I Peter 1:1-12 — Tested by fire

Reading:  I Peter 1:1-12

I am glad that we studied James before we study I Peter. I am sure you remember what James was like; reading James is straightforward and easy to understand. When you read James, there is no room for arguing what he means; it is a message without complex metaphor and without abstract arguments. James is simple.

James might be simple, but you also should have noticed that James is well thought out. Everything in James is consistent with itself. We should not mistake simple language for a lack of thought, it is a sign of genius when a person can explain something such as the practical implications that God created humanity in God’s image in language that a child can easily understand.

Now, compare James with the opening of I Peter. Peter writes with long, complex, sentences. The passage we read uses complex theological terms and full of rich and colorful metaphors. James was a book that would have been an excellent sermon read all by itself. I Peter is the kind of book where you can meditate on a single sentence for hours trying to unpack the implications of the teaching. Peter sounds remarkably like Paul.

The Sunday School lesson mentioned in passing that many modern scholars doubt that Peter wrote the epistle because of the complexity of the writing. Basically, they look at Peter’s background as fisherman, and they feel that Peter should express himself more like James, and less like Paul.

Tradition is however unified in naming Peter as the author — and, I find the modern argument unconvincing. I’ve met many people without the benefit of a college degree who are perfectly fluent in metaphor, and perfectly capable of using jargon. I am perfectly aware that in the decades following his call as a disciple, he’d have opportunities to study; I wonder how many times Peter might have listened to Paul teach. Scripture tells us that Peter and Paul were together in Antioch, and tradition tells us that they both ended their lives in Rome, executed under the authority of Nero. In my mind, spending time with Paul would be an education for anybody.

Traditional commentary tells us that I Peter was written from Rome between 64 or 67 AD. Nero would have been emperor for about a decade; the Christian community in Rome would have been almost entirely gentile due to a removal of Jews from Rome before Nero’s time. The persecution of Christians started full force in 64 AD, so the commentators believe Peter wrote soon after Nero starts using Christians as human torches.

I Peter is addressed to the exiles in Asia Minor; the list of places are in modern day Turkey. Whether I Peter is written to those who were exiled from Rome over a decade before, or they had just escaped the fires burning Christians in Rome, it is, like James, addressed to those who left a persecuted church for safety somewhere else. Like James, this is written to a refugee-church from a leader in the community that they fled.

I also think that it is fitting that this passage is what we are reading for father’s day. In I Peter, we have a spiritual father offering pastoral care to a community that has been scattered and traumatized. Nero’s persecution was especially cruel, it is something that was completely new to everybody. Unlike the persecution that removed people from the Jerusalem community, Nero’s power extended to the place were people went to escape; no sense of safety is possible. What does a spiritual father do for his distant children who are far away and likely afraid?

What Peter does is he starts by reminding them of the positive. He reminds them of God’s love for them, and the reality of their salvation. The language might be abstract, but it is a reminder that even in their dangerous and insecure situation, there is some security somewhere. Peter reminds the people who are in fear of their lives that their soul is safe in God’s love.

Now that I told you what I think Peter is doing, lets look at what Peter tells the refugee church:

  • God, our Father, gave us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ
  • An inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you (in spite of current suffering)
  • Protection and salvation
  • A revelation of faith
  • A place in story of Salvation

New Birth

I’ve learned the idea that we must be born again is both liberating and offensive. Some resist, insisting they were born right the first time and others embrace this language recognizing that they desperately need a new start.

I know this is silly to say, but there is no room in Christianity for people who don’t need a new life. It might not be my place to judge those who say they don’t need one, but I can say that the Gospel of Christ is only for those who do. The gospel is for those of us who find ways harm ourselves and our relationships, and who need help and a fresh start with even a new identity. Christianity are for those who say Sin destroyed my life, it harmed my relationships, but Jesus offered me a fresh start. I was once defined by my disease, but now I have a new life — I am Christian.

Inheritance

Christians have, as you can see, from the beginning believed that we will be with Christ in heaven. Jesus promises the disciples that He will prepare a place for them. Peter tells the refugee church that no matter what happens, they eventually be safe and secure in heaven.

Protection and salvation

In fact, Peter lets them know that salvation makes Rome powerless. Lets think about the gospel of Jesus Christ, one of the most important messages of the gospel is the one of resurrection, both the resurrection of Christ and the promise that we will be raised up as well. Rome was able to slay the body, but they cannot touch the soul. There is salvation even for this life in the realization that no matter what is done, the people of Christ win; death is powerless to defeat us.

