Acts 7:54-8:1 – Humility and Hubris

A 10th century depiction of Stephen’s martyrdom

When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

And Saul approved of their killing him.

On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. (New International Version)

Although I am a trained in biblical exegesis and hermeneutics (interpreting Scripture) I believe that most insights come from making simple observations about the text. So, I want to point out: Stephen was not martyred by the Romans, a religiously pagan group, or Gentile people; he was martyred by those of his own ethnicity, by the people of God.

They weren’t simply unhappy with Stephen. The Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council) were incensed with him, so mad that they were grinding their teeth at him. The council truly believed Stephen was a blasphemer of God, that what he was saying was so subversive and religiously radical, they could stone him to death with a clear conscience, as if it were upholding God and God’s Law.

The result was not only the death of a humble man; it also sparked an intense persecution against the church which caused a new Christian diaspora. Many believers in Jesus now found themselves as Christian refugees trying to eke out a living and worshiping Christ in foreign places.

I wish I could say the greatest opposition I’ve ever experienced as a Christian came from non-Christians who simply misunderstood and misinterpreted me. However, my most hurtful wounds have come from the hands of church folk, believing they were acting on God’s behalf by exacting an emotional martyrdom upon me with the stones of gossip, slander, backbiting, blame-shifting, and outright lying.

Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping them up.

Whenever I encounter persons who no longer attend church and have no intention of ever returning to any local congregation, I get it. I understand. I’ve been there. Yet, although the church is sometimes like a woman of disrepute, I still love her, and will do whatever I can to edify her and not repay evil with evil.

Stoning a believer, either actually with physical rocks or virtually with metaphorical stones, is akin to persecuting Jesus himself. That’s because Christ so closely identifies with his people that it is as if he is a head, and his followers are a body – joined together in a vital union.

So, when Christ’s Body is subjected to hermeneutical hubris in which one group of people insists there is only one way to interpret Scripture, and then uses it’s authority and structures of power to force compliance on another group, the result is persecution.

And that is precisely why Christians can abuse other Christians.

Rather than discerning that all Christians belong to God, one narrow-minded and small-hearted group excludes all other groups who disagree with them as blaspheming the name of Christ.

Insisting, for example, that a literal interpretation in the only means of understanding the Bible’s authority is to ignore and abuse the actual and real authority which exists with the Bible. I am in no way encouraging an “anything goes” type of approach to Holy Scripture that lets it say whatever you want it to say. 

What I am stating is that the biblical writers themselves employed different methods of interpretation, as well as the early church fathers (which is one reason I hold to the interpretive guides of the ancient Christian creeds, i.e. The Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed).

Far too often churches stick to a particular interpretation because they believe they are keeping biblical fidelity. This is many times born of a fear that Christendom will be lost, and society will sink into an abyss of egregious sin. The irony is that many churches are sinking into forms of abusive and ungracious behavior by fighting battles that Scripture itself never calls them to fight.

The binary thinking of “I’m right and you’re wrong” is not an approach you’ll find in God’s Holy Word.

Even if the Sanhedrin in Stephen’s day intended on upholding the holiness of their God and the rightness of their cause, the impact it had on the church was death and diaspora.

Unfortunately, throughout Christian history, the tables have too often turned with Christians persecuting Jews. I myself would like to avoid being the persecutor. If I kill anything, may it be putting to death my own sin.

Gracious God, as your Son humbled himself on this earth, so may your church walk continually in such humility that believers everywhere work together in unity for the sake of gospel of grace as a blessing to the world in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Psalm 128 – Obey and Enjoy Happiness

Around Your Table by Melani Pyke

Happy are those who respect the Lord and obey him.
You will enjoy what you work for,
    and you will be blessed with good things.
Your wife will give you many children,
    like a vine that produces much fruit.
Your children will bring you much good,
    like olive branches that produce many olives.
This is how the one who respects the Lord
    will be blessed.
May the Lord bless you from Mount Zion;
    may you enjoy the good things of Jerusalem all your life.
May you see your grandchildren.

Let there be peace in Israel. (New Century Version)

Obedience and blessing go together like a hand in a glove. Holy Scripture consistently connects the call to obey the Lord with blessing from G-d. Indeed, in carefully observing wise and biblical instruction, one will typically enjoy divine favor and approval.

