Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Second Letter of Peter

The formal style and stiff polemical tone of this brief book help to rank it among the least read of the biblical canon (New Interpreters Study Bible). Not exactly the most welcoming words as we approach this book of the New Testament. That writer goes on to say, yet it grapples with profound and enduring theological issues, such as God’s providence and the destiny of the world.

This work takes on the form of a letter, a form that had become very popular. “In fact, letters of Paul had already been collected into a body of writing and were being circulated in the churches as Scripture (II Peter 3:15-16)” (People’s New Testament Commentary). This letter takes the form of a final letter, a farewell address.

The work is a general letter, intended to be circulated among a number of Christian communities. We are not sure of the location of these communities or the location of the author. It is pretty clear that the author is not Peter. If Paul’s letters were in circulation after his death, Peter was probably also dead by the time this letter was penned. The later date of this letter is attested to by references to the time of the apostles as a time in the past, by the references to Paul’s letters,and by the incorporation of the Letter of Jude into this letter. The writer, then, writes in Peter’s name but is unknown – “probably someone from the circle of Peter’s disciples honored the apostle by writing what Peter would say to the church in a new time and place” (People’s New Testament Commentary). The letter was probably written at the end of the first or beginning of the second century CE.

Unlike I Peter, the concerns of this writer are internal to the community. It is not persecution without that is the problem, but what is going on within the Jesus communities to which the author is writing. The readers, wherever they were, are plagued by controversies over the interpretation of Scripture and destabilizing teachings about moral conduct that in the writer’s opinion, were the fruit of rejecting the doctrine of the return of Christ and final day of God (People’s New Testament Commentary).

II Peter 1:1-2: This pseudonymous letter is written in the name of Peter, but using the rare form – “Simeon.” The recipients of the letter are broadly identified as those who share the same precious apostolic faith. The phrase “God and Savior Jesus Christ” is rare in the New Testament. A well-developed theology of how Jesus as the Christ was also God incarnate had not been formed, but this is the kind of language which would have been a part of the on-going conversation. A few words later, we have the phrase, “God and Jesus our Lord.” For Christians our understanding of God is decisively shaped by Jesus the Christ. He is the face of God turned toward us, to use a phrase from Marcus Borg. That is the central Christian affirmation. Questions arise about how this is the case and whether or not God can be known in a life-changing way outside of Jesus. Last week I attended a meeting where a Christian clergyperson said to the group, about Muslims and Jews, “they worship a different god.” The language of II Peter might provide him some reason for such a statement, but it is not the only language of the New Testament.

II Peter 1:3-15: Whatever the shortcomings of this book may be, this section contains some beautiful and moving words. In God, and through God’s power, we have everything we need “for life and godliness.” We don’t need to wait around until something else comes. The readers are told that they have promises from God, and through power and promise we can escape the present corrupt world (corruption due to lust – again, see my thoughts on the topic of “desire” in my commentary on James 2). What we move toward is becoming “participants of the divine nature.” This is quite a promise – something about our lives is intended to be Godlike. One is reminded of Jesus words that we should be as compassionate as God. I am also reminded of the words of theologian Walter Wink: “To incarnate God is what it means to be fully human” (The Human Being, 30).

God has given us all we need to be this kind of person, but that does not mean we have no role to play. The readers are told to make every effort to live their faith in goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection, and love. This is quite a list! When these qualities are growing among us and in us, our faith is being effective and fruitful. Lacking these qualities, faith is nearsighted and blind. Cultivating these qualities of life is being a part of God’s kingdom. So don’t lose a minute in building on what you’ve been given, complementing your basic faith with good character, spiritual understanding, alert discipline, passionate patience, reverent wonder, warm friendliness, and generous love, each dimension fitting into and developing the others (The Message).

The writers purpose is to remind them of these things, which they already know. He does so knowing his death is near. The letter is thus set up as a final word from a revered teacher. Such a literary construct gives the words a certain poignancy and power.

II Peter 1:16-21: The writer’s last testament will include a debate with others who, by implication, are propagating a cleverly devised myth. “Myth” here is being used in a pejorative sense. We should be aware that many theological and biblical scholars today use the term “myth” very positively. They can be seen as the stories that orient us, that speak to us deeply as human beings. “Our myths, whether recognized or not, are what animate us and direct us: they face us this way or that; they open and close our horizons” (Amos Niven Wilder, Theopoetic, 78). When we read the term myth used negatively, we need to remind ourselves that this does not exhaust the use of the term. In any event, the writer, in the guise of Peter, argues that the apostolic faith given the readers comes from the testimony of those who knew Jesus and the power of his life first hand, and not simply from fabricated stories. The experience of the Transfiguration is used as evidence that the power of God was working in Jesus. The readers are to be attentive to the faith they were taught, and not to the “false teachings” that are a problem the writer is trying to combat. The readers are to “be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your heart.” What a nice turn of phrase. A principle of interpretation is argued for here – “no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” Christian faith trusts that God’s Spirit was at work in the life and writing of the persons whose words we read in the Scripture. This is distinct from a fundamentalist view of verbal inspiration and infallibility of Scripture. It is a view which says that God’s Spirit touches lives through these writings. Understanding them is the work not of self-appointed individuals, but of God’s Spirit working in the community of faith. Prayerful and Spirit-attentive conversation and dialogue is the best way to move toward more adequate interpretations of Scripture. Apparently the troublesome teachers were simply doing their own thing with the texts and traditions and creating all kinds of problems.

II Peter 2:1-22: “The tone of the letter changes as the author unleashes a fierce attack on the false teachers, much of it drawn from Jude 4-16” (New Interpreters Study Bible). As in the past there were false teachers, so, too, is this the case for the readers of the letter. Such teachers “secretly bring in destructive opinions.” The teachers are deceptive, and their opinions destructive - - - -they are destructive of the Jesus way of life and thus of the Jesus community. Great care needs to be taken with such words these days, when Christians are divided on a number of important issues – the meaning of Scripture, human sexuality, contemporary public policy. It is too easy to claim the high ground and hurl the accusation of “destructive opinions” against those with whom we disagree. As I read this section, it seems that the ideas are not as much the problem as the kinds of behavior they support – licentiousness, greed. When ideas are clearly linked with this kind of behavior, then we seem to have evidence that these ideas have stretched the elasticity of Christian faith to a breaking point.

God’s judgment is evoked harshly, with examples derived from the past. Those who “indulge the flesh” and “despise authority” will be judged accordingly. Yet this same God knows how to keep the faithful through a difficult time. Harsh rhetoric toward the false teachers continues – they are like irrational animals, they have hearts trained in greed, they are like waterless springs. They have exchanged their freedom in Christ for a life again enslaved. The rhetorical rampage of this unit was familiar to audiences of the time. It belonged to a form of oratory called “in praise or blame.” Exaggerated flourishes were used to praise or blame a person or a group of persons. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

What is puzzling to this point is that the nature of the teaching which evokes this rhetoric is not at all clear. We only get a glimpse of the kind of life that accompanied this false teaching – a life of excess, greed, giving in to every desire. We will get a slight glimpse into the problematic teaching in the next chapter.

II Peter 3

II Peter 3:1-13: The writer has finished the harsh speech against the false teachers and returns to the theme of reminding the readers of the faith they were first taught. It seems evident that either this writer has composed another letter or he is aware of the First Letter of Peter. Anyway, the writer is inviting the readers to remember the words of the prophets and the apostolic teaching about Jesus.

Here we get to at least one of the issues that is troubling this Jesus community – teachers who scoff at the notion that Christ will come again, that God will act again in a decisive way through Jesus as the Christ. Admittedly the scoffers have a point, how much does the world seem to have changed? Jesus lived here on earth 2,000 years ago, and still we have war, poverty, hatred, greed, injustice. What has changed? The scoffers of the writer’s time simply noted that Christians had died, yet Jesus had not yet come. We note that generations of Christians have died, many have become a part of the church and while the world has changed, we wonder if it has changed for the better.

What makes the whole doctrine of a second coming of Christ difficult for many Christians today are the absurd notions that have often been associated with this doctrine in many churches. Too many Christians have spent too much time and effort speculating on the last days, and many other Christians turn away from the notion because of this. Yet we who struggle with the idea of Christ’s second coming should remember that in our traditional communion liturgy we proclaim “the mystery of faith – Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” The essential element in this doctrine has nothing to do with the kind of timetables rapture theorists put forward. The essential element of this doctrine is that God continues to work for God’s dream for the world, a dream we understand through Jesus. We trust that that work continues and we trust that all that we do that furthers that dream is important. Finally we trust that someday God will make the world right and so we work for that.

Understood in that way, the words of II Peter are even more powerful. Time for God may be different than human time. God’s work is patient work, and we should continue to work patiently and persistently for God’s new world. The final completion of that dream is in the future sometime, and we don’t need to worry about that, only continue to do our part.

Christians do their part, the writer says, by living lives of holiness and godliness. “We wait for a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” The writer couches much of this discussion in mythic language, but the essential point is to hold on to hope and live differently because of that hope.