Faith revealed

Peter tells the people that through suffering, their faith will be revealed. It is often said that the blood of martyrs was the seed of the church. Nero and rulers who tried to end Christianity by killing and torturing Christians have found that their faith was stronger than anything that could be done to the body. Faith gave countless ordinary people the courage and the strength to face threats, torture and death.

Story of Salvation

Peter reminds everybody that God was working in the world before Jesus, and that Jesus was prophesied. Do you remember the account of when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost in Acts 2? When people started asking if the people were drunk, Peter quoted from the Psalms and from the prophet Joel to show that what was happening was God’s work. In Acts 3, Peter again tells of Jesus, and how Jesus was announced by the prophets, specifically citing Moses.

Peter reminds the community that fled persecution, and is either at risk, or facing it again that they have seen the hope of salvation that Israel had been looking for as long as they had been a people. Jesus was not sudden, or unexpected, but the prophets and the law anticipated Christ and the salvation He brought.

Conclusion

What do you say to a refugee church that is fearful because the place they ran is no longer safe? If you ask me, I’d have to admit that I have no idea. I cannot imagine what it would be like to face a Nero, nor what it would be to face the kind of persecution that is happening in places such as the Sudan or Syria. When I see people who are part of a refugee church here in the United States, I do not know how to do anything but thank God these people are safe now — and pray that our nation continues to be safe.

When Peter decided what to say to the refugee church who faced danger again he did something that that seems counter-intuitive, Peter gives a summary of what Christians believe. What does an abstract summary of Christian beliefs offer? Peter reminded the persecuted church of what they believe. Peter reminded them that there is hope, because Christ is greater than the worst Nero can dish out — Christ brought victory over even death.

 

James 5

Reading: James 5

I cannot hear the words of James 5 without remembering when I visited China. My parents and grandparents had moments in their lives where they knew what poverty was; my grandparents could remember the great depression, and my parents had a stretch of desperation caused by a shortage of work at the factory where my father was employed. I have worried about money, I’ve gone without doing things that I’ve wanted, but I’ve not personally faced desperate poverty.

I remember one morning, about dawn, I got up to take a walk, and I saw something that opened my eyes to a kind of desperate poverty. I saw a sidewalk covered with people who were waking up. I saw these people who spent the night outside walking to the place where they worked. I watched, and I realized that these homeless people had jobs, and that they put in long days of work, and yet they still slept outside at night.

This was in 2003, at that time China had a rapidly growing economy. Cities were building as fast as they could, and people from rural areas were flocking to cities to find opportunities. At this time there was a bit of a robber baron mindset in China. There were opportunities to get rich, and the government was not able to regulate nor enforce what people did. I was in China when some of the companies started getting in trouble for lying about what they were selling.

Some examples of what was done are: Fertilizer was added to milk and to flour, so that when it was tested for the nitrogen content, to estimate the amount of protein, it would test high in protein and sell for a higher price. The flour was sold as high protein gluten, and it was made into dog-food. Some pets in the United States died, and several brands of dog food were recalled. The milk was turned into baby formula, and many babies died.

I learned that one other scandal that was happening at the time is that when migrant workers would come to the city for jobs, they would go to the work site, and work week after week and not receive the pay they were promised. Somewhere, somebody would embezzle from the payroll, and the people at the bottom would go without. Those who were poor and desperate would have nothing they could do to get the money they were owed — they would just have to find another job and hope that this one would pay them. Part of the cause of the desperate poverty that I saw was that there were those who were quite happy to make themselves happy by committing fraud and robbing the poor.

I know that China is a special case, fraud is still rampant there; and that part of doing business is China is losing assets to fraud as suppliers cut corners and employees embezzle. I know there are many good and honest people there, but they have a problem policing those who steal.

I also know that we have no shortage of people in the United States who pine for the days of the robber barons when the rule of the day was: “buyer beware.” From time to time, I hear of the courts sorting out claims that a company has cheated its customers, or that they found ways around paying their employees. Now, I know that this happens here — and I know when it happens, there are a number of people who jump to the defense of the people who stole wages or cheated customers. There are a number of people who believe that acquiring wealth is virtuous, no matter how it is acquired, and that customers do not deserve protection, and those who do the labor are not worthy of their wages.

James really does speak to our culture — because many of us see wealthy people as somehow more virtuous than others. We somehow believe that they deserve what they have, and that they benefit society by being wealthy. It is common to call the wealthy: “job creators,” and even to see them as patrons to all those people who do the work that fills their pockets.