Keep in mind, however, this is not a math equation. Like 2+2=4 there are folks who expect a neat linear connection between their obedience and their blessing. In math theology, when a woman is unable to have children, or a child goes astray from their heritage, the parent concludes that they themselves must have been unfaithful to G-d’s law or are being punished. Conversely, with children who grow to be good citizens and respectful persons, the parents might conclude it was because of their superior observance to the spiritual life.

In both cases, parents take too much credit, either for a child’s wandering or success. As for kids going astray, even G-d had prodigal children, so cut ourselves some slack. As for children who maintain faithfulness, a lot of factors went into who they are. I suppose it is only natural to quickly assume we have far more control of than we really do.

This all cuts to the heart of biblical interpretation. If all Scripture is read literally, then we will likely see the Bible as a math equation where doing and saying the right things gets a predictable result of blessing. Yet, this mistakenly views promise and proverb as the same thing, and divine work with one person or group will be precisely the same for another. The wisdom literature of Scripture, which includes the psalms, were never designed as prescriptive decree but rather as the sage approach for work, worship, and family.

“Faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Today’s psalm communicates the path of happiness coming through love and respect for G-d. It neither promises lots of kids, ensures money, nor guarantees smooth sailing. Rather, when one lives each day being cognizant and observant to center everything around the divine, then blessing and happiness will tend to follow.

Blessings and benedictions are given to sustain us in hope and confidence. The best things in life usually come through faith and family. So, when we choose to walk with G-d and travel down the ethical road, then life becomes full of peace and prosperity – perhaps not always in the manner we expect, yet blessing, nonetheless.

Humanity is hard-wired for blessing, for a steady diet of encouragement, acceptance, and approval from G-d and others. When this is withheld from us, unhappiness, even despair begins to settle. Giving and receiving blessing is at the heart of being fully human and alive. Our work and family life will likely be miserable if blessing is absent. Yet, with blessing, we have a sustainable form of happiness and enjoyment.

Most every good thing in life is obtained through a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears. Obedience is no easy task. It typically requires courage and is complicated in its application to life situations. Here are a few ways to maintain an obedient life to G-d:

  • Devote yourself to the daily reading of Scripture. One cannot obey that which is neither known nor remembered. A steady regimen of good old fashioned Bible reading is the best way to refresh the mind and incline the heart toward biblical commands. (Psalm 119:57-64)
  • Pray to listen and pay attention. There is more to prayer than petitions and praise. We must also practice silence and solitude so that we can give focused attention to hearing G-d, thus, obeying the Spirit. (Jeremiah 7:21-26)
  • Practice repentance. Being aware of our guilt and shame, acknowledging it, and naming it before G-d is the path of change – keeping us on the narrow road of obedience. (1 John 1:5-10)
  • Take the long view. Not all obedience is rewarded in this life but in the life to come. Perseverance and patience is needed to sustain obedience over the long haul of life. And, in the end, there are heavenly blessings awaiting us. (Hebrews 11:36-12:3)

Eternal God, by whose power we are created and by whose love we are redeemed, guide, strengthen, and bless us through your Spirit so that we may give ourselves to your service and live today in love to one another and to you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Mark 8:14-21 – Adventures in Missing the Point

The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat.“Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”

They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.”

Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”

“Twelve,” they replied.

“And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”

They answered, “Seven.”

He said to them, “Do you still not understand?” (New International Version)

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus uses yeast as a metaphor for corrupting influences. It only takes a little bit of yeast to work through the whole batch of dough. Christ, upholding the teachings of Old Testament law, didn’t just want people to avoid eating actual unleavened bread. He desired his disciples to be unleavened themselves, a holy people, free of all crookedness and malevolent motives.

Christ’s disciples, bless their pea-pickin’ literal interpreting hearts, were too dense to pick up on the metaphor. They began anxiously chattering about how Jesus might be disappointed with them in having no actual bread to eat. Although they had just witnessed an amazing miracle of literally feeding thousands of people, the disciples did not discern what that miracle meant beyond just filling bodily stomachs.

