Thursday, November 5, 2009

Join the Feast is Taking a Break

We appreciate your readership for Join the Feast in the past year. After November 15, 2009, we will cease publication for a while. However, please check back in the future. Look for us to resume publication and hope you will join the feast.

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November 15, 2009 - Mark 13:1-8 - Charlie Summers

Gleanings from the Text
Mark 13:1-8

When it comes to apocalyptic Scriptures, there seem to be two kinds of people. There are those who love to dig around in the symbols in order to find the “secret messages,” and those who skip over these texts as quickly as possible. But surely there is something useful here, some word we need to hear other than “hidden secrets.”

You know the setting. Jesus and his disciples (who are mostly small town guys) come into Jerusalem. The disciples are very impressed with the temple, its grand architecture and its seeming permanence. (Though this is the second temple, it has already been destroyed once in its history. This one was rebuilt by Herod the Great in 19 BC. Matthew says this same Herod killed the children of Bethlehem.) Mark routinely shows that the disciples do not quite get the point of this Jesus. They are still impressed with the “big things” – temples, crowds, and important people. While Jesus talks to them about an upside down kingdom of mustards seeds, children, and crosses. The theology of the cross is presented in this chapter in a different key.

In this apocalyptic passage in Mark, Jesus offers two warnings to his easily impressed disciples. “Take heed that no one lead you astray.” “Take heed…when they bring you to trial.” There is suffering ahead for the community and for the disciples. They are warned not to let the suffering be an excuse to chase off after phony solutions and false messiahs (we might say quick fixes).

They are warned not to lose heart. There will be wars and rumors of wars. There will be stacked courtrooms, rigged trials, persecution for the church as there will be for the Messiah. The reader is warned that trouble comes to the world, and to those who follow the Way of Jesus.

But there is also a promise. “Do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say (when you are before the rulers), but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.” This rare promise of the Spirit in Mark’s gospel is given to those who suffer for their faith; who testify to their Lord. “The one who endures to the end will be saved.” There is a promise of help in our time of distress.

Food for Thought

What happens when our “great buildings” come tumbling down? There is an opportunity in this passage to think about our catastrophes: Hurricane Katrina; September 9/11; the collapse of the stock market; the collapse of a marriage. When we enter into an apocalyptic time, what do we hear God saying to us? How do we trust in the Holy Spirit when things are falling apart all around us?

There is also the opportunity to ask when is it that we are willing to suffer for the sake of this Jesus. What do we know about a witness to the faith that leads to our persecution? What do we learn from the voices of the persecuted church in other parts of the world or in other ages?

I usually connect Mark 13 with the first Sunday of Advent. What difference does it make when we read it during the “Thanksgiving Season” in November? Or during our Stewardship season in the congregation? Where are we placing our trust? What rock are we building upon? What cost of discipleship are we willing to bear?

Sink Your Teeth into This

Elie Wiesel in his book Memoirs: All Rivers Lead to the Sea talks about his childhood in Eastern Europe and the suffering of the Jews even before the Nazis came. His rabbi used to say, “Abraham, the first of the patriarchs, was a better Jew than you. He was a thousand times better than all of us, but the Midrash tells us that he was cast into a burning furnace. So how do you expect to breeze through life without a scratch? Daniel was wiser than you and more pious, yet he was condemned to die in a lion’s den. And you dream of living your life without suffering?” (p.19)

Biographical Information

Charlie Summers is pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Richmond, Virginia.

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October 25, 2009 – Mark 10:46-52 - J. Richard Short

Gleanings from the Text
Mark 10:46-52

Blind beggar. By the side of the road. Scolded by crowd for asking Jesus for mercy.

Jesus stops. “What do you want me to do for you?”

Interesting question. Bartimaus has already told Jesus what he wants. Twice. He wants Jesus to have mercy on him. To show him some pity.

But Jesus senses that there is more that Bartimaus wants. Or needs. So Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?” Can you be more specific?

Food for Thought

One way to do church renewal is to ask the community, as the body of Christ, ”What do you want us to do for you?” It’s called identifying the community’s felt needs.

The critics of this approach say that if your congregational strategy stops at meeting felt needs, you end up with self centered Christians who are in church only for what the church can do for them, rather than what they can do for Christ. Maybe identifying and meeting felt needs is only the first step of a multiple step process.

The text suggests that the second step is following Jesus. That’s what Bartimaus did. He went from being by the side of the road, to being on the road, following Jesus. If we stop here, this is a story about making a new disciple. Identifying and meeting felt needs, and the person, having his or her needs met, decides to follow Jesus.

