Monday, January 14, 2013

Romans #4

I am slowly getting the Bible Study summaries for the Romans study that took place through the summer and fall of 2012 written up - my goal is one a week. Apologies for the delay. Here is the fourth in the series...

Romans #4                                                                                                                         08/17/12

Chapter 6 of Romans gives two key metaphors for the Christian life- death and slavery. Both attempt to illustrate a radically transformed desire.

The chapter starts with the question “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” That is, what is to stop me sinning if all is now grace? This is human thinking--in response to absolute free of gift of God's love--and Paul grapples with it. Paul answers that those who die to sin cannot go on living in it. You have completely changed. When you die your old will is overcome. We die in order to live in newness – the life of the resurrection. We identify with Christ’s death – allowing that loving, life-giving, life-filled death to enter. Baptism is the symbol of this. It is total body metaphor for dying so that we might then “walk in newness of life” (v.4). Hope in the resurrection takes the fear out of death.

“Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace”. In other words, it's not a matter of "doing what you like," but a totally new way of human existence and the best metaphor for that is actually death-then-life.

Paul then asks again “Then should we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” If there is no more morality, if we have total freedom, then what stops us from sinning with impunity? Paul answers the same question with another metaphor: we have exchanged one kind of slavery for another. You have to serve somebody. Mimesis is inescapable. But now your enslaved old world self has become enslaved in a new way. We have become “slaves of righteousness”. Instead of the law we have a completely different way of relating in love. As Augustine said “love and do what you will”. Worldly freedom is just another form of slavery and oppression, ending in death. In contrast, being enslaved to God gives eternal life. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”.

Chapter 5:12-21 is a piece of tortured writing in which Paul tries to explain something new. To do it he makes a comparison of Adam and Jesus and discusses the relationship between sin, law and justification. This passage has been used as a basis for the doctrine of original sin – a doctrine that the Jews don’t have. The doctrine of original sin is that we are all born with a deficiency inside of us that puts us in God’s disfavor. Augustine believed that, as a result, anyone not baptized and therefore put right with God, will be condemned to hell. This led to the pressure to get infants baptized.

It is important to realize that this passage can only be read retrospectively. Verse 14 is the key verse: “Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come”. The word for “type” comes from the Greek word for “pattern” - from cylinders with engravings on them that could be used to imprint and produce a repeated mark or type. The way Paul writes it, Christ is the repeated mark of Adam. But that would make Adam original and Christ derivative, whereas it is the figure of Christ who has changed everything and is therefore original. Thus in fact Christ is the original, the pattern of humanity that allows us--retrospectively--to understand Adam. Christ must be understood first so that we can then understand Adam. The new logic comes from Christ. We wouldn’t know about the old humanity unless there was a new humanity in Christ. Adam only becomes understood as the “type” of our (old) humanity because of the new humanity shown to us by Christ. If interpreters had hung on to this order--of the in-breaking of the new--they would not have seen everything in such legal terms--Adam's fault to be compensated and put right by Christ.

Genesis warned that death would come from sin and Romans says this in fact happened (5:12). But then Paul says that sin is not reckoned when there is no law (v.13) so in some way we must have inherited death from Adam (who sinned). But Paul never says we inherited his sin. In fact he states plainly "death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam" (v.14, my italics). All have sinned so therefore all will die. But we only know we have sinned through/because of the Law. If there isn’t any Law then there is no reckoning that we have sinned. Therefore Adam has to be responsible for our death, but only in terms of a comparison with Christ. Paul is only interested in setting up a view of two humanities (two anthropologies), not a specific chain of causality. In this sense Adam is simply a metaphor, a corporate figure, for all humanity.

