The West Islip Church of Christ follows the Revised Common Lectionary–a selection of scripture readings to be used in Christian worship, making provision for the celebration of the liturgical year with its pattern observances, festivals, and seasons. The RCL is a descendant of other protestant lectionaries that eventually find their ancestral origin in Ordo Lectionum Missae, a three year lectionary produced by the Catholic church following the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
The weekly lectionary readings consist of four parts. The first is a reading from the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. the Old Testament). The second is a Psalm (usually offered in response to the Hebrew Bible reading, but sometimes in response to the gospel reading). The third is from a New Testament text other than the gospels (i.e. Acts, the epistles, or Revelation). The fourth is a reading from the gospels. You can find all the readings making up the Revised Common Lectionary here.
Each week as part of our preparation for worship I write up short commentaries/reflections on the texts and email them to those leading in our worship (note that our tradition emphasizes the “priesthood of all believers” in its worship and therefore is lead by the laity). I will be sharing these weekly commentaries/reflections here on this blog.
We are currently in year A of the lectionary’s three year rotation: each year, A, B, or C, focuses on one of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, or Luke respectively) to tell the story of Jesus. We are also in Eastertide (a.k.a. paschal time) which spans the fifty days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday. During this time we are called to deepen and extend our celebration of Christ’s resurrection. In Eastertide the lectionary will substitute readings about the early Church in lieu of the Hebrew bible lection, and will focus on the gospel of John in lieu of the synoptic gospels.
The readings for this week (Sunday, May 15th, 2011) and my commentary/reflections follow:
At first blush Luke’s summary of life in Jerusalem’s fledgling church seems idyllic. The early disciples devoted themselves to fellowship, sacrament, and prayer. They ‘held all things in common’ and shared their possessions ‘as any had need.’ Their reputation was such that they ‘held the goodwill of all the people’ and their numbers continued to swell.
We know from reading the entirety of the book of Acts, however, that this ‘golden age’ of the church was very short lived. In Acts 4 the religious authorities in Jerusalem hold Peter and John captive for their teachings about Jesus (so much for the good reputation). In Acts 5 Ananias and Saphira will make a showy claim to give all the money from the sale of their property to the church but will secretly hold back some of the proceeds and lose their life as a result (so much for holding all things in common). In Acts 6 a disagreement will erupt in the church between the Hellenists (Greek speaking Jews) and the Hebrews (Aramaic speaking Jews) over the neglect of the Hellenist widows in the daily ministry (so much for ‘as any had need’).
Suddenly Luke’s ideal church does not seem so ideal. It is not for us to worship this image of the perfect church that Luke includes the summary found in Acts 2:42-47. Rather it is to show the power of God at work. The church is a sign of the coming kingdom that participates in the coming kingdom. In it’s genesis, when it devoted itself to the word, sacrament, and fellowship it found the power to achieve a community of mutuality and hospitality. When we are at our best, imbibed with the Spirit who sanctifies, we point to the idyllic kingdom community as well. It is the work of God that does this, not our own accomplishments. Left to our own we ruffle feathers, hoard our resources, and neglect those in need. But God’s grace will not leave us to our own failure, and allows our life in the Spirit to offer foreshadowings of community life, free from rebellion, under the eternal reign of God.
Our Psalm lection needs no introduction this week. It is likely the best known, and most cherished of all biblical texts–“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” It is offered in response to the gospel lection where Jesus describes himself as the “sheep gate.” What people familiar with Psalm 23 might not realize is the significance of the its order within the psalter. Psalm 23 follows Psalm 22–a piercing psalm of lament. It is Psalm 22 that Jesus quotes while on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Those that study the psalms in an academic way have discerned ‘types’ of psalms that follow particular literary patterns (more or less). ‘Psalms of lament’ typically pursue a pattern of words of lament, followed by words of petition, followed by words of trust. The first two strophes of Psalm 22 do this, the last however does not. The last strophe of Psalm 22 leaves off the words of trust–the “yet will I trust him.” This is a remarkable omission, especially in light of Psalm 23 which follows. Is it possible that Psalm 23 is a psalm of trust in answer to the lacking strophe of the lamentful Psalm 22? Scholars, noting many literary similarities between the two, suggest that this is the case. If so then we take courage in that even in our most painful lament, when we unable to speak a word of trust to the Lord, we hear the response of Psalm 23–the Lord is your shepherd, you shall not want.
This is a difficult text. The lectionary softens the rough edges of 1 Peter’s words by starting in verse 19. If we started one verse earlier we would be introduced to Peter’s audience–the ‘oiketai’, house slaves. Suddenly the text is more ominous in tone: “If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” Wow. So God calls some to be slaves who receive beatings at the hands of their owners? And don’t worry about the unjust beatings, just put on a good game face and take it knowing you have God’s approval!
We must approach this text cautiously with the following disclaimers. First, it is likely that the author of 1 Peter was operating with the assumption that the parousia (a.k.a the second coming) was imminent. We find similar ideas present throughout many NT texts. Early Christians assumed Christ’s return was right around the corner. Thus there was little mandate for great social upheaval–what’s the point if God is going to come in a jiffy and make it all right. Second, if we move up the ladder of abstraction and away from the concrete example of the household slave we can appreciate that all of us are ‘oppressed’ in some fashion and suffer as a result at the hands of our oppressors. Peter’s point provides a meaningful ‘reframe’ encouraging us to see our suffering in solidarity with the suffering of Christ. This is especially true for suffering that occurs because of the good we do. Our text asserts that Christ chose to be wounded for us, and those wounds heal us. Is it possible that at times our suffering can be vicarious as well?
Still, this is a difficult text. Be careful with it. Do not wield it flippantly. Treat it like you would a venomous coral snake, or a gun with the hammer pulled back. Lives are hurt when texts such as these are divorced from their original social contexts and are given uncritical assertions of normalcy for Christians in every time and place.
Of all the endearing “I am” statements found in the gospel of John none sounds so un-poetic (or is more unknown) as “I am the sheep gate.” The clunky metaphor contains a dire warning about thieves and bandits who have a nasty habit of bypassing gates in order to get to the flock. Jesus says there were others that came before him who led sheep to destruction. But they did not come through the proper channels. “Recognize me” Jesus says. I am the one who enters by the gate, I am the gate itself. You follow me because you recognize my voice. I call you by name. I lead you out. I go ahead of you, to prepare the way. And what I lead you to is not the pasture that barely sustains, but the pasture that is life abundant.
I like the metaphor. It is full and multifaceted. Jesus is our gate of protection. Jesus is the one who lets us in and lets us out. Jesus is the door to abundant life. Jesus is the voice we recognize.
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider the abundant life present in the church by the power of the Spirit. The gate to this abundant life is the blood of Christ shed for all. Bandits and thieves come into the fold in other ways–they are not willing to shed blood. When we learn the way of the gate–when we are willing to point others to abundant life, and be protection to the helpless, we too share in the sufferings of Christ and will bring healing to others by our wounds. The paradox of the abundant life is evident, those who wish to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for Christ will be given life in abundance.