Tag Archives: Interpretation

The Book of Hebrews: Week 4 – August 30, 2015

Sunday’s Reading:
Hebrews 9:1-14

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

If it’s true – as I mentioned earlier in this series, and as I and many other interpreters of Hebrews believe – that this book of Scripture is more like a sermon than a letter, then the text before us this morning represents one of the threads of a sort of “sermon-within-a-sermon” woven into the central portion of Hebrews. We find ourselves in the middle of an extended riff on the theme we picked up last week – the identity of Jesus as our great high priest – and, to tell you the truth, this particular section can be pretty treacherous for us if we’re not careful.

The writer of Hebrews walks a tight line throughout the entire book, and everyone who reads it must walk the same line. On the one hand, a lot of ink is spent making the case for a continuity between the coming of Jesus and the experience of God’s chosen people in the centuries preceding his birth. With this emphasis, the arrival of Jesus is not a radical departure from God’s work throughout the centuries, but an extension of that work to a new people, a people who had previously not known God – namely, us, the nations, the Gentiles. On the other hand, as last week’s sermon made clear, the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus do represent something new and different and transformative. The ministry of Jesus before the Father is unlike the ministry of other priests because it was and is carried out by the Son of God, the Word who became flesh, who experienced humanity in all its glorious and gut-wrenching fullness, and who remained obedient to God’s will so that he might make a perfect offering for our sake and for the sake of the world.

What makes this tightrope walk so treacherous is what happens when we lose our balance in our attempt to more easily digest the relationship between the “Old Testament” or “First Covenant” and the “New Testament” or “New Covenant”. If we forget the roots of our faith in the First Covenant, we are in danger of committing one of the church’s most besetting and damaging sins – the sin of supercessionism, the idea that the coming of Jesus resulted in the negation of God’s promises to Israel. This idea has been echoed throughout the centuries by some of Christianity’s most important theologians, including Martin Luther, with devastating consequences for our Jewish brothers and sisters throughout the world and throughout history. By the same token, if we too easily collapse Judaism and Christianity into one another, we are in danger of practicing a faith that is a poorer, shallower version of both, and we weaken the strength of the appeal that the writer of Hebrews is making to us.

So, for example, if we read the first part of this morning’s text, the verses concerning “earthly worship”, and we see it as an indictment of the worship conducted by the people of Israel in the “tent” or “tabernacle” that they carried with them on their wilderness journey, we could easily assume that this section of the text doesn’t apply to us. That would be a mistake, for we Christians are just as likely to fall into the trap of focusing on externals and missing out on the encounter with God that is the intention of proper worship. When the writer of Hebrews says that his description of tabernacle worship is a symbol of the present time (Hebrews 9:9a, NRSV), he means to expand our vision and remind us that the limitations of earthly worship are not unique to the experience of people long ago or far away. Indeed, we face the same potential problem as the people of Israel did: allowing the trappings of worship to become ends in themselves.

At their best, the earthly sanctuaries we construct represent windows to the Divine. They contain symbols and signs that point beyond themselves to a reality beyond our reason and our senses. We could spend hours unpacking the images and objects that fill this holy space, drawing out their significance, revealing something of the nature of God or the content of the story that continues to unfold around us, but as the writer of Hebrews says in verse five of this morning’s reading, of these things we cannot speak now in detail. (Hebrews 9:5b, NRSV)

That’s because in the end our earthly worship is a mere reflection of the worship of heaven, led by our great high priest, who offered himself as a perfect sacrifice to re-forge the connection between God and humanity that had been broken by our pride and arrogance and short-sightedness – in short, by the power of Sin that made us strangers to one another and to God. That reality is vital to our understanding of proper worship, because it is so different from the way that we so often speak about the experience of worship. In truth, what happens when we gather is not about us and what we offer to God as much as it is about what Christ offers to God on our behalf and what we receive from God for the sake of Christ: grace, mercy, forgiveness, strength, and renewed life. Hebrews provides us with a stark picture of this reality through the language of sacrifice and blood, language that may sound strange to our ears but which captures the cost that God has incurred in pursuit of a wayward people who still think that we can make ourselves holy by what we do and say.

Brothers and sisters, the writer of Hebrews has given us a word that we sorely need to hear today. May this passage remind us of the gratitude we owe to Christ, who has opened the heavenly sanctuary so that our earthly worship might reach the ears of our mighty God. May we continue to offer our praises to God, not to earn favor with our creator, but to express our thanks for the ministry of Christ to us and for us, a ministry that cost us his life and made new life possible for all who call upon him. Finally, may we strive to be humble as we reflect on our own worship, and celebrate with thanks all those who glorify the living God with their lips and their lives. Amen.

