Wives, be subject. . .

I wonder how many people will hear anything beyond this line in the reading from Ephesians on Sunday morning? There were certainly christians who refused marriage, and those who promoted it in the time during which this epistle was written. There is no question which side the author of the epistle came down on. There is also precedent for what he is doing. Hosea had modeled the relationship between God and God’s people on his own marriage to a prostitute — the people were unfaithful, God was faithful. Isaiah has some beautiful passages about God adorning Zion as a bride God will marry and never again put away.

At best, we are always stumbling for metaphors to describe the divine, and our relationship to it. In the epistle’s day, marriage was a social obligation (refused, especially by women, at great peril). But in the contract, the husband was obliged to nourish, clothe and shelter his wife. What is a little bit surprising is the tenderness with which the author describes our relationship with God. Just as a man nourishes his own flesh and “warms” it (that is what the verb means, not as the NRSV has “cares for it”). Metaphorically, it can mean cherish, soften, and even inflame, as with passion. It seems God may well become passionate for us.

Ephesians sets out a hierarchical relationship between God and the community. John’s Gospel sets out a relationship of near-equality, with the divine and human natures interpenetrating to the point of confusion (the Father is in me, and I in you and the Father in you and the Spirit in everything and so on). Perhaps we need both aspects of that relationship with God. The author of the Letter to the Ephesians used a handy metaphor, without thereby fixing forever the nature of the marriage relationship. Our task is to find similar metaphors for God’s intimacy with us, care for us and relationship to us.

Spirit and flesh

Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-25

Psalm 34:15-22

Ephesians 5:21-33

John 6:60-69

We are nearing in the end of the long summer of bread. This week’s reading from John is the last of the series. Here, we see the split that occurred in the Johannine community between the “sacrifice” and “non-sacrifice” partisans. One group is saying that the Johannine meal must be seen as sacrifice: eating flesh and drinking blood (it is interesting to note that the word for eating implies chewing, and the word for flesh implies raw meat — I wonder if the Johannine community tended toward the dionysan — compare to the miracle of water to wine). Another group says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” A split occurs.

I’m sure that is why we have the reading from Joshua: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” You had better be ready to go the distance, seems to be the message of the designers of the lectionary.

But I’m a lot more interested in the passage from Ephesians. This is one that gets people up in arms: “Wives, be subject to your husbands.” Again, I think this represents a point of real contention in the early church. Many early christians eschewed marriage completely. The various acts of the named apostles all deal with an apostle preaching and convincing the engaged to forgo their marriages. The apostle would then celebrate a eucharist, almost always in the order of cup and then bread. I believe these were the water and bread Christians (see McGowan, Ascetic Eucharists). Marriage and sacrifice were deeply intertwined and implicated in the cultural background of the time: marriage produced progeny and sacrifice guaranteed descent from father to son. If you wanted to be counter-cultural, you could refuse marriage and sacrifice both. Thecla, in the Acts of Paul, gets herself martyred for her refusal to marry. Many christians got themselves martyred for refusal to sacrifice (and plenty of others got themselves killed for sacrificing to Christ, rather than Caesar).

So the Letter to the Ephesians represents a step along the way of accommodating the christian message to the cultural background, making it possible for people to live in both worlds. The section that this pericope begins lays out a handbook for household organization. There is nothing particularly shocking here. Any good Roman could agree. Our christianity today isn’t very shocking. Any good American can agree.

What would it be like to be a christian of the other variety, one who opts out of the cultural background? Sacrifice is not the organizing principle of our society, the way it was of Greco-Roman society. The money economy is. What would it be like to opt out of that background? What would it be like to engage in it, but directed to a different emperor, the way the sacrificing christians directed their sacrifice to Christ, not the emperor? How would we organize our households?

Marriage in the Greco-Roman world was part of one’s responsibility of citizenship. Now, marriage is about love, not duty to a larger community. How would we go about opting out of a hyper-individualistic (romantic) understanding of marriage and fulfillment? Somehow, we would have to find a way to consecrate the fruits of our labors and of our households to an intentional community, not identical to America.

Eating flesh.

Proverbs 9:1-6

Psalm 34:9-16

Ephesians 5:15-20

John 6:53-59

There has long been an argument about whether John’s Gospel is anti-sacramental or sacramental. On the anti-sacramental side is John’s reticence to narrate Jesus actions instituting the “last supper” as do the other Gospels. On the sacramental side are these passages from John’s sixth chapter concerning eating the flesh of the son of man and drinking his blood. But even in this sixth chapter, some author or editor goes on to say, “The flesh counts for nothing, only the spirit.”

 I’m not sure the debate would have made sense to John’s author(s). The debate that would have made sense would have been between a sacrificial perspective and an anti-sacrificial perspective. The banquet would have been the background against which all meals would have been seen, and a banquet was always a sacrificial affair. Continue reading “Eating flesh.”

