Nehemiah 1-2: Starting over

Reading: Nehemiah 1-2

Before I say anything else, I will tell you that until relatively recently Ezra and Nehemiah were considered the same book. If you read all of Ezra, you might call Ezra the book of false starts. Ezra starts with Zurubbable and Joshua being sent to rebuild the temple and Jerusalem; and they build their own executive mansions, leaving the temple in ruins until God’s prophets condemn them for their behavior. Ezra then is sent to rebuild Jerusalem, and he engages in an ethnic purity purge, increasing and strengthening Judah’s enemies. The Persians show so much confidence in Ezra’s leadership that they appoint Nehemiah as his replacement.

Now, Nehemiah is sent with the task to rebuild Jerusalem, and I’m going to give some spoilers to what comes up: Nehemiah is the one that accomplishes his tasks. Nehemiah rebuilds the wall, he hears that the people are not being ruled justly and that the temple treasury is being misappropriated; and Nehemiah works to reform the system. Right now, we are looking at the leader who accomplishes the task that he was sent for, and attempts to create a just government that prevents the wealthy from exploiting the poor. Nehemiah succeeded where the two governors before him failed, and under his rule, decades after Zurubbable was sent to rebuild Jerusalem, Nehemiah not only rebuilds the walls, but he re-populates the city so that it can take its place as a provincial capital.

The Biblical account of Nehemiah is one of a reformer, who works hard to correct decades of corrupt and unjust leadership. He works hard to overcome the various problem that he inherited; many of which would not be there if it were not for the mistakes of those who came before him.

The story of how Nehemiah got his start as a reformer comes in three simple steps; of course he had to do a lot of work after this; these three steps were steps that he had to take before he even began. The three steps were: first, he listened. Second, he repented. Third, he spoke up.

The book of Nehemiah starts with Nehemiah’s brother Hanani visiting the capital Susa, and his brother Nehemiah. Nehemiah asks how things are going back in Judah, and his brother tells him about it, specifically about the city of Jerusalem. Nehemiah learns that the gates are burned, the walls and buildings are in ruins, and the place is virtually empty. The people who live in the province of Judah are “in great trouble and shame.” While it is unclear what is meant by this, our last two weeks give a few hints: Already there have been two waves of colonists who went with a commission and supplies to rebuild and yet the former capital city is still in ruins. Those who Persia appointed to rebuild have failed.

Now, Nehemiah is in a rather comfortable position; he is a trusted servant of the Persian emperor — the person who gives the king his drink. The cup-bearer was a person that a king would trust with his life, because it was his job to make sure that the king’s drink was safe. The person chosen for this position is somebody willing to give his life for the king, and can be trusted to never be a poisoner. The cup bearer would however be the first to drink the poison as his job was not only to bring drinks to the king, but to make sure that these drinks are safe. As cup bearers were completely trusted, they often heard the secrets of kings. Nehemiah could not benefit from listening.

I don’t know how much detail his brother went into, but Nehemiah heard him. If we look ahead and see the kinds of reforms that happened, we find that the wealthy were squeezing the poor until they lost everything. We find that there was corruption in the temple, and corruption in the governor’s administration. Nehemiah had to reform the entire system to bring justice — and, it started with hearing that it was bad, the people were suffering, and that what should be the capital was a pile of ruins.

The second thing that Nehemiah did is that he took responsibility for the situation. In his prayer, he confessed the sins of Israel. In his confession, he confessed the sins of his family, and even his own sinfulness. Nehemiah, in his prayer spoke of the sinfulness that caused Israel to be scattered. I don’t know if you remember our reading of Isaiah and Jeremiah — but, among the sins were the wealthy squeezing the poor for everything they had, and seizing up all of the land so that there would be no hope for the poor to get out of their poverty. I mention this, because one of the reforms that Nehemiah instituted was debt relief to give the poor a second chance.

When Nehemiah confessed the corporate sin of his people and his family, and even his own complacency of sitting in comfort while his people were suffering under corrupt leadership, oppression, and general hopelessness he did something that always has to happen before things can change.

Repenting is literally rethinking. When we repent, we are second-guessing our actions; we are looking into how things could be different. When we confess and repent we are stating what should be done differently; we are taking responsibility for what was done wrong, and we are stating what is right — if this takes, we do that right thing next time. Nehemiah repents of the sin of his people. Without repentance reformation is impossible.

The third thing that Nehemiah does is in next week’s chapter (chapter 2): he speaks up. As cup bearer, Nehemiah has the ear of the king. After he spends time praying, repenting, and agonizing over the position of Israel, he and the king have a conversation about it. Nehemiah asks to be sent to Judah, and the king writes him a letter of introduction, and he goes along with materials to rebuild Jerusalem, and to expand the temple.

Nehemiah was a person with privilege. He had a voice that few people have. If he had heard, prayed, and cried — but then went back to his comfortable life, nothing would have changed back home. Because he risked his high position, and spoke to the king, he was able to start this great reformation and finally rebuild Jerusalem and finish the temple.

Examples of positive leadership are, unfortunately, hard to find in scripture. Good leaders are most often given a couple sentences to say they ruled well for 20 years. Long narratives tend to tell where the leader went wrong. Nehemiah is quite possibly an exception; it tells how one person worked to reform decades of disastrously bad leadership, and bring justice to the people — even those who were not wealthy.

