The Lectionary This Week: The Love That Surrenders

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Epiphany 4, 01 February 2014 (Year B)

  • Deuteronomy 18:15-20
  • Psalm 111
  • 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
  • Mark 1:21-28

Let’s start this week with Jesus teaching in the synagogue — a Good Greek word which means “assembly” — at Capernaum. It’s Friday evening, most likely, and he is busy teaching. I find it interesting that Mark constantly tells us Jesus teaches “with authority, and not as the scribes” but we don’t actually have the teaching here.

Mark is a short Gospel, and Jesus teaches mainly in parables and acts of healing. This is not like Matthew’s or John’s gospel, in which Jesus talks and talks and talks. He’s on the move here, constantly, and he says comparatively little. It’s as if here, in Mark, for the community Mark is relating this story to, the words of Jesus actually get in the way of meeting Jesus.

Or perhaps more importantly, for Mark, the actual words of Jesus aren’t so important. What’s important is who Jesus is, and in getting Jesus, in being with Jesus, in watching him work, we’ve met God.

The only words of Jesus actually quoted in this passage are his response to the man with the unclean spirit, who cries out: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are — the Holy One of God.”

“Be silent, and come out of him!” Jesus says.

The unclean spirit knows who Jesus is. And confesses it publicly, before the gathered crowd of worshippers at the synagogue. And Jesus silences that spirit, and the man it inhabits, by casting the spirit out.

So, we know who Jesus is largely by what he does but at the same time Jesus is constantly telling those he heals and cleans and forgives, and those (largely forces of evil) who confess his real identity to be silent. It’s an odd juxtaposition. This is a gospel of silence, and all we can do is marvel at the authority with which he preaches, an authority seen even before he cast out a demon.

“And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.” As much as he wants us to keep our mouths shut about all this, we tell the world about Jesus. “Can you believe what we’ve seen?”

This probably anticipates what some biblical scholars see as the original ending of Mark, where the two Marys find the tomb empty and see an unnamed “young man” telling them that Jesus of Nazareth “has risen.” And that he is heading back to Galilee, where all the action started.

And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

(A few verses were likely later added giving us a great commission, an ascension, and the disciples finally going out an telling the world. Interestingly enough, Jesus has to rebuke those who don’t believe, but send them out to “proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” anyway.)

And yet, even afraid of all the signs and wonder, even in our silence, somehow we’ve told the world.

Because we’ve seen signs and wonders. Real authority. And it has been given to us. Real authority. And the ability to work signs and wonders.

* * *

In the reading from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul is concerned about the way our love expresses itself for each other. Especially as we live together as followers of Jesus.

1 Now concerning food offered to idols:we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. 2 If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.

4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (ESV)

So, Paul asserts a right here — that he can, in fact, eat food sacrificed and devoted to idols, to false gods, because those gods are not real, and therefore the sacrifice made to them has no value. It cannot condemn the one who eats in and of itself.

But he goes on. Because this isn’t so much about rights as it is about… well, I’ll let Paul say it.

7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.

Paul here is not talking about compromise, he’s talking about surrender. Yes, he can claim a right — and I think he rather noisily does half the time he claims he isn’t — but here the principle is clear. Even if meat sacrificed to idols has no moral value, there will be believers out there whose faith still puts them in fear of those false gods. Or who believe that consorting with such puts the one who eats at risk.

Claiming the right is pointless when it wounds the faith of others, and when it divides the church. Paul is clear about this.

And this is a difficult teaching. Because surrendering rights — even surrendering the claim to be right — is difficult. Perhaps impossible at this point in time. It certainly is something no one wants to do.

I think of the issue that has divided the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (and the wider US church) so much in the last few years — that of the place of homosexuals in the community of the faithful. Can they lead? Should they lead? Can they even belong? So many claims to righteousness here, so much justifying positions of the basis of scripture and reason. Claims of truth, of right, demanding adherence and compliance. Pronouncements of anathema to those who believe is practice differently. Nowhere has anyone sought to surrender their rights, or the claims to be right. For too many people, too much is riding on this.

