"Gods saving justice is never served by human anger," points out James in his letter to Christians struggling against the power structures that threatened to consume the Christian community. The readings of the next few weeks reveal the struggle between the forces of sins in the human heart, the principalities and powers, the saving grace of God, and the vision of a restored and renewed creation.
We shall have to face choices: whether to place our trust in the political, economic, social, and eccleisal structures that offer us the promise of security now, or to opt for the One who has the words of eternal life. We too will need to face our sin, our complicity, our own betrayal of the One who "came to bring the good news of peace" (Ephesians 2:17). The only justice worth securing is that of Gods saving justice. May Gods strength be made perfect in our weakness.
Security in Weakness
Psalm 48; 2 Samuel 5:1-5; 9-10; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13
What gives us security? This is the challenge of our readings today. Samuel points us to a king who, like all other kings, looks for political and military security, exemplified here by the building of a fortress (2 Samuel 5:9-10). The psalmist draws attention to the security of the city, inviting people to reflect on its strength. However, the psalm is not an adoring song of praise to the city, but rather to God, who in time of danger has provided the only true security when enemies have threatened.
Those with the eyes of spiritual discernment are bidden to reflect on Gods faithful love, because "your right hand is full of saving justice" (Psalm 48:10-11). God does not politick like kings and presidents; God is above all the might of citadels and armies, and alone ensures future generations as "our God forever and ever" (Psalm 48:14).
Jesus, Davids descendant, is apparently without security. In his home village, he is known simply as the carpenter. People are hostile to his liberating acts. Facing the rejection of the crowd, he returns to his new family, the community of his disciples. He tells them that they too have no securitiesno food, money, baggage, or clothes. But they do have authority over the destructive spirits that oppress and threaten liberation (Mark 6:8).
Reflection and Action
Where does your security lie? When have you experienced Gods power at full strength in weakness? Where have you been made unwelcome because of your faith in Gods liberating power? How have you dealt with that?
Marked for Freedom
Psalm 24; 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12-19; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29
There is some pretty heavy stuff in this series of readings. King David is in an exultant mood as he accompanies the reclaimed Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of Gods presence, into Jerusalem. But the danger of familiarity with God and assuming that God can be controlled by humans is sharply exposed (2 Samuel 6:6-8). David realizes that there are limits to his influence and power, and the psalmist reminds us clearly that the true presence of God is available only to those who are clean of hands and pure of heart.
Mark confronts us with a story of the apparent victory of evil over good. Herod and the coalition of government, political, and commercial interests represented at his dinner party seek to terminate the prophetic criticism that calls for an end to double standards. Johns summary execution, on the scheming whim of one of the accused parties, is typical of tyrannical activity in every age.
Against the background of emperor worship and relentless persecution of the Christian community by religious and secular authorities, Paul offers a theological treatise on the nature of the salvation of God. He reminds us of the everlasting nature of Gods presence, and reiterates to those in fear that before the world was made God marked us out to be adopted children in Christ. Paul declares that there are limits to the oppressive powers; Gods pledge is that when the times have run their course, everything will be brought under Christ.
Reflection and Action
These readings call us to a renewal of our faith in the victory of God. They invite us to honor Gods sovereignty, to recognize the limits of secular power, and to revisit the source of our salvation. How might you do this in your life, community, and church?
Out of Two, One
Psalm 89:20-37; 2 Samuel 7:1-14; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
This weeks readings are frustrating! The selected verses from the psalm paint a picture of King David as Gods anointed, crushing and striking his enemies, in order to establish power. Sure, there are some words of warning for Davids descendants who desert Gods law and commandments. But the lectionary selection omits the stinging critique of a theology of success and prosperity with its unqualified support of rulers. As author David Pleins has pointed out, we need to read the whole of Psalm 89 in order to offer a word that helps us "cope with and expose the unstable nature of our political and economic institutions."
The second frustrating reading is the gospelthe guts are taken out! Jesus invites his disciples to cross over the lake for a retreat. The crowds hurry off to the destination, where Jesus teaches them. Period. There follows another sea voyagebut if you read only the allocated verses, you have to guess this!where the disciples end up in Gentile territory, where Jesus heals the sick, and so on. Left out is the feeding of the crowds, the disciples journey of faith (or doubt!), and the walk on the water (Mark 6:33-52). Perhaps the lectionary compilers are seeking to draw us to think about reconciliation, the theme of the Ephesians passage. If so, what kind of reconciliation?
The point of the events associated with the crossing is to illustrate just how difficult reconciliation is. The story is about God wanting to reconcile Jew and Gentile (Galatians 3:28). And the stories reveal the true difficulty of accepting such a vision. Jesus has been alone praying while the disciples struggle with the boat in the storm. He comes to them in the crisis not as a miracle of grace over nature, to prove he can walk on water, but rather as a greater miracle: the vision of a reconciled humanity.