I know that our lives often have things that need reformation. Karl Barth wrote that “the Church is always to be reformed;”  Many people are in full agreement with Barth on this point. I know that there are many times when my own life is in need of reformation. I believe if we look carefully at ourselves and our own community, we can find places where a little reformation would do us good.

To tell the truth, even though I know reform is necessary, I don’t know what needs to happen. Like Nehemiah, there are some steps I need to take before I can get started. Like him, I need to listen, repent, and speak up. To be fair; sometimes I see that I live in a culture that does what it can to silence voices that it does not wish to hear. We live in a culture that hides people we don’t want to see. We find ways of saying that the experiences of others is not valid. Sometimes, it seems that it is so bad that we must repent of not listening before we even listen.

There are a lot of voices to listen to, and sometimes the reform that is necessary seems beyond us; but there is one voice that keeps reminding of a way that we should continue to reform: it is traditional to pray a prayer of confession before Eucharist, and one of the prayers that is common in the English speaking world goes like this:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent, for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen. — Common book of Prayer

I might not know what I can do to change the world, or my community. When I listen to voices calling for political reform, I might not know which vision of reform is the best for us. When two groups of people claim grievances against one another, I might not know which side is in the right, or even if there is a right side — but, I at least have learned a way that I can pray.

I can confess that sometimes my words and actions are not loving — I can repent of this, and seek ways to reform myself to better live out love. Once I reform myself to love my neighbor, I will finally take that first step and listen.

Ezra and Ruth – a rebuttal

This was given following a message on Ezra 9-10 on repentance which assumed that Ezra was following God’s will perfectly and was an example of good leadership.  As the passage is unclear on this matter I gave the rebuttal.

Reading:  Ezra 9-10, Ruth 4

For the past year, I’ve been, with very few exceptions, following the passage that was used in Sunday School class — or a related passage. I personally think that it is important to have multiple perspectives. Even on those points where I disagreed with the author, the disagreements have been largely unimportant: such as a matter of style, or disagreement on what date the book was written. I have been overall pleased with these studies, both for how they give an overview of the scripture and how they encourage the class to connect with it.

Last week we started a new section, and as you might guess, I’m not satisfied with the work of the current author. Last week, this was largely bristling against an attitude that authority figures are right because they are authority figures along with a feeling that the writer might have had a different opinion if she read Haggai, Zechariah, or Malachi while working on this lesson.

As you read this lesson, it should be obvious why I feel it is necessary to offer a rebuttal to the author for last week and this week. If it is not obvious, I will point out that the staunchest defenders of the idea that Ezra was doing God’s will when forcing people to divorce, and exiling the wives and children are white supremacists. When I searched the internet for commentary and sermons on Ezra 9-10, I found a number of “Christian identity” websites. I will also point out that all of you have met my wife, and it should be obvious that I’m not very comfortable with a tacit acceptance that God is fundamentally opposed to miscegenation.

The author’s argument is dependent upon the following:

  1. Ezra was appointed leader by God
  2. Because Ezra was appointed by God, he is an example of good leadership.
  3. The people who resettled Judah married pagan women who worshiped false gods
  4. The Holy Seed of Israel must not be mixed, therefore mixed race people must also be expelled

The leader is appointed by God

The book of Ezra hardly mentions God. Specifically absent is any mention of God taking part in the process of appointing leaders or guiding their leadership. Ezra, specifically was appointed by Artaxerxes who was a pagan ruler. Any authority he had was subordinate to the authority of the Persian empire.

The problems that this causes appear in Nehemiah and Malachi; the governor of Persian Judah is not only responsible to the people of this province, but also to the Persian empire. This double-loyalty makes it so that it is hard to decide what needs to be done. One example, taken from Malachi and Nehemiah forces people to ask the question whether it is better to raise taxes, or to use the temple treasury to pay tribute to the Persians. The Persian appointed leaders chose to use the Temple treasury and this decision apparently resulted in widespread corruption as there were people who needed to go unpaid due to this decision.

Leaders appointed by God are examples of good leadership

Even if circumstances were different — and instead of a foreign king, one of God’s prophets would have anointed Ezra to govern the people of Judah, this would not assure that his leadership would be a model for us to follow. Scripture tells of two leaders who prophets anointed with oil, and announced that they were the one that God appointed as king of Israel: Saul and David.

The first, Saul, is generally not considered a great example of leadership because part of his story is where he lost favor with God. As you might remember, he did not wait for Samuel to offer sacrifice, but instead took it upon himself to do so.

After this encroachment on another person’s authority, Saul became jealous, and developed a personal vendetta against one of his successful and popular generals — David.

David, who was anointed as Saul’s successor, was only a little better. While I don’t have time to make a laundry list of mistakes, David’s big one was huge. David had an inner circle of about 30 people who were with him, and loyal to him when he fell out of favor in Saul’s court — these people became important leaders in his administration when he was king. One day, he noticed a girl — when he asked about her he was told she was the wife of Uriah and the daughter of Eliam. Uriah and Eliam were both member of this inner circle — so, David has her brought to him and rapes her. When she gets pregnant, David tries to keep away suspicion by making sure her husband gets some leave from the military, and some time at home. After he returns, he asks Joab, another person in this inner circle to make sure that Uriah dies in battle.

Such a betrayal seems to have destroyed David’s ability to lead the nation. Soon after this, David is no longer in control of what happens and the nation falls into civil war. David and his forces manage to win the war, but at a very heavy personal cost. David never again becomes an effective leader.