For many, the very claim to be church rides on this.

I’m not sure what surrender of rights would look like here. For some, it means their continued abuse and exclusion from a community they feel called to belong to (or the abuse and exclusion of those near and dear to them). For others, it means accepting as righteous something that God clearly proclaims as sin. Maybe this is a matter bigger than mere meat sacrificed to idols. And certainly, no one in a fight like this is going to surrender first.

But this is also a hard teaching because it puts the weakest, and often times the shrillest, often times the most narrow minded in charge of what faith means, of how it can be expressed publicly. It suggests no one’s conscience can ever be offended. And it has the potential to put the most narrow minded and pietistic in charge.

It would help if this were truly a mutual process. And ideally, it should be.

However, that’s not what Paul writes here. Paul is talking about the kind of surrender Jesus made. A surrender based not on reciprocity (or even its possibility), but one made solely in faithfulness to God. It’s a risk we’re asked to take, and a very difficult one at that. He says nothing about the surrender of those with weak faiths or narrow minds (though one hopes at some point they toughen up and broaden their understanding a bit), and he does this with real concern about their well-being. I am my brother’s keeper, Paul tells me. The well-being of their souls matter to me. Because they matter to Jesus.

This injects a tension into the community. Because it’s important to walk into dark and difficult places to preach the gospel and meet those most in need of hearing the gospel. And yet, frequently, they will be in disreputable places, surrounded by disreputable people. And I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard some version of, “If you lie down with dogs, don’t be surprised when you get up with fleas.” Wisdom spoken by good, faithful people, as if it were the gospel.

Which it isn’t.

There is no way to solve this. It just needs to be lived into. Because this tension, between those whose faith and understanding allows for the eating of meat, and those who do not, will always be at odds with each other.

Such is our life together. Never solved and never perfect.

The Lectionary This Week (Part 2): On Members, Flesh, and Prostitutes

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Epiphany 2, 17 January 2014 (Year B)

  • 1 Samuel 3:1-20
  • Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
  • 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
  • John 1:43-51

I want to deal with the selection from 1 Corinthians separately this week because I’m not sure how related it is to the Gospel reading, and because I have something else I want to do with it.

Paul is busy in this week’s reading telling the troubled church at Corinth how to behave. This week, it’s Paul busily telling the Corinthians to honor their bodies — for their bodies were baptized (my interpretation) and made part of the Body of Christ — and not dishonor that baptism with “sexual immorality” (τῇ πορνείᾳ).

12 “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. 13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (ESV)

Again, for Paul this isn’t so much a matter of “against the law” as “not being helpful or useful.” Paul is concerned that this community live out self-giving love in their midst, and treat each other with some dignity and respect (the you here is plural, so he is speaking to the assembled community at this church in Corinth). Using each other sexually, being used sexually, is not a way “of becoming one flesh” that honors God, or their call to become one flesh as the body of Christ. Because there are two different kinds of bodies here — the incarnate, corporeal, fleshly bodies that we join to each other in the intimacy and intensity that is sex, and the incarnate and corporeal body of Christ that is the church. And these different kinds of bodies, these different kinds of mystical joinings, must honor each other.

Now, this said, I must confess here that I have a problem with Paul and his letters. Or rather, I have a problem with how Paul is used. He becomes a law-giver, and what he writes becomes the basis not only for the good order of the church, but also the world. So a passage like this is no longer about living out the gracious love of God, but about personal piety and behavior. It’s no longer relational (and this is especially a problem when that you becomes singular, so that Paul is no longer speaking to the church collected but rather to individual human beings). And thus, my righteousness becomes solely a matter of obeying the rules.

I really cannot read this passage without hearing God’s command to Hosea. And to be honest, I suspect the smarter Corinthians couldn’t either, and Paul probably understood that as well when we wrote (or dictated) these words.

And what did God order Hosea to do?

2 When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” 3 So he went and took Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.

4 And the Lord said to him, “Call his name Jezreel, for in just a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. 5 And on that day I will break the bow of Israel in the Valley of Jezreel.”