In respect of the Law, it only becomes a problem after Christ – now, with him as contrast, we can see it makes things worse. The Law condemns. The Law in trying to deal with sin actually results in death. Christ is the new thing. But the free gift is not like the old thing – the trespass. What comes is not just more of the same – but something very different. In Christ there is no condemnation, no barriers. There are two logics at work. The old logic is one of condemnation and opposition grounded in the Law. The new logic seeks to set us free from this old enslaved humanity. “But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (5:20-21). It is because of Jesus and the gift of grace and life he brings us that we can begin to understand and to see that we were imprisoned precisely by the Law.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Romans study #3

Romans #3                                                                          08/10/12

Campbell gives us a starting point at Romans 1:17 in which Paul quotes scripture for the first time in the letter. “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith, as it is written “the one who is righteous will live by faith”. This is from Habakkuk 2:1-4: 

“I will stand at my watch post, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. Then the Lord answered me and said: write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith”.

In the Greek version of the Old Testament the word for faith is “pistis”. It can mean either faith or faithfulness.  In the context of the passage in Habakkuk the translation of faithfulness seems to fit much better. The passage is about waiting, hanging on for the appointed time.

Campbell argues that pistis in Romans 1:17 should be translated as “faithfulness”. This changes its meaning. It no longer has a contractual sense but instead refers to deliverance through Jesus’ faithfulness. Faith needs an object, something we choose to believe in. Faithfulness is a condition, a way of being. Looking at the whole of v. 17 we see "in (the gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith...” Faith alone, our response or acceptance of something, cannot reveal anything. Only Jesus, his gospel and faithfulness, can reveal something. Even semantically, therefore the translation of pistis as faithfulness makes more sense. It is only faithfulness, and specifically Jesus’ faithfulness as the righteous one, that can reveal God’s action in the world.

Chapter 5, the beginning of Paul’s gospel, is divided into two sections. The first part is vv 1-11. It is written in the Rabbinic style which can make it somewhat hard for modern readers. It begins “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” (V1-2).  If understood in legal justification terms this reads as though even though we are guilty we got off on a technicality! All we have to do is accept the deal God has worked out for us in Jesus. Campbell argues for a different interpretation. Campbell replaces the words “justified” with “delivered” or “rescued,” and pistis as “faithfulness”. In chapter 4:3 Paul quotes the scriptures: “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”. Righteousness here means deliverance by God. It is not a legal thing, rather it is relational. The context is asserting the unilateral, gift-character of what God does. Abraham is brought to a completely different place with God through an unconditional relationship of trust. Ultimately this grace is for all, the circumcised and uncircumcised alike, as was promised to Abraham.

By understanding pistis as “faithfulness” the meaning of the Romans text changes from humanity being saved through our personal faith or belief in Jesus into our deliverance through Christ’s faithfulness. This seems to make more sense. Justification through faith would make it dependent on our act – our decision to accept or reject belief. Deliverance through Christ’s faithfulness is an act solely of divine grace for the whole of humanity.

In 5:1 Paul says “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” and later in verse 9 Paul says “Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God”.

According to Campbell these are literary doublets – different ways of saying the same thing. How can we be justified both by the blood of Jesus and our own faith? It does not seem to make sense. Rather Paul refers here to the faithfulness and blood of Jesus. Both terms are in fact metonyms for Christ's cross and passion. For Paul, Jesus was everything and the translation of pistis as Jesus’ “faithfulness” rather than our human faith seems to fit much better. 

The Greek word for wrath (orge) can be translated as “violence” giving it a more contemporary sense. The word appears in a particular way in the first three chapters of Romans much of which Campbell ascribes to the “Teacher”. In these chapters he talks of the wrath of God. From Chapter 4 onwards (in the part of Romans that Campbell ascribes as Paul’s response to the “Teacher”) it is just “the wrath”. Most translations of the New Testament continue to add “of God” even though it is not present in the Greek. (There is no “of God” in 1 Thesalonians 2:16 either – yet most translations add it in.) Paul divorces wrath from God. “The wrath” when disassociated from God becomes the violence of the world, the human systems in which we live. Wrath is understood as a human, historical phenomenon. Chapters 5 -8 are Paul’s Gospel. In them Paul describes God’s unilateral eruptive love in the world that changes how it is to be human. His deliverance is unconditional. This is no wrathful God. Paul is arguing against the Teacher’s message.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Romans Study #2

Here is the next summary in our series on the book of Romans.
We have been using The Deliverance of God. An Apocalyptic Re-reading of Justification in Paul by Douglas Campbell (2009) as a background text in this study.

