“We wish to see Jesus.” So say a group of Greeks to Jesus’ disciples, a request that touches off the events of the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. We wish to see Jesus. Who among us has not said some version of these words. “If only I could see Jesus, then everything would make sense!” Jesus seems to anticipate such a desire because after the resurrection he says to his disciples, “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Indeed, Jesus blesses us with belief in him and his life-giving Way, even though we have never seen him – at least not in his first century flesh. When we adjust our eyes and our vocabulary so they resonate with our faith, we begin to see Jesus everywhere we look. “We wish to see Jesus,” say the Greeks in today’s reading. I’d like to spend the rest of this sermon seeing Jesus – seeing Jesus in the grand narrative of the Gospel of John that leads up to this moment. As we go through the story, notice how seeing Jesus in the Gospel helps us see Jesus in our lives.
The events of my pilgrimage to the Holy Land are still too near for me to write about with any kind of perspective, so today I thought I’d offer you a short example of the recontextualization of Jesus’ story that I have learned from walking the land where Jesus walked. Continue reading “Sabbatical Notes, Week 8: The Kokh Tomb”→
The last two weeks and this week, we’re previewing my new Bible study, which is available now on Amazon.com. I will be using it this fall with the wonderful people who attend the adult forum hour at my church. If you’re looking for a similar offering for your church or Bible study group, I hope you will give P.E.A.C.H. an audition. Two weeks ago we previewed the preface, last week we previewed Session 1, and two we preview session 2 of the five week study.
For this week and the next two weeks, we’re going to preview my new Bible study, which is available now on Amazon.com. I will be using it this fall with the wonderful people who attend the adult forum hour at my church. If you’re looking for a similar offering for your church or Bible study group, I hope you will give P.E.A.C.H. an audition. Today comes the preface (which will be familiar if you were around this site in early May), and the following two Mondays will preview the first two sessions of the five week study.
The acronym P.E.A.C.H. began its life as a sermon I gave at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Mystic, Connecticut, on October 13, 2014. I remember having massive difficulty coming up with anything at all to say that week. My twins were less than three months old at the time, so I was barely functional on my best days. Add to that a set of readings I couldn’t make heads or tails of, and I was sunk.
So I went back to basics. I took the Gospel passage (Matthew 22:1-14) and I prayed with it. I read it as authentically as I could without prejudice or ornamentation. I read all around it in the Gospel trying to find something there, and I read commentary after commentary about it. At last an inkling of a sermon topic appeared, a charge from God about radical welcome. But there was still that pesky weird bit about the guy without a wedding robe. Continue reading “Audition P.E.A.C.H. for your Church or Bible Study Group”→
Sermon for Sunday, October 12, 2014 || Proper 23A || Matthew 22:1-14
Today I’d like to do something a little different. Do you remember how, in math classes, your teacher told you to “show your work” in order to get full credit for answering a question? Well, this morning, I’m going to show my work as we go through this sermon together. Rather than just give you the end product of my Bible study, my struggles and false starts, and my attempts to listen to the Holy Spirit, I thought I’d pull back the curtain and show you some of the process.
I’ve decided to do this today for two reasons. First, the passage we just read from the Gospel according to Matthew is very difficult to encounter, so taking a step back and looking at it from a higher vantage point can be beneficial. Second, I never want to fall into the trap where I set myself up as such an unassailable expert in all things spiritual that, instead of inspiring you, I keep you from thinking you have the necessary skills to do what I do. Believe me, I am not an expert. I’m just a fellow disciple, who perhaps has a bit more specialized schooling than you might.
So think about this sermon as one that is really a step or two from the normal finished product. In it, we’ll explore together one way I like to study and interpret Biblical passages. My hopes are, by the end of this sermon, we will hear a word from God about today’s Gospel reading, and we will all be just a little bit more confident the next time we sit down to read the Bible. So without further ado, let me introduce you to a favorite acronym of mine: P.E.A.C.H. PEACH will lead us through five steps toward more fruitful Bible study. I commend these steps to you whenever you sit down to study our sacred texts. PEACH stands for Prayer > Encounter > Atmosphere > Charge > Humility.