Parable of the Bridesmaids (Fourth Sunday in Lent) – Sunday, March 15, 2015 (NL Week 28)

Sunday’s Readings:
Complementary Text – Psalm 45:6-7
Preaching Text – Matthew 25:1-13

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

If you’re anything like me, brothers and sisters, then today’s reading is the kind of parable that cuts straight to your heart. The final words from the bridegroom are harsh and unforgiving. The refusal of the wise bridesmaids to share their oil with the others strikes me as being totally out of character for people who are supposed to live their lives with the values of Heaven’s Reign – especially when we consider Jesus’ insistence that we are called to place the interests of others above our own. To be honest, I don’t like this parable, at least not the way that it has so often been interpreted by the church. In the “standard” reading of this parable of Jesus, the characters and objects in the parable are very easily identified: Jesus is the bridegroom, the bridesmaids are disciples of Jesus, the light from the lamps or torches represents the good works of the disciple, and the wedding feast is the heavenly banquet that will be enjoyed by those who inherit Heaven’s Reign. With this framework in mind, the parable’s supposed point is easy to see: The wise bridesmaids were prepared for the bridegroom’s arrival because of their good works, while the foolish bridesmaids found themselves on the outside looking in because they didn’t have those works, which meant that they weren’t ready for the feast or welcome to join in it.

Now, on the one hand, this interpretation makes some sense. After all, Matthew seems more concerned with the ethical demands of discipleship than any of the other gospels. And those chilling words at the end in response to the foolish bridesmaids cries do echo another passage earlier in the gospel: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter Heaven’s Reign, but only the one who does the will of my Father. … but I will declare to [many of] them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me…’” (Matthew 7:21,23, NRSV) But even if we agree that good works are important – which I think we all should – it still seems to me that there’s something wrong with that traditional interpretation. I’ll admit, it could be my Lutheran bias, and the centrality of our understanding that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, but I just can’t go along with the idea that the reason the bridesmaids ended up on the wrong side of that door was that they weren’t good enough.

So what’s the issue? I’d like to suggest that the traditional interpretation has exactly the wrong focus. It reinforces the idea that the relationship we have with God is, in the end, dependent on the quality or quantity of our works, an idea that many other passages of Scripture seem to reject. What, then, are we to glean from this astonishing and challenging parable? Let’s take a look back at the parable again and see if we can find an alternative to this pervasive reading of the story.

Ten bridesmaids go out to meet the bridegroom. Their role in welcoming the bridegroom isn’t specified. Nothing is said about their being needed to light the way back to the banquet hall. All we know is that they are called to be present to meet the bridegroom when he returns to the village for the wedding feast. Five of these bridesmaids bring extra oil with them and five of them don’t, and when the bridegroom’s return is delayed, all ten of them get sleepy and doze off. When the call goes up at midnight, signaling the imminent arrival of the bridegroom, all ten wake up with a start. The five wise bridesmaids ready their torches to be lit, while the five foolish ones panic and ask for some oil to use for their torches. The five “wise” bridesmaids refuse to lend them any, and the foolish ones respond by leaving to buy some oil. It’s while they’re gone to get their torches ready that the bridegroom shows up, and when they return to the feast they find that the door has been closed to them and they hear those chilling words: “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.” Here’s my question: was the problem really with their lack of oil? Or was the problem that they had failed to do the one thing that they had been tasked with doing, that they were not present to welcome the bridegroom upon his return? If we read the parable this way, then the issue was not that they weren’t “good enough” to receive the bridegroom rightly, but that they didn’t trust the bridegroom enough to stick around and admit that they hadn’t been as well prepared as their fellow bridesmaids. Rather than focusing on what was really important – the joy of the wedding and the arrival of the bridegroom – they turned that focus squarely on themselves and their lack of preparation, and so missed out on the bridegroom’s entrance and the party that followed. If this is a fair reading, then the bridegroom’s rebuke becomes less an indictment of their character and more an indictment of their lack of trust and their misunderstanding of the bridegroom’s gracious character.

