01 March 2015

Misunderstood Scripture — 1 Corinthians 2.9

“No one has ever seen,
   no one has ever heard,
no one has ever imagined
   what Yahweh has prepared for those who love G‑d.”

I’m sure you’ve seen this verse quoted many times. It’s on bumper stickers. Posters. Daily Bread blessing cards. Memory verse flashcards. And, most recently, one will find it on memes in social media. The idea is that G‑d still has something hidden out there for you. G‑d’s got a plan for you — bigger than anything you could ever imagine — hidden away and past finding out.

But that’s wrong.

This is one of those verses that’s continually quoted out of context. Maybe purposefully or maybe it just shows our lack of biblical understanding. Either way, it drives me a little mad (like in “as a hatter”).

So, the purpose of this post is to do some good ol’ fashioned hermeneutics of the verse. We’ll seek the context of the verse, the passage, and the letter as a whole. But, we’ll do all of this in reverse order.

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians2

Many of us come to the Bible thinking that it speaks to us about things we’re going through. That “G‑d” wrote it to us about our current situations. That’s the furthest from the truth. The Bible is a library of many different types of literature — poems, epic adventures, wisdom, letters, myths (in the classic sense of the word), biographies, genealogies, and, yes, even some history. This library was written by ancient peoples thousands of years in the past about their lives. It’s about their encounters with the Creator G‑d. About their struggles. About their accomplishments. It’s about their pain and their suffering. It’s about their victories and successes. It’s about shame. It’s about hope.

But, in all of this, it’s first and foremost a library containing stories about someone else’s life with G‑d. Through it we can see the understanding of this G‑d evolve until it reaches its climax in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And then, everything else that came before — every understanding, every observation, every law — had to be rethought and re-examined in light of Jesus. That’s what a lot of the New Testament is about.

We must keep this in mind when we read the Bible. I know it’s hard, but that’s the reality of the situation. Furthermore, each of us will never be separated from our own story. That is, when we come to the Bible, we have our own lenses through which we read and interpret it. In other words, we’re biased. All of us are. But that’s okay as long as we recognize that.

The overall context of 1 Corinthians

This first letter to the Corinthians was written in the spring of 55CE or there abouts. And while some scholars have questioned the authorship of some of the other letters attributed to Paul, this letter falls into the “undisputed” category. Paul is widely accepted to be it’s author, even though he used a secretary to do the actual writing (see 16.213). However, some question the authenticity of 14.34-354.

In this letter, Paul set out to address many of the contentions and concerns of the followers of The Way of Jesus at Corinth — from their petty differences (which apostle one was following; 1.10-13), to down-right shocking (someone sleeping with his stepmother; 5.1), to drunken parties at Eucharist (11.17ff), to denying the resurrection of Jesus (15.12ff). Needlesstosay, Paul had his hands full!

But notice one thing in that previous paragraph — this letter was addressed to the followers of The Way of Jesus in Corinth in 55CE (1.2). The point is, as noted above, this letter was written to other people; it’s not “G‑d’s love letter to us.” Like Paul wrote in chapter 10, “These things happened to them as examples for us” (10.11, emphasis added; this is a key passage that we’ll address anon).

In fact, that’s a huge point. Paul was addressing things that those people were going through. He was not addressing us, our time, nor our issues. What I’m trying to say is, before we can even think about looking for ways of applying passages of the Bible to our situations, the job of the Bible student is to determine what the passage meant to the original audience. Then, if there’s a parallel, we can look for application in our time. As hard as it is to grasp, the Bible is not a book of universal truths that bypass historical context. These were real people with real issues and the letters have to address them and their situations.

The context of the passage

So, what is Paul’s point in the passage before us? What was the issue and the context of his comments?