While a divine appointment is clearly significant, it is not enough to show that the leader’s actions are the correct ones, nor that the particular leader should be emulated.

These foreigners worshiped false gods

Back before the Babylonian captivity, the Northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians. Like Babylon, the best of the people were carried off, and the elite of other nations were moved into their place. Records tell us that about 22 thousand were taken away from the Northern Kingdom, and a similar number were brought back in.

2 Kings 17 tells us that the foreigners who were brought in place of the elite of Israel asked the king of Assyria to send them some of the priests who were taken away, so that the organized worship of God could resume. This happened before 700 BC, and Ezra’s rule was after 500 AD. The foreigners had lived in this land, and worshiped God for 200 years. It would be fair to say that by any measure, they were no longer foreigners — and, if one insists that they were, it would be difficult to separate them by ethnicity. By this time, the most foreign of them would be more Hebrew than foreign.

What stands out when I read the book of Ezra is that there is not a single mention of idolatry. When foreigners are mentioned, they self-identify as worshipers of the same God the Jews worship — at the beginning of the passage, these people who’ve lived in the region, and worshiped God for well over a century were told they can have no part of the temple. When the women are expelled, there is no mention of idol worship — and, if the cause were idol worship then there is no reason why the children must be expelled also except the reason given in Ezra 9:2 — that they mixed the Holy Seed of Israel with foreigners.

Mixed raced children must be expelled to protect blood purity

I never understood the idea of blood purity. It does not seem reasonable to me, because I am not convinced that it exists. In the United States, there are places where race is determined through so called `one drop laws.’ I had heard of such things, but I did not really know what they implied until I worked as an enumerator for the United States census. My supervisor asked everybody under her what race she was — and here was a woman who had blond hair, very pale skin, and blue eyes — you could tell by looking at her that her ancestors came from Northern Europe. It turns out that her birth certificate said: “Black”, because she was born in a one drop state, and one of her 19th century ancestors was black. If she would have been a generation older, there would have been a number of states where she would be unable to obtain a marriage license due to the crime of miscegenation. She also told us that when she served in the Army, the response was: “We can’t put black on your record. If you are ever missing in action, nobody who was looking for a black woman would be able to find you.”

The policy that was established from the time the Samaritans were excluded from helping build the temple was one of preserving blood purity, and this policy was one that treats the population that was there to welcome those who came back as foreigners — even if one could not see the foreignness. There were multiple actions like this that created grievances between the Jews and the Samaritans. The problem is that this policy does not represent the history of Judah, nor is it necessary.

Leviticus 19:33-34 reads:

33 When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

In addition, the story of Ruth should be familiar to everybody. Ruth was a Moabite woman married to a Jewish man who he met while living in Moab. Her husband died in Moab, and she returned to Judah with her mother-in-Law Naomi. When she returned she claimed her rights as a widow, and married her husband’s cousin Boaz. Ruth was treated as family, and not as a foreigner. It did not matter that she was a Moabite — and, her descendants were not treated any worse for her pollution to the bloodline.

Ruth tells us that Boaz and Ruth are King David’s great grandparents. If Obed and Ruth were exiled, then there would be no Jesse nor would there be a David. By the standard that excludes the people who were still in Israel, because their bloodline was polluted, those who returned were also polluted — including the most prominent family that returned.

There is much debate about when Ruth was written; but many scholars notice that it uses some idiom that is associated with the second temple period. No matter when it was written, it appears that this story was retold fresh during this period — and it is a story about how a completely foreign woman who entered Israel as a foreign woman was fully accepted. It is a story how her husband’s family recognized her rights, just like if she were a Hebrew woman, and how her decedents were not only fully accepted, but became a dynasty that would reign for over 400 years, who would continue to have a pretender waiting for their throne to be re-established for another 1500 years following that.

When the story of Ruth was told during this period, I have no doubt that these details stood out as a criticism to Ezra’s policy of expulsion of women and children. The story of Ezra is one of turning people out, even people who are fully innocent and who should have every right to belong to the community. Ezra is the story of injustice. The story of Ruth is one of embracing somebody who’s claim to any rights are tenuous at best. It is the story of mercy and justice that goes beyond what is required by law. We must always remember that there is more than one story that needs told.

Haggai 1: Living in luxury while the temple lies in ruins

Reading: Haggai 1, Ezra 5

One year ago we started a study of Isaiah and Jeremiah. We went through the part of the Holy history where both the nations of Israel and Judah were destroyed, the temple was destroyed and looted, and the best and brightest were removed and settled somewhere else. Last year we studied the fall of Judea and the Babylonian captivity and we read the prophets who looked forward to a restoration.

At this point over 70 years passed since Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. The kingdom of Babylon has fallen, and Medes and the Persians have taken over the land that the Babylonian and Assyrian empires once held. The Persian Empire decides that Judea is to be re-populated and the temple that was destroyed and looted by the Babylonian empire is to be rebuilt, and the treasures of the temple are to be returned.

We start Ezra with the characters Zurubbable and Joshua. Ezra is a scribe who is tradition says wrote I and II Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah. Zurubbable is the appointed governor of the Persian province of Judea. I have no doubt that the Persian empire appointed Zurubbable because his grandfather was king in Jerusalem just before the Babylonian captivity.

When those in captivity return to Judea, they have control of the land where they once lived, they have a high priest to restore temple worship, and they are governed by a descendant of David who would sit on the throne himself if he did not answer to a Persian king. Things look good for Judah. The Babylonian captivity is over!