The truth is, there is nothing moral, or noble, or lasting about wealth. James is alluding, as he often does to the sermon on the mount. Matthew 6:19-21 tells us not to store up treasures on Earth where moths and rust consumes and thieves steal, but instead to store up treasure in heaven. Material wealth is just things; it is neither virtuous nor lasting; like everybody, I would choose wealth over poverty, but we must not choose it over integrity.

The Old Testament is full of condemnation against those who don’t pay their workers. The Torah commands that a laborer is to be paid right away, and his wages are not even to be held overnight. The prophets Jeremiah and Malachi both condemn the leading people of Judah for hiring workers, and not paying their wages. There is a sense that the poor were taken advantage of because they were poor and unable to take care of themselves.

Now that my eyes are open to how the poor are abused, I see that there are ways it is done, even here. It is expensive to be poor; because if don’t have money, you find yourself forced into more expensive options for various services. I am amazed at how predatory the financial services for the poor are. I wince at the thought that some people bring their paychecks to check-cashing places that charges a fee per check, and then charges similar fees to pay their bills. I wince even more that these places do not hide that they offer loans at an APR of several hundred percent — one of them advertises on their website that their rates are as high as 782.14%, and that they have fees that add 10% or more to the original amount of the loan. It is easy to blame people for making bad decisions, but this is an example of robbing the desperate; and one would need to be extremely desperate to accept such terms.

There is nothing virtuous about being the kind of employer who becomes wealthy while the employees go on food stamps to pay their bills. No matter how much people talk about the employer being a `job creator’, and the workers being `takers’, it should be clear who the taker is. There is also nothing virtuous about seeing somebody who is desperate, and figuring out how to take his spare change. There is nothing virtuous about seeing employees or customers as “revenue generators” — I know it is just business, and that business is about money, but we can never forget that people are people, and that God created humanity in God’s image.

 

James 3 — Blessings and blasphemy

Reading: James 3

Last month I started talking about James, and if you recall, one of the things that I brought up was that James really is talking about the practical implications of our belief that humanity is created in God’s image. On April 30, I talked about that images still have, and I gave the example of how people respond to our national image, the flag. When I review what I said on the 30th, I realize that I could many of the same things all over again; but, this is not surprising. The practical implications of humanity as God’s image is a theme throughout James so as we read James 3 we come to the part where James is really taking his congregation to task over the way they speak about human beings.

When we read this, we are reading something that very much speaks to a failing in our own culture. With the tongue, we bless God and curse those made in God’s image, from the same mouth comes blessings and cursing. I don’t know how many of you use Facebook; but I know if you do, you likely have no shortage of friends who will post blessing and cursing almost continuously.

Honestly, I’m not sure if it was a good thing for me to form a Facebook account and reconnect with old friends. I’ve looked at so many people who I’ve respected and who can quote scripture better than I can; and I have seen posts recommending genocide against Native Americans, suggested that murdering people based on ethnicity is appropriate, and suggesting that a class of people are rats, or cockroaches, or even poison.

I see the same people posting praise Jesus, and posting Bible verses, calling for prayer and showing that they are people of deep faith. I’ve learned that American Christian culture sees nothing inconsistent about this behavior. Indeed, I’ve even seen examples of blessing God and cursing God’s image posted by church leaders and on rare occasions even on official church pages. Until I’ve been on Facebook, I’ve not been aware at how much cursing and blessing comes from the same mouth. A person literally blesses and blasphemes God in the same sentence. If I burned a flag, nobody would think me a patriot — why would anybody think a person who cursed God’s image a Christian?

One thing that scares me is that no matter how much people say that words are just words, I know what it looks like when words become actions. We know how powerful words were when spoken by a charismatic German leader in the first half of the 20th century. Words that dehumanized lead to one of the most famous of all genocides, the Holocaust.

I’ve always found propaganda interesting; I wonder how somebody can present an argument in a way that leads to such extreme actions. I’ve watched or read World War 2 propaganda produced by Disney, by Mel Blanc, Dr. Seuss and by others; I’ve also seen and read some Nazi propaganda. One of the books I read is a children’s volume titled, in translation, “The toadstool”. “The toadstool” compares a Jew to a poison mushroom that is accidental gathered and is chopped up and cooked in with the food and poisoned the whole family. The moral of the story was that it only took a single Jew, just as it only took a single poisoned mushroom, to kill an entire nation. The Nazis also had political cartoons that compared Jews to a terrible rat infestation, and compared the Jewish solution to getting rid of the rats. These were just words and images that suggested that one population was not human like the rest of us, and we all remember what that lead to.