II Peter 3:14-18: Waiting for a new heaven and a new earth is not passive. “Strive to be found by him at peace.” The writer then offers a backhanded compliment to Paul, noting that Paul writes about similar themes, but that “there are some things in [Paul’s letters] hard to understand.” What refreshing honesty. But because some things are hard to understand, some of Paul’s writings have been twisted beyond recognition. The readers are encouraged to continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. While this letter spends quite a bit of time on the negative, its primary purpose is positive – encouraging this growth in grace and knowledge, and growth in generous love.
I Peter 4

I Peter 4:1-11: The writer continues to compare the suffering of the readers with the suffering of Christ. These comparisons are remarkable. Can you imagine what could be more encouraging to a beleaguered community than that? Here the line of thought takes a little different direction – those who have suffered in the flesh (here simply meaning in this bodily life) are done with sin. This probably does not mean that these persons will never again sin, but a life mired in sin, trapped in sin, is now behind them. The readers are to intend to live the rest of their earthly lives in accordance with God’s purposes and not by human desires (for a reflection on “desire” please see my note just prior to reflections on James 2). I don’t believe it appropriate to contrast all “human desire” with God’s purposes, otherwise why would the writer encourage us to intend, to desire, to live life in accord with God’s purposes. It is not a matter of the extinguishing of desire, but of controlling desire, of directing it appropriately, of not letting it get the best of us. The writer contrasts God’s way with the kind of human desires that trap life and choke life from a person. In using the term “Gentile” here the reference is not to non-Jews, but is metaphoric. Gentiles are those who live life trapped by desires they have lost control over – and the list provided is rather stereotypical for the time.

The readers, Christians, are living in a new way, and they have been put down by others who continue on in the old way. The writer argues that while they may have their time now to deride the Christians, all lives will eventually be judged by God. In the end, who wants to have their life judged as pure dissipation, a mere blowing in the breeze, contributing little to the lasting work of God in and for the world?

Verse 6 is another puzzle. What does it mean that the gospel was preached to the dead? It may refer to Christian who have died, perhaps their lives judged a failure by the wider world, but not so by God who knows their spirits. Again, the basic point is to keep on in faith, keep on in this new way of life, even when it is difficult, even when it seems that everyone else is doing better in the world. The readers are encouraged to discipline themselves and be serious. A disciplined life is also a life of spiritual disciplines like prayer.

“Above all, maintain constant love for one another.” This is such a persistent theme in the New Testament – Christians are called to love and an important part of that life of love is love within the Christian community. Churches are to be living laboratories of love. If we cannot learn to love in the community of faith, how do we expect to be able to love in the wider world? In love, sin is overcome – forgiven, and let go.

Love means hospitality. It means using our gifts in the service of each other and of God. Being stewards of the grace of God also means using all of God’s gifts wisely, including the gifts of the natural world. This is a vitally important message in our day.

We are to love, to offer hospitality, to use our gifts wisely, to serve, to speak as if speaking God’s words. When we do this, when we live this way, God’s presence shines through.

I Peter 4:12-19
: This writer moves back and forth between reflections on living the Christian life (some beautiful and soaring, others more pedantic) and encouragement to keep on in the face of suffering. Here he returns to the later theme. The sufferings the readers are experiencing are again compared with the sufferings of Christ, but just as in the end, Christ was vindicated, so will those who keep the faith. Of course, not all suffering should be considered suffering for Christ. If you are punished by the law because you have committed murder or been a thief, that is not suffering like Christ. I think the distinction the writer is making here is important and can be carried further. I have seen Christians make claims that they are being persecuted for their faith, when what they may be experiencing is a justifiable reaction to their obnoxiousness about their faith. It is important that Christians be discerning about suffering. Sometimes we do suffer because of our faith – living the faith can be a challenge sometimes. Life is full of other kinds of suffering as well. As I’ve noted before, when suffering can be alleviated, we should seek to do so, but not all of the suffering of life can be ended, and so we can choose to learn what we can through it, or not. The bottom line is that we are all invited to entrust ourselves “to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good.”

I Peter 5

I Peter 5:1-11: The writer refers again, as he often has, to the suffering of Christ, and here takes on the historic personage of Peter. Here he moves to advice for elders in the community, community leaders. Elders are to take their work seriously and lead not for gain, but willingly, in order to further the purposes of God. While the leaders have some authority, both leaders and others in the community are to “clothe themselves with humility.” What a wonderful image and invitation. Humility is not humiliation, but an honest estimation of one’s gifts, strengths, and shortcomings. It is the ability to keep life in perspective. “Be content with who you are, don’t put on airs” (The Message).

In the course of living this life, we (and the readers) are invited to cast all our anxieties on God, for God is a caring God. We are to live with discipline and mindfulness. We do so knowing that there are forces out there, forces of distraction, forces that would derail our live, ready to sweep in. Evil is to be resisted, and one help in doing so is knowing that Christians around the world experience similar trials, sufferings and difficulties. In our day and time, Christians around the world often experience very different levels of suffering. In Western countries, we have the privilege of a free expression of religious faith and life – many others around the world are not so fortunate. The assurance is given that in the end the power of God will accomplish God’s purposes, and in that Christians can be strengthened.

I Peter 5:12-14
: The letter ends in a typical fashion, with mention of a person and with greetings. Silvanus is not known to us, though there is mention of a Silvanus in Paul’s letters. Could the writer be trying to evoke both Peter and Paul in his correspondence? The purpose of the letter is made clear, to provide encouragement so that the readers will stand strong in the “true grace of God.” Babylon is a reference to Rome, the probable place of origin for the letter.

In the end, the readers are wished peace in Christ, as are the readers of this blog.

Monday, April 21, 2008

I Peter 2

I Peter 2:1-10: People of new birth, of new life love deeply from the heart (I Peter 1:22). The first part of this chapter continues that theme. Love entails not only doing certain kinds of things, but also getting rid of certain behaviors and attitudes – malice, guile, insincerity, envy, slander. Notice the emphasis on community life. Christian love is to be lived out in community. The church is expected to be the community which lives out this love and then embraces the world in transforming love.

In I Corinthians, Paul used the image of infants longing for milk in a negative way. He wanted Christians to grow up. This writer uses new birth and longing for milk as a positive image. I once preached a sermon in which I said that I thought the Christian life involved being born again again and again and again. I think that’s true. We are always supposed to be open to God’s transforming love and power in our lives. It is not that we don’t grow up, but growing involves new birth. We are to long for “pure, spiritual milk” just as a new born baby longs for milk. So Christians must seek the spiritual nourishment that makes them strong: the word of God that comes in Scripture, preaching, teaching, and Christian testimony in word and deed to the might acts of God. Christians never outgrow this. (People’s New Testament Commentary) Our list of what nourishes us spiritually may be longer, but it should not be shorter, I think. We feed ourselves spiritually so we can grow into salvation. The writer believes that Christians are among those who have “tasted that the Lord is good.” What a nice image connecting God’s goodness with the idea of spiritual nourishment.

Not staying with one image long, the writer invites the readers to deepen their relationship with Christ who is a living stone – certainly not an image of nourishment! Yet there is a connection with what has gone before. We take nourishment to grow. We are to seek out Christ as a living stone, so that we can be built into a spiritual house. Growth in faith is growth in Christian community as well as individual growth.

The rejected stone as important cornerstone had become a traditional image for the early church. Paul had used it in Romans. The writer is not only saying something about how Jesus was rejected but vindicated by God, he is also saying something about the experience of the readers. They, too, have felt rejection. But like Jesus as the Christ, they remain important and special. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” These are words to pick up a community of people that is discouraged. They are words of encouragement and should be used as such. I don’t think they should be used as an argument that “we are it and you are not.” And these special people have a significant task – “to proclaim the mighty acts of the one who called you out of darkness into marvelous light.” Again, these are remarkable words of care and encouragement and the task to which we are called as Christians is an awesome task.

I Peter 2:11-17: This letter weaves together statements about who the readers are as God’s people, words meant to bolster them in a difficult time, and statements about how they are to live because they are God’s people. As God’s people, they are aliens and exiles – no wonder they are feeling a little out of place in their society. This image reminds us of the image Paul uses in Romans 12, encouraging that community not to be conformed to the world. The larger societies in which we live often contain elements that are not in keeping with who we want to be as Christians. Christians disagree about what it is in the culture that seems most anti-Christian, and those debates are often fierce. What is generally undebated is that some elements in the larger society pull one away from Christian life. There is a sense, then, that we are never completely at home. One way to talk about the forces that lead us away from Christian love is to talk about “desires of the flesh.”

The writer has some particular ideas of how Christians are to live in the wider society. Some of these ideas are very time-bound and difficult for us to grab hold of. They were written for a particular community in a particular time and place. We may learn from them, but that may require some deep thinking on our part.

In general, the writer tells the readers to conduct themselves “honorably among the Gentiles.” Most of the readers were Gentiles – the word here is used metaphorically to mean those not among God’s people in the church. Interestingly, it may be “the Gentiles” who consider the Christians “evildoers.” Certain Roman authorities made that accusation as Christians were refusing to participate in some of the imperial religious rituals. “Religious rituals were interwoven into every aspect of pagan life. All social, community, political, and educational occasions involved rites that Christians could only regard as ‘lawless idolatry.’” (People’s New Testament Commentary) When Christians held back from participating in such rituals and rites, they were thought of as “evil doers” by some. By conducting themselves honorably the writer argues that the minds of those who think the Christians are evil doers might be changed. That desire to help others change their mind about the Christian faith lies behind much of what the author writes in these verses. If that is the case, then some of the very ideas the writer suggests might today be stumbling blocks rather than aids to this mission. Let’s move on to see what the writer suggests as ways to live honorably so that the message of Christian faith might gain a hearing in the world.

The writer suggests that Christians accept the authority of human governing institutions. While the message of Christianity had considerable anti-imperial tenor, a full frontal confrontation with the empire would have been foolhardy. The young Christian community was not going to take down the empire and could use the order it brought to the world to spread its message. This writer certainly does not underestimate the importance of the ordering function of a government, nor should any Christians. Some sense of stability is crucial for human life in community and a degree of respect is due to governments for providing this. Do these verses preclude the possibility that Christians ever participate in the overthrow of a deeply corrupt and harmful government? While they may seem to do that, these verses are not the only verses in the Bible to address this issue. Given the prophets and New Testament themes about a different way of life, there may be instances when Christians would seek a complete change in government. Of course, these verses were not written to people living in a democracy. In a democracy, citizens are to be active participants in the shaping of public life, and may, through their votes, change a government. That, to my mind, is consistent with “accepting the authority” of government.