Let me tell you about Steve, an Episcopal priest in a small county seat town in Louisiana. Steve was all about having his church met felt needs in the 1980’s and 90’s. They started with a LOGOS ministry on Wednesday afternoons, and that grew so much that they decided to start an elementary school, and that grew so much they decided to start a high school.

But something happened to Steve in the midst of his “success” as a minister. One day, in his prayers, he heard Jesus say to him, “Steve, what do you want me to do for you?” The question startled him. He was not ready for it. So he responded, “Lord, I don’t need anything from you. I just want to something for you.” But Jesus ignored his protestations, and replied, “Steve, what do you want me to do for you?”

Since that encounter, Steve turned his ministry around. The outward success of that parish continued, but not because of what Steve was doing. He shifted to working on people’s spiritual growth, on their relationship with the living Lord.

So maybe there is a third step in this process. The first step is to meet people where they are and to help them with their presenting issues. To meet their felt needs.

The second step is to help them see the joy of being a disciple and in following Jesus.
The third step is a revisiting of the first step but at a deeper level, when the fully devoted disciples of Christ get into giving so much that they lose sight of the source of the giving.

Sink Your Teeth Into This

A pastor went to his mentor crestfallen. After two rough pastorates, he had just been asked to leave his third church. In tears he blurted out, “All I ever wanted was to be used by God.” His mentor replied, “My friend, don’t you understand that Jesus doesn’t want to use you. Jesus just wants to love you.”

Jesus says to Bartimaus, and to my friend Steve, and to the recently fired pastor, and I suggest, to us, “What do you want me to do for you?”

What really, deep down, do you want Jesus to do for you? Get you a Cadillac? Help you in my marriage or child raising or money management? Is that what you really want? Or do you want a closer walk with the living Lord? Think about it.

Biographical Information

J. Richard Short is General Presbyter of The Presbytery of Eastern Virginia.

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

October 25, 2009 - Hebrews 7:23-28 - Mairi Renwick

Gleanings from the Text
Hebrews 7:23-28

Hebrews. Who exactly are the “Hebrews?” Is the book of Hebrews written to a group of Hebrew people? While the exact identity of this group is still uncertain, there are some conclusions that we can draw with relative certainty. For instance, Hebrews, though often referred to as an epistle, is more like a sermon written in a Rabbinic style and written between 60-100 AD. One can also draw the conclusion that the writer of Hebrews is writing to a group who is in need of some type of description of who Jesus is and why one should hold on to Christianity. In Hebrews 5:1-10 Jesus is described as a high priest.

After reading the pericope a few questions pop to mind about the Scripture. For me the first one is who in the world is Melchizedek? Melchizedek is only mentioned a couple of times in the Old Testament. Then he is mentioned again in Hebrews 7. Melchizedek’s appearance seems somewhat random, but the author is clearly trying to use the priest Melchizedek as a person who anticipated Christ as a high priest. I do not think though, he is a crucial part of understanding this pericope. A high priest, which is clear from the reading, is an intermediary between God and humans. By using a chiastic form, the author of Hebrews wants to show listeners and today’s readers that Jesus is not just a regular high priest, but THE high priest who has all the qualifications plus more!

Food for Thought

As I look at this short pericope, Jesus’ humanity sticks out like a sore thumb. Jesus is being compared to a human with human emotions! However, one cannot ignore that Jesus does more than the normal priest. Jesus can feel our pain and can sympathize with us since he was human, but he, unlike mortal priests, was not a sinner. He does not have to repeatedly give sacrifices to God for our sins but is the last sacrifice for our sins. No longer do we need a person to be a ‘go between’ for us and God, because Jesus changed the relationship between us and God when he died.

Since we can go directly to God, we, like Jesus, can cry out to God when we are in pain. But what do we do when our pain does not go away and God does not grant what we wish? Jesus’ cries were heard, but God did not take away death from him. Ultimately, as Christians we must remember that God is in control and while we are in pain, we can cry out as much as we want. If God is able to raise Jesus from the dead, God can undoubtedly take care of us now—though it may not be in the manner we want.

God is hearing and listening to our cries and has a plan for us all. For, just as Jesus and the priests were chosen by God, we are chosen in some way to serve.

I am guessing that many readers of JTF are connected to Union-PSCE and have decided to serve the Lord through ministry. However, what do we do when we become uncertain about what God has chosen us to do? When we are certain about what we should do, it can be a comfort to know God has a plan. Yet, when we feel confused, do we feel comforted when we are reminded that God has a plan? Do we cry out and think we are heard?

Sink your teeth into this!