Shockingly, I’ve seen people make exactly the same arguments that the Nazi’s once did. I’ve seen political cartoons suggesting that a class of people is a rat infestation. We at one point had an image comparing a class of people as poison that might destroy our nation. I’ve seen Nazi propaganda recycled as people who bless God freely curse those made in God’s image. I know from the Holocaust what it means that the tongue stains the body, sets on fire the cycle of nature and is itself set on fire from hell.

This has been a rather unpleasant news week. As you might know there was a suicide bomber at a concert in Manchester England. After this happened somebody asked the question: “How do people get radicalized so that they would do these kinds of things?” I’ve been thinking about this question, about the passage that I read, and about the other news stories that have come by me these days. Words are powerful. People are radicalized by words. These words that suggest that a group of people are less than human, that they deserve extermination is really what leads to such extreme acts. We talk about radicalization of some other group — but we forget what it looks like when people in our own culture are radicalized.

This weekend, I saw examples of what happens when our own people are radicalized — not extremists, not crazy people, but normal good Americans. As you might know, Friday was the special election for congressman in Montana. On Thursday one of the candidates, according to a witness, put his hands around a journalist’s throat, threw him on the ground and punched him. The journalist described it as: “you just body slammed me and broke my glasses.”

Having heard this news, the election suddenly became interesting to me — I wondered if a person could openly commit assault, without any apparent reason and still be elected for public office. The Gianforte campaign first claimed that the reporter grabbed Congressman Gianforte, but the altercation was observed by a Fox News team who reported that the campaign lied about it, and that the attack came without provocation.

The last day of the campaign, Congressman Gianforte received $100,000 in online donations — most of these donations were after, and apparently because he punched a reporter. He was never arrested for committing assault; though he will have to appear before a judge, and answer for his actions. When the votes were counted, Gianforte won the election, and in the victory speech acknowledged that his actions were wrong, and said he would not do it again.

That apology is all well and good, but I notice two things: people donated money because he punched a journalist, and a number of people gave this as something that made them eager to vote for him. He apologized before his trial, but after the election was over. The election showed that the good people of Montana find it acceptable to elect a man who openly assaults people. How could a pillar of society such as Congressman Gianforte, and so many of the good people of Montana become radicalized and decide that violence against a person because of his constitutionally protected profession was a right and reasonable thing to do?

Again, this is something that comes from the power of words. In February, the President named the press as the enemy of the American people. Now, this is alarming, not only because the first amendment guarantees the freedom of the press, but because I’m perfectly aware that freedom isn’t what a nation gives to its enemies — no, a nation works to protect itself from its enemies. These words are alarming, because they lead to fighting the enemies.

This phrase actually came up during Gianforte’s campaign — and when it did, the congressman pointed to a reporter and said: “We have someone right here, it seems there are more of us than there is of them.” The congressman said that this was a joke, but this joke was a public suggestion that a mob attack a reporter as the enemy of the American people. These words are alarming, because they are a call to violence that cannot help but lead to violence.

We must watch our language — the first reason is the theological one; that speaking of others in a way that does not recognize that they are God’s image is blasphemy against God. The second reason is a practical reason, words are a fire that spreads and brings more evil. Words lead to actions that will embarrass us and our communities.

James 2:14-26 Faith and Works

Reading:  James 2:14-26

Faith without works is dead; These words are pretty clear, and they are very important. It would be fair to say that there has been a great deal of debate about how we are to understand the relationship between faith and good works. This is a passage that many people must wrestle with, because it does not always fit comfortably with our theological views. James 2:17 was so challenging to Martin Luther’s faith that he declared James as contrary to the gospel, and he called it an epistle of straw.

The gospel that Luther speaks of, of course, is something that we can find in Paul’s writings. I could choose to read from a number of Paul’s epistles, but I choose to read from Ephesians 2:4-10

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Jesus Christ, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.  (Ephesians 2:4-10 NRSV)

When people think of Paul’s gospel, they often focus on being saved by grace, through faith — they often focus on how salvation is not of our own doing, and that we have nothing to brag about. This focus can lead us to doubt the focus that James gives to good works. One might fear that James by focusing on works makes Christianity about what we do, rather than about what Jesus did, and thus come to the conclusion that Luther came to.

It is not difficult to set up a narrative where Paul and James are at odds with one another. James is a leader of Jewish Christians, Paul is the apostle to the gentiles. When Peter behaved inappropriately at Antioch, no longer eating with the Gentile Christians, it was because James sent a delegation to Antioch. A friend of mine suggested that this implicates James a Judaizer, and thus that would make him Paul’s chief antagonist.

