Pentecost 13B (26 August 2012)

Contents

Lectionary

  • I Kings 8:(1,6,10-11),22-30,41-43 & Psalm 84 (or Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18 & Psalm 34:15-22)
  • Ephesians 6:10-20
  • John 6:56-69

 

Introduction

It may be helpful to think of these readings as each engaging in some way with the theme of taking sides:

  • 1 Kings 8: God takes up residence in Jerusalem’s Temple
  • Joshua 24: Israel renews its loyalty to God under the covenant
  • Ephesians 6: Faith as a struggle against the cosmic powers
  • John 6: Division between Jesus’ disciples over his meaning

 

First Reading: Solomon dedicates the Temple

The prayer of Solomon at the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem provides an opportunity for the prophetic story teller to articulate some key themes of the Deuteronomistic reformation that is described in 2 Kings 22-23. This prayer is one of several speeches that provided the narrator with strategic opportunities to present the theological framework for the unfolding story.
Other speeches composed by the so-called Deuteronomist and placed on the lips of key characters include:

  • Moses (Deut 1:1-4:43) – historical review and a call to Torah obedience
  • Moses (Deut 6:1-11:32) – sermon as prelude to the recital of the Torah (chs 12-26)
  • Moses (Deut 31:30-32:43) – the “Song of Moses”
  • Moses (Deut 33:1-29) – the Blessing of Moses
  • Joshua (Josh 24:1-15) – Covenant renewal ceremony speech
  • Samuel (1Sam 12:1-25) – Samuel’s speech at the coronation of Saul
  • Nathan (2Sam 7:1-29) – Nathan’s oracle about the House of David

This literary device is also found in other biblical books with lengthy prayers and speeches attributed to such characters as:

  • Ezra (Neh 9:6-37)
  • Daniel (Dan 9:1-19)

and various figures in Luke-Acts:

  • Jesus (Luke 4)
  • Peter (Acts 2 & 10-11)
  • Stephen (Acts 7)
  • James (Acts 15)
  • Paul (Acts 13, 17, 20, 22, 24 & 26)

The prayer of Solomon is a fiction created by the narrator to communicate important theological concerns of the time when Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel and 1&2 Kings were being created as a prophetic recital of the story of Israel/Judah. The theme of covenant faithfulness was central to their concerns, with each king being assessed according to his loyalty to the beliefs and values of the prophetic circles driving the reform movement in the time of Josiah (640-609 BCE).

This reformation is known as the deuteronomistic movement because its ideas are given classical expression in the book of Deuteronomy, some portion of which may have been the “book of the Torah” found in the Jerusalem Temple during its refurbishment during the reign of Josiah:

The high priest Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the LORD.” When Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, he read it. Then Shaphan the secretary came to the king, and reported to the king, “Your servants have emptied out the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of the workers who have oversight of the house of the LORD.” Shaphan the secretary informed the king, “The priest Hilkiah has given me a book.” Shaphan then read it aloud to the king. When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes. Then the king commanded the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Achbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary, and the king’s servant Asaiah, saying, “Go, inquire of the LORD for me, for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the LORD that is kindled against us, because our ancestors did not obey the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.” [2Kings 22:8-13]

As that story itself indicates, the Temple in Jerusalem played an important role in the history of the Jewish people. Destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE, its reconstruction (albeit on a more modest scale) was one of the first priorities of the post-exilic community under the leadership of prophets like Haggai and Zechariah. Centuries later, Herod the Great would seek to cultivate popular support by a grand scheme to refurbish and enlarge the Temple. That also served as a major work creation program as the project lasted many decades. The recent completion of the Herodian Temple, and its success in attracting vast wealth from pious Jews around the Roman Empire, may have been a factor in the Jewish uprising in 66 CE. Four years later the Temple again lay in ruins. In modern Israel, the dream of rebuilding the Temple is again a focus for fanatical Jewish nationalists and a visit to the Temple Mount site in late 2001 by the then Opposition Leader, Ariel Sharon, triggered the second Palestinian uprising (intifada).

Pictures and historical notes on the Temple Mount site
Psalm 122 evokes a timeless sense of the significance of the city and its Temple, while invoking peace on all who love her:

I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!”
Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem–built as a city that is bound firmly together.
To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD,
as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the LORD.
For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.”
For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your good.

