calling.
“Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited…” Despite his followers’ claims, the Pharisees’ fears, and Bible sub-headings to the contrary, Jesus’ Triumphal Entry is really anything but. Imagine the scene as Jesus clumsily rides into town on a too small, still nursing female donkey with her foal in tow while a mish-mash of country-folk shout out “hosannas” as they throw their dusty coats and some broken down palm branches on the ground. This parade has nothing on the one happening across town as Pilate enters on his warhorse, surrounded by chariots and pomp. Especially during Passover Season, the Roman’s exploited their power through taxation, coercion, and military might. On the contrary, Jesus “emptied himself,” giving up all worldly authority he could rightfully claim in order to fulfill his destiny.
“… He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.” Here’s our moment of transition into Holy Week. In a world where humility is seen as a sign of weakness, even here in what seems to be his most glorious moment, Jesus submits himself to God’s plan for salvation, preparing himself for the ultimate act of humiliation on Good Friday. Jesus won’t just die, he’ll be spit upon, dressed in purple robes and openly mocked; he’ll be scourged, whipped, and beaten; he’ll be dragged through town with a heavy wooden beam across his shoulders, stripped naked, nailed to a cross, and raised high up in the air for the whole world to see. His death is one of the cruelest and most degrading in the history of public executions, but it is there, in the depths of his humiliation, not at the height of his triumphal entry, that God lifts Jesus up to his rightful place of honor and glory.
“Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Deep within one of the oldest hymns of the Church, we find the most ancient creed that Christians have, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Not Lord as the Romans used it, as in master and slave, but Lord, as in God. Jesus Christ is God. In his crucifixion, Jesus proves his obedience to the will of the Father and is granted the very name of God, YHWH, which a devout Jew like Paul would never utter, choosing instead to call him Lord. Jesus Christ, who alone is both fully God and fully human, through torture, humiliation, and death is raised up to the very throne of God so that we too might one day gain our inheritance as beloved children.
As we embark on this week, this Holy Week, it is helpful for us to remember that Jesus’ place as King of kings and Lord of lords didn’t come in some fancy parade, but through a most gruesome one. As the days go by this week, as the controversy between Jesus and the Jewish leadership becomes more and more intense, I encourage you to ponder Jesus’ unwavering devotion to his Father’s will. In a world that is not that unlike first century Jerusalem, where humility is eschewed for power and authority, I hope you’ll recall Christ’s example of self-emptying love. Whether you are here with us at every service this week, or reading along through the morning emails, my prayer is that you will take a few moments each day to consider Jesus’ mighty acts of humility, and on bended knee, confess and give thanks that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. Amen.