You notice that I didn’t name the Persian king — the names of several Media-Persian rulers are given in this process: Cyrus, Artaxerxes, and Darius. The final words of II Chronicles tell us that King Cyrus of the Persians commanded that Judea be repopulated, and that a temple be built in Jerusalem. The first chapter of Ezra gives a longer version of the edict, including an order that their neighbors give them gifts for the journey, which turned out to be pretty significant. This group that returned to resettle Judea was, according to Ezra, about 50,000 people.

If you think fifty thousand is a small number, you need to remember two things: First, that this order to repopulate Jerusalem was voluntary. Those who made a home in Babylon, and did not wish to leave were not kicked out, and there remained a Jewish population in the East. The second thing we need to remember is that there was a remnant left in Judea, so when these 50,000 people returned, there was a group of people to greet them.

This is the first thing that stands out in the story: There is an argument between the repatriated people and those who live in the region. There was an argument about who would be involved in building the temple, and when Zurubbable made it clear that only the people who came to resettle Judea would have a place to worship God at the temple, whether or not the temple and Jerusalem should be restored at all. The people who lived in the area wrote to king Artaxerxes, saying that the people who resettled Jerusalem have a habit of being rebellious, and should not be trusted; with the result that the work stopped until Darius became King. For those who are paying attention, Zurubbable just created Samaritans as a distinct, and hostile people group. Before this, they were the remnant of Israel — with some integrated foreigners.
At this point, we reach our readings for today — Chapter 5 of Ezra and the prophecy of Haggai. Something like 16 years had passed from the original expedition to rebuild Jerusalem and when they were allowed to continue. Haggai gives a rather unique prophetic oracle; if you want to know how unique, Haggai is the only prophet who calls for the temple to be built; most of the prophets call for justice, and insist things such as “Obedience is better than sacrifice.”

This, however, is a unique situation. As Haggai writes: “Is it right for you to live in richly paneled houses, while my temple is in ruins?” The situation is that a group of people were moved to Jerusalem, with gold, silver, supplies, and those contents of the old Temple that were still available in order to rebuild the temple and Jerusalem. When the high priest Joshua and Zurubbable arrived, and were offered help with the words: “Let us help you build, like you we seek God and have been sacrificing to Him,” (Ezra 4:2) the response was to tell them they had no right to help with the restoration of the temple.

Zurubbable and Joshua had no excuse to live in luxurious houses while the temple was still in ruins. They came to rebuild the temple and Jerusalem, not to build an impressive mansions for the provincial governor and chief priest. They received gold, silver, the contents of the old temple in order to rebuild it. They were offered aid in rebuilding the temple by the local population. Where they could have had allies, they made enemies of the Samaritans. Haggai was speaking to leaders who did not even attempt to keep up appearances of worshiping God, let alone practicing justice.
The family of David did not hold onto the power that the Persians gave them. While it appears that the province of Judah might have become a vassal-kingdom, with a hereditary king that paid tribute to the Persian empire, this did not happen; instead, the governorship was eventually given to a priest. For 1500 years, everybody would know pretender to David’s throne was — but, no descendant of David would sit on the throne nor govern again.

When I read this story, I don’t see an example of great leadership, nor people to emulate. I see something where a couple of people were given all the tools they needed for the job: Money, supplies, labor, and a population that welcomed the building project, and who managed to only build for themselves and then live in luxury while their people suffered famine. I see somebody given every opportunity to re-establish the throne of David, and then throwing it away by failing at the one task he was given. When the prophet Haggai spoke of luxury and richly paneled houses while the temple lay in ruins — it is pretty clear to me who’s mansion he was talking about, it was the people who received the materials to build a richly paneled temple, not those struggling to survive when their crops failed.

The hard thing about preaching a sermon based on a narrative is that unless the moral of the story is spelled out, I get to decide what I learned from the experience of those characters in the story; and then everybody else gets to argue the lessons they learned.

Now the most common lesson that people learn, based on sermon’s I’ve heard on the first part of Ezra, is that God keeps promises. When the Jews were taken into the Babylonian captivity, and the temple was destroyed, they were given a promise that in 70 years, they would be able to return and rebuild; there would again be a Judah and a Jerusalem. God’s faithfulness is a good lesson to learn — and, I think it is good to point out that God’s faithfulness is not dependent upon our own. God is always faithful, even if we are not.

The lessons I learn from the book of Ezra, in general, are lessons on how things should be done differently. First place where I would suggest doing something differently is that it would have been better if Zurubbable made peace with his neighbors. Making the Samaritans into enemies caused the temple-project to stop, along with the project to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, and caused a rather unfortunate legal battle, where the position given to the people of Judea was reviewed.

I think that it is important that whatever we do, we do our best to be good neighbors. No matter what project we engage in, we should respect the people around us. We should not fight with them, or make it clear that they are unwelcome — but, instead we should be inviting. We should be the type of church where our neighbors thank God that Raysville Friends is here.

The second place I think Zurubbable should have behaved differently is the place from the Haggai reading. In the passage I read, the prophet condemned Zurubbable and the priest Joshua for living in “richly paneled houses”. These leaders collected donations, both in Persia and in Judea, in order to rebuild the temple. During a 16 year period when the temple lay in ruins, they build themselves richly paneled mansions. Quite bluntly, they raised money to build a temple, and instead built a governor’s palace and a High Priest’s mansion. If we raise money for a project, things will go better if we actually do the project we raised money for instead of finding an alternative one.

