Transformative Power

Genuine faith is never a private matter, something hidden away in one’s mind and spirit. Faith, when truly alive, has transformative power, both in the life of the individual believer and in the broader society. That power, unleashed in dramatic fashion on the first Pentecost, continues to be poured out on all those who open themselves to saving grace. The visible result is a life marked by faith, hope, and love. Come, Holy Spirit.

May 3
The Good Shepherd
Psalm 23; Acts 9:36-43; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

Along with the Lord’s Prayer, the 23rd Psalm is perhaps the best known passage in all of scripture, and with good reason: This simple yet eloquent poem encapsulates a central understanding of our faith. Though evil surrounds us, we needn’t fear, because the good shepherd guides and protects us.

This is one of those passages where more contemporary translations have trouble standing up to the elegance, beauty, and familiarity of the King James. (Some even consider Lancelot Andrewes, the chief translator of the King James Bible, to be on par with his contemporary William Shakespeare as the greatest writer in the English language.) It’s hard to match the poignancy and power of, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." The comforting reassurance that "thou art with me" even in the shadow of death underscores the vital truth that the presence and the power of God overcomes evil, even death, and that we are invited to "dwell in the house of the Lord forever."

But the psalmist may well have had a more prosaic image in mind; the phrase translated as the "shadow of death" (çal maweth) in earlier form referred to a valley of "dark shadows" (calmûth) where robbers and beasts of prey lurk. The metaphor of the shepherd warding off danger melds in the next verse into a patron who not only provides protection from enemies, but lays out a lush feast, the richest of hospitality—such that we can aspire to no greater gift than to dwell forever in that house.

Jesus, of course, is that Good Shepherd (John 10:14), but that certainly doesn’t stop the unbelieving wolves from hounding him. "Are you the messiah?" they ask him. Look at what I have done, he responds; my "works" are my testimony. Jesus never makes the false distinction between faith and works that segments of the church have been guilty of—in fact, he teaches that the two are intrinsically linked: "If I am not doing my Father’s work, put no faith in me" (John 10:37). But for those who stand back, waiting to be convinced, no proof is enough. Only those who enter the flock hear the shepherd’s voice. Their reward is goodness and mercy, forever.

May 10
A New Commandment
Psalm 148; Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

There are many ways to identify members of a group or organization. Most of these make use of material signs: a uniform or item of clothing; an ornament, style of hair, or marking of the skin. In today’s gospel reading, the beginning of Jesus’ farewell address, he gave his followers a different kind of way by which they would be known—their love for one another. They would be known not by the sign of the fish, or even the cross, but by the fruit of their conversion.

This was not an optional mode of behavior. Jesus repeats the command to love one another three times, first saying what it is ("a new commandment"), then how to love ("as I have loved you"), and finally noting that this love would stand as the trademark, the signifier, of his disciples.

Not only is this a new commandment, but Jesus taught that it is among the greatest. The first commandment is to love God with our whole heart, and the second is to love our neighbor as ourself. "On these two commandments," Jesus said, "hang all the law and the prophets" (Matthew 22:36-40). To love, in fact, is to know God—"Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love" (1 John 4:7-8).

This new commandment is the hallmark of the new heaven and new earth seen by John (Revelation 21:1). The Greek word for new in each of these passages (kainos) refers not so much to age as it does to freshness—the change is as much in the renewed and reinvigorated perspective and behavior of the disciples as it is in any outside circumstances. This transformation is God’s gift, the gift that makes all things new, the gift that makes us the people of God (Leviticus 26:12). In that covenant is our salvation.

May 17
A Woman of the Cloth
Psalm 67; Acts 16:9-15; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29

What did Paul believe about the proper role of women in the church? Many over the years have drawn on passages in the Pauline epistles to infer that their author would deny women a leadership role, although recent scholarship has shown a more complex and nuanced view even in the letters. Today’s passage from Acts gives us evidence, beyond what he wrote, on which to base our assessment: his actual behavior in setting up the early church.

In Jewish law and tradition, women were not considered qualified to start a synagogue, or even counted as full members to constitute the necessary quorum to hold a service. Yet when Paul—accompanied by Silas, Timothy, and Luke—began preaching in Philippi with an eye toward beginning a church there, his first "congregation" consisted of "the women who had gathered" by the river (Acts 16:13). His first convert—and also the first follower of the Way in what is now Europe—was an apparently wealthy merchant named Lydia, arguably a woman of the cloth in more than one sense of the word. After listening to Paul’s teaching, she was baptized, along with her household, which included members of her family as well as slaves. On Lydia’s insistence, the company—and likely the nascent church—established its base in her home.

As head of the household, Lydia likely performed the traditional function of presiding over the Sabbath meal, speaking the prayer of blessing, breaking and distributing the bread among the gathered community—a role later called presbyter or priest. Archaeological findings from the period—frescoes, mosaics, and inscriptions—support the textual evidence that women served in this capacity in many parts of Asia Minor and elsewhere. And Paul’s letter to the Philippians indicates that women continued in leadership of the community there (4:2-3).