As I have been in seminary, I have constantly wondered is this where God wants me? What am I supposed to be doing? I have literally cried to God, asking him to guide me and to answer me straightly about what I am to do with my life. I still do not know what to do. However, I do know God has heard me cry and cares for me. God has chosen a path for me and has chosen me, Mairi, one person in the whole creation, to serve the Creator. God has also chosen you, one person in the whole creation to serve, too.

Biographical Information

Mairi Renwick is in her second year at Union-PSCE. She grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, but also claims Spartanburg, South Carolina as home. She is the daughter of a preacher and never thought that God’s plans for her would have her writing a devotion for a seminary, let alone attending seminary.

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Sunday, October 4, 2009

October 4, 2009 - Job 1:1, 2:1-10 - Catherine Devins

Gleanings from the Text
Job 1:1, 2:1-10

The book of Job challenges the social justice system promoted in the preceding book of Proverbs. Job is a folktale that speaks an alternative reality. The setting is far from the familiar context of Israel, in “the land of Uz.” This distance helps to transport us to a place where a new perspective and reality may be possible—away from the moral certitudes, the absolutes and predictable God of Proverbs or our own time and place.

The main character is Job, a man who is “blameless and upright” (v.1). Job epitomizes a life of integrity and piety and has been blessed accordingly. A heavenly courtroom debate is about to change all that and discredit conventional ethical explanations. We are introduced to God and satan—more appropriately understood as “accuser” or “adversary.” God praises Job’s loyalty and respect as “the greatest of all the people” (v.3). The accuser challenges God by questioning the motive for Job’s behavior. Is Job’s piety only a consequence of all his blessings? Satan suggests a test: Take everything away from Job and see if that doesn’t make him curse God to God’s face!

Job denies the accuser satisfaction. In his grief for all that he has lost, Job utters that famous phrase: “the Lord gave; and the Lord has taken away” (v.21) and then he blesses God. Not satisfied, the accuser reasons that a man will give all he has, but there are limits when it comes to his own life. This time the test is to inflict loathsome sores over Job’s entire body. Surely then he will curse God. In misery, Job settles into the ashes and scrapes his wounds. Mrs. Job suddenly appears and decries the injustice of the situation: “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God and die” (2:9). Job chastises his wife, but the thought lingers and later, Job expresses the same anguished perspective with his friends and with God.

Food for Thought

• In ancient culture, Mrs. Job belongs in the category of Job’s property and yet she survives the first test. Her role in the story is to incite Job to challenge old complacencies and perceptions of God. Mrs. Job is often maligned as being satan’s foil, but she is the first to identify the ambiguity of Job’s “integrity.” Integrity (tummah) denotes the characteristic of complete honesty in accordance with righteous living. If God blesses righteous living, then God has unjustly punished the “blameless” Job. Or, if Job is honest, then he is obliged to confront God with the injustice of innocent suffering. Either way, Job’s experience is inconsistent with his image of God.

• Job’s abundant life as patriarch and wealthy landowner contributed to his perspective of blessings as reward for proper moral conduct. People got what they deserved. But Job discovers that in suffering we can most clearly see the inconsistencies and limits of this worldview. Liberation theology recognizes this. Surely there was injustice around Job all along, but his awakening to it only came through his personal experience with suffering. Tough way to learn!

Sink you teeth into this!

I wonder if health care was part of Job’s abundant life—deservedly so because he worked hard for it through righteous and honest living. Did health care disappear along with all his other belongings and property—through no fault of his own? And now, with loathsome sores, he has a pre-existing condition.

In the health care debate, followers of Christ have an opportunity to advocate for justice in calling for a national medical plan that will ensure access to equitable, affordable, high-quality health coverage for all persons residing in our country. In its call for health care reform, the Peacemaking program of the General Assembly Mission Council of the PC(USA) church, states: “Jesus came so that we may have life, and have it abundantly. The gift of abundant life includes the promise of shalom – health and wholeness – for all children of God.”

For more information on the PC(USA) call for health care reform:

Mays, James L., ed. HarperCollins Bible Commentary. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

Newsom, Carol A., “The Book of Job.” New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 4. Leander Keck, et. al. editors. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.

Biographical Information
Catherine Devins has recently completed requirements for her M.A.C.E. degree. She looks forward to graduating in May 2010 with fellow ECP classmates. Catherine is an elder of the Kirk of Kildaire in Cary, NC and lives with her husband and two dogs. Her daughter, Kaitlyn, is serving in the Peace Corps in Ecuador. Son, Curtis, is a senior at UNC Chapel Hill.

