Monthly Archives: August 2011

With the Word online Bible Study: how not to do it

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Matthew 23.1-12

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

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What word, phrase, or image stands out to you in this passage? Sit with that for a moment. What does it bring up for you? What questions do you have? What connections do you hear (to other stories, images, art, movies, music…)?

Jesus tells the people not to strive to be like their leaders–to do as they say, but not as they do. How do you feel about that teaching? What leaders do you seek to imitate, and which do you follow their words but not actions? What does it do to how you perceive someone’s words if their actions do not match up to what they say?

The leaders Jesus mentions are those whose intentions are not pure–they give in order to get, whether what they get is honor, prestige, good seats, forgiveness, etc. Have you ever behaved in this way? Why?

If this is NOT the reason to give or to follow the commandments or to follow Jesus, why do we do those things?

What does this 2000 year old story have to do with how you live your life as a Christian?

How might this story inform last week’s–that we are to love God with everything are and everything we have, and to love our neighbors as ourselves?

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we believe…

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Part of our theological tradition as Reformed Christians, particularly those who are part of the Presbyterian Church (USA), is an entire book of confessions of faith (that link is to a PDF of the whole thing!)–statements that seek to shine the light of our theological heritage on the present. No one statement of faith says everything or captures the fullness of God–the 11 that are in the Book of Confessions don’t even do that when considered all together! But they do give us insight not only into our history but also into the movement of the Spirit through God’s people in different times, places, and contexts. They do give us a window through which to look when we are considering what God is doing, who God is, and what our place in God’s creation might be.

The most recent of these statements of faith, The Brief Statement, was written after the northern and southern Presbyterian churches reunited in 1983. It was added to the Book of Confessions in 1991, and is designed to be used in worship as well as study. While it’s a little too long for regular inclusion in worship, it’s the perfect length for education and discussion!

So Mondays on the blog will be a “this we believe?” column. We will go through the Brief Statement, one paragraph each week, and discuss what it says (and doesn’t say) and what WE believe…and how that fits with other parts of our theological tradition.  Join us in this online theology class each Monday!

The Brief Statement of Faith (1991)

In life and in death we belong to God.
Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit,
we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel,
whom alone we worship and serve.

We trust in Jesus Christ,
Fully human, fully God.
Jesus proclaimed the reign of God:
preaching good news to the poor
and release to the captives,
teaching by word and deed
and blessing the children,
healing the sick
and binding up the brokenhearted,
eating with outcasts,
forgiving sinners,
and calling all to repent and believe the gospel.
Unjustly condemned for blasphemy and sedition,
Jesus was crucified,
suffering the depths of human pain
and giving his life for the sins of the world.
God raised Jesus from the dead,
vindicating his sinless life,
breaking the power of sin and evil,
delivering us from death to life eternal.

We trust in God,
whom Jesus called Abba, Father.
In sovereign love God created the world good
and makes everyone equally in God’s image
male and female, of every race and people,
to live as one community.
But we rebel against God; we hide from our Creator.
Ignoring God’s commandments,
we violate the image of God in others and ourselves,
accept lies as truth,
exploit neighbor and nature,
and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care.
We deserve God’s condemnation.
Yet God acts with justice and mercy to redeem creation.
In everlasting love,
the God of Abraham and Sarah chose a covenant people
to bless all families of the earth.
Hearing their cry,
God delivered the children of Israel
from the house of bondage.
Loving us still,
God makes us heirs with Christ of the covenant.
Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child,
like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home,
God is faithful still.

We trust in God the Holy Spirit,
everywhere the giver and renewer of life.
The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith,
sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor,
and binds us together with all believers
in the one body of Christ, the Church.
The same Spirit
who inspired the prophets and apostles
rules our faith and life in Christ through Scripture,
engages us through the Word proclaimed,
claims us in the waters of baptism,
feeds us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation,
and calls women and men to all ministries of the church.
In a broken and fearful world
the Spirit gives us courage
to pray without ceasing,
to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,
to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,
to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit,
we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks
and to live holy and joyful lives,
even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth,
praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

With believers in every time and place,
we rejoice that nothing in life or in death
can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.*

*Instead of saying this line, congregations may wish to sing a version of the Gloria

online book group: finishing up What’s the Least I Can Believe…(chapters 19, 20, 21)

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(about the timing–so sorry! Apparently my inability to remember to push “attach” also extends to an inability to change posts from “draft” to “publish” sometimes. 😦 So…I’ve wrapped up three into one, since it’s the end of summer and time for us to finish this book and move into new things!)

The Holy Spirit

It’s true, mainline protestants often have a difficult time with the Holy Spirit. She’s the least nail-down-able of the three persons of the Trinity, the most elusive and mysterious, and sometimes the most uncomfortable. We’re pretty comfortable with God the Creator or Father or Mother. We’re even pretty comfortable with God the Son, both as an eternal being and as a human being. But when we get into this Spirit business, we start getting all shifty-eyed and nervous. Who is the Holy Spirit? What’s her role in the Trinity and in our lives? How come she’s not obvious like Jesus?

