Thursday, August 27, 2020

Reflections on Matthew 14:22-36

 Immediately [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. After the people of that place recognized him, they sent word throughout the region and brought all who were sick to him, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.  – Matthew 14:22-36 (NRSV)

 

The passage above is one of the most famous passages in the whole New Testament.  Even if you have never read the Bible, you most likely have at least heard the reference to “walking on water” and know that it is a reference to Jesus.  The version of the story that appears in the Gospel of Matthew (above) is the only one that also tells us about Peter’s attempt to do the same amazing feat.

Recently, the text study group that I attend, had a long discussion about this passage.  And really, all of us (myself included), at one point or another have focused on the idea that this passage encourages us to “get out of the boat”.  That is, we have all seen this passage as a story about faith and keeping your eyes on Jesus in the midst of the storms of life so that we can do the impossible and step out of the proverbial boat and onto the waves of the sea, doing amazing things in the name of Jesus. 

This is a very attractive interpretation.  But, as our discussion went on, I had to confess to the group that I was having a hard time making the case for that interpretation.  In fact, it would seem that the details of the text demand that we not interpret it that way.

Take note of the very first verse. Jesus “made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side” of the lake.  And take note to where the story concludes:  on the other side, where they continue Jesus’ ministry to the sick.  In other words, the story begins with Jesus telling his followers where to go and it ends with them in the place where Jesus told them to go. 

Also, after Jesus saves Peter from drowning, Jesus says to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  This statement to Peter, about his doubts, is often understood to refer to the fear that he felt while out on the water.  Even though that could be the reference, there is a much more obvious reference to doubt earlier in the text.  Why did Peter come out on the water to begin with?  Isn’t it because Peter doubted Jesus’ words, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid”?  When Peter hears Jesus words, his reaction is to test Jesus saying, “Lord, if it is you…”  Also, note that it is not Jesus’ idea for Peter to get out of the boat, it is Peter’s.  Jesus, more or less, just allows him to give it a try.

As attractive an interpretation as it is, to say that we should be like Peter and get out of the boat but just have better will power to focus on Jesus, may actually be missing the point of the passage.  I think that for many years, I have missed the point of this passage.

Getting out of the boat doesn’t get Peter or the disciples anywhere or anything.  Peter has an experience, to be sure.  He also gets a mild rebuke from Jesus.  But, note that Jesus and Peter end up in the boat.  Once in the boat, the wind ceases, they worship and they end up on the other side of the lake (where Jesus directed them to go in the first place) so that they could continue their ministry of caring for others in need.

What does this have to do with us right now? For starters, it is clear that we are in difficult (stormy) times and it feels like we cannot get to where we should be.  As a church, we have not opened our building since the middle of March.  It feels as if we are standing still and the waves can overtake us at any time.  Some are certainly in favor of “taking a leap of faith” and getting out of the proverbial boat.  We want to be like Peter, put safety aside and test to see if Jesus will let us meet him on the water (or test that he is even there with us).  For some, that means going back to church like we did in the pre-pandemic days.

However, in paying attention to some of the details of this passage, it seems to me that we would do well to take the words of Jesus to heart.  Specifically, Jesus has called us to do ministry, to care for those in need, to share the comfort of his love and presence.  In this passage, Jesus tells his disciples, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus reminds them, and us, that he is with us always (Matthew 28:20).  In order for his disciples to do the ministry he wanted them to do, he “made” them get into the boat.  When Jesus saved Peter from drowning, they got back into the boat where it was safer. Then, the disciples and Peter went together to the other side where Jesus wanted them to go to begin with.

In this difficult time, I think that Jesus wants us to trust him.  We don’t need to take unnecessary risks, testing if Jesus is really with us or not.  Our church will weather this storm and will come out on the other side because Jesus is really with us.  The faithful thing to do is not to simply try to do “what we want” or “what we are used to”.  Being faithful is to discern what it is Jesus has called us to do: to love God and to love our neighbors.  That means, in the simplest of terms, to do no harm to our neighbor. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” – Romans 13:10 (NRSV).   

