Proper 16B: Living in the Cloud

CloudOLD TESTAMENT: 1 Kings 8: (1,6,10-11), 22-30, 41-43

Read the Passage

This week’s passage occurs some eleven years after the setting of last week’s reading. Solomon’s kingdom is solidified and is entering its second decade. The previous chapters tell of the seven years that it took to build the temple. Solomon uses the finest building materials and the most talented and experience craftsmen. The building is magnificent. When the temple is ready, Solomon brings up the Ark of the Covenant, which has been in the Tabernacle, and installs it in the Temple, in the innermost sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, under the wings of the cherubim. As soon as the priests put the Ark in its place, a cloud fills the Temple and the glory of the Lord inhabits it.

This cloud has appeared before—when the Israelites were escaping the Egyptian army, when they were given the Commandments as a gift from God and a symbol of the covenant, and then the cloud settled on the Tabernacle. The cloud represents God’s Presence to the writer of this account. It represents continuity. The same God who brought them out of danger now dwells with them in the land.

For us in our Christian understanding, it is difficult to understand the significance of the Temple in Jewish theology. The Temple is the place of which God says, “My name shall be there.” It is the place where heaven meets earth and where God’s glory appears. And yet, Solomon’s prayer does not confine God to the Temple. He acknowledges that the “house”, the Temple, cannot contain God. For this reason, even though the Temple is central to Israel’s worship, it is not essential. When it is destroyed (twice to come), God is still present and attentive to the people.

By including “foreigners”, Solomon is also asking God to heed the prayers of others. We, then, are included in God’s mercy and have access to God even at this early stage in history (and, for that matter, realize our own calling to include others beyond our own traditions and beliefs). The Temple is a sign and a means of Communion with God. It is not the only place God is, but is still a sign of God’s mercy and God’s presence which is available to all.

Solomon’s prayers are, once again, not limited to himself. Before, rather than asking for riches or success, remember that Solomon asked for wisdom. Now he asks for justice and God’s presence with the people. Praying for justice should not be construed as praying for destructing of the unjust, but rather a prayer for us to realize our own role in the realization of that justice, whether it be a change in how we view the world or courage to speak the truth in love.

Solomon’s words bring us an important understanding of prayer. The Lord is not just the property of Israel (or, for that matter, any other one group of people). Solomon alludes to the incomparable and magnanimous grace of the Lord which extends beyond the imaginations and beyond any disagreements with neighbors that we may have, which extends into the world, the just and the unjust, the wise and the unwise. Realization of this and prayers for wisdom and justice drive home the notion that God is God, that God is not our property or our agent, that God is not on our side or on the other side or even on some side that a third party is inventing. It is finally getting us to the point where we figure out that the way we connect with this God is to leave our alliances, our riches, and our own sense of who we think God is on the ground beneath us, repent, and then, finally, turn toward a new perception of reality that we cannot control or contain.

Maybe we systematic, dogmatic, and pragmatic followers of Christ have it wrong. Perhaps there is a cloud after all. Perhaps when we understand faith not as belief or knowledge but as gaining the insight to walk into the cloud, then we will finally be on our journey toward Communion with God.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What is your understanding of God’s Presence? How does the Temple or other spaces play into that for you?
  3. How does this speak to you about the inclusion of others in our understanding of God’s Presence?
  4. What does this say about our understanding of wisdom? About our understanding of justice?
  5. How does this speak to your own understanding of God?

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Ephesians 6: 10-20

To read the passage, click on http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=306301785)

This passage is familiar to most Christians. So familiar, in fact, that it is often used to justify violence or retribution in God’s name. But, really, does that even mesh with what we know of the message of Christ or what Paul and his own disciples (such as the writer of Ephesians) were trying to espouse?

These verses form the climax of the letter, and the word “finally” connects them with what has preceded (and what we have read the last few weeks). The writer’s imperatives to “be strong” in the Lord and “put on” the armor of God imply a realization of our human inadequacy for spiritual “battle”. The struggle here, though, is not meant to be a “flesh and blood” struggle, but one against the powers of this world. This is not intended to imply some sort of personal fight against “Satan”, the devil, or any other “other-worldly” influence. This is a call to abide in God in the face of the powers of this world—the powers of greed, political power, materialism, selfishness…you name it.

The “armor” is meant to be a metaphor. (Once again, taking this literally is not only a misinterpretation but could produce dangerous consequences.). Here, the “belt” is truth; the “breastplate” is righteousness; the “shoes” are the “gospel of peace”; the “shield” is faith; the “helmet” is salvation, and the “sword” is the Spirit or the Word. These weapons are indeed meant for “war” but it is a different kind of war. “Putting on the whole armor of God”, taking unto oneself the things that are of God, readies one to live the Gospel, to live and speak a “battle” for peace, and justice, and mercy for all. It is a call to employ the “weapons” of the Spirit of God. (Quite different from “going to war” in the name of God!)

The readers of the letter are exhorted to “be strong”. The Greek here is actually a reflexive tense. In other words, we are told to “strengthen ourselves” and “clothe ourselves”. There is an acknowledgment here of God’s power within us. There is work to do.

This passage and, for that matter, all of Ephesians, is a call to abandon any sort of Christian naiveté that fails to recognize the forces that bring destruction and division in our world (and those that bring destruction and division even within our communities, our families, or ourselves). It is not a call to appease them, but to stand up against them.

The final call to serious prayer echoes the emphasis with which this passage began: the need to have a grounded and solid spirituality as a basis for living with Christ’s vision and power in the world rather than an agenda served up by those that see change as a threat. This spirituality is subversive. It warrants change, rather than a type of Christian triumphalism and hate-mongering. When spirituality is subversive, peace has a chance. So, there…”Onward, Christian Soldiers”. (Good grief I hate that hymn when it’s not explained! J) But, really, there’s nothing wrong with the words of the hymn themselves. They are meant to echo the call of Ephesians. But popular culture has seemed to turn it into a processional of Christian triumphalism. And then you add the military language and it gets completely usurped into something that in no way resembles what the Christian message entails. But I don’t think this hymn is meant to call us to either triumphalism or militarism, but rather a call to enter into God’s ongoing redemption of all of Creation. So here are the words to the familiar hymn, Onward Christian Soldiers, written in 1864 by Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, keeping in mind the way the writer of Ephesians framed this passage:

 

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before.

Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe; forward into battle see his banners go!

 

At the sign of triumph Satan’s host doth flee; on then, Christian soldiers, on to victory!

Hell’s foundations quiver at the shout of praise;

[people] lift your voices, loud your anthems raise.

 

Like a mighty army moves the church of God, [people] we are treading where the saints

have trod.

We are not divided, all one body we, one in hope and doctrine, one in charity.

 

Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane, but the church of Jesus

constant will remain.

Gates of hell can never ‘gainst that church prevail; we have Christ’s own promise, and

that cannot fail.

 

Onward then, ye people, join our happy throng, blend with ours your voices in the

         triumph song.

Glory, laud, and honor unto Christ the King, this through countless ages [we] and angels

sing.

 

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before!

 

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. In what ways is this passage misused in our society?
  3. What does this “armor” of God mean for you?
  4. What are your thoughts about the words of the familiar hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers”?
  5. What does this passage, taken in this way, call us to do?

 

GOSPEL: John 6: 56-69

(To read the passage, click on http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=306301700)

For the fifth week in a row, we are in the sixth chapter of John. Throughout the chapter, is the discussion of the bread that gives life. The words have been greeted with misunderstanding, confusion, and rejection. In today’s reading, we hear the disciples’ reaction, those closest to Jesus, those who have been handed all of the explanations. These are not just the “twelve” disciples, but rather “the many” probably refers to some of the periphery of Jesus’ other followers, those who have joined Jesus and the Twelve as they have made this journey through the region. But these disciples are one of “us”. They are not limited to the “them” about which we keep hearing.

So the fact that they don’t get it is uncomfortable. The point is, though, that they probably do understand it and just cannot believe it or accept it. Perhaps they understand it so well that they see the writing on the wall as to what it means for their own lives. Jesus’ reference to the “flesh” as useless is not a rejection or a condemnation of the body or a denial of God’s goodness. “Flesh”, here, refers to the “normal” way of seeing. Faith is presented as the work of God. We need faith, we need the Spirit, to believe (and God, in God’s incredible mercy and grace, offers it to all!) It is because of this that our calling is not just to belief, but to “abiding” in Christ, to entering Christ, even with our unbelief.

The truth is, again, that these hearers wanted something that was easily understood, something that they could put their arms around, so to speak. And they wanted something that was convenient, something that they could put in their pocket and carry away. Do you mean following the old traditions, the old laws, or do you mean writing new laws? Which is it? Tell us the easiest way to understand. Tell us the fastest way to be part of this. And what are you talking about, with words of blood and bread. That makes no sense. Which is it? Either it is the way we know or it is against what we know. Which is it?

Jesus’ answer over and over again was “neither”. It is not the old way of the traditional religion and it is not the way of the more and more prevalent powers of the society and the government in which they live. It is, you see, not a way that necessarily fits in with any of the ways of this world. Jesus calls us to “abide in these ways”, not just by believing or blindly accepting what he said but by entering the way of Christ, even in the midst of our unbelief. Because even in the midst of rejection and unbelief, God still works, continually calling all into life. Abiding in Christ is not a matter of picking which way of being is right and which way of being is wrong; it is about looking at life differently and entering a new life and a new way of being altogether. It is, in essence, proclaiming “neither” and beginning to live in a new way—a life lived within God’s vision of mercy, justice, and peace.

In this world in which we live, we are always presented with choices–good versus bad, healthy versus unhealthy, saving versus spending, conservative versus liberal, violence versus sitting back and letting things overtake us. We live in a sort of black and white, “paper or plastic” society. But God calls us to a different way. Walter Wink coined the phrase “the third way”. It recognizes both that power and systems are not God but also that every power and every system is redeemable. Rather than a distinction between good and evil, perhaps it is one between the already and the not yet. “Nothing”, Wink claims, “is outside the redemptive care and transforming love of God.” You see, redemption is not just a personal gift to us, but, a gift to the world. It is an invitation to every aspect of this world to abide in God, to live in a way that is different, to live in a third way.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does God in the midst of unbelief mean for you?
  3. How does unbelief affect your faith journey?
  4. What are some of our stumbling blocks to our faith?
  5. So, why do you stay?
  6. How would you depict that “third way”?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

Christians are people who, because we know something about the end, the final purposes of God, heaven, we don’t “settle in”. We keep up a holy restiveness. We keep moving, keep standing on tiptoes, expectant, because we have been offered a vision of a new heaven and a new earth where God at last gets what God wants. (Bishop William Willimon)

 

Human beings may separate things into as many piles as we wish—separating spirit from flesh, sacred from secular, church from world. But we should not be surprised when God does not recognize the distinctions we make between the two. Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars. (Barbara Brown Taylor in An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, p. 15.)

 

Good and evil, then, cannot be a pair of opposites like right and left or above and beneath. “Good” is the movement in the direction of home, “evil” is the aimless whirl of human potentialities without which nothing can be achieved and by which, if they take no direction but remain trapped in themselves, everything goes awry. (Martin Buber)

 

 

Closing

 

To see Thee is the end and the beginning, Thou carriest us, and Thou dost go before,

Thou are the journey, and the Journey’s end. Amen.

(Boethius, c. 480-524)

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