Friday, June 13, 2008

Some Notes on the Readings for Proper Eleven, Year A

The Sentence for today, “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel,” is from Mark 1:15, and appears in today’s Gospel reading: when Jesus sends out his apostles he tells them to proclaim: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (“Kingdom of heaven” is the more usual expression in Matthew.) Jesus’ teaching is centred on the thought of the kingdom; so must the Church’s be.

The Readings:
First Reading, Genesis 18. 1-15, 21.1-7:
On the “ordinary” Sundays of Year A the first lessons follow the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Patriarchs of Israel (to Proper 20), and then the story of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt (to Proper 33). Since these Sunday readings are selections, it would be very helpful if we all read the Genesis and Exodus so when we hear the readings in Church it will be clear where they fit into the whole story. This is a good method of home Bible-study, which can be done by individuals or by families.
Last Sunday we began to read the story of Abraham, and heard how he answered God’s call and migrated to the land of Canaan. Today we continue with the story of the birth of Isaac. When God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation, Abraham was already seventy-five; now he is almost a hundred. Not knowing how else the promise should be fulfilled, he had a son by his Egyptian servant Hagar, the boy Ishmael. God said that Ishamel would become a great nation, but that the promise he made would come through a child of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham laughed at this (17:15-17; compare today’s reading, 18.12-15). God commanded Abraham to circumcise himself and his son Ishmael (17.22-end).
Today’s passage begins with an appearance of the Lord to Abraham, technically known as a “theophany” (18.1). Three men appear, and in typical oriental courtesy Abraham greets them with honour and offers them hospitality. (18.2-8). A rabbinic commentary says that the “servant” (literally “boy” or “youth”) who prepared the calf was Ishmael, who was now about fourteen years old. When they had eaten, the visitors asked about Sarah. Although Abraham has been talking to the three men, suddenly we are told that “the Lord” promised that she would have a son (18.10). At this Sarah laughs, and is upbraided for her lack of faith. It is important to know that the name Isaac means “he laughs”.
The reading then omits the next two sections of Genesis, 18.16-19.38, which tells of Lot and the destrruction of the cities of the Plain, and Genesis 20 which tells the story of Abraham, Sarah, and King Abimelech of Gerar. The reading continues with the birth and naming of Isaac in 21.1-7.
The immediate meaning of the reading is the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah, which drives on the story of the chosen people and the whole history of universal salvation through Abraham’s descandant, Jesus of Nazareth.
In these brief notes we cannot discuss in detail the difficulty of understanding the appearance of the Lord God to Abraham in the arrival of three strangers. Is this an ancient myth of the appearance of three deities who reward the hospitality of mortals that has been adapted to a monotheistic narrative? Are they three angels, or the Lord with two angel attendants? How do we understand the change from the plural to the singular at verse 10? A start can be made by consulting a commenary such as the Jerome Bible Commentary, or the volume on Genesis in a series such as the Anchor Bible. Here we should note that in patristic and Eastern Orthodox tradition this passage is seen as a revelation of the Trinity. You may know the famous icon of the three angels seated at table. This isnterpretation is also found in St Augustine’s great De Trinitate. You might be unfamiliar with this interpretation, but it is a good idea to think about it. It is hard not to think of this appearance as one of the Old Testament hints of the Trinity. A question you mght ask yourself is, If we believe that God is from all eternity three Persons in one Essence, and further that God the Son is the Word and Revelation of the Father, how do we understand accounts of God's appearance or speaking in the Old Testament.

Psalm 116.1, 10-17
Psalm 116 is a psalm of thanksgiving for healing. It is one of the “Hallelujah” Psalms (113-118) which in the Jewish liturgical tradition are used in connection with the great festivals. The same passage from Psalm 116 is used on Maundy Thursday, a choice that is obvious from the verse, “I will lift up the cup of salvation. Its place in this Sunday’s readings is most likely a reflection of the thanksgiving of Abraham and Sarah for the gift of Isaac.
Note that the BAS does not number the verses in the same way as other translations, which number today’s passage as verses 1-2, and 12-18. Use these verse numbers if you want to look up the psalm in your Bible or Book oof Common Prayer instead of the BAS