Of course I’ve mentioned before that I believe that the book of James is largely based on the teachings of Jesus — I believe that it is an early book, and that it is a witness to early Christianity. When I read the gospel, I notice that Jesus calls on people to behave in a certain way. The sermon on the mount, for example, deals largely with behavior — calling people to act in a way that most of us find challenging.

In Matthew 25:31-49, Jesus describes the Judgment of the nations, and when he tells the standards people are judged on, Jesus does not mention their beliefs, or their faith but the actions of giving food and drink to those who are hungry and thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the prisoner. James 2:15 echoes this when James asks: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them `Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, it it has no works, is dead.”

Just as I know people who follow the extreme example of Martin Luther, I know others who look at things like this, quote George Bernard Shaw and say: “Paul is the great perverter of Christianity.” These people say they want the Christianity of Jesus, and they point to Paul as the origin of a comfortable Christianity that does has nothing prophetic to say to the culture it is in.

I of course am a traditionalist. My Bible includes both James and Paul; and I have to find a way to accept both as authorities. The way I do this is that I believe that both are true, and that choosing one or the other is a false choice. I also believe that Paul’s critics, and too often Paul’s supporters misrepresent what Paul taught. Perhaps Paul and James argued about what it meant to have a Christianity that grew beyond Jewish culture; there are hints of such arguments in Acts and Paul’s epistles, but I like having a tradition that has some room for argument.

One thing I’ve learned about the Christian tradition is that heresy is most often found in creating a false dichotomy. The Orthodox position is, for example, that Jesus is both God and Human. If you defend the divinity of Christ at the expense of his humanity, you fall into heresy no less than those who argue that Christ is human and not divine.

I personally think of this argument about faith or works to be similar; if we choose one or the other, we lose something that is important to Christianity. If we reduce Christianity to a list of rules, customs, and behaviors, we risk turning Christian into an adjective that describes people who behave according to that code. If we say that Christianity is only a system of beliefs, but has no relationship to behavior, we risk becoming a group that discusses what we believe about the afterlife, but has little to offer for this life.

Personally, I think this argument would not have gotten off the ground if we didn’t focus on verses and short quotes, and instead looked at every epistle as a whole. Remember in James 1 when James said: “Let nobody say God is tempting me”, James reminds us that we are tempted by our own desires — I would say even our own thought patterns, and in the passage we read today, James tells us that Faith is shown by our works.

When I read Paul’s epistles, I see something rather striking; Paul tells us that Christ came to save us from our sin. This is very different from being saved from the consequences of sin, or to be saved from hell; to be saved from sin is to be saved from the power that it has over our lives.

There is something about sin that kills. Sin kills our relationships, sin kills our hope, sin is a destructive force in our lives. If we are truly saved from sin — then we would be truly saved from the destructive thought processes and behaviors that do so much damage. Paul’s salvation isn’t about what we do — but, this salvation is something that changes us — and it is as much of a change as being resurrected from what killed us.

Observe from the passage we read today, James tells us: “I will show you my faith by my works.” What we believe is powerful. What we say and do comes from the way we think — and the way we think comes from what we believe. If we say that we believe one thing, yet we act in a different way, how strong is that belief? I know that habits die hard — I know that Paul wrote of struggling against habits, but what we do and what we believe are linked together. Works most consistently come out of Faith — and a faith that one never acts upon isn’t much of a faith at all. Faith without works is indeed dead.

James 1:19-27: Pure vs worthless religion

Reading:  James 1:19-27
Reading this, I have to admit that my religion is sometimes pretty worthless. Sometimes, no matter how righteous my cause is — I am able speak before I listen. I was angry just a few days ago, and I spoke out of that anger. This week I am reading and talking about the passage that says: “Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness,” and later “If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.

This is not an easy passage for me, and I have met few who would say that it is as easy passage for them either. When I speak in anger, without listening, I want to say that I spoke for the right reasons. I want to say that I am on the side of righteousness — or that God is on my side. I want to say that my anger is justified, because I am right. I even want to defend my anger by insisting that my anger is about the right things — but, James tells me that my anger does not produce God’s righteousness.

The words of Jesus really are not any easier. In the sermon on the mount Jesus speaks on anger saying:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
(Matthew 5:21-26 NRSV)

Jesus’ advice is to place reconciliation even above religious practice. God tells us that we face judgment for our anger, and that if somebody has a grievance, make it right, make reconciliation, even if it means leaving the temple. Making our relationships right is more important than going to worship.

