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"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, con
cerning the word of life -- the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it ...." I John 1:1-2 (RSV)

"After his resurrection the disciples saw the living Christ, whom they knew to have died, with the eyes of faith (oculata fide)." Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III, 55, 2 ad 1, as quoted in D. M. Stanley, Jesus in Gethsemane (New York, Paulist Press 1980).

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Elijah and the Gates of Hell

Russian Icon. The Prophet Elijah and the Fiery Chariot.
Russian Icon, The Prophet Elijah and
the Fiery Chariot, 14th Century, The History
Museum, Moscow

In previous posts I have reflected on the transfiguration of Jesus.   Jesus appeared in glory on the mountain with Elijah and Moses.   Moses is a giant of the faith.  But my concern in this post is with Elijah.  How is it that  Christians can  read  the Gospel accounts of the transfiguration of Jesus, which speak of  Elijah, and pay no attention to the OT descriptions of Elijah?  Study of the NT should send the reader back to the OT, but I'm sorry to say that  most of the time we don't bother.

For the great scholar, Gerhard Von Rad, the amazing stories  of Elijah in I Kings chapters 17-19  "bear the stamp of history and individuality." Old Testament Theology, Volume II at 14. Elijah is "unapproachable, unpredictable, feared, and even hated, but always someone to be reckoned with."   Von Rad at 14.

Elijah "is a man of enormous powers.  Such a figure cannot simply have been invented, and can only be explained by saying that the stories [in I Kings] reflect a historical figure of well-nigh superhuman stature."    Von Rad at 14.

 Elijah came from Gilead, territory east of Jordan colonized by Israel  which had not been part of the earlier Canaanite civilization.   Jahwism was stronger east of the river.  West of the river Jahwism  "had grown  more and more ready to open its doors to the cult of Baal."  Von Rad at 15.

Baal worship was widespread in the northern kingdom of  Israel in the days of Elijah.   The gates of hell were bearing down on Jahwism, the worship of one God, the faith of Israel:  "Just at this time, when the peril confronting Jahwism was serious indeed, there came Elijah."   Von Rad at 16.   That takes us to the great assembly at Mount Carmel described in I Kings 18, where we see the battle between the priests of Baal and Israel's God, as represented by  Elijah.   This will be the subject of the next post.

How to Live with the Canaanites - Genesis 12:6

In recent weeks I have posted on the call and journey of Abraham as described in Genesis 12:1-9. Previous posts have dealt with God's call, Abraham's response, what it means to "call upon the name of the Lord," and the life of faith described as "the journey."  Here my concern is with Genesis 12:5-6, and my question is, what does it mean to live with the Canaanites?

[5] And Abram took Sar'ai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their possessions which they had gathered, and the persons that they had gotten in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, 
[6] Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Genesis 12:5-6  (RSV).  

Walter Brueggemann quoting Gerhard Von Rad's Old Testament Theology: Volume 1, says this:

Here [in Genesis 12]  it is better to recognize that the presence of Canaanites points to two religious realities.  First, the promise of God is never easy to believe and practice.  It must always be believed and practiced in the midst of those who practice more effective and attractive ways.  Abraham is called always to be a minority report among those who live and manage society against the promise.  Second, Abraham is called to a relation with the Canaanites.  Whereas some older commentators see the Canaanites simply as embodiments of paganism to be resisted, Von Rad rightly sees that Abraham is brought by God "into a completely unexplained relationship" with the Canaanites.  On the one hand, there is no evidence in the Abraham tradition of conflict with the Canaanites.  ... The Canaanites are, perhaps, a temptation to Abraham, for their ways were surely attractive in contrast to the slow-paced way of Yahweh's promise.  On the other hand, there is also no evidence that Abraham seeks to convert them.  Abraham's work is not to convert and build a church.  Rather, he is to live among them, to practice and believe the promise.  His task is not to impress or even to bear witness to God, but simply to permit the reality of blessing to be at work.  The statement of verse 6 suggests  a delicate living of a promissory presence which is neither to destroy nor convert but to mobilize the power of life in behalf of others. 
W. Brueggemann, Commentary on Genesis, 123-124 (John Knox Press 1982).