Part of the ordering function of government can be rewarding good action and punishing harmful action.

The writer encourages the readers to live as free people, but to use their freedom wisely and well. They do this by honoring others, by loving the Christian family, by fearing God (offering God the respect God is due), and then by offering appropriate honor to the emperor.

I Peter 2:18-25: The meditation on conducting life honorably continues. Slaves are to accept the authority of their masters, to be deferent even to those who are harsh. These are difficult verses. They accept the institution of slavery, and seem to open slaves to being treated harshly, even in a demeaning manner. They almost invite a certain masochistic stance. Is there anything to redeem these verses? Perhaps a little. What we have in these verses the typical pattern for Hellenistic household codes, one distinct difference is that such codes outside the New Testament do not address slaves directly. “All New Testament household codes directly address slaves as responsible members of the inclusive Christian community” (People’s New Testament Commentary). So slaves are given a certain dignity in these verses. Furthermore, their unjust suffering is likened to the suffering of Christ himself. That is the ultimate comparison. Christ’s suffering was a way in which the Christians were freed to live a new life. The writer seems to think that somehow the suffering of the slave continues their freedom.

Ultimately, the dignity of the slave argued for in these verses is inconsistent with their status as slaves. Indirectly, then, there is an argument against the continuation of the institution of slavery here, even though the writer does not offer that conclusion. Our perspectives are often limited by our social location. That is one positive interpretation of these verses. The other is that for all of us, in various ways and at various times, there will be difficult circumstances in our lives that cannot be changed. It may be a difficult job situation that cannot be changed right then, it might be a physical condition, it might be the behavior of another person whom we cannot avoid. When confronted with difficult circumstances in our lives, sometimes the only thing we can change is our inner attitude. Where can we learn and grow in difficult circumstances, and in that way “redeem” them? We are to trust that God is with us through it all. Suffering that can be ended should be. Suffering that cannot be ended might be an opportunity for new growth.

I Peter 3

I Peter 3:1-7: In the same way that slaves are to accept the authority of their masters, wives are to accept the authority of their husbands. Again, context is everything here. The writer wants wives to “fit into the existing social order as part of the Christian mission” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Part of his rationale is that the honorable behavior of these women will help win over their husbands to the Christian faith. Today such docility is likely to repel people from Christian faith, and thus this time-bound advice seems just that, time bound. The deeper point for the author is in verse three, an encouragement to women to cultivate an inner self “with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.” There have been times in Western history when women were not even thought capable of cultivating a rich inner life. In that way, these verses are not as awful as they may first appear. At the same time, the potential for abuse make these verses a challenge. Husbands are to show consideration for their wives, paying them honor. This is the basic point, though the author almost ruins it by the reference to women as “the weaker sex.” What that author seems to take away, however, he gives back by noting that women are “also heirs of the gracious gift of life.” This is a statement of radical equality. I think one can argue from the New Testament that statements of equality are the more basic Christian affirmation and that statements that seem to move away from that are more culture-bound. Christian faith is always lived in the context of a culture and we need to think deeply and prayerfully about what may be time-bound, culture-bound in the Bible, and what seems more fundamental. It is interesting that at the end of this section, the writer argues that for men to forget that women are also heirs of the gracious gift of life gets in the way of their prayers. Prayer and a life lived with integrity, with compassion, with love, belong together.

I Peter 3:8-12: To this point, the writer has given instructions to all and then to slaves and wives and husbands. The author now turns attention to all the readers. All are to have “unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” Verse 10 refers to Psalm 34, encouraging doing good and seeking peace. These verses strike at the heart of the matter of conducting oneself honorably, of loving deeply from the heart.

I Peter 3:13-22: The writer seems to think that those who do good will be less likely to suffer. At the same time he is realistic about unjust suffering. While someone doing good may suffer, including suffering at the hands of others through persecution and ostracism, the writer also believes that such suffering can redound to the good of those who suffer in this way. He encourages an attitude of hope rather than fear – and invites the readers to always be prepared to share with others about the hope that is within them. They are to do so with gentleness and reverence. How often Christians have forgotten about sharing their faith with gentleness and reverence? Have you ever been jumped with the question “Are you saved?” That seems inconsistent with the spirit of these verses. The writer is consistently concerned that Christians conduct themselves well. He reminds them that Christ suffered unjustly – that is the main point in verses 18-22, though it is couched in difficult and mysterious language. What are we to make of Jesus becoming spirit and preaching to spirits in prison? We are not sure, but the basic point is that Jesus serves as an example of innocent suffering that leads to tremendous good. The readers, and we through them, are invited to let our suffering work good as it can.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Note: With the United Methodist General Conference just around the corner, I expect that I will get behind on this blog. It is my hope that I will have both the letters of Peter posted prior to General Conference, but then have to catch up afterwards. Here is a reminder of the reading schedule:

April 21-27: I John 1-5
April 28-May 4: II John, III John, Jude, Revelation 1-2
May 5-11: Revelation 3-7
May 12-18: Revelation 8-12
May 19-25: Revelation 13-17
May 26-June 1: Revelation 18-22

The First Letter of Peter

This is the first of two letters which bear the name of Peter, the apostle and disciple of Jesus. It is fairly evident that Peter played an important role in the early Christian/Jesus movement. His name usually appears first in lists of the disciples of Jesus. The Book of Acts recounts significant stories about him and he is a central character in the Gospels. The Roman Catholic Church considers apostolic succession to flow through Peter. He is the first “Bishop of Rome,” “the first Pope,” in Roman Catholic Christianity. Even if the letter was not composed by Peter himself, a brief review of his life might be in order.

Simon or Peter was a contemporary of Jesus, a son of Jonah (or John, Greek) and a brother of Andrew. He was a fisherman, which means he belonged neither to the upper class nor to the lower class of day laborers – “but to the middle class of small businesspeople and crafts-people such as Paul the tentmaker” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Peter, in following the call of Jesus had his life completely reoriented. Among the disciples, as noted, he was a leading member of the group, a part of the inner circle. The gospel’s credit him with making a confession of faith, that in Jesus God was uniquely at work. In spite of his insight and prominent place in the community of Jesus’ followers, during Jesus arrest and trial, Peter denied being a follower of Jesus. “Despite his misunderstanding and failure during Jesus’ earthly ministry, the encounter with the risen Lord enabled Peter to become the principal leader in regathering the disciples and in the formation of what was to become the church” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Simon really becomes “Peter” – the Rock. “Peter was clearly the principal leader of the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem” (People’s New Testament Commentary). The New Testament loses track of Peter after awhile – acknowledging that he went about on some missionary journeys, but not indicating his final destination. Other early Christian tradition has Peter making his way to Rome where he continued his ministry and met death as a martyr.

“The ministry of the apostle Peter continued among disciples influenced by him and in a stream of tradition emanating from him, somewhat analogously to the Pauline school that continued to reinterpret Paul’s message after his death” (People’s New Testament Commentary). There were various streams of early Christian tradition – Pauline, Petrine, Johnanine that all had some differing emphases. It is helpful for us to remember these differing streams in our day and time, for they have continued to the present day. We would do well to see other steams of Christian thinking as complimentary, though some thinking done in the name of Christ may stretch beyond the bounds of appropriateness. The Christian tradition is elastic, and it is always a matter of conversation to determine how elastic it will be.

First Peter represents this Roman combination of Petrine and Pauline tradition focused in a particular letter to churches in Asia Minor to encourage and instruct them to live as Christians in their hostile social situation. Although written in the name of the beloved disciple, it was most likely not written by Peter himself… but by one of his disciples in Rome, about 90 CE. (People’s New Testament Commentary). A number of reasons are given for these conclusions, among which are: the sophisticated Greek of the letter, the incorporation of Pauline elements into the letter indicating a later theological development of Christian tradition, “Bablylon” as a designation for Rome which happened only after 70 CE. The work appears to be a real letter, however, written to be circulated among a group of churches in Asia Minor. These congregations would have been primarily Gentile Christians, and they have been ostracized and marginalized, and perhaps even persecuted, for their faith. The letter is meant as a word of encouragement and instruction in a difficult time. It is unlikely that the difficulties encountered were widespread government persecution of the churches, rather smaller-scale persecution and social marginalization. The First Letter of Peter is one of the New Testament’s most beautiful and compelling books. Its profound Christology, vision of the church, and ardent instruction on Christian life in the world richly express the meaning of the gospel…. The community is to live a life of integrity, risking suffering and alienation if necessary but also willing to give a transparent witness of hope and good works to the world around it. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). As we listen in on these words of instruction and encouragement, what might we learn for our own Christian lives, lives lived in very different circumstances?

I Peter 1

I Peter 1:1-2: The form of this greeting is typical for letters of the time. While probably not written by Peter, the letter invokes his authority, not an uncommon practice of the time. The place names are of Roman provinces in Asia Minor. “Exiles in Dispersion” makes use of an Old Testament image to describe the sense of alienation felt among the Christian communities in these provinces. Though feeling alienated and ostracized, the writer assures the reader that they have been chosen and destined by God. Furthermore, God’ Spirit has been at work in their lives “sanctifying” them, that is, making their lives more loving, caring, holy, Christ-like. Another Old Testament image is invoked (sprinkling by blood) to reaffirm that God has been at work and continues to be at work in their lives. The writer wishes for them grace and peace in abundance.