Romans #2                                                                                          8/3/12
Paul was the first to formulate a systematic Christian theology. It may not be systematically presented but it's clear he is connecting a global set of topics, attempting to articulate the radicalism of the gospel. He was confronting powerful obstacles – the greatest of which was the attempt to keep Christianity as a Jewish sect under Jewish Law. Within 15 years Christianity had become established in the non-Jewish world, all the way to Rome. It had broken from the temple but many Christians were still living under the Jewish Law. The new movement needed to stay connected to the person of Jesus and the community of original disciples in Judea to maintain its authority – however, Paul recognized the need to break free from the constraints of the Law. At times he was a lone voice facing the opposition of the most powerful figures in the movement. 

Romans, Paul’s key text, has inspired numerous commentaries and is used by theologians to underpin their understanding of the meaning of Christ’s death and to develop their theology of justification. One of these is Douglas Campbell, whose recent book interpreting Paul’s theology around the topic of justification, we are using in this study. Another example of note is Ernst Kasemann who was a disciple of Rudolph Bultmann. Bultmann had a huge impact on the 20th century, and was himself a disciple of Heidegger. Bultmann demythologized the New Testament. He removed what he identified as the mythological or miraculous elements of the Gospels. Following in his footsteps the Jesus Seminar  determined that about over 80% of the Gospel words attributed to Jesus were generated by the early Church. They were stories written to help address Church needs.
Kasemann was a German theologian in the 1960s who took a differnet approach to that of his teacher. He was trying to make sense of the failure of the Church (with a few exceptions) to stand up to Hitler. Kasemann believed that the evangelical theology of his day, Luther’s contractual,  individualist understanding of justification by faith, was inadequate. Something  more incisive was needed. Kasemann turned to an apocalyptic theology of God's power – that God is taking a hand in things, making a move to change history. In a world of conflict, in which evil powers and principalities dominate, God chooses not to leave the world untouched. Other theologians have carried the argument about Romans in other areas. For example, Krister Stendahl argued against the strict contractual, substitutionary interpretation of Romans and the rampant individualism on which it was based .

Campbell says that there is something deeply implausible about justification theory. That is, because it depends upon a decision that I make, a contract I accept, it becomes something that I do – another form of works. It is contingent, i.e. continuous with the world in which we already exist and think. Campbell does not think that this was Paul’s meaning. That in fact Romans has been misread and misunderstood. Paul had an apocalyptic not a contractual understanding of Christ’s death. Something radically new is in the world.
Campbell  argues that chapters 1-4 of Romans – the chapters that focus on the judgment/wrath of God – are not really presenting Paul’s theology. Instead Paul is quoting somebody else. This person is an anonymous figure, a leader in the Roman Church,  whom Campbell names "The Teacher”. This Teacher says that God is coming to judge us all punitively, a God of wrath. He advocates the need for Christians to live under the Jewish Law. Campbell says that these chapters of Romans  are written in a technical form common at that time called a “diatribe”. In this style of writing one argument is presented and then the counter-argument follows. It is a method by which a particular individual’s thought is first presented--often by speech-in-person--then crushed.  Chapters 1-4 are the diatribe. Chapters 5-8 are Paul’s authentic theology, without this kind of back-and-forth. These chapters describe a breaking in, a revelation of God’s loving move in history. This is Paul’s apocalyptic, redemptive gospel. The person carrying the letter from Paul would have been expected to read it aloud, probably with "stage directions" in mind. People at that time would have been familiar with this style of writing. Over time the text has been misinterpreted – understood as a single voice.