What is religion? Religion is something grounded in a faith in something or Someone much larger than ourselves — it is a faith that causes us to live differently. People who are religious do things to practice their religion; they take time out of their schedules to go to a place of worship, they read scriptures, they pray, they fast, they give to support their religious institutions. I hate it when people say they have a relationship and not a religion — I have a relationship with a lot of people who I would ignore if they told me how to live my life, or what my relationships with my family should look like. The relationship does not give these people permission to change the details of my life — but, religion does just that, religion asks me to change the way I approach life, and even habits of thought and attitude like what I do with anger. Yes — my religion is about a relationship with Christ, but it is more than just another relationship; it is something that permeates and changes my life.

What is hard here is the reminder that as important as those acts of piety that I am used to are, there are some much more basic things that are far more important. It is hard for me to imagine bringing a sacrifice to the temple, and when it is my turn to offer the sacrifice, I remember that I need to reconcile with my brother — so I run out and do it; fix relationships first.

The New Testament makes the importance of loving your fellow human beings very clear. The first thing that comes to my mind is the passage in 1 John 4:20 tells us that if we cannot love our brother, who we see, than we do not love God who we do not see. Jesus talks about loving others, including the other on multiple occasions — the story of the good Samaritan where that man is made an example stands out, as does his direct command to “Love your enemies.” Jesus gives the explanation that there is nothing noble about loving those who love us back.

If I am to give a theological explanation I would look back to the creation narrative, and how it tells us that God created humanity in God’s own image — both male and female. I would point out that images are important, and that almost every temple you walk into holds an image that represents the god of the temple — but, for the followers of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, making an image to represent God was forbidden. Now, I’m not going to go down the rabbit trail of Christian images, nor the argument about what is appropriate and what isn’t. I am going to say that Torah both rejected images made by human hands to represent God, and informed humanity that God personally crafted an image.

Now, think about what this means — think about how important images are to us. We might think that we are too modern to connect an image with the thing that it represents — but we do it constantly. For those of us who use a computer, we click on `icons’ all the time, with no thought of separating the action the computer does with the icon that has come to represent the action.

Think about how angry people get if somebody burns a flag in protest. There are all sorts of calls of criminalizing this extreme action. Does this not sound like an extreme reaction to what a person does with a small piece of patterned cloth? How is it different from any other piece of cloth? If the protester burned the flag where nobody could see it burn, nobody would get angry, and the fire would not harm anything — as long as it did not spread, so why is the flag more than a piece of cloth?

The flag is different because of the value we put on it. We take a very big concept — that of a nation of over 300 million people that is built on a philosophy of what it means to be a free people who are ruled justly, and a system of laws that tries to to be consistent with that philosophy; and we attach all our complex feelings to a piece of cloth with a specific pattern. When we see that cloth, we feel about the cloth the same way we feel about the nation — if we are angry with the nation, we are angry with the flag; and if we see violence done to the flag — even though the nation is unharmed, we feel anger as if our nation, and not a piece of cloth was burning. This is the power of an image.

God commanded that there be no image of God, but there were still images. The best known was the Ark of the Covenant, and to a lesser degree the Temple. These were images that declared God was present, but there was no Idol, no statue of the most high God.

There is also symbol that God’s law was the sovereign law of the land — and the sovereign law of a person’s home; Jewish custom was to put a few verses of scripture into a small box, and nail that box to the entryway. Nobody will open a mezuzah to read the scripture contained inside; but it sits there as a symbol that Torah is sovereign — including the commandment in Deuteronomy 6 to write the commandments you hear today on the doorposts of your houses.

These symbols however are not the image of God; Torah teaches that God made God’s own image in humanity. When we read that Jesus tells us to leave worship if we need reconciled with our brother, and do that right away — think about what the images mean. The person we need reconciled with is God’s image — how can we love God, and hate God’s image? This question should make as much sense to us as: “How can we love our country, yet hate its flag?”

One thing religion has always been about is images — and if we despise the image of the God we claim to worship; is it not obvious that our religion is worthless? The reason that this would be a priority — even a priority above pious acts such as participating in worship should seem clear. To quote a later part of James, about the need to control the tongue: “With our tongue, we bless God yet curse man who is made in God’s image — this should not be”. If we do not bridle our tongue — if we curse God’s image, we symbolically curse God.