But such reconciliation is costly, even if the result is the creation of a single New Humanity, as happens in Christ Jesus through the cross (Ephesians 2:13-16). Jesus action of feeding the Jewish poor, by taking available resources and organizing a sharing, is a practical critique of the system that oppresses. From that communal yet profoundly critical act, Jesus paves the way for reconciliation between Jew and Gentile. We should note that he feeds a similar Gentile crowd prior to the conclusion of his mission in that region (Mark 8:1-10).
Reflection and Action
What storms do you face in "reaching the other side" of a reconciled humanity? How does your worship critique the dominant theology of success and unquestioning support of rulers?
God Working in Us
Psalm 14; 2 Samuel 11:1-15; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21
Dont those who do wrong know? Those who devour my people as if eating bread (Psalm 14:4)? These are profound questions for our time, as they were for the increasingly successful King David. A successful military strategist, he could afford to stay home and play both monarch and tyrant, exploiting sexually and politically for his own ends, regardless of the cost to individual lives or national morality. For a while David is the fool who thinks there is no God (Psalm 14:1), joining the ranks of other ruling elites who have exploited, oppressed, and victimized in order to achieve political influence.
Having issued his challenge, "Dont all those who do wrong know?" Jesus realizes that he is in danger of being misunderstood, for the crowds were about to come by force and make him king. Jesus is forced to flee into the solitude of the hills for safety and reflection. Jesus will be king, but on his own terms, not on the terms of those who have only the tyrant model on which to base their hopes.
We do not know what was in Jesus prayer, but Paul gives us a prayer that goes to the heart of the spiritual challenge today. We too are to seek the glory of God working in us so that God can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine, from generation to generation in the church and in Christ Jesus forever and ever.
Reflection and Action
Where do you find yourself asking the question, Dont all those who do wrong know? In what ways can you demonstrate a critique of the systems that oppress the poor? Where do you look for solitude and safety when things are difficult?
Deserving of Death
Psalm 51:1-12; 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35
The man who did this deserves to die, declares David, as the prophet Nathan tells him a parable that exposes Davids guilt for the murder of Uriah, following his seduction and adultery with Uriahs wife Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:5-6; see also, "Abuse of Command," p. 22). Tyrants know when they have done wrong. When massacres occurwhether in the clinical holocaust of the European concentration camps, the butchery in Rwanda or Burundi, the long legacy of South African apartheid, or the death squads of Latin Americathe perpetrators cannot escape the dark knowledge of their sin.
King David holds a significant place in the story of Gods dealings with humanity. His status as ancestor of the Messiah, and the comparison of his throne to the defining movement of founding the Jewish state, reveals that significance. We should perhaps not be surprised that one of the two great psalms of lament over personal sin (Psalm 51) is attributed to Davids realization of the magnitude of his wickedness. Personal responsibility for wrongdoing is something we all need to face. But with forgiveness goes the steadying power of God to "create...a clean heart...and renew a right spirit" (Psalm 51:10).
Witness to the rule of God in our lives has credence when we accept Pauls injunction "to lead a life worthy of the vocation to which you were called." Individual integrity is essential to the witness of the body. Witness is to be marked by "humility, gentleness, patience, and the supporting of each other in love" (Ephesians 4:1-3). Jesus challenges us to understand that "the bread of God which comes down from heaven gives life to the world" (John 6:33), as it calls for rejection of scapegoating violence that threatens to consume humanity as it consumed King David.
Reflection and Action
How is your life worthy of the vocation to which you were called? How does your church life measure up against the virtues of humility, gentleness, supporting in love, and belief in God who gives life to the world?
Speak Truth to one Another
Psalm 130; 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51
"For my sake treat young Absalom gently." The heartfelt cry of a father, David, toward a devious and rebellious son is unheeded by those who have been charged with putting down a costly rebellion. In their heart of hearts they are glad to see Absalom dead, and the words of one messenger sums up all their feelings: "May all who rise up to harm you share the fate of that young man" (2 Samuel 18:5, 32).
It is uncertain whether or not there is a connection between Psalm 130, Davids reaction to the death of his son, and the impact of the destructiveness unleashed in his kingdom, first through his own actions, and then those of his offspring. But the question raised, "If you kept a record of our sins, Lord, who could stand their ground?" (Psalm 130:3) is a salutary reminder of the deadliness of sin in the human condition and our constant need for grace.
Paul requires of the faith communities a reordering of behavior. From now on there must be no more lies. Speak the truth to one another. Lying, anger, theft, foul talk, bitterness, anger, bad temper, shouting, and abuse (Ephesians 4:25-30) are all prohibited behavior for the Christian community. Oh! that it were so! During the movement to end nuclear weapons and the arms trade, one wise observer reflected, "There is enough anger in the peace movement to start World War III all by itself!" The priority of the people of God is generosity, sympathy, and forgiveness in the way that God forgave us in Christ.