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Friday, August 7, 2009

September 27, 2009 - Mark 9:38-50 - Mary Charlotte Elia

Gleanings from the Text
Mark 9:38-50

Demons and hell and self-mutilation! Oh, my! While the violence of this language is particularly striking after the immediately preceding portrait of Jesus gently taking a child into his arms, the harshness of these sayings affirms the absolute seriousness of Jesus’ message. The pericope as a whole instructs the disciples to remove whatever barriers stand before the Kingdom of God, but the surprising news is that it is often the disciples themselves who are the ones in the way.

The problem with the unauthorized exorcist is not that he has failed to show himself as a follower of Jesus but that he is not following “us.” Once again, the disciples grapple with the issues of identity and authority, but Jesus’ response is clear: “Do not stop him.”

This command and the following instruction call the disciples to respond to believers outside of their community in a way that does not hinder them. By recognizing the legitimacy of the exorcist’s work, the disciples are forced to acknowledge that Jesus’ transformative power extends beyond their own inner circle. The knowledge that others are effectively engaging in ministry invites the disciples to consider the existence of a broad Christian fellowship marked only by belief in Jesus.

This revelation in turn alerts the disciples to the nature of their own ability to pursue ministry. Clearly the source of the disciples’ capacity to accomplish any work is found in Jesus alone rather than either in the disciples themselves or in their status in any particular group.

Verse 42 reinforces the injunction against interfering with the mission of those outside of the disciples’ inner circle and initiates a block of text warning the disciples against placing similar stumbling blocks before themselves. The metaphors of hand, foot, and eye invite the disciples to evaluate the totality of their existence to discern any behavior, self-conception, or world view that hinders the attainment of a fuller relationship with God. The issue here does not seem to be one of actions in this life that lead to eternal reward or punishment in a life to come. Instead, the kingdom is so presently accessible that the disciples need only remove any stumbling blocks of their own making that obstruct an otherwise open path. By identifying and eliminating any self-destructive resistance, the disciples are drawn into the life of the Kingdom of God and are released from the hell that is separation from God.

The closing sayings about salt instruct the disciples to purify themselves by removing whatever contaminant hinders the effectiveness of their mission. This metaphor of purification complements the metaphor of cutting away that which causes one to stumble. Again the disciples are commanded to adopt a rigorous self-discipline that leads to greater effectiveness in ministry.
Food for Thought

This text invites communities to identify the self-constructed stumbling blocks that prevent flourishing. In other words, are there subtle ways in which the church sabotages its own ministries? Are the goals of committees in conflict with each other? Is the ministry of the church controlled by a select few whose needs and interests do not represent the larger body? Is the church clinging to a self-identity that no longer reflects its membership or a vision that no longer holds relevance? What’s keeping the church from discerning the will of God and pursuing Christ’s ministry? How can the church become Spirit-led rather than ego-driven?

Sink Your Teeth into This!

I once served a mid-sized PCUSA congregation whose members loved to loathe the non-denominational church across the street. Although we never bothered to visit this congregation, we considered their community to be everything that ours was not. We prided ourselves on our high liturgy and lofty intellectualism, and we condemned them for worshipping in a manner we considered insubstantial and for attracting a membership we deemed infantile. We even complained about the increased traffic resulting from heavy attendance at their services!

Instead of responding to the success of the neighboring church with a reevaluation of our own programs, we clung to our old habits. We increased only in bitterness and self-righteousness rather than in membership and ministry. One wonders what opportunities were missed because we, like the disciples, considered those Christians outside our community to be competition rather than partners in Christ's service.

Biographical Information

Mary Charlotte Elia is a 2009 graduate of Union-PSCE (MDiv). She is from Virginia Beach.
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September 20, 2009 - Mark 9:30-37 - Grant Holbrook

Gleanings from the Text
Mark 9:30-37

Acknowledging the worthiness and depth of studying the content of Jesus’ teachings in Mark 9:30-37, let us consider instead the manner of communication as our object of study, so that we can glean meaning from the interaction as well as the instruction of Jesus. For the sake of seeing the story from this altered angle, film critic Roger Ebert's aptly named "Ebert's Law of Movies" will serve as a rough interpretative guide: “A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it" (270). Of course the "what" is important, but a focus on the "how" can prove helpful in shedding new light.

At issue here is the responsiveness and dialogue between Jesus and his disciples. From the perspective of the followers, Mark 9:30-37 is especially unflattering, but it is Jesus' own behavior and presence that typify the approach he seeks from his students. Communication breakdown colors much of the disciples’ interaction with Jesus throughout Mark’s Gospel, but, significantly, the Gospel author does not allow their failure to understand Jesus here to disappear into the ether of destined events. Rather, we readers are provided an internal motivation for the muttering and the silence.