We’ll start where any endeavor should: with Prayer. You might seek out a prayer specifically about reading the Bible, or you may write one for yourself to pray whenever you sit down to read. Or you may allow a new prayer to bubble up whenever you are getting ready to pick up your Bible. Perhaps your prayer might sound something like this:
“Dear God, thank you for prompting me to read the Bible today: please help me to be surprised by the generosity of your Word, to be patient in the face of everything I still don’t understand, to be enfolded by your grace as I read, and to be courageous as I bring your love with me from these pages out into the world; In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.”
After you pray, read your passage. Read it aloud. Read it slowly. Try to have an authentic Encounter with it. Don’t allow preconceived notions about how you think you should feel about the Bible ruin this authentic encounter. If the text makes you revolted, feel revulsion. If the text makes you question, feel confusion. If the text makes you peaceful, dwell in that peace.
Today’s parable from Jesus contains so much overt hyperbole that any emotion our encounter with it evokes will most likely be a strong version of that emotion. The parable begins innocently enough. We have a king, a sumptuous wedding banquet for the prince, and guests who decide they have better things to do. So far this sounds like several other parables Jesus tells. But then everything goes haywire. The realism of the story disintegrates when the would-be guests kill the invitation deliverers. And then when the king burns down their city. And then when the host throws the improperly dressed fellow not back out into the street but into “the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
I don’t know about you, but so far my authentic encounter with this story leans me toward discomfort, if not all out revulsion. It’s entirely possible that such a response is exactly what Jesus is going for. To look further into that, we turn to the next letter in PEACH. “A” is for Atmosphere.
The atmosphere of a reading is everything around it that helps it breath. This can mean a lot of different things where Bible study is concerned, but for our purposes, let’s say the atmosphere surrounding our reading is everything that happens within a couple of chapters of it in the Gospel. Backing up, we witness Jesus ride in humble triumph into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. That means we are at the beginning of Jesus’ final week. We know what’s right around the corner, and by all accounts, so does Jesus. Jesus gets off the donkey, walks into the temple, overturns the tables of the moneychangers, and drives out all the sellers of sacrificial animals. This disruptive action probably seals his fate.
Jesus returns to the temple the next day, where the chief priests, Pharisees, and many others question him. He tells three consecutive parables, all having to do with inviting a new and unlikely set of people into the kingdom of heaven. The first parable (which we read two weeks ago) speaks of two sons, on who did the will of his father and one who didn’t. The second (which we read last week) speaks of wicked tenants who kill the son of the vineyard keeper. By this time, Jesus’ opponents realize he’s talking about them. But he’s not done. Now Jesus tells today’s parable, and the violence ratchets up again. With each story, Jesus gets more explicit and more graphic. After a few more verbal skirmishes, Jesus stops speaking in parables entirely and denounces the scribes and Pharisees openly. If chasing people out of the temple didn’t sign his death warrant, this indictment surely does.
The important thing to glean from our look at the atmosphere of our story is the constant ratcheting up of tension within Jesus’ parables. With each successive story, he makes his point more graphically so that no one mistakes his meaning – that those chosen to represent God among the people had failed in their duty and that God was welcoming all to become God’s representatives.
And this is where we find the “C” of PEACH. This is where we hear our Charge from God, the word God puts on our hearts during many prayerful, authentic encounters with scripture. In today’s passage, our charge comes when the king sends his messengers out to invite everyone they find in the street to attend the wedding. Everyone becomes a guest, no matter what. We hear our charge in this good news. Everyone is capable of being a guest at the heavenly banquet. Therefore, God invites us to treat all people – regardless of any reason we might have not to associate with them – as guests at God’s table, as people who bear the image and likeness of God in their souls. The more we treat each other as God’s honored guests, the more generosity, hospitality, and gratitude we will show one another. And not just each other, but everyone, for the wedding hall is filled with guests.