So, we will continue to do our best to love one another and our community by working to do whatever we do safely, with the well-being of others foremost in our minds.  And, we will continue to try to feed people with our parking lot food pantry and by volunteering at the Harvest of Hope food bank.  We will continue to do online worship and to offer things like drive-thru communion as safety permits.

It is important for us to understand that the church is not “closed”.  We are simply weathering the storm in the presence of Jesus and learning to carry out his commands in a new and difficult situation.  We will eventually get to other side.  And I pray that when we do, we are stronger in faith, wiser in our understanding of scripture, and more loving towards our neighbors. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Reflections from Quarantine


I am writing this on the 4th day of our Covid-19 isolation.  My wife had been tested for the virus early last week at work (all employees were being tested).  She received her positive test results on Sunday morning and was immediately sent home.  She called me immediately because our congregation was going to have our first in-person worship event that morning, drive-thru communion. That event was quickly canceled and we entered into this new state of being for the next 14 days.  I was tested for the virus late on Monday, but was told not to expect the results for 7 to 10 days.  So, we are playing the waiting game for a while, each of us isolating in a different part of the house.

The first day, members of St. Paul’s Lutheran (Stoverstown) supported us with prayers and words of encouragement and started bringing us meals and offering to run errands if needed.  I can’t express how grateful I am for all of them.  The same can be said for my colleagues in the Hanover Conference and in the Lower Susquehanna Synod.  I have really appreciated all their prayers, words of support and offers of help.  My family is truly blessed.

I must say, that we were all very surprised by my wife’s positive test result.  None of us have had any symptoms, at least none that we would have thought to attribute to an infection of Covid-19.  I can point to a day last week where I had a headache and felt tired, but that happens from time to time and I didn’t think any thing of it.  My wife and kids, haven’t experienced anything so far. Of course, we could develop symptoms as time goes on.  But, we might not.

Some might argue that this is an indication that the virus is not very dangerous.  And I suppose that seems to be true for us, so far.  However, I tend to think that this experience is teaching a different lesson.  For the most part, our family is pretty active.  Even though I am 50 years old, I can still deadlift 400+ for multiple reps.  I can still take taekwondo classes with my kids.  I am fairly young (my kids disagree, but what do they know) and healthy.  My wife is the same way (except for the deadlift part).  The point is that most people like us, probably won’t experience the most severe symptoms of this illness and many might be asymptomatic (never having any symptoms at all).  So, the lesson that is being driven home to me is how dangerous I could be in unknowingly carrying this to someone else who might be much more vulnerable than I am.

I have kept thinking back to Sunday morning.  What if my wife’s test results didn’t come back until Monday?  What if we had not found out and I went ahead and did the drive through communion?  Even with all the precautions we were trying to take, nothing is ever 100%.  It is easy to get sloppy, to make a mistake.  I am so thankful that we found this out in time to cancel.

The biblical passage that has been running through my mind lately is 1 Corinthians chapter 8 where St. Paul writes about the differing opinions on eating food sacrificed to idols. 

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.  – 1 Corinthians 8:1-3 (NRSV)

“All of us possess knowledge.”  That is as true now as it was then.  But Paul goes on that it is not everyone who has this knowledge (8:7).  For the Corinthians, some had been so accustomed to the worship of idols, they believed that it was wrong to eat anything that had been sacrificed to one.  Their consciences could not allow them to do so without damaging their faith.  Others, ate without any problems because they knew that “’no idol in the world really exists’, and that ‘there is no God but one’” (8:4). When these two groups mixed together and those with a bothered conscience saw others eating, there were problems.  One group felt they were free to eat, and the others were bound by their conscience.  What was one to do?