The community of Gods people is also to be a place of sexual integrity (Ephesians 5:1-5). Sexual behavior that runs counter to the gospel provides a constant challenge to the community of faith. We are bidden to recall that our gratification is the bread of life, which is given for the life of the world (John 6:51). The behavior of Christians in all matters should not hinder the feeding of the world; and where it has, we should cry from the depths for Gods forgiveness in order that God may be revered.
Reflection and Action
How is your faith community obeying the injunctions of Paul in its lifestyle and behavior? How do you deal with behavior that exposes the community to criticism, ridicule, or the dishonoring of Gods name?
A Heart to Understand
Psalm 111; 1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58
A fresh start is always possible. On inheriting the throne of his father, David, Solomon prays, "Give your servant a heart to understand how to govern your people, how to discern between good and evil" (1 Kings 3:9). Undoubtedly the Davidic empire needed such discernment, and Solomons prayer and intention is a model for all inaugurations. God promises discerning judgment, and the psalmist recalls that the works of Gods hands are fidelity and justice (Psalm 111:7).
Such transformation is more than a matter of wishing or praying. Jesus invites participation in a new order by calling on those who are trapped within the legalism of tradition to find new life through "munching" on him. The idea of eating flesh and blood was anathema to Jews; but Jesus needs to use an alternative metaphor to mark out the distinction between his community, which offers food for life, and the staleness and oppressiveness of law and tradition. Jesus discerns a longing for social justice among those who have received the bread at the feeding (John 6:1-15), but sees a people trapped by the bread that ancestors ate (John 6:58).
Yet Jesus invitation to life is not unqualified. Paul perceives the need for Christians not to be thoughtless or to become addicts to the spirit of the age, dissipating the life that God gives (Ephesians 5:15-16). The community is called to praise God, because it is God, not us, who seeks to transform relationships for the transformation of the world.
Reflection and Action
Where are the signs of new beginnings in our world? To what extent is your community of faith munching on the bread of life or the bread our ancestors ate?
The Spirit that Gives Life
Psalm 84; 1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69
Solomons obsession with the temple, its ritual, and the self-reverential power base it represents in his expanding empire smacks of "business as usual." However, tucked away in the small print of the Old Testament reading is Solomons prayer to God that if "foreigners come and pray in this temple," God will "listen and grant all that the foreigner asks of you, so that all peoples of the earth may acknowledge your name and revere you" (1 Kings 8:43). Within the vision of the temple there lies, too, the hope that it will be the focus for a unified creation.
The vision of the temple as a symbol of harmony for creation, between nations and between the cosmos and God, is sadly unfulfilled. Jesus tackled the oppression and exploitation of Gods house in an extraordinary demonstration of resistance (John 2:14-20). His insistence that his body is the new temple (John 2:20-21), and that it is to be eaten, is regarded as intolerable language to those who hear it, including the disciples (John 6:60-66). And yet a glimmer of hope exists. When it seems all will fall, Peter says, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life and we believe; we have come to know you as the Holy One of God" (John 6:68-69).
Words, however, will not suffice. Belief has to be matched with a preparation for the inevitable struggle for justice and harmony. Put on the full armor of God so as to be able to resist the devils tactics, commands Paul (Ephesians 6:11). All systems and structures, however benign, will seek to usurp the place of the spirit that gives life. But, as the psalmist writes, the dwelling places of God are still lovely, and we who would see them must yearn and pine for the living God.
Reflection and Action
In what ways have you come to know and believe Jesus as the Holy One of God? How does this inform your action for justice?
Welcoming the Seasons of Glad Songs
Psalm 45:1-2; 6-9; Song of Songs 2:8-13; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
"Gods saving justice is never served by human anger" (James 1:20). This text should be inscribed on the hearts of all who seek for peace and justice in our world. True religion should be marked by an eagerness to listen, a slowness to speak, and a tight rein on the tongue. There is no room for lip service or human traditions that are used to avoid dealing with the real evil intentions that are found in the human heart (Mark 7:21-23).
In essence Gods saving justice is marked by simplicity of faith and expressed by helping widows and orphans in their hardships and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world (James 1:27). The word for world here is better translated as "systems," the powers and principalities (Ephesians 6:12) that impede both the saving justice of God and the springtime of hope, poetically described in Song of Songs as an awakening of love. May our prayer and our desire be that the seasons of glad songs will come (Song of Songs 2:12).
Reflection and Action
What are you doing to welcome the seasons of glad songs?
PETER B. PRICE is general secretary of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, an Anglican mission agency based in London, and practiceswith his wife, Deea ministry of hospitality. Reflections on the complete, three-year lectionary cycle can be found in the resource Living the Word, available from Sojourners Resource Center (1-800-714-7474).