As a church we must be careful to honor the wishes of those who donate. The behavior we see here is the type of behavior that destroys reputations, and makes it so people are less generous in the future. In cases where I’ve seen churches that raised money for one thing and spent it on something else, I’ve seen them lose members, including those who were previously generous supporters. Out of all the destructive things that can happen to a community, the loss of trust is pretty high on the list.

The final thing that I will observe is that Haggai told Zurubbable and Joshua that Judea was being punished because they neglected the temple. They were given materials, money, and offered help to rebuild the temple but they let it sit while they had their own mansions built. If they had done the right thing, the temple would be built. Construction on the temple started when a prophet let them know that they, and those under their rule were being punished for their personal negligence and apparent misappropriation. Judah suffering because their leaders embezzle is a reoccurring theme in post-exilic literature — and there is the promise that things will get better when leadership changes their behavior.

What we read is a passage about Zurubbable and Joshua doing the right thing and starting construction on the temple — but it took them 16 years to do this. A prophet Haggai came and condemned them for their negligence, pointed to the hardship that Judah was facing, and told them that it came from their behavior. It took the desire to escape punishment them to finally go and do the right thing. I believe that good leadership is doing the right thing without the threat or experience of divine punishment. If they were good leaders, they would be doing the right thing from the beginning.

The principles of leadership that I learn from the failures of Zurubbable are as follows: First, I should live at peace with my neighbors, and lead in a way that maintains peace. Second, I should not put luxury ahead of my vocation, and third I should do the right thing, even without the threat of punishment.

2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 “How not to face the end of the world”

Reading: 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15

When I was going over this lesson, I learned something that had never come up in my studies before. I was rather surprised to read that II Thessalonians was a post-script sent almost immediately after I Thessalonians. I had believed that these two letters were written on the opposite ends of Paul’s ministry — and most of the commentaries I have read didn’t mention the early theory.

These two theories however pretty clearly describe what is found in these two books. One theory observes that the two books share the same structure and subject matter. The assumption is that Paul wrote the 2nd book with the first clearly in his mind; and that the topics found in the first needed clarification.

While I don’t think Paul’s letters were shared all over the world as soon as they were written, it is also clear that they were not read once and thrown away either. Basically, the fact that the two letters are structurally related does not mean that they were written at the same time — it only means that the writer of 2 Thessalonians had 1 Thessalonians at hand.

Both letters start mentioning that the Thessalonian church faces persecution. The first letter makes only a passing mention, while the second letter really focuses on persecution and the end of the world. The theory that 2 Thessalonians is written late is based on this content. Talking about persecution in 51 AD is very different than talking about persecution when Paul was executed under Nero in 67 AD. The main reason people argue for a later date is for the 2nd book is that it appears to refer to Nero’s persecution. Personally, I find this argument convincing, but, as you can tell the circumstances behind 2 Thessalonians are not as clear as in the first epistle.

What I think is important is that 2 Thessalonians was written in a way to call 1 Thessalonians to mind. The author did not intend the later book to be considered without the first, but alluded to it constantly. The second thing that I think is important to remember is that 2 Thessalonians is written to people who see the world coming to an end. If the people who argue that this is a late letter are correct, the Empire had now discovered Christianity and started to direct its strength to eliminating this new group and its leaders.

The difference between persecution before 50 AD and after 64 AD is at the earlier time the worst persecution came from people like Paul — individuals who took matters into their own hands. In 64 AD, official government persecution began. The difference is like this: In a country such as our own which has religious freedom, there have been times when churches have been burned or bombed, or somebody walked in to kill worshipers. From time to time, people speak of persecution within even the United States — but, few of us can imagine how dangerous it is when the nation is actively hostile to Christians. When Nero took a position on Christianity, there is no doubt that it felt like the end of the world.

I believe that 2 Thessalonians is written to people living in a time that felt like the end of the world. When it speaks of the evil one, there was a man who brought great evil to Christians everywhere. It is hard to see a future when the such powerful people decide that you don’t have one. When the leaders started getting killed off, you start to think that Jesus had better hurry up and come while there are Christians left in the world.

I believe that 2nd Thessalonians is a letter telling people how not to behave when the world is coming to an end. In retrospect, we know that the world didn’t come to an end then — but when Nero started lighting Christians on fire to light his garden at night, it must have felt like it. I understand their position! In the United States, where Christians live comfortable lives, many have been convinced that he end of the world would come.

When William Miller said the world would end October 12, 1844 — it is said that people put on their Ascension robes and climbed hills and waited for the second coming. You might remember, Allen Jay’s father suggested that he spend this October day chopping wood, because wood would be needed in the winter. Those waiting in the hills likely were not thinking about what they would be doing if Miller’s calculations proved wrong.

More recently there have been some more extreme behaviors concerning the end of the world. You might have heard the name Harold Camping; he wrote books on the end times and had a Christian talk-show. Camping predicted the world would end in September of 1994 — and, much more recently in May of 2011. Camping encouraged people to donate, because of course they would not need it when the world ended!

A more extreme example of how people behave came in 1997. There was a group of people convinced that the world was coming to an end, and the only way their souls could survive was to kill their bodies. This group believed that there was a space ship coming for their souls, and on March 26, 1997, police found the bodies of the Heaven’s gate cult — every one of them having committed suicide hoping this would allow their souls to survive.

