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The Book of Books Book Club weekly blog
 

I Corinthians 8-16

We conclude the First Letter to the Corinthians this week by working our way finally to the two great climaxes I mentioned last week: the hymn to love in chapter 13 and the ode to the resurrection of all in chapter 15. But as in any good journey, getting there is half the fun! Recall that in the first half Paul has taken on controversies in this congregation over factions, sexual immorality, lawsuits, and marriage (good? or bad? in light of the impending end of the world). The first issue allowed Paul to establish his larger theme: the community should not be dividing itself into factions based on who baptized them or who taught them the faith (remember hearing Apollos mentioned in Acts 18 and 19?), for we are all one in Christ. It's important to note here that, as we saw repeatedly in Romans, this unity with each other in Christ is not earned by any process of our own, but rather recognized through faith. The freedom brought about by our belonging to Christ – freedom from having to earn God's love through keeping commandments that are both beyond our ultimate ability and do not bring about salvation, freedom given us by God's grace in the resurrection – this freedom, says Hans Conzelmann (20th-century New Testament scholar) in his commentary on this letter, is "for the renewal of conduct." And Conzelmann continues, "the Christian factor does not lie in a new moral conceptualism, but in the relating of morals to faith." How we treat ourselves and each other, for Paul, comes from our unity with and in Christ – and one response to the freedom such unity brings is to look outside our own needs to focus on the needs of others.


Which brings us to the problem of meat. Chapters 8-10 wobble through a discussion about the propriety of eating meat that was previously sacrificed to the gods of other temples – to idols, in other words. These cults are understood by sophisticated Christians to be worshipping gods that are not real, not God – so meat sacrificed to them has no actual religious connotation. But, Paul says, other Christians do not yet grasp this perspective – so don't eat such meat in front of them and cause them to question their faith, think of them and their need of support rather than yourself and your enjoyment of freedom. This practical matter leads Paul into a discourse on the diversity of the members of the congregation, as diverse and necessary to each other as the parts of the human body, further clarifying our unity in Christ – which unity, he outlines in chapter 13, is based on love. This is not our love, it is God's love, the cosmic love that unites all things, in which our love participates and from which our love derives. The poetry here bears a closer look; we've all heard this too many times, yet it is not really as familiar as we think. And the result of this focus on the wonder of God's love finally leads Paul to the extraordinary exhortation on the resurrection in chapter 15: our understanding of God's love comes from the life, death and resurrection of Christ, in whom we too will live, and die, and rise again. This progression of points about the working of faith, from concrete issues in our daily lives to the most sweeping claims about God and life, is truly a joy to follow.


You'll note that I've skipped over chapter 11, the odd discussion about what is and is not appropriate on the heads of men and women. Scholars are truly at a loss to explain both what this discussion is doing here (why is Paul talking about this? what led him to this? is it a later addition by someone else?) and what Paul is really trying to say, since he appears to contradict himself. Whatever is actually going on, I say don't worry about it – maybe Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's "Almost Cut My Hair" is the last word on this for those of us of a certain age…!

I Corinthians 1-7

The First Letter to the Corinthians was written in Ephesus, to a community in Corinth that Paul had helped found and which he knew quite well; he visited it not long after writing this letter. While there, he wrote the Letter to the Romans. The two epistles share common themes and concerns, and that commonality highlights their differing agendas. In this case, Paul has had both a letter from the congregation asking him questions and visitors from there telling him what they have seen and heard – and his letter is a direct response to both of those sources of information. It addresses, therefore, specific and concrete concerns and controversies; Paul's responses are developed from a perspective of faith, and therefore allow him to in turn expound upon that faith as the common elements to his responses become clearer. As you will remember, his Letter to the Romans, on the other hand, is written as a self-introduction and therefore as an opportunity to outline his faith and the larger, more abstract themes that concern him about his mission: the relationships of Jews and Gentiles, of Jews and followers of Christ (almost ready to be called Christians), of humanity and the God who created it. Comparing the two letters, then, we can see how his thoughts about Corinth's issues have led him to the most profound levels of his faith, which he can then develop more abstractly in writing to the Romans. Thus we see here again Paul's thoughts on the righteousness of God (the trustworthiness of God's promises), on faith alone leading to salvation (nothing we do can further the grace of God), on the diversity of the members made one in the body of Christ, on the freedom we attain in Christ (not to take advantage of, but to live in response to), and on the centrality of the resurrection of Christ and its implications for human life.