Paul tells them not to let their liberty become a stumbling block to others (8:9).  And he concludes, “Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of theme to fall.” (1 Corinthians 8:13, NRSV).  For Paul, he recognized the liberty of those who felt there was no problem in eating anything with thanksgiving.  And he recognized that there were some who were being damaged by the exercise of that liberty.  So, applying the Christian command to love one’s neighbor, Paul pledges to give up some of his liberty in order to care for those who might be injured by it. 

Where am I going with all of this?  I think that it is important for all of you who are members and friends of my congregation to know, that my conscience has very strongly been urging me to take things very slowly in the planning for the opening up of our church building and for doing things in person.  I know that there are many who are ready to get back to the way things were as soon as possible.  I would love to do that. However, I fear that doing so would cost us the lives of some of the members of our congregation.  And if I turn out to test positive and never develop any symptoms, even though that is good for me, it could have been disastrous for someone who is not as young (yes, I know my kids disagree with that) and as healthy as I am.  I would never be able to live with an outcome where my choices caused someone else irreparable harm.

I also understand that there are some in the congregation who would disagree with my assessment of the danger and with some of the precautions that we have taken.  But I am so appreciative of their willingness to go along with those precautions anyway, not because they agreed, but because of their obvious love for their neighbors. That is a testament to their faith and love and a sacrifice that has not gone unnoticed. I hope and pray that each of you know that my love for you is not dependent upon our agreement on any issue or on the interpretation of the “knowledge” that is constantly being thrown about. As Paul says later in 1 Corinthians, “Love never ends.” 

I was intending to just jot down a few brief thoughts, but I guess that I got a little long winded here.  If you have read this far, I will just end with my sincerest thanksgiving for the love and care that I have experienced from the people of St. Paul’s Lutheran and from my clergy friends.  St. Paul was absolutely correct in saying, “Love builds up.”  That is true no matter what we may face now and in the future.  Amen.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Devotional Reflections on Revelation 15:3-4


Special Note:  This will be the last devotional in this series. I have been writing these since the middle of March and feel like I must take a sabbath break.  I apologize for the abruptness of this announcement. However, I believe I have hit the proverbial wall and need some time to regroup.  Hopefully, you have found these helpful over the last few months. 

Before reading the passage, grab a pen and paper, find a quiet place, take a few deep breaths and let them out slowly.  Release some tension with each breath.  God is with you.  God loves you.  God is listening.

We conclude our look at various passages in the New Testament that feature a poetic/hymnic style with this selection from Revelation.

As you read the passage, what are the feelings that are stirred up in you?  What is familiar to you?  What is unfamiliar?  What seems confusing?

Revelation 15:3-4 (NET)
3 They sang the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb:
“Great and astounding are your deeds,
 Lord God, the All-Powerful!
Just and true are your ways,
King over the nations!
4          Who will not fear you, O Lord,
 and glorify your name, because you alone are holy?
All nations will come and worship before you
for your righteous acts have been revealed.”
*Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2005.

Close your eyes and be still for a minute. 

Open your eyes. Write down a few notes about what you observed in the passage and in yourself.  Write down any questions or thoughts that you would like to remember for later. 

Read the passage again with the following in mind.  This song from Revelation has a complicated context.  However, for our purposes, it is enough to focus on the immediate context and the words of the song itself. This is a song of the faithful in the heavens standing beside a sea of glass mixed with fire. This setting reminds us of the Israelites standing upon the shores of the Red Sea in victory during the Exodus.  At that time Moses sang a song of victory and praise to God (Exodus 15:1-18).  Now, a similar song is sung on a cosmic scale beside a cosmic sea.  In this new exodus, all of humanity is being led to salvation by the Lamb (Jesus).   
     
After you have read the passage a second time, close your eyes and be still for a minute. 

Open your eyes. 
   
As you meditate on these verses, think about what is being attributed to God.  Who is the true ruler of the universe?  Who is included as being under God’s rule?  Why is it important that God’s ways are “just and true”? 

This hymn reminds us of God’s rule and care for the people of all nations.  It envisions all of creation under one kingdom, God’s kingdom.  How does this heavenly vision of the nations conflict with how we often view them from our more earthly perspective?  What are some of the teachings of Jesus that can lead us to a more heavenly perspective of the world, the nations, and our neighbors? 