In the first half of the letter or so, Paul was addressing the various places where the people had gotten trapped in falseness. To put it bluntly — there were some people who were living in a constant state of “sin”; of missing the mark. Paul addresses this at the very beginning of the letter:

Now I encourage you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus the Christ: Agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups. Instead, be restored with the same mind and the same purpose. My brothers and sisters, Chloe’s people gave me some information about you, that you’re fighting with each other. What I mean is this: that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas,” “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you, or were you baptized in Paul’s name? (1.10-13; adapted).

We see here that people were divided into cliques. And, as you can imagine, in those divisions people looked down on the others not in their group. And then there are those who place themselves above all of those petty differences and claim that they belong to Christ. Each group sees themselves as holding on to the purity of the gospel and they see the others as tainted or unclean. Each group sees themselves as better than the others; that they’re somehow more wise or more intelligent or, yes, even more holy than those people of the other groups. Those other people have let some heresy in.

But Paul counters that thinking in the following verses (18.ff). He claims that it’s not human intelligence but G‑d’s wisdom that rescued humanity (verses 20-25). After giving this generalization about how G‑d dealt with all people, Paul turns his attention to the Corinthians. He tells them that, according to human understanding, they’re foolish, weak, and low-class. But G‑d chose them to shame the wise, the powerful, and the upper-class! It’s because of this that they shouldn’t look down on each other. They’ve been chosen for this specific purpose. Sure, they don’t have “worldly” credentials, but that’s the whole point. If they did, then, no big deal. It’s because of their limitations that makes the story so powerful. The Corinthians should not look down on each other, then, and see themselves as the beginning of something greater than even the brightest minds could even dream of.

Paul then says, in rare form for him, that he was exactly the same when he came to them (2.1-5). Oh, he could have come with big words, deep theological insight, and the like, but, instead, he came only with “weakness, fear, and a lot of shaking” (verse 3). This was so that the Corinthians could see a pattern, not in the way of conventional wisdom, but in the power of G‑d’s wisdom (verses 4-5).

But what is that wisdom? And why hasn’t anyone ever noticed it before?

The context of the verse

Paul says, this wisdom has been “hidden as a secret” (verse 7). Paul says that,

“G‑d determined this wisdom in advance, before time began, for our glory. It’s a wisdom that none of the present-day rulers have understood, because if they did understand it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory” (verses 7-8, emphasis added; adapted).

This is a key to the whole thing. I emphasised the parts that are crucial. Please notice that Paul stated that G‑d hid this wisdom until Paul’s generation. It was for their glory. But not just anyone from that generation. The rulers of Paul’s day didn’t discover G‑d’s wisdom because, if they would have, they wouldn’t have killed Jesus. In other words, all of history was mounting to that point in time. It was then “when the right time came” (Galatians 4.4, NLT5; cf., Mark 1.15; 1 Timothy 2.6), G‑d chose to rescue creation through the death of Jesus. But that plan couldn’t be revealed. If it had been divulged beforehand, the rulers of Paul’s time wouldn’t have been carried out.

“But,” Paul says, “this is precisely what’s written” (verse 9) and then he quotes Isaiah 64.4:

“No one has ever seen,
   no one has ever heard,
no one has ever imagined
   what Yahweh has prepared for those who love G‑d.”

“But wait!” Paul says. “There’s more.”

But G‑d has shown us these things through the Spirit. The Spirit knows all things. The Spirit even knows the deep secrets of G‑d” (verse 10, ERV; emphasis added).

In other words, the thing that G‑d prepared, the thing that was hidden, the thing that “no one has ever seen or has ever heard or has ever even imagined” isn’t hidden any longer! It’s been revealed! That hidden thing, that mystery, was G‑d planned to rescue creation through the death of Jesus!

Paul says that he knows this to be true because he’s been given G‑d’s own Spirit. “It’s the Spirit,” Paul says, “that knows the deep secrets of G‑d.” Just as a person’s spirit, the inner voice, knows her deep secrets, so G‑d’s Spirit knows G‑d’s secret. And that Spirit revealed G‑d’s secret because that Spirit lives within Paul. That’s why Paul can’t use human logic or wisdom to explain G‑d’s secret. “We use words taught to us by the Spirit,” he says (verse 13, ERV).