The Canaanites offer a way of life different from that of the believer. They bring temptation.  The believer must be a "minority report" among the Canaanites.  But we have to live with the Canaanites, and in doing so we must "practice and believe the promise."   (I'm not going to waste energy identifying  who among my friends and associates  might be a Canaanite, but it's safe to say that we live in a secular culture in which "the promise" is not relevant.)  God's "promissory presence" is at work in the life of the believer who is to "mobilize the power of life in behalf of others."  Often the believer sees no difference between his promissory life and the life of others who have no interest in the promise.   How does the believer respond to those kinds of discouraging feelings?  Serve others, worship God in the Eucharistic assembly, reflect on his word,  pray, and most important of all, believe that the promise is at work.  This is the life of faith, believing in things unseen.   As Brueggemann says, it is never easy to believe and practice the promise.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Mark 9:15 - When They Saw Jesus They Were Greatly Amazed

I am coming back to the transfiguration of Jesus  which was the subject of a previous post. The question is here is, why was the crowd "greatly amazed" when they saw Jesus after the transfiguration?   Here  is the account from  Gospel of Mark:

1] And he said to them, "Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power."
[2] And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves; and he was transfigured before them,
[3] and his garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them.
[4] And there appeared to them Eli'jah with Moses; and they were talking to Jesus.
[5] And Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Eli'jah."
[6] For he did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid.
[7] And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, "This is my beloved Son; listen to him."
[8] And suddenly looking around they no longer saw any one with them but Jesus only.
[9] And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of man should have risen from the dead.
[10] So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant.
[11] And they asked him, "Why do the scribes say that first Eli'jah must come?"
[12] And he said to them, "Eli'jah does come first to restore all things; and how is it written of the Son of man, that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt?
[13] But I tell you that Eli'jah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him."
[14] And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd about them, and scribes arguing with them.
[15] And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed, and ran up to him and greeted him.
Mark 9:1-15 (RSV)

What is meant by verse 15 just quoted where it says, "when they saw him, were greatly amazed, and ran up to him and greeted him?"    Here is the explanation of Morna Hooker which you see quoted in Ardel B. Caneday's excellent blog.

[Mark] must mean that there was something about Jesus' appearance which gave them good reason to be astonished. The only possible explanation seems to be that Mark means us to understand that Jesus' appearance is still in some way affected by the transfiguration. If Moses, coming down the mountain after speaking with God, reflected the glory of God from his face without knowing it, and so caused all the people to be afraid (Exod. 34:29f.), it is not surprising if Jesus also, coming down the mountain from a similar experience, caused astonishment among the crowd. 
Morna Hooker, The Gospel According to Mark , 222-224  (as quoted by  Ardel B. Caneday  at ntexegesis.blogspot.com).

Caneday in his blog post just cited points out that "amazement" is the Greek word ekthambeō (ἐκθαμβέω), and he states further: 

In [Mark] 16:5 and 16:6, ekthambeō (ἐκθαμβέω) is used first of the women who came to the tomb and found it empty and were amazed, and then of the young man who had been seated at the right side of the tomb who cautions, "Do not be amazed!" The verb speaks of deep movement of emotions, particularly of trembling astonishment. Thus, in Mark 9:14, the verb ekthambeō(ἐκθαμβέω) bursts upon the reader with unexpectedness. Given the fact that Mark's other uses of the verb ekthambeō (ἐκθαμβέω) denote intense emotion, we would be amiss to devalue the verb's intensity in 9:14.

Interpreters like Hooker and others cited by Caneday are truly on the right track pointing out that Jesus' appearance "amazed" the crowd because his appearance was showing the effects of the transfiguration.  To catch that, the interpreter shows an openness and wonder that is one of the keys to our theological reading of the Bible.  Yes, we must do the literary and historical study of the texts, but here is a great example of the importance of coming to the text humbly hoping to see God.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Moving into a Strange Country - Brueggemann Part 3

This post continues the reflection on Genesis chapter 12:1-9 and Walter Brueggemann's commentary on Genesis.  I quoted and discussed  the text of Genesis 12:1-8  in a  previous post  and won't repeat that here.   In response to God's call Abraham  has  moved out from his home country without knowing where he was going.  This is all about the biblical theme of the journey:  "And Abram journeyed on, still going toward the Negeb."  Gen 12:9 (RSV).

Commenting on Genesis 12 and the idea of the journey Brueggemann writes:

The metaphor of journey or sojourn is a radical one.  It is a challenge to the dominant ideologies of our time which yearn for settlement, security, and placement.  The life of this family [of Abraham and Sarah] is matched by the way of Yahweh himself.  Thus Yahweh is understood not as a God who settles and dwells, but as a God who sojourns and moves about (II Sam. 7:4-6).  In the David tradition which protests against royal absolutism, Yahweh is presented as a God who is known especially in his lordly freedom. This family is called to the same kind of freedom marked by precariousness and danger, the same risk Yahweh himself takes by sojourning with Israel. ...