We have “how not to act” down. Whenever people talk about the end of the world, it seems that people react in the wrong way. Lets consider this reading in this context: The world is ending, and the result is that there are people who don’t work; don’t worry about their debts, and mess around in other people’s business instead of their own! We have people who behave in the same sort of bad ways that many of us westerners would behave if we truly believed we knew that the end was *now*. Many of us would borrow everything possible — knowing that we would not need to repay, stop any plans for the future, and in our idleness become busybodies of the worst kind. If we believe the world is coming to the end — don’t act like this!

We need to follow the advice Allan Jay’s father gave him — chop wood, expecting that you want the wood when winter comes. Those who fail to follow this advice, according to the lessons history teach us, get tarred and feathered by the neighbors they harassed… or at least that’s what happened to the Millerites in 1844. Those borrowed money, expecting the world to end in 2011 or 2012 are still paying for their mistake. If the world ends tomorrow — may we all be chopping wood.

I Corinthians 15 and I Thessalonians 4:13-18: “We would not want you to be uninformed”

Reading:  I Corinthians 15 and I Thessalonians 4:13-18

1 Thessalonians was most likely written before 1 Corinthians. Some scholars date it as being the first book written in our New Testament — but, whether it is these two books are among the earliest. Like 1 Corinthians, it is likely that this is the only part of what we call the New Testament that the church at Thessaloniki would have seen when they read it. Also like 1 Corinthians, Christianity started a little less than 20 years ago, and is not yet big enough for the Empire to notice that it exists. Many of the people who saw Jesus personally are still alive, but there are Christian communities scattered around the world trying to figure out what it means to be Christian as they go along.

While I have not talked much about Friend’s doctrine — and even less about American programmed Friends I think it might be good to point out a couple items from the late 19th and early 20th century. I will start by observing that “Essential Truths” by Rufus Jones and James Wood, which has served as a short statement of faith for many FUM meetings starting about 1922, list several items in historic Christianity that are “held by Friends as essentials of Christianity. Jones lists the following: Fatherhood of God, Deity and humanity of the Son, the gift of the Holy Spirit, atonement through Jesus Christ, the resurrection, the high priesthood of Christ, and the priesthood of believers.

Of course this brief mention does not tell us anything except that Rufus Jones considered the doctrine of the Resurrection ‘essential’. As can be expected, the “Richmond Declaration of Faith” gives a much longer essay, but I will only quote a small portion of it:

We sincerely believe, not only a resurrection in Christ from the fallen and sinful state here, but a rising and ascending into glory with Him hereafter… We shall be raised out of all corruption and corruptibility, out of mortality, and shall be the children of God, being children of the resurrection.

What stands out to me is that the Resurrection is affirmed as an essential doctrine, and that it is something that needs to be taken as something more than a metaphor. This is something we all need reminded of, because resurrection is an excellent metaphor; and it is one that is used throughout the New Testament. In Ephesians 2, Paul describes our former state as being dead in sin; and goes on to tell us that just as Jesus was raised from the dead, we are raised up with Jesus and given a new life.

But, Paul also points out in 1 Corinthians 15 that if there is no resurrection, then not even Christ was raised and there is no gospel and no hope. I don’t know why the Sunday School lesson decided to jump to 1 Thessalonians instead of continuing in 1 Corinthians. Paul found it necessary to explain that our hope is in the resurrection in both of these early letters. One might say that this is one of the first things that scripture was written in order to clarify; that we are people who believe in resurrection.

In the Sunday School class reading, Paul gave a pretty solid reason why this belief is important; it is not only true, but it has implications in what is called pastoral care. The day after I got back here, I had my first pastoral conversation with somebody who lost a brother — there is nothing more pragmatic for the church than what happens when somebody dies. It seems that somebody is always dying.

Paul told the Thessalonians that we believe that there will be a resurrection, and this is important, because the resurrection is a source of hope and comfort. It is very hard to say goodbye. There is something about death that offends us. We plea, we bargain, we get angry, and we try to get on with our life. Sometimes it seems like death can strip life of meaning. I cannot imagine what it would be like to strip away hope. Paul is telling people that holding on to the doctrine of resurrection provides hope to those who need it most — it is a pastoral relevant doctrine.

One of my professors at Earlham School of religion talked about bad theology. It took me a while to realize that these judgments were not based on whether or not he thought the theology was right or wrong (though, he clearly viewed the bad theology as also being intrinsically wrong) — in order for something to be bad theology, for him, it had to be theology that took away hope, or brought shame, or dehumanized somebody. When he spoke about bad theology, he was speaking about theology that could be used to make the world a darker place — not only was it wrong, but it was also malicious.

In the same sense Resurrection is good theology. Not only is it one of those essential things that is core to Christian belief, but it is life giving. The Christian doctrine of resurrection invites us to participate with the resurrection of Christ. If we have the type of sin in our lives that kills relationships and destroys hope — the promise of resurrection is something that can be applied to our current life. Christ resurrection, heals, forgives, and makes whole. We who were dead in our trespasses and sins can be made alive in Christ. Resurrection gives hope, not only to those of us who lost somebody to death — but, to those who see a need for a brand new life.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul talks about how denying the resurrection makes little sense when the practices of the church are looking forward to it. 1 Corinthians specifically talks about the baptism of the dead. Now, I know what most Americans think when we hear about the baptism of the dead! I myself have joked that after I die, I will be baptized a Mormon, just like everybody else.