The first chapter of James ends with telling us that pure and undefined religion is to care for orphans and widows in their distress. This is a natural result of humanity being God’s image — the most religious thing to do is, if one sees an image defiled, to try and clean it up, perhaps even to repair minor damage. The society that the early Christians lived in did not treat the vulnerable people as God’s image; no, it treated God’s image as so much garbage. True religion sees God’s image for what it is — and works to honor it.

James 1:1-18

Reading:  James 1:1-18

My relationship with James is kind of odd — out of all the books in the Bible, I’m most familiar with it. It takes just over 10 minutes to recite, and as a teenager I think I was able to do so. I know the text of James very well, but I’m not always very sure what to do with it. James is hard; and if you don’t think it is hard then think of the last time that you had to go to a hospital, or your car broke down; or the money ran out before the month and you had a moment when you didn’t know that everything would be all right — did you experience this as joy? My teenage self redefined the word `joy’ to mean those things I didn’t want — I knew the words, but I’m quite sure that entirely missed the point.

James is also hard because we really don’t know much about the epistle. Tradition tells us that it was written by James the brother of Jesus — and, ancient tradition has three competing traditions on what this means, one is that James was one of Joseph’s children from a previous marriage; and there are ancient writers who believed that they were Joseph’s children by Mary the mother of Jesus. Jerome’s theory is that James is the son of Cleopas, Joseph’s brother, who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus (and thus Mary the mother of James, mentioned in Mark, is Cleopas’ wife, and Jesus’ aunt.)

What tradition agrees on is that after Jesus was taken up into heaven, James became the head of the Christian community in Jerusalem, and he remained there until his death in either 62 AD or 69 AD depending on which source you use — James was killed by Jewish leaders by being thrown off the temple, then beaten to death with a club.

Tradition tells us very little about the book of James, other than who wrote it. I cannot look at the great ancient preachers and read their sermons on James; I cannot even say that James meets the description used for scripture that it was “accepted everywhere from the beginning”, because it is missing from several of the “local” canons, and according to the 4th century church historian Eusebius James was a disputed book.

This, and a few internal issues causes many scholars question the tradition that James wrote the epistle of James, and suggest that it might be the last book of the New Testament, written as late as the 2nd century. They have the idea that James is either an ancient sermon, or perhaps a piece of wisdom literature that somehow had “James, a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ” added to the beginning.

The scholars who accept the tradition that James was written by James the brother of Jesus, and the head of the Jerusalem church obviously date James before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. One of the proposed dates is before the council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15, which would explain why this letter is only addressed to Jewish Christians; the decision that a person could be Christian without becoming a Jew had not been made yet. This is my favorite theory.

If I go with this theory, then this epistle would come between the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 and the council that decided to accept Gentile Christians in Acts 15, sometime before 50 AD. When the Jewish leaders persecuted the Jewish Christians; many left Jerusalem for safer places. The church didn’t spread when everybody was content to stay in Jerusalem, but it did spread under persecution — and, James would have had people under his spiritual care who had left Judah for safer places. I like to picture this as a letter to religious refugees, and as the oldest book in the New Testament.

One reason I like the early date is that it makes James very interesting because James quotes Jesus a lot, and when not quoting, there seems to be an allusion to the words of Jesus. An early date for James is interesting because this would make James the earliest extant source of the teachings of Christ. I can read “Consider it pure Joy” and notice this is a lot like the sermon on the mount which begins:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:3-12 (NRSV)

To put the first words of James into the formula of the sermon on the mount:  “Blessed are you when you face diverse trials, for the testing of your faith brings endurance and leads to maturity.”  This sounds a lot like Jesus.

James jumps from this to telling those of us who lack wisdom to pray for it, and to trust God to give it to us. Following this, James tells the poor to talk about how they are raised up, and the rich to talk about how they are brought down — Christ is an equalizer, and in Luke’s gospel Jesus says: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven… but woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”

James follows this by reminding everybody that when we are tempted, we are tempted by our own desires. I know it is an old joke, but I smile at the person who prays the Lord’s prayer, and when he gets to “Lead me not into temptation”, adds: “for I already know the way.”

Today’s section ends with the verse that tells us every perfect gift comes from the Father; I tend to see this as God is the source of generosity and the generous spirit — so, even if I give, it is God who gave and give the desire to be generous, so our generosity, as well as any wisdom we receive is ultimately a gift from God.

Mark 16:1-8 “They were afraid”

Reading:  Mark 16

I’ve told you before that one of the challenges of reading Mark is that we fill in the details from other gospels. Matthew and Luke contain almost all of Mark — but both give much more detailed accounts. For this, and likely other reasons Mark is likely the least read gospel. Whenever a person chooses a reading from one of the events in the gospel, Matthew or Luke generally has one that seems more complete. There are, for this reason, very few ancient sermons on Mark.