The Epistle: Romans 5.1-8
The famous verse “for God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3.16) is sometimes called “the gospel within the gospel”. Today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans ends with a verse of equal power: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5.8). As we noted in these notes last week, the history of salvation as recorded in Scripture is the story of God’s reaching out in love to save us, not of our blundering our way to God. Since selections from the letter to the Romans are appointed for the next thirteen Sundays, it might be useful to take a quick overview of that letter today.
Of Paul’s letters the one to the Romans comes first in the New Testament order but was not the earliest. It is also “the longest, the weightiest and the most influential of them”(NOAB). It was written between AD 54 and AD 58, perhaps in 57, at a time when he was getting ready to go to Jerusalem with a collection from the Churches of Greece and Asia for the community in Jerusalem (see 25). He then planned to go to Spain, and visit Rome on the way (15.28). He knew of the church at Rome but had never visited them; indeed this is the only letter of Paul to a community he had not seen. Here is a simple outline of the letter, based on one in the NOAB:
After the salutation and thanksgiving , which are a regular feature of his letters (1.1-17). Paul describes the world’s need of redemption (1.18-3.20). The he discusses God’s saving act in Christ: its nature (3.21-4.25) and the new life which it has made available (5.1-8.39). After a section dealing with the role of the Jewish nation in God’s plan (Chapters 9-11), he ends with ethical teaching and some personal remarks (chapters 12-16)
Today’s passage is from the beginning of the section on the new life in Christ. It was part of the epistle for the third Sunday in Lent this year. Many years ago W. Sanday wrote on this passage in a commentary on Romans:
A description of the serene and blissful state which the sense of justification brings. Faith brings justification; justification brings (let us see that is does bring peace—peace with God through the mediation of Jesus. To that mediation it is that the Christian owes his state of grace or acceptance in the present, and his triumphant hope of glory in the future. Nay, the triumph begins now. It begins even with tribulation for tribulation leads by gradual stages to that tried and approved constancy which is a virtue most nearly allied to hope. Such hope does not deceive. It is grounded on the consciousness of justifying love assured to us by the wonderful sacrifice of the death of Christ. The one great and difficult step was that which reconciled sinful man to God; the completion of the process of his salvation follows by easy sequence. Knowing this, our consciousness, just spoken of, takes a glow of triumph.

The Holy Gospel according to St Matthew 9.35-10.8 (9-23).
I probably don't need to mention said that the Gospel readings iin Year A are (mostly) from St Matthew's Gospel. If you have never read the whole of Matthew's Gospel now would be a perfect time. It is a good practice, apart from study of any particular passage, simply to read through the gospel just like any other book,
This passage tells how Jesus sent out the twelve apostles to preach and heal, with power over the unclean spirits. Much of the passage is taken up with his instructions for their journey.
The general lesson from this passage is that the disciples of Jesus are called in order to be sent out. Compare Jesus’ words in John 15.16: “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit …” We are not all called to go on missionary journeys, but we are called to bear Christ’s love to the people among whom we live.
The notes on this passage at are very good, and it would be pointless [and possibly unethical] to redo all that work here. However, a couple of details and questions need further comment.
The words “When he saw the crowds he had compassion on them” are a somewhat weak rendering of the original. To the ancients the seat of the emotions —what we would call the heart— was the abdomen. The underlying image is that the misery of the people hit him in the stomach. Another translation might be “He was gripped in his heart concerning them.”
In 10.1 it is said that Jesus called his “Twelve disciples”; in 10.2 they are called the “Twelve apostles”. I have not yet found a helpful comment on the distinction here, and point it out for you to think about. We know from other passages that there were more disciples than the twelve.The names of the Twelve are also given in Mark
3:16-19; Luke 6:14-16; Acts 1:13.; there are some differences in the less well-known disciples. You could do worse for further information on this subject than to consult to Wikipedia article Apostles” []. Wikipedia, like all sources, should be used with caution.
Jesus instructs his disciples to proclaim that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In the Gospels the kingdom is sometimes pictured as future, to be inaugurated in the coming in glory of the Son of Man, and sometimes as already present in the world, growing to a final consummation in the coming of the Son of Man. In the preaching of Jesus, the kingdom is coming into the world in and with himself . So in Matthew 12.28, “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” In this passage the kingdom is at hand, present and working in Jesus’ teaching, as shown in the healings that accompanied it. The kingdom of God is present in the world when the soul of a man or woman is ruled by God. It is more than simply doing God’s will; it is God’s power in one, both requiring that his will be done and giving the power to do it.

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