I Peter 1:3-12: The letter begins with a word of thanks, as was common in Hellenistic letters. However, this is a beautifully woven piece of writing. Verses 3-12 are, in Greek, one long sentence. In translation it is made several for the sake of readability. I am reminded here of jazz or poetry, where breath and expression are so intimately linked. Here we have one, long, poetic line (more Whitman than Dickinson), one long riff. It is helpful to remember to whom this melody goes out – a community that is hurting, a community that is experiencing trouble because they are trying to follow the Jesus way, a beleaguered community.

The thanksgiving in this section is thanksgiving to God for what God has done for those reading this letter. While the thanks are directed toward God, listen to the exalted language used to describe this beleaguered community. God, in mercy, through the resurrection of Jesus has given the readers “a new birth into a living hope.” Hope plays an even more decisive role than faith for this author, and can serve as the one word that sums up the meaning of Christian life as such. Hope in biblical perspective refers to that which is “real,” but “not yet.” (People’s New Testament Commentary). I continue to appreciate Anne Lamott’s definition of hope as “about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is stronger than any grim, bleak [stuff] anyone can throw at us” (Plan B). This is hope that shapes how we live, not just hope as a psychological feeling. It is an inner disposition that moves us to live in certain ways and not in others.

What we hope for, what we have in God’s grace in Christ is an inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” Again, the author uses beautiful and powerful language. When you are down, being reminded that you have something wonderful that on one can take away is important and powerful. This inheritance is being kept safe by God, and this same God is keeping the Christian community “protected” by God’s own power. How does this make sense if the community is experiencing trouble? The writer interprets the trouble as having one’s faith tested and purified so that it may become more genuine – a process analogous to having gold refined by fire. They are assured that in the end all will be well, that their faith in God and Christ will shine like gold. Given that, the community knows joy – it rejoices. It is important to note that the author is not saying that God is sending these difficulties to help their faith grow in genuineness. The difficulties are there. Responding in faith, hope and joy allows the readers to use the difficult circumstance to their own advantage. They learn and grow through the process. That possibility is open to us as well.

The readers have faith and hope even though they have never seen Jesus. I am reminded of the hymn in The Faith We Sing – “Without Seeing You.” Living in faith and hope is living in joy.

In the last part of this section, the author makes another audacious claim for the community – the prophets work was done for them! This is not an objective statement about the Old Testament, but a faith statement of the early Christian community and an interpretive statement. The prophets were working for their own time. But just as much great literature can address the time in which it was written as well as future persons and situations, so, too, the words of the prophets. The early Christian community focused on that aspect of the work of the prophets. When reading the Old Testament today, we need to consider both the original context of the words and how the words were used by the early Christian writers. The good news that the community heard is something “into which angels long to look.”

I Peter 1:13-25: Given who the Christians are by the grace of God – people of faith, hope and joy, they are to live in certain ways and not in others. “Prepare your minds for action” - - - “roll up your mental sleeves and get ready for hard thinking” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Exercise self-discipline – most spiritual traditions assert that progress in the spiritual life, spiritual development, spiritual maturity, requires a measure of self-discipline. The fashioning of our souls and spirits takes time, effort and energy. Hope in grace – “authentic hope can only be a response to God’s act” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Instead of giving in to every desire, follow those desires that lead to a holy life, a whole and healthy life, God’s life. “Let yourselves be pulled into a way of life shaped by God’s life, a life energetic and blazing with holiness” (The Message).

The writer next contrasts this new way of life in Christ, a way of holiness with a former, futile way of living. Part of this new life is recognizing the importance of God and God’s dream for the world and respecting that we are called to live for that dream.

What brought the readers out of this old life and into new life was “the precious blood of Christ.” This is ancient Christian language and has been deeply meaningful for centuries. It remains meaningful for many today, but not for all. If we struggle with the sacrificial language in the New Testament, how might we get at the heart of passages such as this in a way that is meaningful and challenging for our own spiritual lives? The image here is not primarily that of an offering for forgiveness of sin, but recalls the Passover. The blood used at Passover, in the Exodus story, marked the Jews as a people moving from slavery to freedom, from the old world into a new one. The author is asserting the basic Christian affirmation in a particular language – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus lead us into new life. The blood imagery is his way of saying that, and our way may be different. Blood terminology, though alien to many modern readers, permeates biblical language and must be understood within its own framework of biblical theology. “Blood” is a shorthand way of saying “life.” It was a maxim of the biblical world that “the life is in the blood,” so that “blood” and “life” are virtual synonyms. To say Jesus gave his blood for us is to say he gave his life, himself, for us. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

The writer also asserts that this death was in the works “before the foundation of the world.” This, too, is a difficult concept for many modern readers, implying that God has all of history laid out ahead of time. This is difficult to combine with any meaningful notion of human freedom. I think the writer is being metaphoric here, and the power of his statement is in the second clause – “revealed at the end of the ages for your sake.” He is again bolstering the confidence and hope of this beleaguered community. The community’s faith and hope are set on God, the God who acted in Jesus as the Christ.

This community of faith and hope, set free by Jesus, is to live in love. “Love one another deeply from the heart.” The life of love is part of a whole new life which comes from God, and is a part of God’s eternal dream for the world. Human life will wither and fade, but within the span of our lives, we can contribute to God’s purposes for the world.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

James 4

James 4:1-12: Having delineated two types of wisdom, one full (false wisdom) of itself, boastful, selfish, the other peaceable, gentle, merciful, spiritually fruitful – a wisdom that sows justice and peace, the writer goes back to discuss the consequences of false wisdom.

False wisdom is a craving wisdom and creates conflicts and disputes. Cravings “are at war within you” – and the “you” can be both individual and communal in this context. The writer is asking that the readers look both within themselves at the cravings at war within, and within their community, at the way selfish people create disputes. “Conflict” here is used negatively, though it should not always be so defined. Conflict can happen when we have different ideas about our faith, our community, how to live as church and as disciples of Jesus Christ. That kind of conflict does not arise from selfishness and craving. It can, however, be made more difficult and even intractable, when we don’t deal well with our conflicts and allow our positions to become hardened, when we identify our position in a conflict with our identity. For more on the idea of craving, see the previous note on “desire.”

“You do not have, because you do not ask.” That seems simplistic. What’s going on? What is the writer trying to say – that we should not quarrel because we can get what we want from asking? Again, that is too simplistic. I think the writer is encouraging the reader to interrogate their cravings, their desires. Ask for what is good and wise, what will build up the community and what will help one mature in faith. “The world” often encourages other desires, other cravings. If it did so in that period of time, think of how much more it does in our day and time – advertising has multiple media, and the purpose of ads are to excite our desires, our cravings – even to create our desires and cravings. To get caught up in this world of insatiable desire is to drift away from friendship with God. It is to lose what is important in the never-ending pursuit to satisfy our desires.

James 4:5 claims to quote a Scripture text, but there is no known corresponding text in the Hebrew Scriptures. Verse 6 quotes Proverbs 3:34. Grace, given from God, is a power to query our desires. Humility is an openness to our own complexity and a willingness to question our cravings and our desires, to purify them so that we might seek God’s dream for our lives and our world. All the language about being a friend of God, of resisting the devil, of drawing near to God, can be understood as differing metaphors for questioning our desires and seeking to live more wisely, to live with the wisdom of God. To do so is to cleanse our hands and to purify our hearts – inner and outer metaphors. Recognizing how much suffering we may have caused by acting mindlessly on our cravings and desires leads us to lament and mourn - if not for our own simple failings, then perhaps for the failings of the human community which have caused such pain and suffering in the world. Of course, humans have also created great beauty, done justice, made peace. The writer of James knows both the grandeur and misery of the human condition and the world. He is encouraging readers to focus on God and God’s wisdom for their lives and the world.

The author’s advice gets more concrete in verses 11 and 12. Do not speak evil against each other. Be careful how you judge others. To be harsh toward others is a violation of the law and thus “speaks evil against the law.”

James 4:13-16: Two things seems to be happening in these verses, distinct but related. The writer is concerned with excessive preoccupation with making money and with arrogance that may come from success. Arrogance is folly. The writer also offers a meditation on the brevity of life. That should be an antidote to arrogance.

The epistle addresses what a Buddhist might call “contemplation of the transient nature of life.”… In the Buddhist context, contemplation of life’s transient nature brings a sense of urgency to our spiritual life. We may be aware of the value of spiritual practice, but in our daily lives, we tend to behave as if we will live for a long time. We have a false sense of the permanence of our existence, which is one of the greatest obstacles to a dedicated spiritual life…. Profound contemplation of life’s transient nature introduces a note of healthy realism into our life as it helps us put things in proper perspective. (Dalai Lama, Revelations, 362-363)

While the theological context differs between the Buddhist and the Christian, the Dalai Lama’s words fit the Christian well, too. To put our lives in proper perspective and to live in a new way because of that perspective is Christian wisdom. When we know what to do and to fail to do it is the meaning of “sin.” It is to miss the mark of our calling as God’s people in Jesus Christ.

James 5

James 5:1-6: At the end of the previous chapter, the writer spoke briefly of his concern for excessive pursuit of money. Here he takes direct aim at the problem. The language of the text indicates that the writer is addressing rich persons who are not a part of the community. The community of readers may have been more poor than rich. In any event, the author pulls no punches in writing a scathing indictment of those whose lives have been consumed by the accumulation of wealth. There are two problems identified. There is the inner problem that all the effort has gone toward things that in the end rot and become moth-eaten and rust. There is an inner death involved here. The other problem is that great disparities of wealth and poverty are usually indicative of injustice. Here the writer assumes that the rich he refers too have not only spent their inner spiritual resources on things that are transient, but they have also oppressed their workers. “Murder results from luxury purchased at the expense of the starving poor. There may be a reference to Sirach 34:26 – “To take away a neighbor’s living is to commit murder; to deprive an employee of wages is to shed blood.”