“We use the Spirit’s words to explain spiritual truths. People who don’t have G‑d’s Spirit don’t accept the things that come from the Spirit. They think these things are foolish. They cannot understand them, because they can only be understood with the Spirit’s help” (verses 13-14, ERV; adapted).

This is why the leaders of Paul’s day couldn’t understand what was going on — they didn’t have G‑d’s Spirit within them.

But the followers of The Way of Jesus in Corinth have G‑d’s Spirit. That’s why there shouldn’t be cliques. G‑d’s secret has been revealed to them. Even though they’re not the brightest or the most powerful or even the wealthiest, G‑d used them to show the world what true wisdom and power and wealth really looks like. It’s the multi-talented, multicultural, multi-humanness of people who follow The Way of Jesus that make up the manifestation of G‑d’s Realm in creation. It’s through them that G‑d’s Realm would continue to grow throughout all of creation.

So, the next time you see 1 Corinthians 2.9 quoted out of context, remember 1 Corinthians 10.11 — “Those things happened to them as examples for us.” G‑d isn’t hiding another secret. There was only one secret and G‑d already revealed it two thousand years ago —

G‑d planned to rescue all of creation —
yes even you,
our families,
our friends,
our enemies —
through the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
And it has been accomplished!
We’re G‑d’s co-workers in revealing this to the world.

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

1. Scripture quotations marked (ERV) are from the Easy to Read Version. Copyright © 2006 by World Bible Translation Center.
2. Or is this the second letter? See 1 Corinthians 5.9.
3. Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are taken from The Common English Bible. Copyright © 2011 by Common English Bible.
4. And with good reason, in my opinion. That passage seems forced and makes no sense in the immediate context (14.26-33). It also seems to contradict what Paul stated previously (see 11.5).

5. Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from The Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

08 February 2015

Weekly Gospel Reflection — Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

After leaving the synagogue, Jesus, James, and John went home with Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed, sick with a fever, and they told Jesus about her at once. He went to her, took her by the hand, and raised her up. The fever left her, and she served them.

That evening, at sunset, people brought to Jesus those who were sick or demon-possessed. The whole town gathered near the door. He healed many who were sick with all kinds of diseases, and he threw out many demons. But he didn’t let the demons speak, because they recognized him.

Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer. Simon and those with him tracked him down. When they found him, they told him, “Everyone’s looking for you!”

He replied, “Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too. That’s why I’ve come.” He traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and throwing out demons.

I recently saw a t.v. show about this guy who bought a 1950’s recreational vehicle (RV) for $3,800. It was always a dream of his and his wife to travel the country and camp in an RV. Well, his wife was diagnosed with cancer and passed over before she could live her dream. But the man carried on in her memory.

The show was about the restoration of this trailer. It started out as a shell of it former glory and it’s future glory could only be seen in the minds and imaginations of the restoration team. The man wanted the trailer like he remembered them when he was a kid.

So the team got together and fulfilled the man’s dream. The trailer was restored to its former glory — with a few modern touches.

The time came for the big reveal and the man was moved to tears. It was more than he could have hoped for. Not only was the trailer restored but, in my estimation, the man was restored, too. He could now take that road trip in honor and memory of his wife.

Today’s gospel reading brings all of this to the front for me. Over and over again, we see Jesus restoring people to their former state — the demon possessed have been released from their bondage and Peter’s mother-in-law was healed of her disease. They can all now join in the grand restoration program that Jesus is doing. They don’t have to stay the way they were, they can go on to something bigger, grander, than they have ever dreamed of.

And the good news is that it’s not just for that small little group. As the last part points out, this restoration project — the expansion of G‑d’s Realm “on earth as in heaven” — is for all creation because that’s why Jesus came.