What is the Spirit leading you to pray for today?

Monday, June 29, 2020

Devotional Reflections on 1 Peter 3:17-18

Before reading the passage, grab a pen and paper, find a quiet place, take a few deep breaths and let them out slowly.  Release some tension with each breath.  God is with you.  God loves you.  God is listening.

We continue our look at various passages in the New Testament that feature a poetic/hymnic style with this selection from 1 Peter 3:18. Verse 17 adds a little context for the verse.

As you read the passage, what are the feelings that are stirred up in you?  What is familiar to you?  What is unfamiliar?  What seems confusing?

1 Peter 3:17-18 (NET)
17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if God wills it, than for doing evil.
18        Because Christ also suffered once for sins,
 the just for the unjust,
to bring you to God,
by being put to death in the flesh
but by being made alive in the spirit.
*Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2005.

Close your eyes and be still for a minute. 

Open your eyes. Write down a few notes about what you observed in the passage and in yourself.  Write down any questions or thoughts that you would like to remember for later.
 
Read the passage again with the following in mind. Just like the verse we looked at from 1 Timothy, verse 18 is a statement of belief, possibly a quotation from an early Christian hymn.  Take note of the first word of the verse, “because”.  How does that word relate verse 18 with verse 17?  How is Christ’s suffering related to any suffering that we may endure?     
  
After you have read the passage a second time, close your eyes and be still for a minute. 

Open your eyes.    

Verse 18 reminds us that Christ suffered for sins, but not his own.  He was “the just” who suffered for “the unjust”.  This is a reminder of a very basic Christian teaching that is found throughout the New Testament.  Christ suffered for God’s enemies, for sinners, for the ungodly (Romans 5:6-11).  We do not come to God on our own. Christ brings us to God with his suffering and puts us into a right relationship with him.  Flesh and spirit is not a contrast of two parts within the same person, but a contrast between the whole person’s mortality versus the whole person being made alive eternally through the power of God’s life giving spirit.  In 2 Corinthians 5:4, Paul describes this as “what is mortal” being “swallowed up by life”.

Verse 17 relates all of this to us.  The action that it encourages is that we should do good even if that brings us pain.  Based on verse 18, how do you think “good” is defined in this passage?  For whom are we called to do this good if we are following Christ’s example?  What does that look like for you?  How does it make you feel?

What good is God calling you to do today? 

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Devotional Reflections on 1 Timothy 3:16


Before reading the passage, grab a pen and paper, find a quiet place, take a few deep breaths and let them out slowly.  Release some tension with each breath.  God is with you.  God loves you.  God is listening.

We continue our look at various passages in the New Testament that feature a poetic/hymnic style with this selection from 1 Timothy chapter 3. 

As you read the passage, what are the feelings that are stirred up in you?  What is familiar to you?  What is unfamiliar?  What seems confusing?

1 Timothy 3:16 (NET)
16 And we all agree, our religion contains amazing revelation:
He was revealed in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.
*Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2005.

Close your eyes and be still for a minute. 

Open your eyes. Write down a few notes about what you observed in the passage and in yourself.  Write down any questions or thoughts that you would like to remember for later. 

Read the passage again with the following in mind. Note how the lines can be read in pairs that contrast each other (flesh and Spirit; angels and Gentiles; world and glory).  Also, note that this is creedal statement about Christ, telling the story of his incarnation, resurrection and ascension.     

After you have read the passage a second time, close your eyes and be still for a minute. 

Open your eyes.  
  
Compare this poetic verse with the hymn from Philippians chapter 2 that we read yesterday.  Why is the story of Christ’s incarnation such and “amazing revelation”?  What does it reveal to you about God, the world, Christ and yourself?

What does Jesus’ story have to do with your own story?  How can you proclaim the story of Christ through your own life today? 