Campbell  renders the word “justification” as “deliverance”. The word “flesh” (sarx)  can be understood as the human worldly systems of generative violence rather than the way it has often been understood in the past as “body” (and often sexuality). For Paul the human body is important and will be transformed. In fact, Galatians 5:16-21 lists the works of the flesh, and these are mostly forms of violence. This generative violence is revealed to us by Christ – that we are enslaved and unable to free ourselves from our state. We think that this is normal but only by becoming free of it can we see it. Any knowledge of the problem is grounded in the revelation of the solution. The crucifixion is a revelation of love and the means of our deliverance. The old Adam, the old way of being human, is terminated – Jesus is the template of a new humanity. Incredible divine love from outside our human system, breaks in, terminates the old order, and we are reconstituted through love. This is fundamentally a transformational not a legal action. An apocalyptic intervention that shakes the foundation. Baptism is a sign of this new thing. Contractual justification does not work – we need deliverance or rescue. And this deliverance is pure grace.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Romans #1

This is the first summary of a new study on the Letter of Paul to the Romans - Linda

Romans #1                                                                                      07/27/12

Romans is a key book of the New Testament and considered Paul’s most important letter. Luther’s re-reading of Romans led to the Protestant reformation. Luther was an Augustinian friar, who had a crisis of faith. He was particularly sensitive to the dominant belief in Christendom of a wrathful God, and then the associated trade in indulgences put him over the edge. Indulgences arose out of the violence of the crusades – a way for knights to get out of their vow to go to Jerusalem and fight. Their vow with its associated indulgence (remission of sins) was exchanged for a monetary payment. Quickly the practice spread to all levels of the church and even to the dead. It became a system in which a wrathful God was paid off and the Church made money. Luther ran in horror from the altar at his first mass. He turned to the Greek translation of the New Testament that had just been made available by Erasmus. He was able to read for the first time the New Testament in its original language. Different words stood out with a resonance not found in the Latin text.

In Romans he read about “justification by faith”. For Luther justification meant not going to hell when you die and not having to fear a God who would send you there because now, in this life, God already counted you righteous. Justification came directly from God and was received by the individual. It offered liberation from the oppressive series of exchanges, the spiritual currency, mediated by the Catholic Church to protect you from damnation. Luther’s theology doesn’t do away with retribution or a violent, wrathful God, because Jesus pays the penalty in our stead. God’s justice has not been abandoned – but it is all loaded on Jesus. He takes the whole hellish rap for all of us. Justification by faith remains contractual thinking. The Protestant reformation replaces a contract between God and the spiritual banks of the Catholic Church with a contract between God and the individual. Any sin, however small, remains an infinite offense. The punishment that should have fallen on us is unleashed upon Christ, so that we are now in the clear. God wants this end – but the means is terrifying!

Backing up, we can understand Romans as the letter Paul wrote to address the biggest crisis of his time. It remains a paradigm of how to respond to the theological crisis of any time – the meaning of Christ in our world. Romans will always be at the center of the argument. It shows someone grappling with a problem and finding expression to work through it. Today a new major work on the theology of justification and faith found on Romans has emerged, Douglas Campbell’s The Deliverance of God, An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul.

In general terms Paul’s problem was his struggle to lift emerging Christianity out of the realm of the Jewish law, and in Romans, according to Campbell, to combat the influence of a dominant teacher in the Christian community in Rome. Christianity had emerged as a splinter group of Judaism. The Jews had had the Law for a thousand years and many influential Christians at that time seemed to want to hang on to it. When the Christian message reached the Gentile world these Jewish Christians wanted the Gentile believers to be circumcised. The Law was a guarantee of God’s faithfulness. Paul, in Galatians, says that Christians have no need to keep circumcision and, by implication, the kosher dietary laws. At times he was a lonely voice. It was only because he held out for his belief that Christianity emerged as it did.