In reading this letter, particularly the first seven chapters, I suggest something similar to what I urged in reading the gospels: remember how it ends. In the case of the gospels, know that the resurrection informs everything that is narrated before it; here, remember that this letter will lead to two great climaxes: the "hymn to love" in chapter 13 (love "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" 13:7), and an extraordinary outline of the promise of eternal life in chapter 15 (do see the King James Version of this chapter: "We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed... for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible..." 15:51-52). Remembering those climaxes (or even reading them ahead of time!), we can watch how Paul wends his way to them through Corinth's problems: factions, sexual immorality, lawsuits, whether or not marriage is a good thing (in light of the nearness, he believes, of the end of the world with Christ's Second Coming) – and then next week, meat, men's and women's hairstyles in church, how to behave at communion, and the diversity of the community's population – whew! Faith and hope and love unite all these elements, with bursts of glorious poetry leavening the nitty-gritty of life in Corinth.

Romans 9-16

As we complete Paul's Letter to the Romans, there are two major portions on which I'd like to focus our attention. First, chapters 9-11 contain Paul's impassioned effort to outline a logic by which his fellow Jews should, can, and will be saved by God. The emphasis here is on God's righteousness to his promises to Israel, that the promises are not being abandoned but rather made more sweeping, more inclusive of the rest of the world. Second, chapter 12 offers a beautiful portrait of the life to which all of us Christians should aspire. The final chapters, of course, also bear reading: chapter 13 has a strange defense of civil authority; chapter 14 offers a sneak peak at the issue of food that we will see developed so wonderfully in the next letter, First Corinthians; and chapters 15 and 16 outline Paul's hopes and plans to get to Rome and the greetings he would like passed on to all the individuals he knows there. It's all quite lovely, but I want to focus on these other sections.


Paul has been struggling with the Jew-Gentile question throughout this letter, and after arriving at the sweeping statement of faith at the end of chapter 8 that "nothing...can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord," he turns back to the problem of then saving the Jews who do not believe in Jesus. He affirms the importance of our Jewish heritage, the key elements that ancient Israel brings to our understanding of our relationship with God, but then outlines a tortured plan by which the bringing of the Gentiles to faith will make Jews jealous and therefore eventually cause them to come to faith as well. There are two underlying problems for Paul, I think: first, he assumes without question or comment that God will only save some of humanity; second, he then makes it sound as if faith in Christ is a requirement for salvation, which seems to me to turn it into a work of its own and thus a way to earn that salvation. This latter problem is a contradiction of all that has gone before (works get us nowhere with God, he has argued; our good works should be a response to our faith that we are beloved of God). The first problem - of limited salvation - is endemic to the vast majority of religions and religious perspectives, but I will always argue that it seems plausible to me to believe in universal salvation and still find Paul's approach to faith compelling. This is not the place to rehearse that argument, but I do suggest that you consider the possibility as you read this letter.


Finally, 12:9-21 is just a piece of beautiful writing that offers a portrait of the perfect Christian life, one in which we "hold fast to what is good" and treat all others as we would wish to be treated. It is yet another demonstration of Paul's preeminence in exploring and outlining what it means to live believing in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 1-8

This is a very lengthy, but I hope helpful, blog post. I want to say a little something about epistles as a form in the early church period; a bit about the background of this specific letter; a bit about Paul's real inability to understand either hetersexual or homosexual relationships; and I want to offer a chapter-by-chapter guide to the letter's contents. Here we go!


With Paul's letter to the Romans – written probably in the late 50s A.D. - we enter into the most popular form of writing in the New Testament, the epistle or letter. Twenty-two of the books in this Christian section of the Bible are letters, and even Revelation makes use of the contemporary conventions of letter-writing. The standard format, while seemingly obvious, is worth noting as variations would have been recognized by readers/listeners as making important statements. Letters begin with a greeting, from the letter-writer (usually named) to the reader or readers; a statement of thanksgiving to God follows; the main body of the letter then takes up the central themes, often mentioned in the thanksgiving section; and finally there are closing greetings to other members of the recipient's community or families. The absence, then, of a statement of thanksgiving in the Letter to the Galatians is a clear sign to its readers of Paul's deep anger; the lingering over the thanksgiving in the Letter to the Philippians, on the other hand, long into the main body, shows how deeply Paul is rejoicing over the news he has had of them.


The Letter to the Romans is different from Paul's other letters in that it was written to a community that he did not found and did not know. Thus rather than addressing issues within a congregation over which he has a large degree of authority, here Paul is introducing himself to an already-famous church. It is the longest of his letters, then, because it is the most comprehensive statement of his faith, and therefore it is placed first among his epistles in the Bible. Its overarching theme is the parallel relationships between Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) and between the law and grace. Paul wishes to justify the inclusion of Gentiles in the Christian community without leaving behind the special relationship between God and the Jewish people; and he wants to base his understanding of faith on the gift of Jesus Christ as the means of God's grace to free us from bondage to the law and sin, yet without denigrating the importance of the law for establishing the need for salvation. Early in the first chapter (1:17), Paul takes the stand that underlies the rest of his arguments: "the one who is righteous will live by faith." It is our faith in Jesus that frees us from sin, not our wayward and futile efforts to obey God's law.