This interpretation leaves some questions, of course. What about those other bridesmaids? Why didn’t they share with the foolish bridesmaids after all? And what are we to make of the final command to “Keep awake” when in the parable all ten of the bridesmaids fail to stay awake until the bridegroom’s coming? Parables are meant to stir conversation, and this one is no exception. I’ll admit that there are problems with this interpretation – just as there are with any other. One point is clear – whichever way you read this story, it’s better to be one of the wise bridesmaids and end up inside the wedding feast than to be stuck on the outside looking in. Whether we’re talking about faith or about works, Jesus is teaching his disciples (and us) that the uncertainty of his arrival is a cause for greater vigilance, not for relaxation.

What does that mean for us this Lent? I’d like to suggest that the interpretation I’ve proposed has the benefit of correcting an all-too common problem with Lent: that our spiritual practices and disciplines become an end in themselves. During this season, we are called to renew our relationship with Christ, and part of that renewal is gaining a greater appreciation for the character of the one who has claimed us in baptism and called us to discipleship. If this season is in some way about storing up oil for our lamps, then we need to be careful that we’re doing it for the right reason. We are called to have that oil ready, not for our own sakes, but so that we might always be ready to receive Christ. Perhaps more importantly, perhaps we are called to live in such a way that when our oil runs low we will not be turned away because we trust in the grace and love of the one whose coming is the ground of our hope. This week, brothers and sisters, let us fix our eyes on the bridegroom whose name is Jesus, and let us trust in his grace and love, so that we might share in the joy of his coming today and in the age to come. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Covenant and Commandments – Sunday, October 5, 2014 (NL Week 5)

Sunday’s Readings:
Complementary Text: Matthew 5:17
Preaching Text: Exodus 19:3-7; 20:1-17

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

 Over the first four weeks of our journey through the unfolding story of our faith, we have encountered four individuals who were called by God to carry on the work of extending God’s blessing to creation. Noah saved a remnant of the world’s creatures and enabled God to make a fresh start in a world wracked by sin and violence. Abraham left behind his ancestral home and his extended family in pursuit of the promise of land and descendants. Joseph plumbed the depths of the human experience and soared to unimagined heights to bring the Egyptians (and his own people) through seven years of famine. Moses heeded the call of God – reluctantly, at first – and became an instrument of God’s salvation for the people of Israel.

If we were watching a movie version of this story, perhaps this week the filmmakers would be calling for the camera to zoom out and take in a bigger picture. Instead of focusing on one figure (or a small group of people), today’s reading concerns the entire people of Israel, a community that is addressed as one and invited into a deeper relationship with the God who had moved in power to save and redeem them from slavery and oppression.

Before we get to the commandments themselves, I think it’s important for us to take a look at the verses we read from chapter 19 of Exodus. Listen to those verses again:

Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.” (Exodus 19:3-6, NRSV)

We need to pay attention to what’s going on here, because I think we sometimes take the mistaken view that it is the commandments that establish the relationship between God and God’s people. The Scripture that we have been reading the last few weeks (including the passage we just read) tells a different story: God has been choosing people from the beginning and calling them into relationship. From Adam and Eve through Moses and the people in today’s reading (and on into the present), God’s desire that is we would respond to this gracious invitation to be God’s treasured possession, a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. It is only after that invitation has been extended that we encounter these commandments, laws that have never been designed to put up walls or barriers to God, but to create space for God’s people to flourish in relationship with their creator and with one another!

That’s why today I’d like to invite you to consider the role these commandments play in the on-going life of our community, not only here at St. Paul’s, but throughout the world. My suggestion to you is that the commandments have been given to us as a gift, a guide, and, in light of the good news of Jesus, a goal.

How can the commandments be a gift? For a start, the commandments are a reminder of who we are. We are called into relationship with the God of creation, and enjoined to place our trust in that God above all else. We are given the opportunity to call upon God’s name and called to use that name well, in ways that contribute to our well-being and the well-being of others. We are given the gift of Sabbath, an opportunity to break from the relentless pressures of work to enjoy God and the people we love. That’s just the first three commandments, and hopefully you can see how what seems constraining is in fact a gracious invitation to remember who we are and whose we are.

Now what could it mean for us to look at the commandments as a guide? This is perhaps a more familiar way of thinking about the commandments for many of us, but it bears repeating. In one respect, the commandments are a guide because they represent the widest possible boundaries for considering what our life together might look like. We still have to wrestle with what it means to keep these commandments. As just one example, how does the commandment against killing function in our society? Are there certain instances in which taking life can be justified, or is this a hard and fast rule that needs to be enforced at all times and in all places? That’s a broader discussion than we have time for today, but if the commandment reminds us that taking life in any circumstance is a matter of grave importance, that the decision to end the life of another human being is never to be taken lightly, then this commandment will guide our conversations surrounding issues of life and death in important and fruitful ways.