The basic premise of Campbell’s reinterpretation of Paul is that in the book of Romans Paul is not talking about a contract – not even a choice made within our heart. It is not a decision or an entity to be bargained for. Rather it is a single apocalyptic event that breaks into human history. Something dramatically new. It is a God given event that has taken place and that we are invited to enter into and which transforms you. Christ changes all the terms – everything. Romans is all about an apocalyptic redemption. You relate to it through faith. Not “I’m saved” but instead “I’m radically different”. It is an event of grace, God’s unilateral, exclusively loving movement into the world. The teacher in Rome had not seen this radically new thing; instead he insisted on God's wrath coming upon sin. Christ's action was an additional atonement for sin but it did not change the basic equation of law, sin and punishment. In other words, nothing has fundamentally changed. Justification theory has labored under this misreading of Paul, and in consequence the later argument of Romans chapters 5 to 8 makes no sense.

There was a large Jewish community in Rome and Christianity had been established there within at least 15 years of Jesus’ death. This is backed up by external evidence. Around 49 AD Aquila and Priscilla were among Jews expelled from Rome by Claudius and met Paul in Corinth (Acts 18:2). A contemporary Roman historian, Suetonius, speaks of riots among the Jews inspired by a character called “Chrestos” and this being the reason for the expulsion. The Romans had very little previous experience of the word “Christos” which means “the anointed/oiled one,” and it is thought the controversial factor could be Christianity, which provoked the disturbance. And that would imply a sizeable community presence. Later, in 63-64 AD, the Christians had become a significant minority – large enough to catch the attention of Nero - who blamed then persecuted them.

It seems very likely that the Roman Church had links with the Jerusalem Church. They were a traditional community with Jewish roots. Paul wanted to go there. He was afraid that they were on the wrong track and he wanted to make sure his version prevailed. His opening remarks in the letter to Romans are polite. This contrasts with his earlier letter to the Galatians which is often seen as the prelude to Romans. Galatians seeks to address the same problem of the Law – but his approach there is more direct and forceful. In Gal 2:11-14 Paul describes meeting with Peter in Antioch. Paul “opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned” (v. 11). He says that until representatives from James (the brother of Jesus and the leader of the Jerusalem Church) intervened, Peter used to eat with the Gentiles. After pressure from the James group he withdrew and kept himself separate. Peter follows the crowd and Paul calls him a hypocrite. If Peter has lived like a Gentile then how can he insist that Gentiles live like Jews (that is, having to be circumcised and obey the dietary laws)?

Galatians 2: 15-21 is almost the argument of Romans in a nutshell. It is Christ, living within us, that justifies us. It is the faith of Christ that makes me faithful. For Paul, the Law is too hard for anyone to keep. If you fail in one instance, you fail completely. The very prohibition of desire in the Law (10th commandment) makes it as Law impossible – you cannot prohibit desire you can only transform it. In Chapter 3 Paul uses the example of Abraham. Abraham is a model of faithfulness. Abraham’s faithfulness heralded God’s solution to the human problem, for all the tribes of the earth.. Jesus fulfills the promise given to Abraham – blessing all of his descendants – both Jew and Gentile.

Paul stood up to the chief of the apostles and to the brother of the Lord. He had established the Church in Galatia, and therefore he had some measure of authority there. The Church in Rome was different. He had much less power – advancing his argument from a huge distance to a community unknown to him and one with an established “teacher”. This “teacher”, a leader of the Roman church, was promoting adherence to the Jewish Law.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Conversations with God #2

Conversations with God #2                 07/20/12
This is a summary of the study that took place last Friday

Jesus' Conversation with God

Theresa of Avila said that the only way to discover Jesus’ divinity is through his humanity. Jesus was fully a man. He had to learn the same way as us - went through everything we do. In Mt 11:25-30 we get a glimpse of how Jesus understood himself and his role. This passage has been described as “a thunderbolt from the Johannine heavens” because it seems to fit in more with the Gospel of John than with the Synoptics.

Jesus begins by thanking his Father “Because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” Jesus, in addressing God as Father, already signals the trustful and intimate relationship he feels between himself and God. God’s Wisdom has been hidden from those who have been trained – from the scribes and those who have received the standard teaching. Instead it has been revealed to the illiterate and unlearned. Those like little children – the unformed. Those with already formed ideas and established ideas are not going to get it.