About Paul and human relationships: he's not really good on them. Relationships between humans and God are his specialty, but relationships between genders or within genders - especially relationships of love - seem to leave him baffled. Add to this a fairly standard (for its time) belief in a wrathful God, and a tendency to make sweeping remarks, and we end up with some pretty awful stuff. This must be noted here because Romans 1:26-27 is an extremely difficult passage for all of us convinced of the full humanity of, and love of God for, homosexual persons. Many efforts have been made to explain that Paul's condemnation here is not of committed homosexual love as seen in our world but of prostitution in fertility god and goddess temples or other types of excessive sexual licentiousness of his time (especially in Corinth, where the letter was written, and in Rome itself). Personally I find such arguments persuasive and yet rather convoluted and torturous. Paul, in his letters, reveals himself to be a person of deep faith, powerfully and often movingly articulated; he also reveals himself to be fully human, capable of jealousy, arrogance, occasional whining, and deep gratitude for friendships and communities of faith. But he is not the best authority on relationships between men and women, or on the roles of women in the Church, in his time or ours; I do not find it at all inappropriate also to assert that he is not the best authority regarding the authenticity and naturalness of homosexual love.


A brief guide to a difficult but powerful letter: all humans can know God through God's creation, yet all turn away from him to self-created idols and self-centered wickedness (chapter 1); Jews have no right to judge as they do the same, and in fact have more to be ashamed of as they have been told what is right in the law (chapter 2); yet while all humans stand condemned in God's eyes, all are now offered the free gift of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ (chapter 3); Abraham, actually, is the first example of this, for his righteousness came by his act of faith, before there was any circumcision or law (chapter 4); so as Abraham believed God would make him and Sarah the beginning of a people, we are called to believe that God raised Christ from the dead to reconcile us to him while we were still in sin (chapter 5). 


Then chapter 6 opens with one of my favorite parts: if our awareness of our sinfulness shows us how great is God's grace, should we sin even more to get even more grace? What a great question! Yet Paul's response is even better: in essence, he says that if we truly understand the saving nature of that grace we would respond in kind, not by seeing if we could get more of it – for there is no "more" grace, it is not something of which we can amass quantities, it is what we already have. In other words: when we know we are loved, would we want to take advantage of that love or would we want to respond to that love with love? Paul thinks the latter course would have greater appeal, which is why he presents the former line of reasoning and then opposes it. It's a lovely way of thinking about our relationship to God.


But it gets better: Paul returns to the idea that the law makes clear where our sinfulness lies, and takes it one step further – the law also makes clear our own inability to be the best we can be: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate." (7:15) In this context, God's grace to us is even more amazing – which takes us to chapter 8, one of the most powerful statements of faith in God's unending love to be found in all of Christian literature: "For I am convinced that neither life, nor death...nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (8:38-39) This is tough going, but it is worth the effort. 

Acts 15-28

The second half of the book of Acts is dominated by the scene of the council in Jerusalem in chapter 15. The dispute over circumcision is a dispute over whether faith in Jesus as the Messiah is a new version of Judaism or something else entirely. If Gentiles, non-Jews, who are brought to Christ through the preaching and miracles of the apostles must be circumcised before being baptized, then the followers of Christ are saying that they are still Jews. Paul and Barnabas have been arguing against this practice, and in Luke's telling here Peter positions himself as the one initiating the mission to the Gentiles and as standing against circumcision. Paul's view of this dispute, which we will encounter when we read his Letter to the Galatians in a few weeks, is rather less generous to Peter. Whatever the historical truth, the important point is that the decision by the leaders depicted here – first Peter, and then James (known as James of Jerusalem, the brother of Jesus) – marks an assertion that Christianity, not yet really so named, is a new movement, a new faith, and something separate from its Jewish heritage. While the Pentecost event narrated in the second chapter of Acts is celebrated as the birth of the Church because of the gift of the Holy Spirit, this council's decision is perhaps the more definitive birth of the Church as a distinct new faith and a separate institution.