Verse 32 is an explicit two-step move within the thoughts of the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ passion prediction of the previous verses: first, they didn’t understand and then they were afraid to ask Jesus about it. Is the author implying that they, the disciples, should have been straightforward in communicating their question about Jesus' second foretelling of his own death? Were they right to be afraid of the question? It is probably sound for us to empathize with the disciples’ actions and their difficulty in understanding, even if we are not happy with our inadvertent imitations of apostolic failures. The disciples at their lowest points tend to be the disciples at their most relatable.

In verses 33-37, the unasked question of 30-32 gives way to Jesus’ own didactic interrogation. Jesus senses a hushed conversation, and he initiates with a question. He asks simply what his students were discussing. In the context of a passage about children, it is easy to imagine their silence not unlike that of children who fail to respond having been asked the question that begs a self-incriminating response, What are you doing? They hold their tongues out of a clearly implied shame. Again, communication has been severed by the disciples either by holding on to their silence or by their lack of understanding.

Jesus takes initiative here at this point of apostolic thick-headedness. His startling and affectionate object lesson about humility reopens and broadens the communication that has been stifled by the disciples' unwillingness to ask Jesus' his meaning or to admit to their personal aspirations to greatness. Jesus returns to some fundamental sense of communication, be it human or divine, in this instance through the concept of welcoming. The content of the teaching is humility, but the vehicle for its expression is receiving children, being in communicative relationship with the small or marginalized.

Expanding on this idea of the various forms of powerful communication employed by Jesus, immediately preceding in verse 29, Jesus has established the interaction with God through prayer as a powerful means to effect change. The disciples have failed in healing the epileptic boy through a blockage in communication: "This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer." Prayer and hospitality thus present two forms of right communication in the reign of God (Mk. 1:15), and we see the "how" in inseparable tension with the "what," the means of expression undivided from the content of doctrine.

Food for Thought

It is an axiom of 21st century American thought that more conversation is better. We understand implicitly that rational people hash out their problems at length, and the airing of grievances becomes the critical move toward reconciliation. Consequently, there is also a minor backlash against "feelings" language in church when such talk becomes sentimental and conveys weakness, and so a stiff upper lip Christian stoicism can rush in to fill the vacuum. It is at the impasse between these two tactics that Jesus' approach to communication and his disciples' notable failures can provide insight as much as the content of the instruction. If we set aside proof texts and vitriol (if only temporarily), how does Jesus actually converse with others, and how does he treat the disciples in terms of encouragement and correction? The end of Mark 9 provides at least two jumping off points, rooted in the conveyance of unanticipated hospitality and a direct reliance on prayer, on God.

Sink Your Teeth into This

A few years ago, I heard a pastor speak briefly about the “What Would Jesus Do” phenomenon. Crass over-commercializing aside, he thought the idea had real merit as an approach to Christian life. This phrase has the added benefit of redirecting focus back on the Christ, subjugating the potential selfishness of “what do I believe” to the active example of Jesus. His means and the disciples’ responses provide insight into every facet of Christian existence. “How would Jesus do it” can be debated and constructed upon the varied human and divine interactions of the Gospels, and Christ-like methods can find fuller expression alongside such a flawed cloud of witnesses.

Works Referenced

Roger Ebert, Questions for the Movie Answer Man. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing,

Biographical Information

Grant Holbrook, a longtime Richmond resident (but a Midwesterner at heart), lives on the North Side with his wife Erin and is in his final year of the MATS program at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

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September 13, 2009 – Mark 8:27-38 – Marvin Lindsay

Gleanings from the Text
Mark 8:27-38

This gospel lesson is composed of three distinct scenes that, combined, present a unified vision of Jesus’ identity, mission, and call to discipleship. Scene one, verses 27-30, revolves around Jesus’ penetrating question, “But who do you say that I am?” and Peter’s confessional answer “Thou art the Christ.” In scene two, verses 31-33, Jesus warns his disciples that his ministry will culminate in death and resurrection, not in royal coronation, a teaching that provokes mutual rebukes between him and Peter. In the last scene, verses 34-38, Jesus heightens the tension considerably when he announces that self-denial and cross-bearing are vocations “for any who want to be [his] disciples.” The preacher must choose between focusing on one scene in particular, or on the gospel lesson as a whole.