Bread from heaven

Deuteronomy 8:1-10

Psalm 34:1-8

Ephesians 4:25 — 5:2

John 6:37-51

Year B — the summer of bread. It seems like we read the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel for months in the summer of Year B. To me, the sixth chapter of John reads like the minutes taken during a bitter debate: Only those who eat my flesh have life; the flesh counts for nothing, only the Spirit matters. Back and forth it goes.

It is striking about this week’s readings, from both Deuteronomy and John, that the food comes to us without human involvement. All the regulations about food, about sacrifice and offering and eating, in Deuteronomy, Leviticus and elsewhere, recognize the human factor. The first of the produce of your fields, bring to the holy place and set it before God and then have a good time. Continue reading “Bread from heaven”

More Transfiguration

I had never noticed before now that the account of the Transfiguration in the Second Letter of Peter does not mention Moses and Elijah. Did the Transfiguration exist independently before Mark got ahold of it? And if so, what purpose did it serve.

2 Peter is addressed to those who have lost confidence in the imminent parousia of Jesus (following Duane Watson in the NIB). Epicureans believed that God was so perfect as to be absolutely unmoved by this world: God’s providence and judgment of this world were unthinkable. They considered the Stoics’ ideas of providence and the dissolution of the world in fire to be “cleverly devised myths.” Continue reading “More Transfiguration”

Transfiguration

Exodus 34:29-35

Psalm 99

2 Peter 1:13-21

Luke 9:28-36

In Mark’s Gospel, the account of the transfiguration follows culminates a section that follows on the feeding of the 4000. Mark arranges a big chunk of the first half of his gospel (before the transfiguration and turn to Jerusalem) around the device of sea crossing/3 miracles/instruction/feeding. The sea crossings and feedings are reminiscent of Moses, while the healings are reminiscent of Elijah/Elisha. Mark is using material from one or several early groups organized around a wide open table fellowship. People like the woman with the flow of blood, Jairus’ daughter, the man with the legion, the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter and the deaf man are crossing dangerous social boundaries to discover themselves miraculously fed in a new wilderness. They are the new Israel, formed by Moses and re-formed by Elijah/Elisha to include the unclean, and some of these groups (perhaps formed after Jesus’ resurrection — cf. that he is not in the boat with the disciples the second time across the sea, but appears as a ghost) include even Gentiles.

Mark uses this traditional material (see Burton Mack, A Myth of Innocence), but wants to claim for his own community the right to succeed these groups. Continue reading “Transfiguration”

Here we go.

So, I’ve finally caved to the pressure of our web-servant (not really) to start a blog. My intention is to use this space to reflect on the propers assigned for the coming Sunday as a way of sermon preparation. Once in each week’s postings, I’ll include a link to the Lectionary Page (once I get that part of it figured out).

This week’s Gospel is the crossing of the sea (walking on the sea) recorded in Mark’s Gospel (Chapter 6). It is a rich pericope. Most troubling, we are told that Jesus “intends to pass them [the struggling disciples] by.” I understand this section of Mark’s Gospel — end of chapter 4 through chapter 8 — to be organized around a set of miracles recorded twice (Paul Achtmeier is responsible for this discovery): Sea Crossing/3 Healings, instruction/Feeding in the Wilderness. The sea crossing and feeding in the wilderness suggest Moses, while the healings suggest Elijah and Elisha (raising widow’s sons = raising Jairus’ daughter, healing the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter).

In the first instance of sea crossing, Jesus is in the boat with the disciples. Those healed (the man with the Legion — destroying Rome’s army as a herd of pigs plunges into the sea! – Jairus’ daughter and the woman with the flow of blood) are all Judeans, returned to table fellowship by being healed (Jesus even tells those with Jairus’ daughter to give her something to eat). The feeding of the 5000 plus women and children in the wilderness signals a new Israel being formed by Jesus made up of all the undesirables who have to make a dangerous crossing to arrive in this new community.

In this week’s reading Jesus is not in the boat with the disciples. When they see him walking on the sea, they think they are seeing a ghost. This suggests a post-resurrection appearance. In the healings between the walking on the water and the feeding of the 4000, Jesus heals the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman, a Gentile, after an argument about dogs and bread. The storm at sea is possibly an early church fight about table fellowship with Gentiles, and even (the resurrected) Jesus takes convincing. When he comes to them, he intends to pass them by. If we spend all our time arguing, because we don’t understand about the loaves and our hearts are hardened, Jesus will pass us by.

What does this say to us as Israel and Hezbollah go at it hammer and tongs? What does it say to us as the Anglican Communion turns on itself with talons bared? What is it about the loaves that we don’t get? Tune in Sunday.