The epistle is passionate in its advocacy of respect for the poor. In fact, it presents a severe critique of the conceit and complacency of the rich and the powerful. Some of these criticisms may have a certain historical significance, but they underlie an important spiritual principle, which is never to forget the fundamental equality of all human beings…. By criticizing disdainful attitudes toward the poor, the epistle persuasively reminds us of the need to return to a deeper appreciation of our humanity. It reminds us to relate to fellow human beings at a level of basic humanity…. For me what matters most is basic warm-heartedness. Certainly from the standpoint of mere humanity, there are no grounds for discrimination. In the language of the Bible, we are all equal in the face of creation…. So, if we truly related to our fellow human beings with a recognition of our fundamental equality, consideration of whether someone is rich or poor, educated or uneducated, black or white, male or female, or whether he or she belongs to this or that religion naturally become secondary. (Dalai Lama, Revelations, 363-364)

In a society that has often made the pursuit of wealth a sort of religion in itself, we should take these words to heart. In a world where the disparity between rich and poor seems to be growing, we should take these words to heart. As we take these words to heart, our lives should also change.

James 5:7-12: The writer changes subjects, though the transition makes better sense if one assumes that many of those reading this letter are among the poor who often suffer injustice at the hand of the rich who have mistreated them.

In light of the difficulties and challenges of life, be patient. Strengthen your hearts. The context for these words of encouragement is that the Lord will come soon to set things right. When patience wears thin, the result is often grumbling against others. The writer uses three examples to encourage patience – a farmer waiting for harvest, the prophets, and Job. The other context for these words of encouragement is the affirmation that God is compassionate and merciful, and God’s purposes are moving forward. Hang on with patience.

Throughout the letter, the writer has been concerned with appropriate speech as one important way to live faith wisely. As he begins to draw his letter to a close, he again takes up this topic, this time centering on the practice of swearing an oath. While the words can be a little confusing, the primary point here seems to be that one’s words should arise out of integrity of life. If you are a person of deep integrity, you don’t need anything else but your own word to confirm the truth of what you say. The writer remains concerned to align faith and action, heart and life.

James 5:13-20: The community of faith and wisdom should be a community of prayer and mutual care. When suffering, pray. When filled with joy, sing. The Christian life has both suffering and joy and needs prayer and song. When sick, gather elders who will pray and anoint with oil. Such prayer opens one to the healing power of God. It would be a mistake to assume that these verses guarantee physical healing. Healing may be different from cure. Nothing changes the fact that at some point all will die. At some time, cure will not happen, so to “promise” such is foolish. These verses are trying to say that the well-being of a member of the community of faith is a matter of concern to the whole community, and that prayer opens us up to God’s healing power, whatever form that may take.

The community of faith is also a community where God’s forgiveness becomes real. Here again, prayer opens us up to God’s healing forgiveness. “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” Elijah serves as an example of this proverbial saying.

The community of faith is also a community that seeks to restore those who have wandered away. People wandering away from the community of faith may wander into ways of life that are not real life but a living death. Bringing them back puts them in touch again with God’s way of life. Restoration “will cover a multitude of sins.” Again a wisdom source is referred to. Proverbs 10:12 reads, in part, “love covers all offenses.” “On this positive and healing note the letter of James… comes to a close” (People’s New Testament Commentary). To live Christian wisdom is to live in love – love that does justice, love that seeks healing and forgiveness, love that questions desire, love that creates community, love that pays attention to what is said and done.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

James 2

First, a note on “Desire”: James 1:14-15 tells us that “one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it if fully grown, gives birth to death.” In many ways, this verse shares with a certain understanding of Buddhism what Mark Epstein, Buddhist and psychotherapist, calls “the demonization of desire” (Epstein, Open to Desire, 5). We can hear this in a verse from The Dhammapada: The rain could turn to gold and still your thirst would not be slaked. Desire is unquenchable, or it ends in tears, even in heaven(v. 186, tr. Thomas Byrom). On the other hand, Epstein is insightful in discussing the role of desire in Western culture. “The usual way of approaching desire in our culture… is to indulge it either mindlessly or guiltily” (5). The insight of Buddhism and of James is that desire indulged mindlessly becomes unquenchable, leads to death. Some could argue that both James and Buddhism, in response, argue for the complete elimination of desire. I argued against that in my earlier comments on these verses. Here I want to spell that out further as I think it has something important to say to our lives as Christians and can help us as we read on.

I have been greatly helped in all this by Mark Epstein’s work. There is more to desire than just suffering. There is a yearning that is as spiritual as it is sensual. Even when it degenerates into addiction, there is something salvageable from the original impulse that can only be described as sacred. Something in the person (dare we call it a soul?) wants to be free, and it seeks freedom any way it can…. There is a drive for transcendence that it implicit in even the most sensual of desires. While there are certainly currents in both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions that dismiss or denigrate desire, encouraging us to forsake it through renunciation or sublimation, there is another more controversial alternative…. Rather than treating it as the cause of suffering, desire is embraced as a valuable and precious resource, an emotion that, if harnessed correctly, can awaken and liberate the mind…. [One] must learn how to use desire instead of being used by it. (7-8)

Human desires are often intertwined, so interconnected that it is often difficult to disentangle them. So we often pursue one desire, thinking that we are pursuing another, and the end result is suffering, frustration, dissatisfaction. Desires so intertwined and interconnected, followed mindlessly, unquestioned, become insatiable, and the result of this endless pursuit of insatiable desire is something less than life as God intends it to be lived. If we are willing to interrogate our desires, query them, question them, hold them without clinging to them, we have the opportunity to follow them more healthfully and helpfully. Wisdom might be the ability to query desire, and follow desire to God who gives life.

James 2:1-13: Chapter one ended with a definition of pure religion – caring for the less fortunate and “keeping oneself unstained by the world.” One of the ways the world might affect us is in allowing the same partiality we find in the world in the church. Favoritism has been an issue throughout the history of the church – favoring the wealthy, the well-connected, or keeping the poor or the colored on the margins. The writer here is rhetorically brilliant – if you play favorites do you really believe in the Lord Jesus Christ? Powerful words. Playing favorites based on obvious outward distinctions is giving in to evil thoughts.

Not only is this giving in to evil thoughts, but it is to forget how often God uses the poor to be rich in God’s grace, to be at the heart of God’s kingdom. When paying excessive attention to the rich, we may be missing the very movement of God in the world. Furthermore, the rich are often the ones who oppress.

Rather than be partial toward the rich, the community of faith is to fulfill “the royal law” – “love your neighbor as yourself.” “Flattery and showing partiality toward the rich were expected behavior in the society of [James] day” (New Interpreters Study Bible). Given that societal pressure to show partiality, the writer strongly emphasizes the law of love. One may not murder anyone, or commit adultery, but failure to love is just as much missing God’s purpose as doing such things. Live as if you will be judged by this law of love. Mercy overcomes judgment, so be merciful.

James 2:14-26: Having taken up the importance of love, and of acting out love, the writer now moves to the topic of faith, and the importance of living out one’s faith. Some see these verses as opposed to Paul’s views on faith, but that misses the fact that each wrote in different contexts, and rather than arguing opposing positions, emphasized different sides of the message as needed in those distinct contexts. People who have been struggling to live their faith against difficult odds need to hear that it is God’s freely given love and grace which finally save, not one’s own efforts. At the same time, people also need to hear that faith that does not work through love is not a very lively faith. That is James’ emphasis. Faith lacking works, lacking loving action, is dead faith.

The real test of spiritual practice lies in the practitioner’s behavior. There is sometimes a tendency to think of the spiritual life as primarily introspective, divorced from the concerns of everyday life and society. This, I believe, is plainly wrong and is also rejected in this epistle. Faith that does not translate into actions is no faith at all. (Dalai Lama, Revelations, 361).

James makes his case as if arguing against an imaginary opponent who wants to argue that he can demonstrate faith apart from works. James argues that it is much easier to demonstrate faith by works, in fact, such a demonstration is necessary. Faith is brought to completion through works, it is not simply believing the right things. The theme of completion finds its way back into the letter – remember it was present in 1:4. I am reminded of some of the words of John Wesley. Neither does religion consist in orthodoxy, or right opinions (“The Way of the Kingdom,” sermon). In that sermon, Wesley goes on to argue that true religion consists in righteousness, peace and joy in God’s Spirit – righteousness including love for God and love for others, the latter meaning doing good to all persons.

James 3

James 3:1-12: The writer picks up a theme introduced in both chapters 1 and 2 – the need to discipline one’s speech. He begins by writing of those for whom speech is central to their vocation – teachers. “Teachers played an important role in the early church” (New Interpreters Study Bible). Those who teach will be judged “with greater strictness.” One probably thinks here of a final judgment, but the words hold true for judgments in the present time. Don’t we hold teachers and leaders to higher standards? Don’t we expect spiritual teachers to follow their own teachings?

Perfect control of speech would be perfect control of life, and none of us is there yet, the writer tells us. He goes on to discuss, using rich metaphors, the importance of the tongue and the need to control it. This theme is found in other wisdom literature, Christian and non-Christian. “Beware of anger of the mouth. Master your words. Let them serve truth.” (The Dhammapada, 232. Byrom tr.)

However, the writer seems to get quite caught up in the dangers of the tongue, almost losing the sense that it can be controlled at all. Here are verses 5-8 from The Message: It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony into chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell. This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue – it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer.