Jesus continues by saying “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him”.

When we have a conversation with God – how do we come in to the presence of God? In our study the following responses to this question were given:

    • Humble petitioner, a peanut, aware of my own smallness.
    • Hopeful
    • Trusting in Jesus’ love – that I will not feel put down
    • Aware that I am a work in progress

Some of these responses are already conditioned by the positive relationship from Jesus, but we can still see gaps and lack in our communication with God. Jesus feels that everything has been handed over to him by God! None of us thinks anything like this.

The verses in Matthew echo key passages in the Old Testament. In Daniel 7 there is the figure of “One like a son of man” to whom all dominion is given. Jesus often refers to himself as “Son of Man”. Also in this discourse Jesus appears to identify with the person of Wisdom. (c.f Mt 11:18-19). Wisdom was with God in the beginning, before the beginning of creation (Proverbs 8:22-23). Again there is an implied intimate confidence between Jesus and the Father, signaled by the figure of Wisdom. Job 28:12-23 asks where wisdom can be found. “Where then does wisdom come from? And where is the place of understanding? It is hidden from the eyes of all living, and concealed from the birds of the air….God understands the way to it, and he knows its place”. Wisdom extends beyond human competence and knowledge. Only God knows it intimately and completely.

At the baptism of Jesus the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus like a dove and a voice from heaven proclaims “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17). This brings to mind the Suffering/Nonviolent Servant of Isaiah 42:1, “My servant whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations”. The Greek word pais used in the Greek translation of Isaiah can mean both "servant" and "son. The words of love and pleasure recall the Servant verse and suggest Jesus' baptism experience was one associated with the Nonviolent Servant. (Matthew associates Jesus directly with this Servant passage at 12:18-19.)

Jesus studied the Scriptures which enabled him to appropriate for himself these motifs of Wisdom, Servant and Son of Man and gave him the language to express his relationship with God. The intimate relationship must have already have been present. This relationship represents a categorical human breakthrough. In his spirit and in his mind there is no separation or hostility from the Father. He has a consciousness free from the darkness of God that remains in the rest of us. He is the first person free of violence in his relationship with the father. A relationship totally transformed. It is into this relationship that he invites us in the Spirit.
*Note in the previous weeks to this study we contrasted the conversations with God of Jeremiah and the Suffering/Nonviolent Servant of Isaiah. It is evident that Jesus' conversations lay much closer in character to the latter's. "Morning by morning he wakens--wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward" (50:4-5).

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Conversations with God #1

Here is the first Bible Study summary of a short series on the theme Conversations with God.
- Linda

Conversation with God #1                        6/22/12

Genesis 12 is where the story of Abraham begins. It follows the first eleven chapters of Genesis which include the chapter-one creation story, and the five primeval histories (Eden, Cain & Abel, Giants, Flood, Babel). These primeval stories set out to diagnose the human problem. The first pure note of hope about a solution to the problem comes in Chapter 12.

In Genesis 11:27 – the end of a two chapter genealogy – we first hear of Abram, son of Terah, immigrants from Ur in Chaldea (modern day Iraq) who has settled in Haran (modern day Syria).

In Chapter 12:1-3 the Lord calls Abram “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”.

This promise of blessing is a pivotal contrast to the chaos of the prehistories. The idea of blessing appears first in chapter one of Genesis in the creation story. It implies fruitfulness, non-violence, life and peace. The curse in contrast is an absence of these things. The blessing is for all the people of the earth intended right from the beginning and realized in Abraham. Through Abraham all the tribes of the earth (listed already in the genealogies) will be blessed. Abraham’s name is indeed considered great today (part of the promise) in that he is held to be the father of the three main monotheistic religions of the world - Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

While the blessing is universal, the story starts with a single individual. This is a very human way of relating. It is not a call to adopt a program or manifesto - it is a call to relationship and to love. It is the blessing given to an individual that will bring love into the whole world. The United States has championed the ideal of individual freedom and self-determination. This often leads to selfishness and hedonism. The most difficult act of individual freedom is to love.