There are many answers to the question, Who is Jesus? Some are better than others. The crowds understand Jesus primarily in terms of the past, a prophet returned from the dead. Peter, on the other hand, sees Jesus as an instrument of the future, the one God has anointed (Hebrew-Messiah; Greek-Christos) to vindicate Israel. But no sooner does Peter pipe up than Jesus shuts him up. Mark’s Jesus is loathe to draw attention to himself as an instrument of raw, divine power; thus he silences the demons when he casts them out, swears to secrecy those whom he cures, and cuts off coronation talk. But when it comes to the necessity for suffering, Jesus holds nothing back.

It is not only necessary for Jesus to suffer; it is necessary for him to rise again. The word “must” (Greek-dei) governs all the subsequent verbs in verse 31. There is no hard-core doctrine of penal substitution here. Instead, as The Son of Man, literally “The Human One,” Jesus knows that living humanely in an inhumane world will inevitably provoke massive resistance. Yet because the glory of God is a human being fully alive (Irenaeus), it is unthinkable that sin and death would have the last word on a life like Jesus’. Jesus “must” be resurrected. Peter would spare Jesus suffering, but at the cost of Jesus trimming the sails of his true humanity.

If dying and rising is good enough for the master, it is more than good enough for the pupil. Self-denial and cross-bearing were politically charged words, the cross being the Roman state’s favorite means of executing threats to the social order. Persecuted Christians had to choose between affirming loyalty to Jesus, and thus denying their own lives and freedom, or not. It is no less that case today. The word “any” presumably covers the modern reader as well as the crowds in the villages around Caesarea Philippi. Following Jesus will in some way or another bring the disciple into conflict with the powers-that-be, and to a kind of grief that only resurrection power can heal.

Food for Thought

Mark 8:27-38 presents an embarrassment of riches for the preacher. Given that Jesus poses the question “Who do you say that I am?” within earshot of the pagan city of Caesarea Philippi, home to a shrine to the Greek god Pan, a sermon on the identity of Jesus in a pluralistic society would certainly be in order.

Most commentators rush to assure us that self-denial does not mean denying oneself certain pleasures. No doubt they’re right, but in a world brought to the edge of economic collapse by highly leveraged over-consumption, crazed self-indulgence, not morbid self-denial, seems to be the greater danger. That this text turns up in Ordinary Time as well as Lent is entirely appropriate. Perhaps self-denial is an idea whose time has come again, a lifestyle for all disciples in all seasons.

Sink Your Teeth into This!

Sermon illustrations can illumine a scriptural truth, but can also overshadow the scripture itself. Here, the preacher should take special care with stories of suffering or martyrdom, lest they distance the hearer from Jesus’ call to bear the cross. Suffering is not just for those Christians “back then” or “over there.” It is for all Christians. So is the resurrection power that vindicates our suffering.

Works Consulted

M. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.

Marvin Meyer, “Taking up the cross and following Jesus: Discipleship in the gospel of Mark.” Calvin Theological Journal 37:2. November 2002. p. 230-8.

Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Maryknoll NY: Orbis, 1988.

Biographical Information

Marvin Lindsay is a Presbyterian minister and a Ph.D. student in Church History at Union-PSCE. He served congregations in Missouri and North Carolina for 14 years before enrolling in Union-PSCE in the fall of 2008. Marvin is married and is the father of two red-headed boys. He blogs at

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September 6, 2009 - James 2:1-13 - Frances Taylor Gench

Gleanings from the Text
James 2:1-13

Here, James tackles head-on the problem of discrimination in the Christian community, maintaining that faith in Jesus Christ bears directly upon our treatment of persons. Thus, signs of snobbery and partiality in the Christian community prompt an incredulous question: "My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?" The fact that James refers to "acts of favoritism" in the plural form suggests that discrimination can manifest itself in the Christian community in a variety of ways. But by using a flagrant example, the author leaves no doubt as to the kind of attitude and behavior deemed incompatible with Christian faith.

Two visitors are depicted as entering the Christian assembly -- one bejeweled and one bedraggled – and are given correspondingly contrasting receptions. The bejeweled visitor is treated with extreme courtesy, while the bedraggled guest is brusquely shuffled aside. When Christians "make distinctions" among themselves in any such manner, haven't they "become judges with evil thoughts"? (See Lev. 19:15.) Are they not manifesting that internal dividedness that belies integrity of faith? By kowtowing to the counterfeit glory of the splendidly attired, have not they betrayed the truly glorious one who alone is to be exalted in the Christian community and before whom all are equal: "our glorious Lord Jesus Christ" (2:1)?