How can we tame such an animal? Maybe we can’t completely, but the writer pulls back from that conclusion to note that the tongue can bless God, bless others. Yet the same tongue also curses others, others made in the likeness of God. To then say, “this ought not to be so,” implies that we can do better. The writer is telling us that how we use words is vitally important, and that we often use our words poorly, destructively. As God’s people, as people of faith, we should do better. The writer, with his use of nature metaphors, is also saying, “of all God’s creatures, only humans violate the integrity and consistency of creation” (People’s New Testament Commentary).

Being mindful and cautious in our use of words is a significant challenge in our day and time. Words surround us. They come at us from every direction. Human beings have become ingenious in multiplying the ways we can get words to others – cell phones, text messaging, the internet, i pods. We have come a long way since the transistor radio. We should take these words to heart, and to tongue.

A brother asked Abba Sisois, “I long to guard my heart.” The old man said to him, “And how can we guard the heart if our tongue leaves the door of the fortress open?” (Spiritual Formation Bible)

James 3:13-18: As he has before, the writer returns to a theme introduced earlier – here it is wisdom. He poses a rhetorical question – who is wise? Just as faith is demonstrated by good works, so, too, wisdom. There is a false wisdom that is full of itself – full of selfish ambition and envy. Such wisdom creates disorder and wickedness. True wisdom is pure, peaceable, gentle, merciful, full of good fruits, shows no partiality. Wisdom makes peace and leads to peace and justice/righteousness. Verse 18 could be translated: “And the fruit of justice is sown in peace among those who make peace” (People’s New Testament Commentary) Here are some of these verses as rendered in The Message: Do you want to be counted wise, to build a reputation for wisdom? Here’s what you do: Live well, live wisely, live humbly. It’s the way you live, not the way you talk, that counts…. Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.

The challenge of these verses is not understanding them. The challenge is living them, living wisely, living humbly, living well.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Letter of James

Two “James” are well-known in the history of the early church, James the brother of John and a son of Zebedee, martyred in 44 CE by Herod Agrippa, and James, the brother of Jesus, leader in the Jerusalem church from about 36 CE until his martyrdom in 62 CE. Given the early death of James the brother of John, it seems that he is an unlikely candidate to be the James referred to in 1:1. Most likely, then, the book before us was put forward in the name of James the brother of Jesus. It is unlikely that this James is the actual author of the book. This letter is written in elegant Greek and uses sophisticated Greek grammar and rhetoric. There are only two direct references to Jesus in the entire letter, which would be odd if James the brother of Jesus were the author. Furthermore, the letter does not address the issues central to early Jewish Christianity (circumcision, Sabbath, food laws, the place of Gentiles in the church). Finally, the letter itself was embraced rather late in the process of forming the New Testament – it appears in no lists of books until 200 CE. Again, this seems unlikely for a letter written by James the brother of Jesus. In all likelihood, then, we have another example of a pseudonymous letter in the early church, that is, a letter written in the name of another person.

Given uncertainty about the author and the general nature of much of the letter, a time and place of writing are difficult to determine. It seems that the letter may have been written to Jewish Christians, but it may also be a general letter to Christians everywhere. It seems directed to groups of people rather than to a specific community of faith. It addresses a number of issues that might arise in a community of faith.

James is not addressed to a specific church; instead, it appears to be a general letter written to numerous churches…. It adopts a style of instructional speech characteristic of Greco-Roman ethical teaching…. The most striking features of this style involve questions from a fictive (imaginary) opponent, words attributed to particular characters as well as rapid-fire questions and answers. These questions need not represent actual problems within the community. Another feature of the… style involves dense use of metaphor. Many comparisons are derived from nature. Others involve human activities. Figures from the past serve as examples. (New Interpreters Study Bible)

James has suffered among Christian readers, especially Protestant, since Luther’s unfortunate reference to is as “a right strawy epistle.” More recent students of James have found the tension between Paul and James overdrawn and unfair to both, failing to credit Paul with attention to works and James with attention to faith. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

If Luther found this letter in many ways spiritually deficient, its spiritual power is attested to by an introduction to the book written by an unlikely commentator upon the Bible, the Dalai Lama (Revelations). His words give us some indication of the potential spiritual encouragement and challenge in this work.

I am struck by the similarities between this beautiful letter in the Bible and some of the texts in my own Buddhist tradition, especially those that belong to the genre known as “lojong,” literally meaning “training the mind.” As with “lojong” texts, I believe this epistle can be read on different levels. On the practical level, however, it encapsulates many of the key principles that are crucial for learning how to be a better human being. More precisely, it teaches us how to bring our spiritual vision to life at the highest possible level…. The real test of spiritual practice lies in the practitioner’s behavior. There is sometimes a tendency to think of the spiritual life as primarily introspective, divorced from the concerns of everyday life and society…. Faith that does not translate into actions is no faith at all. When we read this text from the Bible today, two thousand years after it was written, it reminds us that not only are many of our fundamental spiritual values universal, they are also perennial. (Revelations, 359, 361, 364)

I will refer back to some of the Dalai Lama’s comments about the book as we are reading through it. If you have an interest in finding out more about Buddhist lojong teachings, two works by the well-known Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron might be consulted – Start Where You Are and Always Maintain a Joyful Mind. The title of the latter book is taken from one of the lojong slogans – “always maintain only a joyful mind.” Like such teachings, the Letter of James wants us to live faith more deeply and offers instruction for doing so.

James 1

James 1:1: This greeting is the only familiar feature of a letter, and as we have noted, is probably a literary device. One note about this device – James is Greek for “Jacob” and so the letter is from “Jacob” to the “twelve tribes in the Dispersion” – a strong reference to Jewish Scripture and tradition.

James 1:2-26: “Taken as the rhetorical introduction to what follows, this section presents Christianity as a way to perfection” (People’s New Testament Commentary). A number of themes are introduced here that will be found in other parts of the letter.

One way to completeness, maturity, or “perfection” is to face difficulties with joy. The “trials” may be external circumstances that create difficulty (persecution for faith, difficult socioeconomic circumstances) or may be internal conditions which need to be contended with. The advice to face difficulties with joy should be given carefully. When someone is suffering, it is best to listen and suffer with them. These words are best given when one’s suffering is not acute. We can cultivate an attitude of mind that sees in difficulties opportunities for growth and learning. All experience can teach us something, though our first response when we see others suffering should be to alleviate the conditions of suffering. Peterson’s translation of verse 2: “consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides” (The Message) strikes me as a little too sanguine.

Perhaps such an attitude is a quality of wisdom, and wisdom is seen here as a gift of God, a gift of a generous God. If one lacks is wisdom, one is advised to pray for it, pray for it in faith, trusting deeply that God will grant wisdom. The kind of doubt that James is concerned with here is not intellectual doubt, but a lack of trust that even in difficulty and doubt one may grow in wisdom. Honest doubt, that struggles with faith questions, is still a sign of faith. If one lacked faith, one would not bother to continue to ask questions about one’s faith tradition.

Lack of commitment and a wavering mind are among the greatest obstacles to a successful spiritual life. However, this need not be a blind faith, but rather a commitment based on personal appreciation of the value and efficacy of the spiritual path. Such faith arises through a process of reflection and deep understanding. Buddhist texts describe three levels of faith, namely: faith as admiration, faith as reasoned conviction, and faith as emulation of high spiritual ideals. I believe that these three kinds of faith are applicable here as well. (Dalai Lama, Revelations, 360)

Wisdom, in addition to being able to seek joy in the midst of struggle and difficulty, sees that riches are transitory. Being rich is like a flower that that withers away. People of faith who are poor should take heart. People of faith who are rich should take note.

As mentioned before, trials may be inner, and here the writer calls blessed those who endure temptation. In verses 2-8, endurance produces maturity, completeness. In these verses, endurance leads to life at its best and the opposite of endurance is giving in to one’s desires which leads to a kind of death. The writer argues that God is not the source of temptation, but that it comes from within. Desire should not be wholly condemned on the basis of these verses. Human desire comes in all shapes and sizes, and healthy persons are aware of their desires. Awareness is different from acquiescing to desire. Some desire should be acted upon, though how one acts upon it matters. Some desire needs to be rejected. Wisdom knows the difference.

God is giver of wisdom and life, and in fact, of every good and perfect gift. God’s love and good intentions are unchangeable – that need not mean God is in every respect unchangeable. God’s purposes continue to move forward, and the writer asserts that the recipients of the letter are a part of the fulfillment of God’s purposes. This is a wonderful poetic passage intended to evoke faith/trust in those reading it. Trust God in the midst of struggle and difficulty. Trust God for wisdom. Trust God for life.

One “desire” that a person may experience is anger, or the desire to express anger. Anger must always be handled with great care. The writer argues that anger does not produce God’s righteousness. That is perhaps too sweeping a warning, but an effective warning. I recall an essay written by the feminist theologian Beverly Harrison entitled, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love” in which she argues that anger can have a place in the work of love. I think it may, but it needs to be handled with great care. “More listening and deliberate speech help keep anger in check” (People’s New Testament Commentary) Verse 19 reflects the Apocrypha book Sirach (5:11): “Be quick to hear, but deliberate in answering.” The Message: “Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear.”