Friday, June 26, 2020

Devotional Reflections on Philippians 2:5-11


Before reading the passage, grab a pen and paper, find a quiet place, take a few deep breaths and let them out slowly.  Release some tension with each breath.  God is with you.  God loves you.  God is listening.

We continue our look at various passages in the New Testament that feature a poetic/hymnic style with this selection from Philippians chapter 2. 

As you read the passage, what are the feelings that are stirred up in you?  What is familiar to you?  What is unfamiliar?  What seems confusing?

Philippians 2:5-11 (NET)
5 You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had,
6 who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped,
7 but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature.
8 He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death —even death on a cross!
9 As a result God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow —in heaven and on earth and under the earth—
11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
*Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2005.

Close your eyes and be still for a minute. 

Open your eyes. Write down a few notes about what you observed in the passage and in yourself.  Write down any questions or thoughts that you would like to remember for later. 

Read the passage again with the following in mind. The words translated as “You should have the same attitude” in this passage (touto phroneitehave to do with a mindset or worldview, how one thinks. Paul is urging us to pattern our own ways of thinking about ourselves and others after the example of Jesus Christ.  What characteristics about Jesus are highlighted by the hymn in verses 6 to 11?     

After you have read the passage a second time, close your eyes and be still for a minute. 

Open your eyes.    

What is Christ’s attitude towards himself?  How did that attitude guide his actions in regards to himself and others?  If you can think of one word to describe that attitude, what would it be?  How can you follow his example?  What would that look like in your own life?

Thank Jesus for emptying himself for the sake of the world and for your sake.  Pray for Christ’s attitude to be awakened in you. 

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Devotional Reflections on Romans 3:9-20


Before reading the passage, grab a pen and paper, find a quiet place, take a few deep breaths and let them out slowly.  Release some tension with each breath.  God is with you.  God loves you.  God is listening.

We continue our look at various passages in the New Testament that feature a poetic/hymnic style with this selection from Romans chapter 3.  The quotations in verses 10 through 18 are from several places in the Old Testament (verses 10-12 is a quote from Psalm 14:1-3; verse 13 comes from Psalms 5:9 and 140:3; verse 14 is from Psalm 10:7; verses 15-17 is from Isaiah 59:7-8; and verse 18 is from Psalm 36:1). 

As you read the passage, what are the feelings that are stirred up in you?  What is familiar to you?  What is unfamiliar?  What seems confusing? Also, think about what ties all these quotes (verses 10-18) together and why Paul put them in the order that he did. What effect does the compilation and its order have on you?

Romans 3:9-20 (NET)
9 What then? Are we better off? Certainly not, for we have already charged that Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin,
10 just as it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one,
11 there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned away, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, not even one.”
13 “Their throats are open graves, they deceive with their tongues, the poison of asps is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood,
16 ruin and misery are in their paths,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God.
20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.
*Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2005.

Close your eyes and be still for a minute. 

Open your eyes. Write down a few notes about what you observed in the passage and in yourself.  Write down any questions or thoughts that you would like to remember for later. 

Read the passage again paying special attention to the verses surrounding this compilation of quotes from the Psalms and Isaiah.  How do the quotations support the point that Paul is making, namely that there is no one righteous?  What does Paul mean by the word righteous? And why can’t anyone be declared righteous by the works of the law (Torah)?  

    
After you have read the passage a second time, close your eyes and be still for a minute. 

Open your eyes.    

Verse 20 is instructive for Paul’s understanding of how we might understand and use Torah instruction as followers of Christ. The instruction or law given to the people of Israel does not make one righteous (put us in a right relationship with God and one another).  It can be a mirror that shows us our sins, those things that lead us away from loving God and our neighbors, the two great commandments (Matthew 22:34-40).

The good news is that Christ sets us in a right relationship with God as a gracious gift (Romans 3:24).  That gift is meant to free us from the ways that are illustrated by the quotations in verses 10-18. 

Pray for the Spirit to show you how to better love God and neighbor in your daily life.  Pray for God’s will to be done in your life and in the world.