The metaphor of journey as a way of speaking about faith is utilized by the New Testament in important ways.  Christian discipleship is understood as a following of "the way" (Matt. 8:22; 9:9; 10:38).  The "way" as a metaphor is not precisely characterized, but it is variously the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, the way of suffering, the way to Jerusalem.  The term marks Christians as those who live in a way contrasted to every fixed and settled form of life.   ...  "The way" clearly brought the early church into conflict with all the false ways of self-securing. ...   
In the great recital of pilgrimage in Heb. 11, Abraham and Sarah are presented as people who claimed no home.  They only pursued a risky promise. 
Brueggemann at 122.
Last night from my backyard  in Mayville
setting sun pouring through the high level  clouds

In Hebrews the NT writer cites Abraham  to encourage new believers in Jesus: "By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go."  Heb. 11:8 (RSV).  And when Abraham arrived in this place, it was not like home.  He was there as a sojourner, living in tents:  "By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise."  Heb. 11:9 (RSV).    Hebrews is a message to a young church of Jewish people who believed in Jesus and were suffering persecution.   They were a people called to faith with Jesus as their Messiah.  Like Abraham and Sarah these new believers were sent out on a journey - in their case a spiritual journey -  based on the promise of God.  These Jewish believers, now suffering for their Christian faith,  felt like strangers in a foreign country, like Abraham in Canaan.

Next post I will discuss more of what the believer can expect from this life of the journey, with an illustration from the experience of St. Paul.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Life is Beautiful - Josef Pieper, Scott Fillmer and G.K. Chesterton

God Revealing Himself

Gospel Themes is a Bible study blog, but my hope is to couple comments on  the texts with thoughts and images from those who have eyes to see God's presence in our world.   Right now I'm studying the journey of Abraham as described in  the Book of Genesis.  You can't understand the Gospels without paying close attention to the OT accounts of  Abraham, who is the father of our faith.   But to benefit from Bible study believers have to understand that while God reveals himself in his holy word, that is not his only means of presenting himself.  If believers come to the scriptures believing that God speaks in our world, then these sacred words may bring us into the holy presence of God.   Having that same attitude, that God is alive in our world, also changes the way a believer goes through the day.  With confidence that "Christ liveth in me," it's not crazy to go through the day hoping for a flash of light from his holy presence.

Yes, the revelation of God comes from and through the Bible, which is the word of God as expressed by human authors.  God also reveals himself  in the traditions and teachings of the church, in worship and prayer,   and we also find God in  nature, in beauty, and in people.  (Now, when it comes to matters of truth, faith and morals, we find God's revelation only in the church and the Bible, with a contribution from what we call "the natural law."  Consult your catechism.  But I am speaking more generally here.)  Here is a beautiful image, from the inside of a church, thanks to Scott Fillmer:

Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham AL
 Photo by Scott Fillmer of Independent Presbyterian Church Birmingham AL, at
scottfillmer.com posted here with kind permission from Scott Fillmer

Attitude of the Believer
I find that God comes to us first and foremost through the scriptures,  but that we also may find him in the people, nature and the things we encounter each day.  But none of this matters unless the believer is receptive to the revelation and presence of God.   I am talking about the attitude of the believer.  Yes, Abraham and St. Paul were not looking for God when they found him, or when God found them.  But the believing Christian can't sit back and ignore God.  This is where the matter of the believer's attitude becomes important.

One  of the keys to what philosophers used to call  "the good life"  is to be open to the presence of God however that presence may come to a person.  Whether I am studying the journey of Abraham in   Genesis 12, or contemplating beauty in nature, or in  words or visual images,  or  taking in the presence of God  in a beautiful place like this Alabama church,  I need to approach it all with an  attitude which is open to the good, the true and the beautiful.  This is something that  Josef Pieper teaches, and was the subject of a previous post.   And 35 years ago I also learned of these kinds of glimpses of the presence of God, of the  mystical wonder of  people, images and things which we come across each day,   from reading  Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton.

This morning I am grateful for the beauty of these words:

I cannot make less red the rose’s fold,
Less white the wave,
Less blue the sea, less bright the garner’s gold,
Less dark the grave,
Nor make thy soul less beautiful and bold,
Queen of the brave.

To His Love, a poem by G.K. Chesterton (mid-1890's) available here.

If we look and we don't see, it's the same as if we never looked at all.  May God open the eyes of every  Christian,  to see what is true and beautiful,  in the study of the Bible, prayer, the Eucharist, worship in the assembly, in art and music, in the words and visual images that we encounter, in the people whom we meet and reach out to, and in the experiences of  each day.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Abraham's New Life - Walter Brueggemann Part 2

This is my second post dealing with Genesis and  Walter Brueggemann's excellent  1982   commentary on Genesis.   The issue for me here is:  How does Abraham illustrate what it  means  to “call upon the name of the Lord” as described in Genesis chapter 12?