Had Christ’s disciples been able to see beyond the literal to the metaphorical, they would have likely understood several lessons Rabbi Jesus was teaching them:

  • The provision of bread pointed to who Jesus truly is: Living Bread from heaven. Just like the miraculous provision of manna in the desert to the ancient Israelites, so God was graciously meeting the total needs of people through Jesus. Conversely, the yeast of corruption saps the life out of people.
  • The presence of bread doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all good. There’s leavened bread and unleavened bread. That is, there is the healthy bread of God’s Word to eat, and there are other words to eat which is unhealthy bread. A life set apart for goodness and mercy in the world brings life to others. A person with mixed motives and personal agendas of power and privilege brings no nourishment to others – only inedible bread.
  • The puny amount of bread became a huge feast. A little bit of Jesus is enough to feed thousands and satisfy empty stomachs. A little bit of false teaching and hypocrisy is enough to corrupt thousands of people and make them sick.
  • The prosperity of bread multiplied by Jesus was so much that there were leftovers. In the kingdom of God, there is abundance. The disciples served the bread to the throng of people, and they received bread for themselves with twelve basketfuls of bread pieces – enough bread to feed their families, as well. The leavened bread of corruption doesn’t satisfy; it only decreases health.

But the disciples didn’t get it. So, Jesus chided them for their profound lack of spiritual awareness. By this time, the disciples had been following Jesus for a while – watching him do miraculous works of healing and meeting people’s needs, as well as being on the inside track of receiving his gracious teaching. If anyone ought to get what’s going on, it was them.

If we continually possess only a one-dimensional interpretation of Holy Scripture, a literal one, we are most certainly going to miss most of what’s really happening with Jesus. Rigid and narrow hermeneutical approaches aren’t just inadequate; they’re a corrupting influence. It is an adventure in missing the point because there is only a dim awareness of self, others, God, and God’s Word. It doesn’t nourish anybody. In fact, it makes people sick.

That sad situation makes such people, along with disciples at the time, no better than those on the outside of God’s kingdom.

“You will listen and listen,
    but never understand.
You will look and look,
    but never see.” (Isaiah 6:9, CEV)

Spiritual blindness and deafness are the symptoms of an unexamined and unaware life. And the lack of awareness is a malady from the bread of corruption.

Jesus Christ has a mission, along with the authority to make it happen. He was hoping for a more adequate understanding of this from his disciples, instead of getting the obtuse deer-in-the-headlights response.

Although, in some ways, today’s Gospel story is downer, it is also hopeful. The disciples ultimately do not remain stuck. They illustrate for us the nature of faith. Faith is not a one and done event of praying a sinner’s prayer or accepting Jesus. Rather, faith is an unfolding drama of redemption.

We grow in and into faith. Faith is much more a gradual awareness of God’s character and working in the world, with maybe a few dramatic epiphanies along the way. It is piecemeal, rather than wholesale. It’s more like taking small bites of delicious bread and savoring it with friends, instead of ravenously devouring an entire loaf alone.

“I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” (John 6:51, NKJV)

Lord Jesus, as you came to serve us living bread, fill us with the compassion and insight to respond to human need by loving service. Let the fire of your goodness and justice burn into us and through us, that we may seek to transform the unjust structures of society. As you come into our lives to redeem all that is good, guide to renew and sustain the life of your creation. Let your glory fill our lives. Let your glory fill this world. Amen.

Nehemiah 8:1-12 – Word and Worship

Ezra Reads the Law to the People by Bernadette Lopez

All the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.

So, on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.

Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam.

Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.

Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.”

Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. (NIV)

God’s Holy Word is central to worship. Since the Bible is God’s self-revelation, it makes sense to gather in worship which is saturated with Scripture. The proclamation of God’s Word is important because it is a means of knowing God and teaches us how to live.

The ancient Israelites were taken into captivity from their home in Jerusalem to Babylon. Nehemiah became the king’s cupbearer (a servant who fills wine cups for royalty). Years later, Nehemiah heard about the condition of Jerusalem and determined to do something about it. The walls were broken down and the people were without leadership. Because of his relationship to the king and God’s sovereign working on the king’s heart, Nehemiah returned from exile in Babylon to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall. 

Ezra was a scribe (a copier of the Scriptures), a priest, and a teacher of the Law of Moses (the first five books of the Old Testament). Together, Ezra and Nehemiah were like God’s dynamic duo, renewing the worship of God. It was a time of revival, in which the Israelites found new life around God’s Word.

Renewal, revival, and reformation happen when God’s revelation is carefully and faithfully read, listened to, and acted upon. Life change occurs through Holy Scripture, as we come to understand and apply it to all our circumstances and relationships.

Ezra arrived in Jerusalem first, fourteen years before Nehemiah. At that time, morality was low, and the spiritual condition of the people was unhealthy. Yet, as Ezra prayerfully taught them God’s Word, over time they began to respond.