The rest of Acts builds on this decision, as it follows Paul on his many trips to found churches or to visit again those already founded. An intriguing aspect of his many speeches in these latter chapters is his willingness to adapt his message to his audience: the sermon on "the unknown God" he delivers in Athens (17:22-31) is radically different from his exhortation to the church in Ephesus (20:17-35) or again from his personal faith story as delivered to Festus and Agrippa (26:1-23). We will see this ability as we read his letters to various churches – Paul's great gift of seeing what aspects of the faith are most useful or applicable in specific life situations is on full display in these chapters and gives us a great view of the rapid growth of this strange new faith.

Acts 1-14

The Acts of the Apostles is the sequel to Luke's gospel. As I pointed out in our meeting this week, one can wonder why the final order of the books in the New Testament separated these two volumes by putting the Gospel of John in between - it seems a strange choice. But the emphasis on the gift of the Holy Spirit that drives and shapes John's account of the Last Supper, and therefore in many ways shapes his gospel as a whole, actually makes it a great lead-in to the agenda of Acts. For while Luke's gospel is concerned with the person of Jesus Christ – his life, teachings, death and resurrection – this book is focused on the efforts of the believers to figure out what to do next. The risen Christ has left the scene; now what?


The answer, gloriously made evident in the second chapter, is Pentecost, the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples. This event makes the assertion that the disciples' message, their mission, their choices and decisions, are all being guided not by their own desires and hopes but by God. This underlying statement of faith shapes all of Luke's further narrative. For the second answer to "now what?" is the creation of the Christian Church as a community of faith that is linked to but distinct from its Jewish roots – and that is impelled forward by the same Spirit.


The early chapters focus on the disciples in Jerusalem slowly expanding the community of believers; the center here is the leadership of Peter, though with lovely episodes featuring Stephen's preaching and martyrdom and Philip's fabulous encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch. Then Paul enters the story, and slowly takes center stage. Though he is to become the preeminent missionary to the Gentiles (non-Jewish population), the widening of the mission field is attributed here to Peter's vision that "what God has made clean, you must not call profane." All people are capable of receiving God's mercy, of receiving God's grace, of receiving God's salvation. Christianity thus begins to emerge as something radically different: not a Jewish sect or reformation or renovation, but a separate entity, a body of believers centered on Jesus Christ and powered by the Holy Spirit to fulfill God's plan. The Trinity as a means of understanding God takes shape not as a theological concept but as an embodied reality. This movement is not yet complete - the arguments still need to be made and settled and acted upon in the chapters to come - but the movement is inexorable.

Next Meeting is Wednesday, January 8, 7:00-8:30pm in the Parish House!

John 13-21

And now we bring our reading of the Gospels to a close, with the second half of John. The Book of Glory (see the previous post) focuses on the Passion narrative - and Jesus' lengthy speech to his disciples that precedes it - as a story that glorifies Jesus and God in Jesus. We are returning here to the opening prologue, which declared that "...the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth." (1:14) "Glory" is often used in the Bible as a substantive thing, a radiance or light that is a manifestation of God's presence, and certainly that would seem to be central to how John understands it.


Don't worry about parsing Jesus' discourse and prayer that covers chapters 13-17, but instead enjoy the development of the imagery. The setting is the Last Supper, but the emphasis here is not on the institution of the eucharist, but on a summation of Jesus' self-identification. Thus the opening action of Jesus washing the disciples' feet sets the tone of teaching a completely different order to the world. Footwashing and betrayal yield to the language of glory, the heavenly dwellings and the way and the truth and the life; the promise of the gift of the Spirit; the true vine and the new commandment and the promotion of the disciples from servants to friends; the coming of the hour; and the oneness of Father and Son and followers of the Son. Add to all of this the image of the good shepherd in chapter 10 from last week, and you can see Jesus trying his best to find some sort of clarity and yet always being stuck with language that is metaphorical and mystical. As I say, don't try to parse it, just let it wash over you and see what it conjures up. 


Then it's on to the trial, the crucifixion, the death, and the resurrection. Watch how hard Pilate works in this version to get out of the whole thing. What is truth?? Look how dramatic John makes Peter's denials. And these resurrection appearances - first to Mary Magdalene, then the Doubting Thomas episode, the barbecue on the beach, and the conversation with Peter that sounds like badgering but is really a threefold restoration by Jesus to negate his threefold denial - oh my, they are glorious, aren't they? See you next Wednesday, we have so much to discuss!

John 1-12

We move now (OK, a bit belatedly… sorry!) into the Gospel of John, and it is immediately apparent that we are reading something quite different from the preceding Synoptics. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, for example, all agree that Jesus does not go to Jerusalem (that is, during his public ministry; Luke, of course, has stories of Jesus in Jerusalem as an infant and as a young boy) until the triumphant entry we celebrate as Palm Sunday beginning the week leading to his death. John, on the other hand, has Jesus cleansing the Temple, driving out the merchants and money changers, as one of his first public acts. This difference in chronology reminds us that we are not reading documents meant to convey historical facts, but rather using history to make statements of faith.