The epistle reminds us of the power of the destructive tendencies that exist naturally in all of us…. These two verses [19-20] encapsulate principles that are of utmost importance to a spiritual practitioner, and for that matter, any individual who aspires to express his or her basic human goodness. This emphasis on hearing as opposed to speaking teaches us the need for open-heartedness. For without it we have no room to receive the blessings and positive transformation that we might otherwise experience in our interaction with our fellow human beings. Open and receptive, swift to listen to others, we should be slow to speak, because speech is a powerful instrument that can be highly constructive or profoundly destructive. We are all aware how seemingly harmless speech can actually inflict deep hurt upon others…. The instruction that we should be “slow to anger” reminds us that it is vital to ensure some degree of restraint over powerful negative emotions like anger, for actions motivated by such states of mind are almost invariably destructive. This is something we must both appreciate and strive to implement in our everyday lives. Only then can we hope to reap the fruit of living a spiritual life. (Dalai Lama, Revelations, 360-361)

That the Dalai Lama can be so insightful about this book says something about its values and about the type of literature it is. Its closest relatives in the Bible may be the wisdom books of the Hebrew Scriptures (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes) and of the Apocrypha (Sirach, The Wisdom of Solomon). Wisdom literature is often accessible across religious traditions in ways that other types of Biblical literature are not. James may be an early Christian wisdom book.

Not only should anger be handled with care, but we should reject all “sordidness and wickedness.” Instead we should be open to the “implanted word” the word and Spirit of God that has power to make a saving difference in our lives.

Openness to this word and Spirit of God is not a passive activity. Openness to the word and Spirit leads to life lived differently. In Greek, “hearing” and “obeying” are from the same root (People’s New Testament Commentary). What kind of activity is evidence that one has been open to word and Spirit? - - - Watching one’s tongue, caring for widows and orphans, and keeping oneself “unstained by the world.” The Message: Anyone who sets himself up as “religious” by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God… is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world. The word “religion” is rarely used in the New Testament, but seems to fit this work as a wisdom work.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Hebrews 12

Hebrews 12:1-17: Having spoken of faith of the history of faith from which the Jewish Christians to which he is writing draw their strength and inspiration, the author again encourages perseverance and endurance. “The race easily lent itself as a metaphor for moral and ethical struggle, involving as it did rigorous training, self-discipline, intense effort, and laying aside anything that encumbered the contestant” (People’s New Testament Commentary). This metaphor as explained in the commentary seems an encouragement to a life of spiritual discipline, spiritual practice. We trust that God’s grace, love and forgiveness are given to us as we are, and require nothing from us. At the same time, if we are to grow in grace and love, if we are really to know the Christian life at its deepest and best, this requires effort. It asks of us self-discipline and effort. It asks that we leave behind those things that hinder us in running the race – sin is defined as such a hindrance. There is a cloud of witnesses cheering us on, and Jesus himself is a prime example of running the race to the finish, against difficult odds. Jesus endured, and so should those reading this letter (then and now). Jesus endured “so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”

The writer notes that others have endured to the point of shedding blood, beyond what the readers have endured to date. The readers are invited to consider their sufferings and difficulties as a form of discipline, a form of guidance in love. Does this mean that people should interpret all suffering as some kind of lesson given from God? I don’t think that is a very adequate theology. Rather than say, “God never gives us more than we can endure” – which some may argue from verses 5-6 and following, and which implies that God is responsible for causing all human suffering; I prefer to say, “Nothing ever happens that we cannot with help from God and others, endure, and even learn and grow from.” This latter statement also fits this Scripture, I think, without making God directly responsible for suffering. When we can ask about learning from all our experience, even our difficult ones, then we open ourselves to growth in the Spirit. It is about growth and training, not punishment. The writer seems to suggest that the alternative to seeing difficulty and suffering as an opportunity for growth and learning is to see it as something completely outside of God’s redeeming possibility. Our goal is to nurture “the peaceful fruit of righteousness” – when things are easy and when things are difficult. “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees – be healed.” “Pursue peace with everyone.” This is a communal project as well as an individual one – “see to it… that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble.” Don’t give up long term benefit for short-term gain, like Esau.

Hebrews 12:18-29: The writer now moves to another comparison of Christian faith as an outgrowth of Judaism with the Judaism that has been left behind. Again, this is not a final word about Judaism from a Christian perspective, but part of a letter encouraging Jewish Christians to keep the faith in Jesus. In contrast to Mount Sinai, those to whom the author is writing are said to have come to Mount Zion – “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” While a fuller realization of all that God promises remains in the future, much of it can be experienced even now, according to these words.

Positive words of encouragement are followed by rather harsh words of warning. You have all this, don’t turn away, don’t refuse “the one who is speaking.” This is quickly followed by a more positive word – “since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with awe and reverence” – and a more challenging word – “for our God is a consuming fire.”

Hebrews 13

Hebrews 13:1-19: From challenging words and more difficult images to more practical advice on life in Christian community. In the New Testament, theology seems always wed to advice on how to live the faith.

“Let mutual love continue” – another great short verse in the New Testament. “Show hospitality to strangers.” “Remember those who are in prison – those who are being tortured.” How do we hear such words in our day and time, when our prison population has skyrocketed and we debate torture as a means of fighting terrorism. Such words don’t give us simple answers to these complex questions, but they invite deep reflection. They won’t let us ignore the difficult issues of our day. The marriage covenant should be honored and the marriage bed “undefiled.” Seeking to live the faith does not mean an asexual existence as some have insisted, viewing healthy sexuality as somehow inappropriate for the pure. It does mean a self-discipline and self-control. “The Christian community continued Judaism’s high regard for marriage and its strong prohibition against adultery” (People’s New Testament Commentary). “Keep your lives free from love of money.” How we relate to our possessions remains an important spiritual issue, and a measure of contentment with what we have is part of a healthy spirituality. This does not preclude a hope for people to better the circumstances of their lives, but focusing too strongly on such a thing can harm one, can warp one’s spirit.

Apparently the community possessed some good leaders. They are held up for esteem and imitation. Of course, the person most to be imitated is Jesus Christ – whose enduring character is proclaimed here. What the writer is commenting upon is the character of Jesus as the Christ, his faithfulness to the end of his life. He is not dismissing the possibility that theological understandings of the meaning of Jesus may undergo revision over time so that they speak to people in new circumstances. The letter writer himself has been quite creative in using elements of the Jewish tradition and story to understand Jesus and the Jesus way of life.

At the same time, understandings of Christian faith and life are not infinitely elastic. Some strange teachings carry one away from Christ and are to be avoided – teachings about food. “It is well for the heart to be strengthened by grace.” With such strength we can endure some of the same abuse that Jesus suffered while we wait “for the city that is to come” – for that time when God’s dream for the world will be fully realized. The writer seems, in places here, to again be comparing the new faith with the old and arguing for the superiority of the new using imagery from the old. In our life in Jesus we praise God, do good and share what we have.

Leaders are to be followed. There are limits to this, to be sure, but communities seem to require leaders of some kind, people whose task it is to remind the entire community of the story, of what is important, of where we need to be going. Good leaders are empowering and listening leaders, but leaders nonetheless. Good leaders can’t make people go where they are unwilling to go, but good leaders can open up possibilities so that people might go places they never thought possible. When community is working well, leaders do their work with joy and not with sighing. Too much sighing indicates a community that may be less than healthy.

Hebrews 13:20-25: Verses 20-21 are a prayer-benediction, asking the God of peace to make the readers “complete in everything good.” What a nice prayer to pray for our lives and our communities of faith. The God of peace is also the God who brought back Jesus from the dead – this is the only overt reference to the resurrection in the New Testament. In the early church, different parts of the Jesus story received different emphases. Hebrews seems much more focused on trying to understand Jesus’ death, and trying to understand it in various ways – as sacrifice, as a priestly act, as a model for endurance in faith.

The final verses complete this sermon in the form of a letter. It has been a word of exhortation. The reference to Timothy seems to indicate that the letter was written within the Pauline circle of early Christianity.
Hebrews 11

Hebrews 11:1: The writer concluded the previous chapter by saying that the readers were not those who would shrink back, but were those who had faith. He will now spend time delineating what it means to have faith. We find not a “definition” of faith; after all, the word “faith” will sometimes indicate trust or belief and sometimes refer to the quality of loyalty or faithfulness. Rather than offering a definition, the author provides thematic unity to the discussion…. As used here, faith cannot be severed from hope. (People’s New Testament Commentary) I am not sure I agree entirely with the commentary writers here. The author of Hebrews is not engaged in an abstract discussion of the meaning of “faith,” to be sure, but he is trying to characterize it in order to encourage it in his readers. These readers are suffering for being Christian, and they need faith, an assurance that they are on the right path – the path of life and of God’s promise, even though the way is difficult at present. The remaining commentary will be edited excerpts from my Sunday sermon, March 30.

Hebrews 11:1-38: I think it is helpful to see the first verse of this chapter in various translations:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (KJV)
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (NRSV)
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain about what we do not see. (NIV)
Faith makes us sure of what we hope for and gives us proof of what we cannot see. (CEV)
Now faith means putting our full confidence in the things we hope for; it means being certain of things we cannot see. (Phillips)
The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. (The Message)

All of this still seems a little difficult to grab hold of. What we can be certain of is that for the writer of Hebrews, out of sight should not be out of mind, but, in fact, what is “out of sight” seems quite important. He defines “faith” in terms of what cannot be seen. “Faith” is an important word for us. As Christians, we are sometimes called “people of faith.” But if the definition of the writer of Hebrews is a little hard to get a hold of, maybe the history of Christian thinking can help. As a theologian, in my training, I encountered a number of definitions of faith. Let’s see if they can help.

“Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned” Paul Tillich (Dynamics of Faith, 1)
“Wonder and expectancy are its barest psychical manifestations. Trust, connoting a psychical resolution of issues raised by wonder and expectancy… can be regarded as a more settled form of faith.” Bernard Meland (Faith and Culture, 14)
“Faith looks to an ultimate order beyond the incoherences, incongruities, and cross-purposes, and creates or accepts the presupposition of a divine providence, related to the ultimate source of the temporal process.” Reinhold Niebuhr, (Faith and Politics, 8)
“Faith… is primarily a matter of the basic emotions, attitudes and commitments from which one’s behavior follows…. Faith is fundamentally a mode of existence.” John B. Cobb and David Ray Griffin (Process Theology, 31)
“Faith means fighting against the prevailing cynicism and standing up to it…. To have faith means to have a vision… Without faith our life can only go as far as we are able to see right now.” Dorothee Soelle,(Choosing Life, 11; Not Just Yes and Amen, 55, 54)

Though she is not a theologian, I cannot help but bring one of my favorite theological writers into the mix. Anne Lamott writes about hope, but her words are a wonderful definition of faith – “choosing to believe this one thing, that love is stronger than any grim bleak [stuff] anyone can throw at us” (Plan B, 275)

I have shared these various translations of Hebrews 11:1 and displayed this theological parade to remind us all that faith is a complicated matter. It is complex because life is complex. The writer of Hebrews doesn’t do too bad, in trying to define faith in terms of confidence and assurance even when we don’t see everything we might like to see. Faith has to do with a basic trust – a trust that things we cannot touch with our hands or see with our eyes or snap a picture of, deserve our deepest commitment and loyalty. They deserve our time and attention and effort. Out of sight should not only not be out of mind, it is that which is out of sight that should be foremost in our hearts, our minds, our lives, according to the writer of Hebrews and others who have tried to describe “faith” in words eloquent and complicated. God cannot be seen, but is to be trusted. The world as God would have it, God’s dream for the world, is not the world we live in. God’s dream for the world is of a world of beauty, peace, justice, forgiveness, reconciliation, love, care, healing, kindness, gentleness, compassion. It is not the world we see around us, and much of what we see tells us that to live in the way of God’s dream for the world is to live foolishly, naively. Faith says, live it anyway. Trust that this is the way of life. Trust that life lived in this way has value well beyond its years.

The essence of faith is trust (assurance, certainty, conviction – synonyms). Faith as trust is both an inner attitude and a motivation to action. Genuine faith needs to be both.
Deep within myself I find conflicting tendencies. Some lead me to affirm life, some to deny it. Each day there is a struggle. The issue is which tendencies will prevail. It is up to me whether I call upon the life-affirming tendencies or ignore them, whether I resist the life-denying tendencies or acquiesce in them. (Donald Evans, Struggle and Fulfillment, 1) The most crucial personal struggle in religion, morality and life is between trust and distrust (2). With basic trust, “the initial assumption… is that something positive may emerge” (2).

Faith as an inner attitude of trust is to trust that God is present and active in our lives and in our world so that something positive is always possible. It is to trust that God is present and active in our world so that the world can be different, better, sometimes dramatically so – the Easter message continued. To have such an inner attitude is to pay attention to the world differently – to be willing to look wide-eyed at it, its beauty and its ugliness, its joy and its pain, and to trust that beauty and joy and justice are stronger, that love is stronger than any grim, bleak stuff life can throw at us. To have such faith, such trust means to be willing to quiet the mind so that we can see more clearly.

Sonya Vetra Tinsley – singer, songwriter and activist: Every day presents infinite reasons to believe that change can’t happen, infinite reasons to give up. But I always tell myself, “Sonya, you have to pick your team.” It seems to me that there are two teams in this world. And you can find evidence to support the arguments of both. The trademark of one team is cynicism. They’ll tell you why what you’re doing doesn’t matter, why nothing is going to change, why no matter how hard you work, you’re going to fail…. Then there’s another group of people who admit that they don’t know how things will turn out, but have decided to work for change…. They’re always telling stories of faith being rewarded, of ways things could be different, of how their own lives have changed…. They believe we’re partners in God’s creation, and that change is really possible…. There are times when both teams seem right…. We’ll never know who’s really going to prevail. So I just have to decide which team seems happier, which side I’d rather be on. And for me that means choosing on the side of faith. Because on the side of cynicism, even if they’re right, who wants to win that argument anyway. If I’m going to stick with somebody, I’d rather stick with people who have a sense of possibility and hope. (The Impossible Will Take a Little Time, 346-347)

Faith is not only this inner attitude of hope and possibility, of quieting the mind and of seeing the world differently. Faith also means to live and act differently. If we trust God, if we trust that God’s way in the world (justice, peace, beauty, joy, reconciliation, peace, healing, care for the earth, care for others, kindness, gentleness, compassion) is the way of life, we will live differently. When you read the entire eleventh chapter of Hebrews, though it begins with a definition of faith as inner attitude, it becomes clear very quickly that such an attitude finds its way into living. In many ways, this is the first rhythmic Christian sermon. By faith, Abraham obeyed… By faith, he stayed for a time… By faith, he received the power of procreation… By faith, Abraham offered up Isaac… By faith, Isaac invoked blessings on Jacob and Esau… By faith, Jacob blessed the sons of Joseph… By faith, Moses was hidden by his parents… By faith, Moses refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter… By faith, he left Egypt… By faith, he kept the Passover… By faith, the people passed through the Red Sea… By faith, Rahab the prostitute received the spies in peace - - - And what more should I say – Gideon, Barak, Samson, David, Samuel, the prophets – through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness……

Faith as trust is both inner attitude and outward expression. In 1970, Miles Goodwin was discharged from the army after serving a year in Vietnam. He was on a plan from Oakland back home to Dallas. He was concerned about encountering hostility and just wanted to get home without incident. Sitting on the plane, in uniform, in a window seat, he avoided contact with others. He felt alone and isolated. A young girl, not more that ten years old, suddenly appeared in the aisle. She smiled and without a word timidly handed me a magazine. I accepted her offering, her quiet “welcome home.” All I could say was, “Thank you.” I do not know where she sat down or who she was with because right after accepting the magazine from her I turned to the window and wept. Her small gesture of compassion was the first I had experienced in a long time. Miles Goodwin is now a real estate attorney in Milwaukee, and he shared this story on NPR’s “This I Believe” series. He ended by saying: Since then, I have followed her example and tried, in different ways for different people, to do the same for them. Like me on that long-ago plane ride, they will never know why a stranger took the time to extend a hand. But I know that my attempts since then are all because of that little girl. Her offer of a magazine to a tired, scared, and lonely soldier has echoed throughout my life. I have to believe that my small gestures have the same effect on others. And to that little girl, now a woman, I would like to take the opportunity to say again, thank you. (81ff).

When Bishop Oscar Romero was appointed Archbishop of El Salvador in 1977, he was seen as conservative, timid, “spiritual,” and in poor health. In other words, he was viewed as a safe choice in a difficult social situation – in an El Salvador of death squads and rebels. The Catholic Church found itself in a difficult situation. It had long been associated with the rich and powerful in the country, but some prominent priests were not voicing support for the poor in the country, and some of these priests were being killed by paramilitaries, some associated with elements in the government. Not long after Romeo became Archbishop, a flyer circulated in the country – “Be a patriot, kill a priest.” Romero grew to become a more active Archbishop as he saw priests killed, as he watched the plight of the poor in his country. In 1979, Romero issued a statement including these words: “The conflict is not between church and government, it is between government and people. The church is with the people and the people are with the church, thank God.” (The Religious Roots of Rebellion, 137) March 23, 1980 in a sermon, Romero appealed to soldiers and police: Brothers, you belong to our people. You are killing your own brothers and sisters in the peasants. God’s law, which says, “Thou shalt not kill” should prevail over any order given by a man. No soldier is obliged to obey an order against God’s law. No one has to carry out an immoral law. It is time to recover your conscience and obey it rather than orders given in sin. The church, defender of God’s rights, God’s law, of human dignity, of the human person, cannot be silent in the face of such abomination…. In the name of God and in the name of this long-suffering people whose cries rise every more thunderously to heaven, I beg you, I implore you, I order you, in the name of God: stop the repression. (150) The next day while celebrating communion, Archbishop Romero was shot and killed. Persons linked to paramilitary groups with ties to the military and some powerful people in El Salvador seemed responsible for this act. But Romero’s speaking out for his people, even in the face of a violence which eventually took his life was a way of living faith, faith that justice and dignity are what God requires, that poverty is not a part of God’s dream for the world.

Faith really is confidence, assurance, trust in what we hope for, a kind of certainty that the unseen God is trustworthy and God’s unseen dream for the world is coming and our task is to live it now. It is what makes life worth living. Faith really is to be ultimately concerned about life and love and justice and peace and beauty and forgiveness and reconciliation and care for the earth and care for others and kindness and compassion and gentleness. Faith trusts that though there are incoherences in life, incongruities, we move forward to do the good we can anyway. Faith really is about wonder and expectancy. Faith really is about a way of life. Faith really is about standing up against cynicism – and in faith we trust that love is stronger than any grim, bleak stuff life can throw at us. Faith is an inner orientation that trusts that life is about love, justice, peace, beauty, forgiveness, reconciliation, care for the earth and others, kindness, compassion, gentleness. In faith we trust God and God’s dream for the world, we trust that as we live this dream now God will use our lives, our work to bring that dream closer. In faith we see the world differently – with wonder and expectancy and hope, with a sense that something positive may emerge. We pay attention differently, keeping our minds both keen and quiet so that we can truly see. In faith, because we see the world differently, we live in the world differently. We make what is out of sight the center of our minds and hearts and lives.

Hebrews 11:39-40: Having delineated a history of faith, the writer goes on to say that none of these persons received all that God had promised. Only with the people of faith to whom he is writing will God’s promises for a new world be fulfilled.