Well…the word “spirit” in Hebrew is ruach and it means breath, wind, or spirit. It’s a feminine noun, so use of “she” is perfectly appropriate. The Spirit can also be called the breath of God or the wind of God. In the first creation story (Genesis 1), a wind from God blows over the waters…in the second creation story (Genesis 2) and in Ezekiel 37 (for example) the breath of God is what turns a body from lifeless bones and dust into a living being–God’s breath is the animating force in creation. In the baptism of Jesus, the Spirit is seen as a dove. In the Pentecost story (Acts 2) the Spirit is visible in fire and audible in wind and in many languages. All of these are good images. The salient point here is that the Spirit of God is moving, active, within and between and around us, animating the creation and giving life. The Spirit leads (after Jesus’ baptism he’s led into the wilderness by the Spirit), empowers (Pentecost, other stories in Acts), and other such active verbs that are about our living a faithful life.

The Trinity is a complex doctrine that basically attempts to explain how we know God. The author gives an example of a person in different roles–mother, doctor, friend, etc. That analogy sort of works, and sort of doesn’t. The thing about the Trinity is that God is not wearing a mask or something, is not acting a part. All the aspects of God are present in all the other aspects. We may see one more prominently than another, but there is no separating the persons of the Trinity, and there’s nothing hiding behind a costume or a role. I like to use the image of AquaFresh toothpaste. Three colors, working together…all of them are toothpaste on their own, but they can never be separated into three separate streaks either. They’re distinct yet inseparable.

The Kingdom of God, as Jesus says, “is among you” or “here” or “near.” When we pray “Thy Kingdom come,” hopefully we mean it! We don’t mean “bring us to your kingdom when we die” we mean “bring your kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.” This is not about life after death, it’s about making the kingdom of God visible even here, even now.

What did you think of the discussion of Isaiah 65 as an explanation of Kingdom-of-God things? The author says that because of the description of God’s kingdom in this chapter (combined, of course, with Jesus’ insistence that the kingdom of God is among us), health insurance, prenatal care, Medicare, social security, fair mortgage rates, affordable housing, affordable healthy food, minimum wage, employee benefits, child nutrition, education, peacemaking–these are kingdom issues and therefore need to be addressed by people who choose to live in the kingdom of God. What are your thoughts?

The most important words in this chapter are “for those with eyes to see….” It’s possible to look at the world and see despair. Or just everyday average work. Or the kingdom of God breaking through. Which do you choose to see?

Do we believe in getting saved?

Well…yes and no. Yes, in that God’s saving grace has been at work since before the dawn of time and will continue to be at work long after we cease to walk the earth. Yes, in that God’s grace transforms lives of individuals and communities, and that grace saves us. No, in the sense that we have to do anything to earn it or receive it. Grace is a gift given to all–our choice is not even to receive it (one of the tenets of Reformed theology is “Irresistable Grace”), but to recognize it. Again, for those with eyes to see, grace is all around and within us. We can choose not to see, which will change the way we respond but will not change our status as recipients of grace.

This is one of the major differences between our theological tradition as Presbyterians and other traditions, even those that seem awfully close to us (like Methodists!). What do you think of this understanding of grace and salvation?

The most important part:

Christianity is not a set of doctrines. It is not a list of 10 things we have to believe.

Christianity is a way of life. It is about following Jesus, listening for God’s call, and living responsively with the Holy Spirit.

We often talk about other religions being different because they demand more in terms of how life is lived–Judaism has rules, Islam has 5 times a day prayer and more rules, etc. They are a way of living, not just a set of beliefs. The thing is: that’s what Christianity is too. In the post-enlightenment period it has become a way of thinking, but that’s not what it really means to follow Jesus. To be a disciple of the risen Lord is to live life in a different way.

So…how will you live as a disciple of Jesus, in the kingdom of God, today? tomorrow? going forward?

With the Word online bible study: with all you are

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Matthew 22.34-46

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ Jesus said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: ‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’ He said to them, ‘How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,

“The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet’ ”?
If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

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What word, phrase, or image catches your attention? Spend a few moments thinking about that word/phrase/image. What does it tell you about God, about yourself, about the world?

What questions do you have after reading this passage?

Jesus quotes the Shema, found in Deuteronomy 6.4, saying that the first and most important commandment is to love God with every part of you–with your intellect, your spirit, your body, your emotions. Is this how you love God?

The flip side of the coin is to love your neighbor as yourself. The implication in tying these together (the second commandment Jesus quotes is from Leviticus) is that they have something to do with one another. What do you think they have to do with each other?

What do you think are the aspects of a life lived in accordance with these commandments? What does that life look like in practice? What does it mean for how a person following these two commandments would spend their time? Their money? their energy? What would they do and not do? Say and not say? shop or not shop? etc?

What do you think of how Jesus turns the tables to question the Pharisees? What do you think he means by the question he puts to them?

With the Word online Bible study: one bread, one body…

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1 Corinthians 12.12-27

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

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This is a familiar text–we hear it and reference it all the time. Take a moment to go back and read it out loud. It feels and sounds different aloud (the way it was intended to be received) than just as words on the page. Read it and hear yourself reading it aloud.

What do you hear? What phrase, word, or image jumps out at you and catches your attention?

What do you hear God saying through this text to us, today? This letter was written to a church, and then was sent on to many other churches–it’s intended for a community to read together and to learn from. What does the Spirit say through these words to our church? To the world church?

How do we live out this idea of being one body? How do we fail at living it out?

When we come to the communion table, we say that we are being formed and re-formed into the body of Christ–that through sharing a meal, all Christians are bound together the way grains are bound together to make bread. Is that your experience of communion? Share with us what you experience at the table.

What is the good news for us in this text? What is the challenge?