John's gospel is generally agreed to have been written in the late first century, after the uprisings against the Roman Empire known as the Jewish Wars, and it manifests the effects of that turmoil. The followers of Jesus who still considered themselves Jewish (as opposed to the Gentiles Paul and others are converting) have been forced out of the synagogue during the time of war; our author here, reasonably assumed to be a student of the disciple John and one of those forced out, therefore sees "the Jews" (by which he means the leadership) to be a separate group from himself and his followers. This separation is then anachronistically put back into the gospel account of pre-separation times, leading to the strange picture of Jesus, a devout Jew, speaking of "the Jews" as though they were a different people. It is important to remember this anachronism as we read.


The focus of John's gospel is on Jesus establishing who he really is. This, too, is in contrast to the other three, where Jesus often forbade people (or demons) from making any claims until quite late in his ministry; John, however, has this issue of identity as a point of contention between Jesus and the religious leaders right from the start. It is the paramount question for John, and his belief is stated in the renowned opening prologue: the Word, the creative power of God that was with God and was God in the beginning of time, becomes flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. God is among us, John asserts, and he shows us in that same first chapter both John the Baptist identifying Jesus as the Son of God and Andrew declaring him to be the Messiah.


The Gospel divides fairly neatly into two main sections: the Book of Signs and the Book of Glory. Our reading this week takes us through the former section, while next week we'll cover the latter. The Book of Signs is primarily concerned with Jesus' agenda of establishing his identity.


There are seven "signs" that Jesus performs to demonstrate not his own particular powers but the power of God working through him:

  • changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana (2:1-12)
  • healing the son of the royal official (4:43-54)
  • healing of the paralytic at the pool of Beth-Zatha (Bethsaida; 5:1-16)
  • feeding of the five thousand (6:1-14)
  • walking on water (6:15-21)
  • giving sight to the blind man (9:1-41)
  • raising Lazarus from the dead (11:1-44)

One of my favorite parts of this gospel is when the crowd asks him in chapter 6, "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?" This would be after the first five signs have occurred, including walking on water! In John's portrayal, the difference between faith in Jesus and disbelief is quite starkly drawn.


The healing of the blind man (9:1-41) seems to encapsulate all of John's themes. The blind man comes to "see," both literally and figuratively, who Jesus is by stages of awareness, while the leaders of the people become progressively more belligerent in their refusal to accept what has happened. Miracles make us uncomfortable in the 21st century, with our ever-deeper grasp of the "laws of nature," the principles of the physical world; how might we approach the issue of believing in the miracles Christ performs in this gospel without leaving our rational mindsets behind?

Luke 21-24

As we come to the end of the three gospels known as the Synoptics, for sharing the same perspective and chronology, we've seen differences both minor (e.g., the blind man healed by Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, whom Mark calls Bartimaeus, is unnamed in Luke and is two men in Matthew) and major (which parables are shared by all and which are in Luke alone, for example). Luke's narrative agenda – seeing the gospel story as pointing to and continued in the story of the creation of the early church as described in the Book of Acts – may not lie behind every one of these differences, but it does shape the overall emphasis on Jesus' particular concern for the outsiders and the marginalized.


In fact, it can be seen that Luke draws our attention to what the people of his time, and of our own, might think of as the undeserving, right on through the crucifixion and resurrection: from the tax collector who acknowledges himself as a sinner in the parable, to the ten lepers, to Zaccheus, and even to the criminal crucified with him who is promised Paradise. The high point of this, for me, is the story known as the Supper on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). These two disciples heading to Emmaus are running away from the crucifixion, running away from the one they thought was the Messiah but instead has been executed as a common criminal, running away from the story the women told of the empty tomb – they are no longer devout followers of Jesus, yet they are the ones he chooses to accompany on the road, to teach them what they have failed to understand, to share with them a supper that is meal and eucharist and heavenly banquet. We are reminded, then, that there is no one who is deserving of the kingdom – rather, that we are all sinners and yet salvation is granted to all.


This theme is a most difficult one for us to accept - we work so hard to make ourselves deserving, to earn God's love and favor. As we bring Luke's gospel to a close, perhaps a useful exercise would be to examine the ways we look to make ourselves worthy of God's favor – consciously or unconsciously – and the ways we judge others by whether they are worthy of such grace or not. How do we forget that grace means precisely the unmerited love of God? Can we see faith then as living out a response to God's love, rather than making a desperate attempt to earn it?