But this charge, which invites us to be radically welcoming, runs up against our last letter in PEACH. “H” is for Humility. The prayerful, authentic encounter with scripture often leads to unanswered questions and causes for further study somewhere down the road. The humble response when this happens is simply, “I don’t know.” Such is the case with me and the very strange paragraph about the fellow who doesn’t have a wedding robe. I confess I don’t know what to do with those few sentences. I have no answers, just questions, and so I strive to remain humble in the face of these cryptic words of Jesus, to admit I’m not in a place to hear them instead of throwing them out or explaining them away.
So there you have it. I invite you to try this process when you read the Bible. For fruitful study, try PEACH: Prayer, Encounter, Atmosphere, Charge, Humility. Without going through these steps this week, I would still be stuck in the discomfort of the passage and I would not have heard my charge, which I now share again with you. Everyone is a guest at God’s table. Far be it for us to bar the way. Instead, why don’t we go out “into the main streets and invite everyone we find there to the wedding banquet.”
Since November 2009, I have been blessed to work with the good people at Abingdon Press to publish a variety of books and Bible studies. My first book, Digital Disciple, arrived in May 2011, and my most recent publication, Unusual Gospel for Unusual People, came out in April 2014. In between, I wrote the novel Letters from Ruby (August 2013) and contributed to the Converge series of Bible studies with Who is Jesus?
If you enjoy the content on this website and receive words of edification or encouragement from it, then I invite you to check out my published works. Here’s a quick overview of them, beginning with the most recent.
Unusual Gospel for Unusual People
It’s probably time for those of us who follow Jesus to realize we are once again the unusual ones in society. Sure, a majority of Americans profess a belief in God and identify as some sort of Christian, but there’s a big difference between checking “Christianity” on the census form and living your life as a follower of Jesus. People who strive to follow Jesus every day of their lives are fewer and farther between than at any point in history since the early church was still illegal. How many of us feel a bit weird talking about our faith in public? How many of us know the dialogue to old Friends episodes better than we know the stories that feed our faith? How many of us want to dedicate ourselves to Christ, but have trouble finding the time? If you’re like me, and you put yourselves in one or more of these categories, then the story you should read is this unusual Gospel of John.
The peculiar way John proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ speaks beautifully to our modern moment, especially to us unusual people. It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that it’s pretty different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It paints the same general picture, yes, but John uses different brushes, different techniques, and different colors than the others. There are no parables in John. Neither are there traditional healing stories nor demonic encounters nor transfiguration. The big moment in the upper room is washing the disciples’ feet, not offering them communion. Flipping over the moneychangers’ tables happens at the beginning, not the end. And Jesus never once keeps his divine identity a secret, as he does in the other three accounts. Let’s face it: John’s account of the Gospel is just plain unusual. Just like us.
Letters from Ruby
When the newly ordained Episcopal priest Rev. Calvin Harper arrives in Victory, West Virginia, to be the pastor at an ailing parish, he has no idea how much he still has to learn about being a priest. Thankfully, Ruby Redding takes the young man under her wing and teaches him everything she has learned throughout her long, storied life. Seminary never taught Calvin that the only true way to be a witness to God’s presence in this world is to remain in relationships with people no matter what life throws at them. His studies never taught him that detachment is the bane of ministry. He never learned that deep grief comes only from deep love. But in his first year in Victory, Calvin learns all this and more from Ruby, a woman so full of God’s light that it can’t help but spill onto the people around her.
Converge: Who is Jesus?
Have you ever stopped to think just how much better Jesus Christ knows you than you know him? It’s a pretty staggering thought really. Not only that, Jesus knows you better than you know yourself. And although you’ll never know Jesus as well as he knows you, part of following the Son of God is getting to know him better. But you don’t want to fall into the trap of learning stuff “about” Jesus. Rather, you want to know Jesus himself. This study invites you to get to know four elements of what makes Jesus who he is: his name, his voice, his life, and his peace. In Who Is Jesus? you’ll discover that the more you know Jesus, the more Jesus will teach you who you are.