Mark is however the most interesting gospel to those who speculate on how the gospels were written. It is generally accepted that Mark is the first gospel to be written down — tradition tells us it was written down by Peter’s companion and interpreter Mark, from memory, after Peter died. Mark is interesting, because Matthew and Luke both follow Mark, and when one disagrees with Mark the other will agree with Mark; Mark is clearly not only the oldest, but the authors of Matthew and Luke clearly had a copy of Mark on hand while they wrote their gospels.

Mark’s account of the resurrection is extremely interesting to those people who study old handwritten gospel texts, compare them, and try to decide which reading belongs in our Bibles. I first learned about this in a class where I was assigned to compare Mark 16 according to various translations, and what I found is that Mark 16:9-20 is not in everybody’s Bible. I learned that there are four different ways that Mark ends; The oldest copies of Mark end with verse 8 “They said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” There were other copies that had a “Shorter ending.” which reads “And all that had be commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter, And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” Of course, the majority of ancient copied approved to be read in church contained our traditional verses 9-20 which ends with Jesus being taken up into heaven; of these some contained the shorter ending as well, but most did not.

If you look at your Bible, you will find one of three things; If you look at a King James Version, you will find Mark 16:1-20 with not even a note. If you look at a Revised Standard Version, you will see that it ends at verse 8, verses 9-20 might or might not be in a footnote. If you look at a New international version, or the New Revised standard Version, you will find a note that the oldest copies have nothing beyond verse 8, and you will find both the shorter and the longer ending of Mark. If you look at the English Standard Version, you will find a note that “Some early manuscripts do not include 16:9-20″, but you will not find the shorter ending.

The work done to decide which of these 4 options to print in a Bible is known as “Textural criticism”. Personally, my favorite choice is providing us with both the shorter and longer endings — of course I’m also the sort of person who likes critical editions of just about anything, especially when they are full of editor’s footnotes.

What I personally think is going on here is that the original ending was: “They were afraid.” We all know the story did not end there — we also know that it is not a very satisfying ending — but, in a real way it is the right ending. On Thursday, the disciples scattered, of the 12, only Peter followed Jesus to the trial. In Mark’s account of the Crucifixion, only the women were there — and the women were the ones who figured out where Jesus was buried so they could embalm the body on Sunday. I imagine Peter ending the story here, with the women while Peter and the disciples are still scattered and confused.

Two things that I want to point out — the first of which is a product of culture, and the second something in the phrasing. The first thing I want to observe is that from Thursday to Sunday, if there is any action that requires courage or strength of character the disciples don’t do that action; but the women did. While the disciples abandon Jesus, the women are there, all the way to the cross. Greek culture did not have a flattering view of women if you say somebody is womanlike, you would be calling that person a coward and possibly suggesting that the person had other moral weaknesses as well. If this gospel were accounted to a Greek audience, the point would be that Peter and the disciples were even more cowardly and morally inferior to women.

The second point is that when the angel spoke to the Mary’s and told them to tell the disciples and Peter. What stands out here is that Peter is named as somebody separate from the disciples. The last we saw of Peter — he was denying that he was a disciple — and, now we have the women sent to tell the disciples, and Peter who is at this point outside the number. In my mind I hear Peter telling this story, and I know Easter morning this is how things really were — Jesus was risen, but the disciples were still scattered, and Peter still had denied being a disciple and Jesus still had not restored him. I like the idea that Peter may have stopped telling the story here.

The thing is, we all know that this isn’t the end of the story — if it were, Peter would not be standing there telling it — there is much more to be said; shall we say, there is an epilogue. You see, the story does not end at the cross, nor does it end at the graveside — nor even with the angel telling Mary to tell the disciples. There is a reason why most Bibles have an Epilogue — because the story went on. Jesus met the disciples, specifically restored Peter, gave them a mission to spread the gospel to the ends of the Earth, ascended into heaven and put the story into the hands of the Disciples.

As you can see, I’m here speaking about this grand story of the gospel — the epilogue we read still does not go to the end of the story. The story continued after Peter and the others died, it continued after everybody who they taught died, and for generations following. The story of what Jesus is doing in the world is continuing today. The story of Easter is not just that Jesus was raised from the dead, but that Jesus became truly present. The end of the story is that not even death can keep our Lord away; even when we are unfaithful, Christ never abandons us.