Possible route of Abraham and Sarah, public domain map from biblestudy.org  
My experience is that Christians have little interest in Abraham, even though he is put forth by NT writers as a revered believer who lived an exemplary life of faith in action. See Romans chapter 4 and Hebrews chapter 11.  Abraham is famous for his  “faith,” his “obedience,” his “obedient faith,” and his “faithful obedience,” and all too often these terms come off in sermons and inspirational writings as slogans.  That is a shame because the Genesis accounts of Abraham are jarring and life changing.   Combine a close reading of  the text of Genesis chapter 12 with Brueggeman’s take on it, and you will see in  Abraham one of the most vivid pictures of a “changed life” as any in the Bible.

I don’t have space to cover the several NT passages which refer to Abraham, or which refer to this subject of calling upon the name of the Lord.   But one NT matter is worth noting, as a preface here.    Based on the texts of the Gospels and what we know of second temple Judaism in the days of Jesus, what was Jesus' likely attitude toward Abraham?   A serious response to that question is beyond my competence as a nonprofessional Bible student. But these words of  Jesus in John chapter 8 leave me with the impression that Jesus knew the Genesis accounts of Abraham cold:
 [39] They answered him, "Abraham is our father." Jesus said to them, "If you were Abraham's children, you would do what Abraham did, 
[40] but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth which I heard from God; this is not what Abraham did.  ...
[56] Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad."
John 8: 39-40,56  (RSV).
As a first century Jew Jesus would have seen himself as one of the children of Abraham. Abraham was the father of the Jewish faith. Here in John 8 Jesus engages in a highly charged verbal exchange with his opponents, who make their argument based on that same status - that the people of Israel are the children of Abraham. Jesus challenges that. If they truly had Abraham as their father, they would have accepted Jesus, but instead Jesus says, "you seek to kill me." Jn. 8:40.  These verses from John 8 show that Jesus looked at his own mission ("my day") as something connected to and even within the vision of Abraham who "saw it and was glad." Jn. 8:56. From these words of Jesus about Abraham, I have to believe that if you read Genesis 12 you are reading a section of scripture which Jesus loved, and may well have had memorized. Abraham and Jesus had the same mission, to bring blessing to the world. In a sense, Abraham initiated this mission, and Jesus brought it to a kind of fulfillment. (Well, the people of Israel are still waiting for fulfillment, as we see in Romans 9-11, but that would have to be the subject of another post.)

In a few short verses here Genesis describes God’s call to Abraham and Abraham’s response:
[1] Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.
[2] And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
[3] I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves."
[4] So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.
Genesis 12:1-4  (RSV)

As “Abram went” (v. 4) and  in the course of his travels  God came to him again, and again Abraham responded:
[6] Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land.
[7] Then the LORD appeared to Abram, and said, "To your descendants I will give this land." So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him.
[8] Thence he removed to the mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD.
Genesis 12:6-8 (RSV).

These verses from Genesis 12 raise monumental issues of our faith, the covenant, the formation of the people of God, the redemptive plans of God for the whole world, God’s  promises, the meaning of  faith, obedience and cultic practice (the altar).   But in this post I only want to address the single issue raised by verse 8 where Abraham “built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord.”   What does it mean to call upon the name of the Lord?

To call on the name of the Lord means much more than saying words to God.  Walter Brueggeman commented as follows:
To “call on the name” means to turn to the one named as the single referent of life.  Thus, the cultic practice of Abraham [building an altar] expresses a life-identifying decision he had made in verse 4.  It is appropriate to link this decision of Abraham to the primal commandment, to have “no other gods.”  Luther’s well-known interpretive comment on the commandment is that “whatever your heart clings to and relies upon is properly your God."  … Calling on God’s name encompasses the whole of life.
Brueggemann, commentary on Genesis, at page 125.

For Abraham the “life identifying decision he made in verse 4” was his decision to leave his home country and go to "
the land that I will show you" Gen. 12:1. Looking at these verses from Genesis 12 as a whole, to call upon the name of the Lord means that Abraham must listen to God, believe in God, leave his home country and worship at the altar as he journeys to the place where God calls him to go.   

Next post I will continue this reflection on Genesis 12 and address the theme of journey.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Prayer Warriors

This image appears in  a piece in the Sacred Page.

The image reminds me of the term that we use in theology, "church militant,"  which is in contrast  to "church triumphant."    By church militant  we mean that  the church on earth does  battle  with temptation and sin, injustice and violence.   More specifically, our battle is against the world, the flesh, and the devil.   Of course, the battle is the Lord's.   The weapon  which you see here is prayer.