In Genesis 15 we have the continuing narrative of God’s covenant with Abram. God promises him a child after many barren years and through this child, countless descendants and the Promised Land. God tells Abram to bring him several sacrificial animals which he cuts in two and lays upon the ground. As night falls, Abraham falls into a sacred sleep – dark, deep and terrifying. A smoking pot and a flaming torch (symbols of the presence of the divine) pass between the pieces. God is symbolically saying that if his covenant with Abraham is broken he will call down the same violence visited upon the animals upon himself. This is an unbreakable covenant in which Abraham does not have to do anything but believe. But God puts himself at risk of the terrible human practice of violence.

The narrative continues in Chapter 18 with the story of the three angels (artistically represented in the Rublyev icon, The Trinity). It is this story that expresses most powerfully the heart and depth of the theology of the covenant. It begins with Abraham meeting three strangers by the oaks of Mamre. He offers them hospitality – water and food. Then they promise the birth of a son within the year, a conversation Sarah overhears. She laughs in disbelief at such an unexpected, implausible and ridiculous promise. The three men then turn towards Sodom and Gomorrah. Sodom and Gomorrah were places of brutality and oppression to the stranger. The theme is a common one in the Old Testament – the outcry of the oppressed toward God and the Lord’s response. The Lord hears Abel’s blood crying from the ground and the cry of his people in the land of Egypt. The Lord has heard the cry of the victims in Sodom and Gomorrah and is seeking to bring about a violent, righteous vengeance.

The text gives us the imagined psychological process within God. “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” he decides that he cannot hide his plan from Abraham because of the covenant he has just made. “No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him” (v.19). He tells Abraham because Abraham is the key to the universal blessing. The covenant makes God vulnerable to humanity – it opens the space that allows humans to be part of the decision making process. The Yahwist (the story’s author) presents this as indecision in God – but the reality is that it is our own understanding of God that changes. The story shows God now vulnerable to the compassion of Abraham, but God chose him precisely for this task--to plead for humanity. Thus the overall story is a subtle meditation on a deeper sense of God. God is entirely vulnerable and committed to human history. The story tells us God can only be God when we ourselves change how we are and how we see him. Full revelation comes in Jesus who says that no-one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom he reveals him. It is when we see Jesus who died non-violently on the cross that we begin to see the Father’s true self.

Abraham bargains with the Lord for Sodom and Gomorrah. His compassion undermines God’s vengeance so that God is willing to consider changing his actions for the sake of even ten righteous people (V.32). Abraham becomes a model to God of compassion and forgiveness. This is the reason that Abraham is our father in faith – not because he is our physical ancestor but because of what he did and believed. Meanwhile, at the end of the story, God does destroy Sodom violently because that was the dominant version of events and the writer could only subtly undermine or deconstruct it.

At its heart Abraham’s story gives us the first glimpse of a God open to compassion. It gives a window into the heart of God. Too often our understanding of God mirrors our own violence. Abraham shows us that the only way to change the way we see God is through forgiveness – anything else returns us to the old, violent vengeful God. It is this compassion that will bring about the universal blessing promised to Abraham. It is Abraham's compassion, along with his faith, that constitutes his righteousness.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Lord's Prayer #4

In this study we re-wrote the Lord's prayer after reflecting on the previous three week's of study. Here is what we came up with...

The Lord's Prayer #4 - a Wood Hath Hope re-writing of the Lord's Prayer

Our Abba in the heavens

May everyone know you by that tender name

May your love transform this earth and the whole universe

Give us today the bread that will bring about your new tomorrow

Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors and

Forgive our violence to others as we forgive the violence done to us.

Protect us from being brought to our breaking point

By the trials and temptations of the world.

And set us free from the power of the accuser and the evil it brings.