6 She conceived again and bore a daughter. And the Lord said to him, “Call her name No Mercy, for I will no more have mercy on the house of Israel, to forgive them at all. 7 But I will have mercy on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the Lord their God. I will not save them by bow or by sword or by war or by horses or by horsemen.”

8 When she had weaned No Mercy, she conceived and bore a son. 9 And the Lord said, “Call his name Not My People, for you are not my people, and I am not your God.” (Hosea 1:2-9 ESV)

And later, in Chapter 3, Hosea writes:

1 And the Lord said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins.” 2 So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a lethech of barley. 3 And I said to her, “You must dwell as mine for many days. You shall not play the whore, or belong to another man; so will I also be to you.” 4 For the children of Israel shall dwell many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or pillar, without ephod or household gods. 5 Afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king, and they shall come in fear to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days. (ESV)

This notion of infidelity, and “whoring,” is a metaphor that crops up again and again to describe Israel’s idolatry and unfaithfulness to God. In fact, it’s put to a rather horrific effect in Ezekiel 16 and 23. But there are several places in scripture where God describes God’s-self as the put upon and betrayed husband whose beautiful young wife (or wives, in Ezekiel 23) abandon the old husband for the arms of many young lovers (some with great big genitals, as in Ezekiel 23:20) again and again and again.

In fact, if this marriage between God and Israel is the example of monogamous marriage, it’s a lousy marriage. God is something of a creepy pederast (read Ezekiel 16 and tell me I’m wrong) and an abusive spouse (sending Assyrians and Babylonians plunder, murder and rape in response — the implication that this violence is the consequence of whoring around) and Israel, well, Israel simply cannot stay of whatever bed she comes across, no thrill too extreme and no lust too depraved.

It’s the kind of thing you’d be likely to see on the Maury Povitch Show.

And yet, in this really horrific and very unsettling metaphor, in these commands to Hosea to take a whore for a wife, father children with her (even as she is unfaithful — in chapter 1, her faithfulness is not a precondition for the marriage), there is something of the promise of God, and the faithfulness of God, to God’s people. This may not describe the ideal marriage (God has told me many things, but I’m not sure I could do what Hosea did if that command came), but it does describe the relationship God has with God’s people (creepiness included — deal with God sometime). And it also describes a fair number of human relationships, married and otherwise.

And this is how Paul is redeemed for me. Yes, he is telling the church at Corinth not just to behave, but he does what the entirety of the teaching does — this is what it means the God loves us, and that we are called to love God and love each other. This is what faithfulness means.

This is where Paul gets misused. We look at these commands and say, “This is what it means to be church. If you don’t follow Paul’s teachings, you aren’t church.” Being the people of God is not a matter of being called and gathered by God, but of following the rules. And if we don’t follow the rules, we aren’t God’s people.

That’s not how it works. God would rather God’s people be as faithful to God as God is to the people (nowhere in all the graphic weirdness of Ezekiel 16 and 23 does God contemplate taking another wife in place of the beloved who has absconded to the beds of others, nor does God tell Hosea to leave his unfaithful wife for another), but the whole point of these passages is to show that God is faithful even as God’s people are not. We are still church even if we cannot follow the rules, cannot hold up our end of the covenant. We still belong to God even if we wander off. To satisfy our lusts and passions with others. There are consequences for unfaithfulness (and they are horrific in Ezekiel), as Paul I’m certain is trying to very gently suggest to the Corinthians when he tells them to flee sexual immorality.

But if Paul hears Hosea in his head as he writes this, or remembers Ezekiel, he knows that we’re still church, still the people God called to follow, even when we surrender to our basest longings, lusts and desires. This isn’t quite an ironic passage (and there are places where Paul is ironic), because he really wants the community at Corinth to behave itself. But this also isn’t personal piety, and isn’t about excluding people from the community either. Or punishing them when they misbehave.

It’s all about love. What it means to be loved by God, and to love each other as God loves us.

I’m not sure how I’d preach this. Unless I were at a congregation that knew me well, and understood who I was, I’d probably leave this alone, and focus on the gospel. But I’m really aching to preach this. Someday…