Last, I described the commandments as our goal, and I realize that this last bit requires some explanation. Our ultimate goal, of course, is abundant life in relationship with God and with one another. How do the commandments contribute to that goal, especially when we as Lutherans recognize that we are incapable of doing what the law requires of us on our own? This is where our complementary reading from Matthew comes into play. As Christians, we believe that Jesus has fulfilled the whole law for us. Sometimes we take that to mean that the law isn’t important for us, but that’s not quite what Jesus is saying. Rather, Jesus is making the claim that it is in him that the law finds its true purpose. We who have been freed by the gospel of Jesus Christ are called to see the law as a tool for discerning how to live well with one another and with God. We are always in danger of using the law for our own justification, for showing others how holy we are. Jesus has no patience for that kind of thinking; instead, the law is given so that we might tend to our relationships with God and one another and learn how to steward them well. So, to return to our previous example, the commandment against killing can cause us to think more broadly about everything we do. Yes, we may not literally take the life of another person, but how have we contributed to their well-being? Have we done anything to injure another person in mind, body, or spirit? How does the way we live build up the community around us and glorify God? As they did for the people of Israel, these questions arise not out of a need to justify ourselves before God, but in response to the love that has already been poured out upon us all. In that way, the commandments represent the goal of our daily lives: by keeping them, we help to create the kind of world where blessing and freedom and joy and hope are extended to all. This is our calling, and in Christ we find the strength we need to carry it out each new day.

Brothers and sisters, today we read of how Israel was joined to God and given the law as a gift, a guide, and a goal, and we remember that we too are heirs of God’s covenant love and faithfulness. As we enter a new week, let us consider how these commandments and that covenant help to shape our life together. Let us think deeply about how the gospel frees us to love and bless others in God’s name. Above all, let us pray that God will continue to bear us up on eagles’ wings and draw us to Godself, that we might be a treasured possession, a priestly kingdom, and a holy nation for the sake of the world. Amen.

Fifth Sunday of Easter – Sunday, May 18, 2014

Sunday’s Readings:

Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

            I don’t travel by plane very often, but when I do I generally find myself in conversation with my fellow travelers, and a question that inevitably comes up is the “occupation” question: “What do you do for a living?” When I’ve told people that I’m a pastor (or, when I was in seminary, when I told them I was training to become a pastor), I’ve gotten many different responses, but in the vast majority of cases I’ve found that I generally receive one of the following two. The first is an awkward silence that indicates that this may have been the worst possible answer and that no further conversation will be happening. The second is an astonished look and something along the lines of “Wow! I don’t know how you do that. I would never be able to preach a sermon every week!” Having done just that for almost three years now, I’d like to share what I’ve found to be true about the challenge of preaching every Sunday: Most weeks the problem isn’t putting together a sermon to preach, but choosing the right one. You see, the Bible is fascinating! I’ll often sit down with these readings and find that I could go in twenty different directions if I had the time. My greatest fear when I’m trying to decide what to preach is that I’ll become enamored with a question that none of you is asking, and some weeks I wonder if it wouldn’t be a good idea to warn you in advance if I think I’m in danger of doing just that.

This week happens to be one of those weeks. There is so much great stuff in this reading from John 14, but to be honest with you I keep getting held up by verse 6: Jesus said to Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” My problem with this verse is not that Jesus said it, of course, because I believe that he is absolutely right. The issue, at least in my mind, is how this verse has come to be used by Christians – not only in the present, but throughout history – who also read into it its opposite: That is, they believe that if it’s true that no one comes to the Father except through Jesus, then it is equally true that people who don’t acknowledge Jesus will never come to know God the Father. If you hold to that interpretation of this passage, you’re in good company, and there are many other passages of Scripture that you can marshal to support that claim. But I mentioned before that Scripture is fascinating, and one of the things that makes it so fascinating is that it contains such a wide range of opinions on really important and consequential questions like these: How does one come into relationship with God? Can people who don’t claim to be Christian nevertheless have real and true experiences of God? Is salvation limited to people who make public confession of Jesus? Is it possible to be a Christian and reject the idea that everyone who isn’t Christian is destined for hell? I think you should know me well enough by now to know that I don’t ask these questions out of a simple or naïve desire to accommodate culture or be perceived as nice. On the one hand, I ask them because of genuine concern for people I know and love who fully embrace other religious traditions (or none at all) and who live their lives with compassion and grace and integrity. On the other hand, I ask them because the way we answer them reveals a great deal about how we understand God’s purpose for us and for the whole creation. Put another way, these questions cut to the heart of what it means to be people who trust in the saving power of the cross and the life-giving power of the empty tomb. Is salvation primarily about us or about the God revealed in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit? As a way of tackling all of these questions, let’s look again at this passage, this time with an eye to the context in which it was written. Then, we’ll zoom out and take a broader view of Jesus, faith, and salvation.