To James' way of thinking, this kind of snobbery is far from a trivial matter. In fact, the author proceeds to establish three grounds on which acts of favoritism constitute a serious denial of faith. First, he reminds his readers of God's special care and concern for the poor (v.5) -- a concern that is writ large throughout the Scriptures (see Lk 6:20). It should be clear, then, that when members of the Christian community ignore the poor, they are not reflecting God's compassion. When they slight the poor, they dishonor those whom God has honored -- whom God has "chosen" to be "rich in faith" and "heirs of the kingdom." How is it that the prejudices of the world rather than the preferences of God come to be manifested in a community of God's people?

Second, the author appeals to his readers' own experience. He suggests that acts of favoritism make little sense in light of the way they themselves are treated at the hands of the rich. James' letter reflects a time when persons of wealth were not yet often found in the church -- at least not in the communities with which the author is most closely associated.

Members of the Christian community may very well have been taken to court by the rich over such issues as debts, rents and wages (see 5:4-6) -- disparaged as bad citizens or unreliable debtors. James regards any such treatment as blasphemy, for Christians bear the name of Jesus from the moment they are baptized in the name of Christ (see Acts 2:38). In James' view, abuse of those who bear the name of Christ is abuse of Christ himself. Thus it is bewildering that members of the Christian community should grovel before those who exploit the poor, harass Christians, and dishonor Christ.

Third, the author insists that partiality toward the rich is also a transgression of the biblical principle of love. Readers are reminded of the familiar commandment to love the neighbor as the self (Lev. 19:18). This commandment is referred to as the "royal law," because it is the law of the kingdom into which God has called them (see Mk 12:29-31).

Those whom James addresses may very well have argued, as do we, that in attending to the rich they are showing love to their neighbors. And if this is really the case, then they "do well." But this is no excuse for partiality. If in attending to the rich, readers discriminate against the poor, then they "commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors" (v.9). They have not understood that the poor person whom they dishonor is also a neighbor and that "acts of favoritism" place them in violation of the biblical commandment to love.

Moreover, "acts of favoritism" are not to be dismissed as minor infractions of God's command -- as misdemeanors rather than felonies. In order to underline the seriousness of the crime of partiality, James draws on the ancient Jewish doctrine of the complete unity of the law and contends that to violate the law at this one point is to break the law as a whole (v.10; compare Gal. 5:3). To illustrate this point, James links partiality with the heinous sins of adultery and murder -- sins readers would not fail to consider serious. Adulterers will not suppose that they should be excused of adultery because they have not committed murder (v.11).

James's point is that the adulterer stands guilty before the law, as does the murderer -- and as does the one who discriminates. God who forbids adultery and murder also forbids discrimination. God stands behind every commandment. Thus, all three -- the adulterer, the murderer, and the one who commits "acts of favoritism" -- are transgressors of the law and are subject to God's judgment.

In closing, James reminds us all that we are accountable to God for our words and deeds (v.12). At the last day, every individual will stand before the judgment seat of God. What will be determined at that point is not whether we are to be "saved"; we have already been saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. What the judgment will reveal is whether or not we have misused the grace that is ours -- whether or not we have embodied in our lives the possibilities the gospel offers. Our practice of indiscriminate love toward all people will reveal whether we have allowed the grace and power of God to produce a transformation in our lives. Impartiality in all our doings is in no small part a sign of the integrity of faith.

Food for Thought

Clearly, James has much to contribute to our thinking about acts and experiences of discrimination. Indeed, Cain Hope Felder observes that James 2:1-13 provides what is perhaps the strongest castigation of class discrimination in the New Testament -- or for that matter, any discrimination based on outward appearance -- and that these words have particular pertinence for African-Americans who still experience such discrimination daily. The fact that James speaks of "acts of favoritism" (plural!) should prompt us to ponder all those experiences in which we have made snap judgments about others on the basis of outward appearance -- perhaps on the basis of disability, or dress, or race, or class, or gender, or age. From James's perspective, discrimination of any kind is simply inconsistent with Christian faith.

Sink Your Teeth Into This

Here, as elsewhere in the letter, we find that James’ ethical exhortation is decidedly theocentric or God-centered. To be sure, James is short on Christology (explicit reflection on Jesus Christ), but it is rich in theology (reflection upon God). James points to God, for example, as the very ground of Christian existence (1:18, 21; 3:17; 4:5) and maintains that God is a gracious presence in our lives (1:5, 17; 4:8). Indeed, every aspect of Christian life of which James speaks is related to God (2:5-6; see also 3:9; 4:13-17).