Actions do speak louder than words, and Paul’s evident respect for Lydia speaks volumes. Jesus echoes that theme in today’s gospel, as he tells the disciples, "Those who love me will keep my word." Lip service is never enough. Our faith must be lived out in our behavior.

May 24
Jail Ministry
Psalm 97; Acts 16:16-34; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21;John 17:20-26

Today’s passage from Acts tells only the first part of the story of the arrest, imprisonment, and dramatic release of Paul and Silas in Philippi—for the conclusion we must include verses 35-40 as well. Their arrest and persecution came not from Jews concerned with specifically Christian teachings of Paul, as was the subsequent case in Jerusalem (related in Acts 21-28). This time they were accused of advocating Jewish practices that were illegal for the Roman citizens of Philippi to follow. In fact, the opposition came not from religious persecution at all, but was motivated by anger at the financial loss caused when Paul expelled a demon from a fortune teller—not the first or last time that preaching the gospel threatened profits.

Once they were in jail, the contrast between the fright of the jailer and the untroubled confidence of Paul and Silas is striking. The jailer, with considerable justification (see, for example, Acts 12:18-19), assumed his life was forfeit for letting the prisoners escape. Even after discovering that they were still in his custody, he frightfully asked, in words with obvious multiple meanings, "How can I be saved?" Paul took his words to mean much more than, "How can I save my skin?" and responded with his foundational formulation of faith, inviting the jailer to belief—which for Paul was always more than mere intellectual assent, entailing a surrender of the whole of our selves to the love of God. Note that Paul didn’t stop with the one-liner; he went on to "preach the word of the Lord to him," spelling out the story of Christ’s transforming way of love.

The jailer, his household, and in fact all those who believe are baptized into a community of faith, a community whose foundation is righteousness and justice (Psalm 97:2) and whose members are called to unity. We are invited, as Jesus prays in today’s gospel reading, to "become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me" (John 17:23).

May 31 Pentecost
The Reign of God Is at Hand
Psalm 104:24-35; Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:14-17; John 14:8-17, 25-27

During the Hebrew Feast of Weeks, some traditions in Judaism commemorated the giving of the law at Sinai, certainly one of the key turning points for the people of God. The first Pentecost took place during that festival, and the outpouring of the Spirit marked a similarly consequential moment in the church’s life, as the community of faith was empowered to take the gospel to all nations.

The greatest transformation, however, may not have been the imparting of this missionary zeal, but the change that came over the disciples themselves. The courage bestowed by the Spirit enabled them to boldly confront the powers-that-be, even when doing so entailed obvious risk.

The powerful changes went beyond the immediate disciples and affected those others who were baptized—3,000 on the first day alone. But the most dramatic work of the Spirit wasn’t merely an internal or individual act—the whole (rapidly growing) community of believers acted as if the Reign of God was truly at hand. They had all things in common; they sold their possessions and goods and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need. They prayed and broke bread together, with glad and generous hearts (Acts 2:44-47). Small wonder, with lives like that, that they had "the goodwill of all the people," and that many sought to join them.

Through our baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are still called to pour out our lives in joy and thanksgiving, still called to respond, materially and spiritually, to any that have need, still called to preach the good news with courage and clarity, still called to live as if the Reign of God is at hand. That’s the good news: It is.

June 7 Ordinary Time
Cosmic Compassion
Psalm 146; 1 Kings 17:8-24; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17

Where shall we place our trust? Today’s passages give us a marvelous answer to that question. The psalmist first tells us in whom not to trust—in princes, those with power and secular authority. In fact, we are told not to trust in humans at all, "in whom there is no help."

We are called instead to trust in the Lord. Who is the Lord? The one who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry, who sets the prisoners free and opens the eyes of the blind, who watches over strangers and upholds the orphan and the widow (Psalm 146). That’s quite a list of attributes, and not at all those usually associated with the "lords" of our world.

Jesus’ lordship expressed itself in just that kind of bias toward the down and out of society. After healing a slave in Capernaum, he enters a nearby town called Nain. There he sees a funeral procession and, most important, the bereaved mother. Moved by her weeping, he raises the dead young man to life. This event differs from the Lazarus story (John 11:1-44), when Jesus’ actions grew out of a long-standing relationship with the deceased and a deep and abiding love for Lazarus’ sisters. Jesus’ response in Nain, which echoes the actions of Elijah, was evidently a spontaneous act of compassion for the grieving woman.

That type of compassion is the hallmark of Christian love. The Lord gives food to the hungry and upholds the widow not out of some cosmic obligation, some noblesse oblige writ large, but out of compassionate love. God is moved by human suffering. For incomprehensible reasons, the creator of the universe, the one who made heaven and earth, grieves with us when we grieve, suffers with us when we suffer, keeps faith with us forever. For that, the only response is to join with the psalmist: "I will sing praises to my God all my life long."