As we look at our world today, what areas do we see that need to be restored? What comes to my mind is relationships — our relationships with each other. We’ve become so distant from each other that it takes a horrifying situation to bring us back together to nurture and care for one another. But, alas, when the time of healing has ended, we return to our isolated, individually imprisoned lives. What are the actions we can do that will start eroding the walls between us and our neighbors and erect loving, caring relationships? Other than violence and starvation, what things can we do to help better understand our “enemies” so that, if violence does happen we don’t return the same? How can we build bridges of forgiveness and healing?

The second thing that comes to my mind is our relationship with nature. It seems to me that quite a number of us just don’t buy into the reality of climate change. That is, the truth that humanity plays a major part in the impact of our world. Whether they’re pesticides we spray on our plants or the genetic modification of our food or the outdated ancient fuels we continue to use to propel our vehicles and warm our homes, our continued use of harmful chemicals is taking a huge toll on our planet. It seems that we’ve truly become a people of instant gratification. We don’t seem to care what happens to future generations as long as we don’t upset our comfortable lives right now. But when Mother Nature lashes out with extreme weather, we had better listen. Sure, like I mentioned above, we come together to help each other in those situations, but it’s time we start really looking at the cause of these “natural disasters” and come up with imaginative and creative ways of, not only restoring the old, but of finding new ways of balance for an ever changing planetary impact we are having in our world. What are some of the things that we can do now that will aid in the healing of creation? Yes, of course, things won’t change overnight, but we can take steps now to bring harmony to our environment and leave a legacy of planetary caring for our children and grandchildren unto the ages of ages. What inconveniences are we willing to suffer for a better world for future generations? Are we willing to suffer them?

The final relationship, though it shouldn’t be considered the last one for it’s the foundation of the other two, is our relationship with G‑d. What does that look like for us right now? Are we satisfied with it? Do we feel that we’re just giving “lip service” in our relationship with G‑d? Is there any depth to our religions or are they merely keeping up appearances for the sake of onlookers? Jesus warned that our “righteousness” must be better than that of the religious leaders of his day. Can we honestly say that it is? In that world, it seemed that a lot of the religious people didn’t really have a lot to do with the injustices of the “real world.” They were more concerned about themselves and their spiritual lives. Jesus showed us that there’s no division between the two worlds — that one’s relationship with G‑d must lead to faithful actions in the practical world. Are our actions — our orthopraxis (right-doing), our good deeds — being shaped by our relationship with G‑d? And please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not only talking about taking care of the poor. I’m talking about everyday life. Does our relationship with G‑d really impact our daily lives? Are we more caught up in nationalism (blind allegiance to one’s country) than following The Way of Jesus? Do we realize that those two ideas are polar opposites most of the time? Are we more concerned with our “right” to “keep and bear arms” than we are in the deaths of children? Where does our allegiance truly lie?

May G‑d grant us eyes to see the “former glory” of humans, non-humans, and all creation and the vision and imagination of seeing them move from the simple restoration to the unlimited potential of G‑d’s Realm. May G‑d grant us the courage to stand with the Prince of Peace in the face of nationalism, war-profiteering, and the segregations of people, and the destructive impact on our planet for monetary gain and “creature comforts”. May G‑d grant us the kindness, compassion, and forgiveness to move beyond our mind barriers and reach out to our neighbors and so-called enemies with the Love of Christ so that we can all truly be One.

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

01 February 2015

Weekly Gospel Reflection — Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Jesus and his followers went into Capernaum. Immediately on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and started teaching. The people were amazed by his teaching, for he was teaching them with authority, not like the legal experts. Suddenly, there in the synagogue, a person with an evil spirit screamed, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are. You’re the holy one from G‑d.”

“Silence!” Jesus said, speaking harshly to the demon. “Come out of him!” The unclean spirit shook him and screamed, then it came out.

Everyone was shaken and questioned among themselves, “What’s this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands unclean spirits and they obey him!” Right away the news about him spread throughout the entire region of Galilee.

Following The Way of Jesus should impact every area of our lives. There shouldn’t be a difference between “sacred” and “secular.” There should only be The Way.