Jesus uttered these famous words on the night that he shared his last meal with his disciples. Over the course of his extended body of teaching, which stretches across five full chapters of John’s gospel, Jesus had much to say to his followers about his death and what it would mean for them and the world. In a really important sense this was a discourse addressed to “insiders”, people who already knew that God was up to something in Jesus (though they didn’t fully understand what it was until later). Was this statement meant to establish a firm boundary between the followers of Jesus and those who didn’t believe in him, or was it intended to soothe the doubts and fears of those first disciples as they grappled with the fact that their teacher was making preparations to leave them? Later, John’s gospel circulated among people who had been forcibly removed from the community of faith in which they had be raised: the gatherings of the people of Israel in local synagogues. Was this statement meant to attack the people who threw them out, or to assure those who had experienced rejection that their faith in Jesus was not in vain? People might reasonably differ in their interpretations of this passage, but it seems to be in context that it was meant to be a word of comfort to people who were in danger of being overcome by their fear and loss. How (if at all) does that change how we read this passage today in a world in which we live and labor alongside people of many different faiths, and how does our interpretation fit in with the way we look at Jesus, faith, and salvation more broadly?

If we look at this passage as a word to people who already have faith, it seems misguided to use it as a bludgeon against people who don’t believe in Jesus. His concern in this passage was that his followers would know that their faith was not misplaced, that his relationship with God was so strong that it could extend beyond Jesus to those who trusted in him. That’s good news, to be sure! But when it comes to these bigger questions, John seems to hint at something bigger. Back in chapter twelve, Jesus is approached by his disciples, who bring a request from a group of travelers visiting Jerusalem. The strangers want to see Jesus, and in the course of his response to his disciples, he tells them that his impending death will lead to two world-changing things: Satan will be judged and found lacking, and all of humanity will be drawn to him! Later in the same chapter, he claims that his purpose for the world is liberation, not judgment. Those statements represent a vision of the significance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that is incredibly expansive.

Now, because I take Scripture seriously, I also recognize that there are passages that speak of the vital importance of human response to God. In fact, whenever I’ve heard anyone talk about the idea that the cross brings salvation to all, and that even people who don’t believe in Jesus might be saved, the objection that arises almost immediately is, “Well, what’s the point of faith, then? Why go to church or read Scripture or try to live a godly life if it doesn’t matter in the end anyway?” I certainly don’t mean to minimize that concern. One possible answer to that objection lies in today’s reading as well, and it also leads us to think big about salvation. If – and this is a big if – salvation is just about what happens to me when I die, and God’s going to save everyone, then it really doesn’t matter. But if salvation is also about now – if God calls us to lives of faith, hope, and love right now – then all of this is essential! The Christian life isn’t just a life-long struggle to secure fire insurance. We don’t respond to the call of God in Christ simply because it carries the promise of “eternal life” somewhere down the road. In Jesus, God invites us to experience eternal life now, to find in him the embodiment of God’s gracious presence that is continually offered for the life of the world. In the waters of baptism we are cleansed and freed for abundant life now. In Holy Communion we receive a foretaste of the feast to come and strength for the journey now. In gathering and hearing the word and being sent out again, we are given the opportunity to be Christ for others, to speak the good news of God’s love for all people, to reveal that love through the way we give ourselves in service. If that’s not a reason to take our faith seriously, I don’t know what is, and if the call to live that kind of life isn’t good news, then I don’t know what good news is, either. As people God’s people, who confess wholeheartedly that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, let’s be bold in sharing the message of salvation in Christ, not by scaring people with the threat of hell, but by inviting them into the world-changing reality of life with God that is present even now – in the midst of brokenness and pain and disbelief – and that will continue into the age to come. Thanks be to God! Amen.