I seriously doubt that this was anything like a proxy baptism; more likely, it had to do with the traditions of the early church. Our earliest sources on Christianity tell us that normally adult converts would spend time learning about Christianity before they would be baptized. We call these learners ‘catechumins’, and Catechism is the coursework of catechumins. Unfortunately, I don’t know about the process in the 1st century, nor do I know how much changed between when Christianity was 20 years old and when Christianity was 120 years old — but, by the 2nd century, Catechumins had to wait at least 2 years before they were baptized. These people had special classes, and their behavior was closely monitored. Baptism was not just an initiation rite, it was a rite of passage — a graduation. By the time a person was baptized, she was no longer a novice Christian.

With such a long period where people were part of the church, yet not yet baptized I believe I can understand why the dead were baptized! If a catechumen died, would that person be considered fully part of the church? By baptizing the dead, the answer is made clear — yes, this person is completely recognized as being one of us.

Paul asks the Corinthians, so, if you don’t believe in the resurrection, why baptize the dead? If they are dead, this baptism is too late for them, the church has already done everything the church can do for them. I know that this argument makes very little sense at first glance, but it is still very much a valid argument.

We have all been to funerals and burials. In many cases, people will pray for the dead; why pray for the dead if this life is all there is? Every time I’ve seen somebody buried, I’ve heard somebody say a prayer committing the spirit of the deceased to God. If there is nothing beyond what we experience here, why the ritual of committing the spirit to God? The ritual is dependent upon the belief that we have a share in Christ’s resurrection\ldots not only the ritual practiced by the Corinthians, but the rituals practiced by American Christians.

We believe in the resurrection. The resurrection reminds us that Christ can save us. The resurrection gives us hope, even when everything we hold dear is taken away from us. We believe in the resurrection. Our prayers and our rituals are built upon this belief. Christianity is built on the resurrection. There are many who died on crosses, put there by the Roman authorities — but, there is only one who would not stay in the grave.

1 Corinthians 13: The love chapter

Reading: 1 Corinthians 13

I Corinthian 13 is familiar to most of us. I believe it is read at just about every wedding; and, I expect that it will be read at my wedding. We all know from this passage that love is patient, love is kind, love does not envy, love does not boast and is not proud. Love is well behaved, and unselfish. Love is not easily angered, and it does not think evil. Love does not celebrate what is bad, but in what is good and true. Love bears, believes, hopes and endures all things.

It is easy to see why this passage is read at at weddings; people need reminded what love looks like. I know that I need to be reminded of these things. I am not always as patient as I could be. Sometimes I need reminded to be kind, because it is easier to look the other way. Envy is common, boasting happens. It is all too easy to guess a person’s motives, and make rather unkind guesses instead of giving a person the benefit of the doubt. There is a tee-shirt that, while unkind, advises that we should never attribute to malice what can be explained by ignorance or incompetence. While that might not be, on the surface, kind — it is great advice. Very often people have good intentions, but they either don’t know what they should be doing or they cannot.

I know that this is advice that I need as a member of a couple. I know that I can avoid many problems just by believing the best, and acting according to these beliefs — and by realizing that building a family is a team effort, it is not a competition. There is no place for envy, or negative competitive attitudes — no place for a sense of self-worth that is based on being all around better than somebody. This isn’t the easiest advice, but I’m sure that any major fights I have to look forward to will largely be because I forgot one of these points.

Of course, Paul did not write this passage as marital advice. Even though all of the words are perfect advice to people who are founding a family, this is advice directed to a church community; and not only to the community, but most specifically people who are responsible for making sure that the church runs and runs smoothly. Last week, we talked about the how God gives gifts to people in the church, and how these gifts make sure the church runs. In I Corinthians 12, Paul pointed out that there are a variety of gifts, and told the people to stop arguing about who’s gifts were more important. This is the kind of argument that only people who are in positions of leadership might have. I Corinthians 14 continues to talk about gifts, and gives some specific advice on how they should be used in the context of a worship service. I Corinthians 13 lives in that context.

We don’t know very much about the first century church, our first writings that really describe what went on were from the second century. Personally, I think there were several different models of church in the first century; and I think that because of little hints I find in scripture; the church in Jerusalem, prior to significant persecution, for example seems to follow the synagogue model with a fairly large number of people.

In the 2nd century, the dominant model seems to be the house-church model, and I believe that this was the model used by the Corinthian church. Remember, Paul specifically mentioned Cloe’s people in his letter; it seems likely that he was speaking of a specific group within the Corinthian church; a specific house-church, likely meeting in this lady’s home; if Corinth followed the house church model, there would be many gatherings of people throughout the city, each no larger a group than could comfortably sit together in a person’s house.

Eventually, the house church model was developed to the point that the entire network within an entire city would have an overseer who was responsible for the network — this position still remains in the form of bishop. While there is some evidence that a large city such as Rome had more than one network, it became custom, and eventually a matter of law that there would only be one person overseeing the network… though, by the time it became a rule the Church was an accepted part of Roman society, there were lots of big church buildings, and the house-church with its customs was largely forgotten.
So, there is a situation where there are many groups, with many leaders and, judging from this letter these groups see themselves ultimately subordinate to one of 3 different people. The fact that Paul spends such a large portion of the letter, a portion that includes I Corinthians 13 suggests that these leaders were sometimes jealous of each other, and argued over who was best or most necessary. If I were to describe the context of I Corinthians 13, and apply the lesson in as few words as possible I would say: I Corinthians 13 describes the way pastors should act towards each other.