The rebuilding of the wall under Nehemiah’s leadership was a direct result of the spiritual foundation Ezra had built through the Word of God. After the wall was finished, it was time to hear the entire Book of the Law read aloud. 

Imagine and picture your entire community gathering early in the morning in a park or large space, staying till noon doing nothing but listening to Scripture being read, with various local pastors taking their turn reading and making the meaning clear. All the while the people are responding in worship, tears, and celebration…. If this seems far-fetched for today, it also seemed that way to most people in Nehemiah’s day.

Holy Scripture is a powerful unifying force within the life of God’s people. We may not explain every Bible verse the same way; and the riffraff might attempt to magnify differences and minimize a common confession of faith around Scripture. However, a universal desire to honor, apply, and obey God’s Word draws us closer together rather than separates us.

A first century Jewish teacher, Rabbi Akiva, once noticed a tiny stream trickling down a hillside, dripping over a ledge on its way toward the river below. Below was a massive boulder. The rock bore a deep impression. The drip, drip, drip of water over the centuries had hollowed away the stone. Rabbi Akiva commented, “If mere water can do this to hard rock, how much more can God’s Word carve a way into my heart of flesh?” He realized that if the water had flowed over the rock all at once, the rock would have been unchanged. It was the slow steady impact of each droplet, year after year, that completely reformed the stone.

We oftentimes want quick answers to our questions without taking the time to prayerfully listen and reflect on the Word of God. Yet, God tends to reveal truth over days, months, and years, as we read and discuss Scripture. Through the slow drip of study, prayer, and reflection, day after day, year after year, God shapes and spiritually forms us.

The people in today’s story were responsive, both vocally and physically. They shouted “Amen!” (literally, “yes, may it be so!”)  and raised their hands. Word and worship always go together. 

The people were submissive, bowing in worship (literally, “to prostrate oneself”). True worship listens attentively to God’s Word and surrenders to the Lord. It is an act of humility, pledging to act upon what is heard.

The people were teachable, attentively listening to the Levite priests explain Scripture. Sometimes the Bible is not apparently relevant. We need others to help us, and the patience to stick with it, even when we are not sure about what it is saying. Interpreting Scripture (hermeneutics) typically happens in community, not isolation, which is why small groups of people interacting on the Bible’s message is significant.

The people mourned and wept. Hearing the Word illumined their failures and disobedience. When we look intently into Scripture, we see divine faithfulness and human disloyalty; God’s compassion and our selfishness; the Lord’s holiness and people’s fickle nature.

Awareness of truth causes grief and distress over personal sin and the sin of the world. Yet, there is mercy and forgiveness. Grace washes away guilt and shame and brings restoration. God’s Word both slays us and gives us new life.

In ancient Israel, every Jewish boy had the first five books of the Old Testament memorized by age twelve. The goal was to have Torah internalized and known so that it influenced every situation and every relationship of their lives.

Ezra and Nehemiah were only reinstituting what their ancestors had done:

Moses said, “Gather the people together—men, women, children, and the foreigners living among you—so they can listen well, so they may learn to live in holy awe before God, your God, and diligently keep everything in this Revelation. And do this so that their children, who do not yet know all this, will also listen and learn to live in holy awe before God.” (Deuteronomy 31:12-13, MSG)

Joshua said, “Never stop reading The Book of the Law. Day and night, you must think about what it says.” (Joshua 1:8, CEV) 

David said, “I have hidden your Word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11, NLT)

The practice of personal and public worship through God’s Holy Word continued with the New Testament writers:

Paul said, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, NRSV)

“God means what he says. What he says goes. His powerful Word is sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything, whether doubt or defense, laying us open to listen and obey. Nothing and no one are impervious to God’s Word. We can’t get away from it—no matter what.” (Hebrews 4:12-13, MSG)

Jesus, quoting the Law, said, “It is not just bread that keeps people alive. Their lives depend on what God says.” (Matthew 4:4, ERV, Deuteronomy 8:3)

We need God’s Word because we need God. It is a delight and a duty to learn the Scriptures so that we can know God and know God’s will.

God Almighty, your statutes are wonderful; therefore, I obey them. The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple. I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands. Turn to me and have mercy, as you always do to those who love your name. Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me. Redeem me from the oppression of men, that I may obey your precepts. Make your face shine upon your servant and teach me your decrees. Amen. (Psalm 119:129-135)