This time in our society is unlike any other. People communicate daily without ever having to speak face to face, news breaks around the world in a matter of seconds, and favorite TV shows can be viewed at our convenience. We are, simultaneously, a people of connection and isolation. As Christians, how do we view our faith and personal ministry in this culture? Adam Thomas invites you to explore this question using his unique, personal, and often humorous insight. Thomas notes, “[The Internet] has added a new dimension to our lives; we are physical, emotional, spiritual, and now virtual people. But I believe that God continues to move through every facet of our existence, and that makes us new kinds of followers. We are digital disciples.”
Titles also available at your local bookstore or online at Amazon or Barnes and Noble. (But go to your local independent bookstore if you have one, because they are awesome.)
Watch the pilot episode of my new video series, The Moving Picture Bible Study! As with most pilots, there are some kinks to work out, but I think I’m on the right track. If you have suggestions of things you’d like me to address, please let me know.
Biblical scholars have an especially silly sounding word they use for “passage from the Bible.” It is pericope, and if you type this into Microsoft Word, Bill Gates will try to change the word into periscope, because (apparently) the latter is much more frequently used. ‘Pericope’ may look like a three-syllable word (like periscope without the ‘s’), but it has four syllables and rhymes with calliope.* If you are at a Bible study and drop the word ‘pericope’ your companions will probably stare at you and wonder how you got your hands on the Anchor Bible Commentary.
Pericopes are important because they define the amount of text you are going to study. The word is a mash-up of two Greek words meaning “to cut around,” so when you pick a pericope you are figuring out how much text you want to swallow at one go. If you pick too little, you may be in danger of ignoring the context of the bit you pericopized.** If you pick too much, getting your head around it all may be a difficult task. (SPORTS ANALOGY ALERT) Think of it like this: American football games (and for that matter real football games) are time-constrained. The viewer knows just how long a regulation-length game will be. This makes the last few minutes exciting.*** Conversely, cricket (a sport only comprehensible if you were born in a Commonwealth country) can go on for three or four days–though I’m convinced most of that time is spent making crumpets and talking about the weather.
Okay, so how do you choose a pericope? First, I wouldn’t take more than about twenty verses. The fewer the verses, the more in-depth you can go, though I’d probably put a minimum at around four or five. If you’re Bernard of Clairvaux you can write a treatise on a single instance of a word in the Bible, but you’re not, so don’t. If the story you are reading is longer than twenty verses, focus on a particular section of the story each session until you’ve covered the whole thing. It is amazing what you can discover about God in just a few verses of the Bible; if you bite off more than you can chew, you’re likely to miss something exciting and revelatory.
Second, don’t be swayed by chapter breaks or section headings. The chapters were added in the late middle ages and the headers by the publisher of your particular edition of the Bible. Needless to say, neither is original to the text. Now, the chapters usually do a pretty good job breaking up the text, but they aren’t batting a thousand.**** For example, most scholars identify a large pericope from John 15:1 to 16:4a, so the chapter break is misleading. As for the headers, if it were up to me, I’d tell you just to go out and buy a Bible without them (like this one). While they are handy if you are looking for a passage, they often serve to sway a reader’s interpretation before she even gets to the text.
Third, look for transitional words like “immediately” or “the next day.” Mark uses the word immediately about 579 times, and it often serves to signal a new section. Actually, he uses it 41 times, but that’s still 2.5 times a chapter, which is a lot.
Fourth (and this can be a bit tricky when reading in translation) look for any literary structures the writer is employing in a particular section. For example, if the writer uses the same three words to begin three consecutive sentences, they are more than likely related. (This is call anaphora). We’ll talk about some of these structures in later posts, but for now, if you see one in action, you’ve identified a pericope!
Honestly, though this is an important step in biblical study, choosing pericopes is usually really easy because the biblical writers are really good at what they do. And modern scholars spend way too much energy and way too many pages in their commentaries quibbling over whether this verse goes with this or that pericope. If you take one thing away from this post, remember that choosing a pericope is like eating a healthy serving size. Too little and you’ll still be hungry. Too much and you will have gorged yourself to the point of not remembering everything you ate. Choose a portion you can chew and digest. Let the passage of the Bible fill you. Let the words of the Bible nourish you. And let God encounter you every time you pick up the book for study.
* (1) That strange little organ-like instrument they use in the circus or (2) the Greek muse of epic poetry, who is probably a bit miffed that we now use her name to identify a strange little organ-like instrument they use in the circus.
** I just made up this word, so please don’t use it if you are writing anything a professor will see. Remember, professors think they are the only ones allowed to make up words.
*** You may be quick to point out that the last 2 minutes of American football games take a half hour to play. Good point. My mother makes the same one when she calls my father and me up for dinner and we say there’s two minutes left in the game.
**** Sorry, I forgot to warn you about that sports metaphor.
In the 2004 film Saved, Hillary Faye (after misinterpreting some advice from Pastor Skip) snatches the pregnant Mary from the street, pulls her into a van, and attempts a hasty and ill-conceived exorcism on her. Mary struggles free, and Hillary Faye calls after her: “Mary, turn away from Satan. Jesus, he loves you.” Mary turns around and says, “You don’t know the first thing about love.” As Mary walks away, Hillary Faye chucks a Bible at her, yelling: “I am filled with Christ’s love!” Picking up the recently hurled volume, Mary says, “This is not a weapon, you idiot!”
I think of this scene every time I begin the daunting and often humbling task of biblical interpretation. When I read the Bible, I breathe in the words of ancient men and women who had powerful and life-changing encounters with God, encounters which transformed their lives and altered the way they looked at the world. When I read the Bible, I am reminded that God still encounters people today and that studying the Bible makes me more aware of how God is moving in the world. When I read the Bible, I read how my life must change so that I can resonate more resoundingly with God’s presence.
At least, that’s how it works on the good days. On the bad days, I open up the PDF of the Bible I have on my laptop, search for a keyword, take a sentence completely out of context, and slam it down the throat of whoever is annoying me with an interpretation that is different from mine. On the bad days, I affix a trigger and barrel to my Bible and shoot verse-bullets at people who disagree with me.
Thankfully, my bad days are few and far between. But there are enough Christians in the world that there are always a couple bad days happening, a couple of bible-guns taking aim. And sadly, there are a few very vocal Christians who have built Heavy Water Reactors out of their Bibles and are constantly turning out weapons-grade interpretation.
Here are some warning signs to consider if you suspect WGI in your neighborhood:
Someone holds up a closed Bible while telling you what it says.
Someone says, “The Bible says…” and then strings together single verses from four different books.
Someone tells you that you should hate a particular group of people based on Scripture.
Someone says that if you don’t agree with his or her interpretation you are going to hell.
The vocal proponents of weapons-grade interpretation abuse the Bible for their own ends. Their agendas lead to irresponsible and destructive readings of the Bible, readings which prove rather than inform. The most dangerous way to read the Bible is to think you already know what it says. Let me say that again: The most dangerous way to read the Bible is to think you already know what it says. This leads to a closed book, closed minds, and closed hearts.
But biblical study should expand our hearts, not constrict them. It should open our minds to the wonders of God, not shut them in endless loops of refrigerator magnet theology. Good Bible study begins with a willingness to learn something new and enough humility to be surprised. Responsible Bible study doesn’t seek ammunition for attack, but nutrition for growth.
Over the next several weeks, I plan to post about the mechanics of biblical interpretation so as to foster responsible study for myself and others. I will ask questions such as these: How do we choose what piece of the Bible we are going to study? What should we be aware of when we read the Bible in English? What is the literary content of the passage? How does the passage function in its historical and societal contexts? How has the history of interpretation of the passage colored our understanding of it?
Tackling these questions is a step toward dismantling biblical Heavy Water Reactors. Weapons-grade interpretation damages our relationships with God and keeps people from seeking such relationships. I pray that the sad, unconscionable tradition of using the Bible as a weapon ceases so that the Good News of Jesus Christ can ring out undistorted.