Commentary on the readings for Trinity Sunday can be found in the resource Living the Word.

June 14
Who is Righteous?
Psalm 5:1-8; 1 Kings 21:1-21; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3

The gospel passage from Luke is often given a title something like "The Woman Who Was a Sinner." His message to the woman—"Your sins are forgiven....Your faith has saved you; go in peace"—has universal resonance; we can rest assured that it is directed to us as well.

Yet the heart of this story is Jesus’ conversation with Simon, the Pharisee. Simon had invited Jesus into his home. The fact that Jesus accepts this invitation is telling. His relationship with at least some of the Pharisees wasn’t as unequivocally adversarial as is sometimes believed. He was clearly interested in speaking not only to outcasts, but also to those in positions of power and leadership.

While Simon welcomes him in, he does so with a skeptical bent: "If this man were a prophet, he would have known." Jesus is aware of his doubt, and much more; he knows Simon’s very heart. The parable Jesus tells is aimed not at the woman, but at Simon. She is the example of the "righteous one" in this story, the one who loves much. Her generous acts of hospitality and love are signs that she has been forgiven much. (She is not forgiven because of her acts, as some commentators have misinterpreted the story to mean, but she acts with much love because much has been forgiven, as in the parable.)

The most eloquent message—and the most indicting—is what is left unsaid. The one to whom little is forgiven, Jesus said, loves little. Simon was unlikely to miss the point. Being a righteous man, trying to do the right thing and live in a godly manner, he probably assumed he had little to be forgiven for. But Jesus’ point is that all of us, even—especially!—those considered righteous, are in need of forgiveness (see Romans 3:22-24). Those who most see themselves as on the right path, the "Pharisees" among us, have perhaps the greatest difficulty seeing the real way to salvation: not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:16).

June 21
The New Order
Psalm 42; 1 Kings 19:1-15; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39

What is the relationship between faith and the law? Must Gentile Christians adopt Jewish practices? Or does faith in Jesus make the law obsolete? These were among the key questions for Paul, Peter, and other leaders of the early church. The letter to the Galatians, especially chapters 3 and 4, gives an introductory treatment of these issues that Paul later expounded upon in a more comprehensive and systematic way in Romans.

In today’s epistle (and prior verses beginning with 3:6), we find a capsule summary of his argument. To wit: Abraham was saved by faith, but it was a faith unfulfilled until the coming of Christ. In the intervening years, the law was needed, but only as a guardian until Christ’s coming.

This passage provides a vivid example of the way that the various translations of scripture can present divergent messages, in tone and spirit if not in content. The NRSV says that before faith came, we were "imprisoned and guarded" under the law, which was our "disciplinarian." Other translations say that the law was our "schoolmaster," "custodian," or "guardian." The Greek word in question actually referred to a slave who had charge of a child from age 6 to 16, one who accompanied the child to school each day to see that he or she fell into no harm or mischief. Paul is saying that the law is like a caretaker that looked after the people of God until it was no longer needed, replaced by the freedom that comes with faith.

In the context of the early church’s debates over who was eligible for God’s saving grace, Paul’s point—spelled out plainly in verse 28—was decidedly clear. Christ has rendered obsolete the practice of separating and judging on the basis of race, ethnicity, religious lineage, gender, economic status, or class. The human tendency to divide and denigrate is deeply ingrained, but God’s way of equality and unity is the new order of things. The consequences of that profound revelation are still unfolding.

June 28
The Good Life
Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

"Love your neighbor as yourself" (Galatians 5:14) is one of the most radically transforming concepts in all of scripture—and also one of the most dangerous. It requires first the proper stance toward oneself, neither inordinate pride nor false humility, and that self-love is not to be taken for granted. In fact, in the way of the "flesh," it’s virtually impossible. Human psychology just isn’t up to the discipline and restraint required by a freedom based solely in love.

That’s where the Spirit comes in. The freedom we are given opens two doors before us. One is the path of self-indulgence, which Paul calls the "desires of the flesh." The other is not mortification, as one might expect, but community: to "serve one another in works of love." Those who walk in the Spirit will be drawn to its fruit, which is love. Note the use of the singular "fruit"; all the rest (joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc.) are manifestations of love.

It must be understood that for Paul, "the flesh" meant more than the human body; the term referred, as one commentator put it, to "all the sinful tendencies, impulses, inclinations, and desires" inherent in human nature. The human body itself—temple of the Holy Spirit—was made by God, "and God saw that it was good" (Genesis 1:25).

In renouncing the way of the flesh, Paul is not advocating asceticism. He is inviting us to a rich, abundant, verdant life in the Spirit, full of mutually enriching human companionship, happiness, and joy—the good life. Paul’s critics feared that his repudiation of the law as a means of salvation would lead to an orgy of licentiousness and self-centered lust. Paul’s reply is that, with the Spirit in control, we are invited to live a life centered around the three things that last: faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13).

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).

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