To often, though, especially in today’s world, things are separated into different spaces. For example, at work, one’s not to talk about “religion or politics.” In some families, this is especially true! Another one is, “Don’t bring work home with you.” What that means is your “work life” is your “work life” and your “home life” is your “home life.” And while I get the basic idea, they’re really false boundaries. Your religious and political views shape you as a human being. The things that happen at work affect your mood and, therefore, they affect how you may react to your family once you get home. And that works the other way around, too. Something tragic happens at home and it will certainly impact your “work life.”

What we’re really saying when we make the above statements is that expressing one’s views or opinions will most likely make other uncomfortable (at the least) or cause a huge argument or lead to a violent outburst (at the worst). Therefore, it’s better not to say anything at all. In other words, people don’t want to be confronted with different views or opposing ideas. They want to continue on thinking that their way of seeing the world is “right” and other ways of seeing the world are “wrong.”

But that’s not reality. People aren’t made up like a computer application where this app only does this thing and that app only does that thing. People are more like the operating system (the OS). The OS is the underlying software that allows these (sometimes) diametrically opposing apps to run smoothly and side by side without any issues (I could make a jab at my least favorite OS here, but I won’t. For that, see my other posts.).

In other words, people are integrated. Like I said above, our beliefs shape our actions — whether they’re political or religious beliefs. I think one would be hard pressed to find a Democrat who opposed women’s rights or a Republican who was against the ownership and use of firearms (before I get nasty comments, I’m not saying those people don’t exist, but, in my neck of the woods, those people are pretty rare).

So, our lives are more complicated and integrated than post-Enlightenment society would want us to believe. I think it’s just this type of thing that’s meant by Jesus’ teaching has authority in today’s Gospel reading.

A lot of the religious tradition of Jesus’ time were about appearances and not so much about real life and how it works. There’s a classic story that illustrates just this point. In John 5.1-18, Jesus heals a lame person and tells him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” The man does just that. He gathers his things and heads home. But this took place on the Sabbath and there were laws that prohibited that type of behavior. So the man is accosted by the religious authorities and questioned about his breaking of the law. In other words, they were “religious” without any positive connection to the real world. The religious theories about what’s lawful and what’s not may be great in seminary, but in the “real world,” some things just don’t work like that.

I remember when my brother-in-law returned from seminary. He told me, “I don’t know how to talk to people anymore.” What he meant by that was, before he “went in,” he was a street preacher. He did mission work in the ghettos of the world. But now? He didn’t know how to even talk to those people. There was no connection between academia and the average person.

But here comes Jesus teaching with authority. The things Jesus talks about deal with this life as well as the next life. His teachings and actions are not solely about “what happens when you die,” but about the here-and-now, too. Jesus is about balance and presence. He’s not teaching some great philosophical ideals — they have practical uses. “Do you want to know what the Realm of G‑d is like?” he asks. “It’s not about ‘going to heaven when you die.’ It’s about this…” And he heals the possessed man. That’s a very scary thing! It instantly questions the religious authorities of the day and their power. It brings into question their whole religious institutional business. In short, the appearance of Jesus changes everything.

May G‑d grant us the wisdom of seeing the world in this way. Of knowing that our religious views impact our lives and the lives of others in deeply profound ways. May we seek courage to reexamine our faith and its impact on ourselves, our neighbors, and creation.

Let me end this post with a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh that we use in preparation for the Prayers of the People in Grace Garden’s Common Prayer:

“Evoking the presence of the Great Compassion, let’s fill our hearts with our own compassion — toward others and towards all living beings. Let’s pray that all living things realize that they’re all brothers and sisters, all nourished from the same Source of life. Let’s pray that we ourselves cease to be the cause of suffering to each other. Let’s plead with ourselves to live in a way which won’t deprive others of air, food, shelter, or a chance to live. With humility, with awareness of the existence of life, and of the sufferings that are going on around us, let’s pray for the establishment of peace in our hearts and on earth.”
Thich Nhat Hanh (amended)

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC