FIRST LESSON: 1 Kings 18:20-21, 30-39
This reading is set in the time of King Ahab’s reign in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. These were contentious times. Ahab’s father had entered into an agreement with the King of Phoenicia and had accepted his daughter, Jezebel, as consideration to become a wife for Ahab. Jezebel was an avid worshipper of the god, Baal and was determined to replace the Israelites worship of Yahweh with her own religion. Ahab could not stand against her and, in fact, even built a temple to his wife’s god, Baal, in the capital of Samaria. Many of the Israelites had, in fact, begun to follow Baal. It was probably easier, when you think about it, to worship an idol and participate in its feats of magic and sex rituals than to continue to believe in this unseeable and unprovable God of their own faith. After all, life was hard. Drought surrounded them. They had to look for something that would change the situation.
But Elijah objects to this Baal worship and challenges everything about it. He gathers the religious leaders and he pushes the people to decide which God they would worship, to decide which God they would devote their life. He got no answer. After all, it is difficult to continue to follow a god when the culture and the society seems to be turning another way. But, on the other hand, it is hard to give up one’s tradition, the very identity that one has always known.
So Elijah sets up a contest, a test really, in which he gave numerous advantages to Baal. He built the altar of the Lord back with twelve stones to symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel, to symbolize the God of all. And then he began to pray. He called on God and God once again was in some way revealed to the people that had once claimed this God of their ancestors.
This text is, of course, bothersome and problematic on several levels. After all, was Elijah going through all of this to prove God to the people? After all, any god who can be proven is nothing more than an idol. And does God really want us to get into some sort of one-upmanship, a “my God can beat up your God” mentality? Do we really want to worship a God that is “with us” and “against our enemies”? Maybe Elijah’s intent was simply meant to be more of a reminder of who they were as God’s people. They were people that did not need proof but rather a people who trusted God, trusted God to be present whether or not they could see or prove God, relied on God’s presence even when life was difficult, even when nothing about it makes any sense. After all, God is not playing some sort of game of divine hide and seek. God is here, always present, always showing up, always revealing the Godself to us. But when we begin to look for things that are what we would like God to be, we lose sight of the way that God is revealed to us.
God does not promise certainty. God does not promise a life of ease and plenty. God doesn’t even promise that every prayer that we pray will be answered in exactly the way we want. Why would we need faith for that? All that would require is some sort of prayer vending machine. And if any of that was the case, there would be no reason for faith, nothing that would compel us to desire God in the deepest part of our being and to live lives that quench that desire by drawing near to the God who is already there. God also doesn’t call us to a blind faith. There is nothing that calls us to just shut up and accept it all hook, line, and sinker. There was never anything about God that was that callous and inaccessible. This grace-filled God instead invites us to participate in the work of God. And, we are called to just open ourselves to what God offers and to the God that is already there.
God has many names. There are many ways to God. But the world is full of Baals, those things that are truly idols, that are easy, and touchable, and tempting to put at the top of our priorities. But, the truth is, we have to let go of the Baals we worship, those things that we claim that make us into something other than the ones who God calls us to be. So, does God call us to choose? You bet. God calls us to choose the best pathway in our lives to lead us to the One who will quench the desire that is in the deepest part of our being, the desire to be with the One who will give us life and lead us to be life-giving for ourselves and for others.
1) What is your response to this passage?
2) What ways do we try to obtain proof of God?
3) What are the Baals that we find ourselves worshipping at times in place of God? What are those things on which we rely?
4) What does this notion of certainty have do with our ways of evangelizing today?
NEW TESTAMENT: Galatians 1: 1-12
The beginning of this letter from Paul to the newly-formed church at Galatia depicts Paul’s frustration. Apparently, the members of this new community are somehow backtracking a bit, probably due to other charismatic preachers who are presenting a different translation of the Gospel than the one that Paul had preached when he was with them. Paul is obviously frustrated. Seemingly, the church has very quickly deserted the beliefs that Paul must have thought they had really understood.
So, he again, reminds them that he is called to lead them in the teachings of Jesus Christ. He is not seeking approval but is rather emphasizing his tie to the Gospel. He is also defending himself and his teachings against what must have been a slanderous diatribe from these false preachers. This “new teaching” is actually much less inclusive than Paul’s. (Boy, you don’t hear that often, do you?) The claim from those attacking Paul was that Gentiles must first become Jews if they want to call themselves followers of Christ, which would include a requirement of circumcision for males. For them, Paul was sort of watering down the Gospel to make it easier for Gentiles to become a part of it.
For Paul, though, this revelation of Christ has begun a whole new age. The temple doors have been opened wide and all are invited to enter. Paul insists that he has been given this revelation and that God has truly welcomed all into the Kingdom of God. Through grace, God welcomes all not because of what they do or because of who they are but simply because they are children of God.
Perhaps it was easier to believe that one had to do something to please God. Perhaps the thought that God just offers freedom and grace to all is unbelievable. Maybe we have the same problem and try to turn the Gospel into something that it is not. Our culture is based on consumerism. You don’t get something for nothing, so, when you think about it, this makes no sense. Maybe that’s why some Christians seem to adhere better to more of a rule-driven version of the Gospel, a clear and concise depiction of who is in and who is out. But this is not what Paul preached. This is not the Gospel.
Paul was clearly upset by these developments. After all, he loved this church. And the fact that they were lapsing into some sort of perverted version of the Gospel hurt him. This letter was a bold statement. It was a discourse against what this society was doing to Christ’s image, to the freedom and grace of the Gospel. Maybe this text is not just a clarification for us of the Gospel but is also a calling for us to be the church, to speak against perversions of the Gospel of freedom and grace, to rid our church of those ways that we change the Gospel into something that is easier or more believable or more affirming of the way we live our lives. What is the Gospel? It means “good news”, but what IS the Gospel? In its simplest terms, it is love. It is love the way that Christ loved. It is entering that love that God offers all and becoming love itself. Because it is love that draws us to God and love that reveals God to us. And that is REALLY good news. No, it doesn’t really make sense in this world in which we live. Maybe that’s good news too.
1) What meaning does this passage hold for you?
2) What are ways that we pervert the Gospel today? What are our “requirements” for others to enter the Kingdom of God?
3) How would you describe the Gospel, the good news?
GOSPEL: Luke 7: 1-10
The profile of the centurion sets up this story. First of all, he obviously wasn’t Jewish. And he was also Roman. In fact, he was part of the military hierarchy of the Roman army, sort of a mid-level officer. He was part of that Roman occupation that was always such a problem for the Jewish people. And, yet, he has heard of Jesus and he seeks his help. He has to, then, have some level of faith. In fact, he has done nice things for the Jewish people in his midst. Still, for Jesus, this man was part of the enemy of his people, of those who he had supposedly come to save. This man represented the culture that was the antithesis of who Jesus was, of the Gospel itself.
But, once again, God shows up in the most surprising of places. And God is there for both the insiders and the outsiders, revealing the Godself in ways that are not the ways that we have figured out. Jesus did not look at the centurion and see an enemy, see a representative of all that was wrong in his world. Instead, he looked at him and he saw someone in need. He saw someone who loved his slave enough to want the best for him. He saw someone with faith. And Jesus actually opened himself to being reshaped into a Messiah for all.
Maybe part of the message of this text is just that. Reconciliation with our enemies, or those with whom we disagree, or simply those who are not part of us shapes us into what God is calling us to be. It opens us to the real meaning of the Gospel. Jesus was amazed at the centurion’s faith. Here was a soldier, one in power, who freely and humbly submitted himself not because he thought himself worthy but because he yearned for what Christ offered. And even Jesus was open enough to be surprised. So how open are we to God’s surprising us?
There’s another point to this too. The centurion was not petitioning Jesus for himself. Instead he was carrying someone else to Christ. And he was risking between totally shunned, perhaps even harmed. But he was offering the Gospel to another and in the process was showered in grace. So what does that say to us? Is it possible that if we open ourselves to offering the Gospel to even those who are not part of us, perhaps even to our enemies, that God will surprise us in a way that we never imagined? Is it possible, even, that those whom we relegate to outsiders or even to enemies, might have a greater faith than we do and might be the way that God is revealed to us? Is it possible that extending boundaries IS the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
1) What meaning does this passage hold for you?
2) Who are those to whom we are neglecting to offer the Gospel?
3) In what places are you surprised to find God?
4) What do you think of the possibility that God might be revealed through the faith of our enemies?
5) How would you describe the meaning of the Gospel after reading this text?
6) What does this say to us about the meaning of our church membership?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
“I won’t take no for an answer,” God began to say to me when He opened His arms each night wanting us to dance. (St. Catherine of Sienna)
Maybe others want God to be black-and-white, a figure of neat divisions and clear-cut Law, but I want God to be in flagrant swirling Technicolor. Only those who live beyond themselves ever become fully themselves. (Molly Wolf)
Whoever you are, in whatever faith you were born, whatever creed you profess; if you come to this house to find God you are welcome here. (John Wesley)
Ever let mercy outweigh all else in you. Let our compassion be a mirror where we may see in ourselves that likeness and that true image which belong to the Divine nature and Divine essence. Amen.
(Isaac of Syria, c.700)