James assists us in discerning how we might order and maintain every aspect of our lives in the context of God's sovereignty - how we as Christians are to live in light of the rule of God, or kingdom, which is now present among us in the earthly and risen Jesus. It is important to recognize the decidedly God-centered nature of James's ethical exhortation, because the Christian life that James describes is demanding and could not be pursued on our own strength. This is the good news: it is God's own gracious presence and power and wisdom that makes it possible for Christians to live as James describes.

Biographical Information

Frances Taylor Gench is Professor of New Testament at Union-PSCE.

Works Referenced

Cain Hope Felder. Troubling Biblical Waters: Race, Class and Family. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1989.

This piece excerpted from:
Frances Taylor Gench. Hebrews and James. Westminster Bible Companion. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

August 30, 2009 - James 1:17-27 - Jenny McDevitt

Gleanings From the Text
James 1:17-27

Talk to two different people about the letter of James, and you’ll likely hear at least three different opinions. This brief book tucked towards the back of our bibles has a reputation for being rather neglected -- or for stirring up strong emotion and memorable rhetoric. Comparing it to several other New Testament books, Martin Luther famously referred to it as “an epistle of straw,” with “nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.”

Admittedly short on that which is Christological, this (probably) pseudonymous letter is long on that which is practical and tangible. It is important to realize, however, that James wrote to a community of believers, people entirely aware of Jesus and his story. The letter was written not to bring its readers to faith, then, but to advise its readers on how to live out the faith they already had.

These eleven verses contain a helpful progression. Verses 17-18 offer an important grounding of all that follows, stating unambiguously that all that is good comes from God, “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Here, James poetically acknowledges God’s creative works and God’s consistent faithfulness, and then reminds us of our call to be the “first fruits.”

The verses that follow offer concrete advice on how we are to be those first fruits. Verses 19-21 provide instruction for receiving and internalizing the “implanted word that has the power to save your souls” as a first step, before the letter unleashes its forceful call to action in verses 22-27. This call to be “doers” of that word, rather than only “hearers” of it, leaves little room for compromise. Specific mention of “orphans and widows” is not to lift up these two populations above all others; this phrase is often used to represent all oppressed peoples as those about whom God is particularly concerned (see also Isaiah 1:16-17) -- and therefore as those for whom we are challenged to show particular concern, as well.

Food For Thought

James’ emphasis on being “doers” in this text, particularly regarding oppressed peoples, is part of what creates a big message within a short book. It’s a message that can make some of us a bit uncomfortable, precisely because it has the ability to reignite (or feed the continued flames of) a Christian commitment to social justice.

As Peter Rhea Jones has noted, this letter “could actually bring off a renewing of the Christian life. There will be a recurring temptation to tame the powerful social message of this flaming letter, to domesticate it and calm its biting, all too relevant message into palatable terms. If this message of James is allowed to go out unmuffled, it will rattle the stained glass windows.”

Rattling windows can have both positive and negative connotations. What about that idea makes you nervous? What about it do you find exciting or promising? A life of discipleship is not always comfortable. What can we learn here, about ourselves, the world, and God’s work in the world?

Sink Your Teeth Into This

One of the sermons I remember best is a sermon I didn’t actually hear. During the expected sermon time, the preacher offered only a few introductory comments - and then sent the congregation out of the sanctuary and into the community, to be “doers” of all that we proclaim in church each Sunday. One church member said afterwards, “Every week, we hear the sermon. This week, we lived it.”

Though many members of my church are involved in similar activities - preparing food at homeless shelters, building homes with Habitat for Humanity, and more - there was something poignant about those activities occurring during the time generally reserved for sitting in church, worshipping, listening, and discussing. One Sunday in Williamsburg, we were reminded that hearing the word and doing the word are one and the same.

Suggested Resources

Cain Hope Felder. Troubling Biblical Waters: Race, Class and Family. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1989.

Frances Taylor Gench. Hebrews and James. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996.

Patrick J. Hartin. A Spirituality of Perfection: Faith in Action in the Letter of James. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1999.

Peter Rhea Jones. “Approaches to the Study of James.” Review and Expositor 66 (1969).

Elsa Tamez. The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works Is Dead. New York: Crossroad, 1990.

Biographical Information

Jenny McDevitt (MDiv, Union-PSCE, 2009) can't get enough of Richmond! She has deferred admission to a doctoral program in biblical studies and will spend the next year completing advanced coursework in Union-PSCE's Th.M. program and working as the seminary's Union Fellow in Institutional Advancement. She is excited to work with Join the Feast as co-editor and invites you to pull a chair up to the table as a contributing writer.

You can contact Jenny at

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