As challenging this is as family advice, it is much more so as professional advice. I’m sure everybody knows how competitive colleagues can be. Sometimes it is challenging to think well of somebody; and if we are jealous the easiest thing in the world is to tell ourselves stories about something that might have happened and then act according to that story. When we do that in our own families, there are a number of opportunities for communication and clarification. Closeness challenges any false narrative we tell ourselves. It is much easier live out love, and to conquer common relationship destroying behaviors when the relationship around us is such a large part of our world; and even when it is, a false narrative can end a marriage.

If this advice is necessary even in situations where there is a natural corrective, such as in the immediate family — imagine how much more necessary it is in situations where there is not only no natural corrective, but even an incentive to tell ourselves stories. Remember, this passage makes it clear that leaders were fighting over who was most important in the city church-network, and in their fighting they tried to appeal to different authorities beyond their local structure.

These days, it is no less an issue. As you might guess, candidating at churches can be stressful. Everybody you are competing with are colleagues, some of which you might have known since college. Sometimes this can lead to envy and jealousy — especially when somebody gets a desirable position. Unfortunately, jealous people make up stories to make themselves feel better — and now there is enough distance that the story is never challenged.

So, the lesson is; no matter how brilliant I may be — no matter how well I can unpack a passage and share it’s meaning, if I do not love all this is nothing. Not only must I love, but I must love the very people who I’m set up to compete with and this means putting aside jealousy. I need to learn to stop making stories that make me feel better, and instead to think the best of people; giving the benefit of the doubt when necessary. I am glad for this advice going into a marriage — but, I think I need it while learning to accept that what seems to be competition is really teammates working for the same goal.

I Corinthians 12: But I am not an eye!

I think the most important thing to note about this chapter is that it does not stand alone. The topic of spiritual gifts and body life does not end in chapter 12, but continues through chapter 14. The often quoted Love chapter is not a change of topic, but building on today’s passage. Chapter 13 lists spiritual gifts mentioned in chapter 12, and says: “without love, it is nothing.”

I don’t think I could do better than Paul; I really think that he is pretty clear in these three chapters. There is a part of me that wants to read this entire section without comment; there is another part of me that feels like I need to say a few words; but today I feel only a few need said.

This three chapter section talks about several spiritual gifts: Specifically, it mentions tongues, prophecy, wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, discerning of spirits, and the interpretation of languages. I don’t know how profitable it would be to go into details. Some Christians focus on practicing these gifts, and others critique the charismatic movement. This modern debate does not seem helpful to me, and even describing what these gifts are enters into the realm of the debate.

The reason that I don’t find the debate helpful is that it really misses the point of the very passage that they are quoting to get a list of gifts. I don’t think Paul was dealing with the problem that there was a lack of enumerated gifts. I don’t think that he was making a list to make a list, and even though he starts by saying, `I don’t want you to be uninformed’, it is pretty clear that he is not talking about teaching us the nature of spiritual gifts. If Paul wanted to teach us about prophecy, for example, he would have given a clear definition, and some instructions on how to discern whether or not to listen to somebody who claims to be a prophet.

I believe that this passage, like much of the rest of 1 Corinthians, is dealing with a divided and divisive community, where people are acting in ways that damage the community. Paul is talking about spiritual gifts, reminding the people that these gifts come from the same spirit. He talks about how a body needs to have many members, and how if the whole body were a hand, the body would be blind and deaf. If the whole body were an ear, the body would hear, but would neither see, nor be able to do anything.

Paul reminds the people that they are not identical, should not want to be identical, nor do they have the same gifts. The church is supposed to be a `body’; that is, the Church is a community that works together so that everybody’s gifts and talents add to the whole. Paul is critiquing a group that says things like: “My gift is more important than yours is, so my place in the church is more important than yours.” He is critiquing a group that is failing to speak or act in love.

Now our group is not one that often worries about speaking in tongues, or interpreting. I can tell you right now that neither one is really my gift. While we might debate what it means to be prophetic; I doubt anybody here will jump to claim the gift and calling of prophecy. I’m not saying we are not gifted, I am saying that going through the list, as it is here, is not especially relevant to where we are at. I personally believe that we have gifts; and I believe these come from the same spirit, even if they are not of the same list.

Raysville Friends is blessed to have the best music in the county. Our musicians are truly involved in a ministry, not only here but throughout the wider community. I feel that this ministry should be recognized, and I do recognize it for what it is — a blessing to us and to all of Henry county.

I know that we are not a large group, but something I see of this group is that we are blessed with a heart for the communities we are part of. Our members have lives that touch the lives of others. What I would consider ‘pastoral care’ is part of everyday life for some of you. I know that God gives you the opportunity to show love and care where you are.

Out of every church I’ve been part of, this one is the most generous. There are not many people here, but even with such a small group, I keep learning about something that this group supports. I know you support Quaker Haven, and Whites, and Hispanic ministry in Indianapolis. I also know that you are active in community activities and giving opportunities. I know that this is a congregation that finds ways of helping people.

I see your gifts, and I think God for your gifts. Let nobody say, because I am not a musician, what good is my contribution? Let nobody say, because I am not a great philanthropist I have nothing to offer… and conversely, let nobody say, because you cannot offer what I give, your gift is worthless. God gave us a great blessing in each other, and my we thank God for it.