Joshua renews the Covenant

As already mentioned, the stirring speech by Joshua is another literary device fashioned by the Deuteronomist. These anonymous prophets of the biblical past are the unsung heroes of our spiritual tradition. They created a way of seeing the past that shaped their present and gave it a future. They did this so well that their story has become our story, even when we find ourselves dissenting from its narrow ethnic focus or pressing a wider vision of God’s justice for women, the poor, or homosexuals.

We acknowledge – but do not explicitly address in this week’s notes – the historical and ethical problems bound up in these canonical texts.

What we find expressed in this ancient legend of a covenant ceremony led by Joshua after the bloody conquest of Canaan is a prophetic glimpse of a different social order than one where power is concentrated in the hands of a ruler and his immediate retainers. This elite view of power holds sway in the corporate board room as much as in the royal palace.

Israel’s Scriptures preserve another perspective. For the prophets, the “efficiency” of a king could only be tolerated if the “powers that be” were subservient to the values of the covenant. In that older covenant tradition, the obligations and the blessings extended to all the members of the community; not just to the king. This prophetic tradition has been for the most part the way less traveled, as men of religion seem to prefer to imagine God’s dealings with humanity as a secret deal giving privileges to the powerful.

Can we recapture something of the collective identity that sees our destiny as bound up with one another? Can we say like Joshua, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord?” Can we enlarge our vision of “household” to include all humanity, and even the planet as a whole?

Second Reading: Engaged in a Cosmic Conflict

This passage concludes the series of readings from Ephesians.

The selection develops the theme of a cosmic struggle between good and evil, now expressed in terms that seem more at home in a Gnostic document but also with parallels in authentic Pauline passages such as Rom 8:37-39:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers,
nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,
nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The author engages in a fascinating piece of theological reflection upon the military equipment of a Roman soldier to encourage the readers to “stand firm:”

  • belt [truth]
  • breastplate [justice/righteousness]
  • shoes [good news of peace]
  • shield [faith/faithfulness]
  • helmet [salvation]
  • sword [Spirit]

One of my most vivid memories of a Sunday School graduation class involves a dramatic presentation of this passage with a young man dressed progressively in each item before another figure (dressed as Satan) unsuccessfully threw darts at the him! While the metaphor is vivid, we might wonder at Jesus’ disciples embracing such military imagery in their spirituality. One can hardly imagine Jews engaging in a similar reflection on the equipment of a Nazi SS officer in the decades following World War II.

A willingness to use such metaphors in their religious literature may be another pointer that this book comes from a time later in the 1C, when the majority of Christians would have found it easy to identify with the character of a Roman soldier. These would not be Jewish Christians around the time of the Jewish War (66-73 CE).

The theological problem posed by militarism in Christianity is captured nicely in this extract from Walter Wink:

When, beginning with the emperor Constantine, the Christian church began receiving referential treatment by the empire that it had once so steadfastly opposed, war, which had once seemed so evil, now appeared to many to be a necessity for preserving and propagating the gospel.

Christianity’s weaponless victory over the Roman empire eventuated in the weaponless victory of the empire over the gospel. No defeat is so well disguised as victory! In the year 303, Diocletian forbade any member of the Roman army to be a Christian. By the year 416, no one could be a member of the Roman army unless he was a Christian.

It fell to Augustine (d. 430) to make the accommodation of Christianity to its new status as a privileged religion in support of the state. Augustine believed, on the basis of Matt. 5:38-42, that Christians had no right to defend themselves from violence. But he identified a problem which no earlier theologian had faced: what Augustine regarded as the loving obligation to use violence if necessary to defend the innocent against evil. Drawing on Stoic just war principles, he articulated the position that was to dominate church teaching from that time right up to the present. Ever since, Christians on the left and on the right, in the East and in the West, have found it exceedingly easy to declare as “just” and divinely ordained any wars their governments desired to wage for purely national interests. As a consequence, the world regards Christians as among the most warlike factions on the face of the earth. And little wonder; two-thirds of the people killed in the last 500 years died at the hands of fellow-Christians in Europe, to say nothing of those whom Christians killed in the course of colonizing the rest of the world.

As Gandhi once quipped, “The only people on earth who do not see Christ and His teachings as nonviolent are Christians.”

 

Gospel: Divisions over Jesus

This week’s Gospel concludes the extended series on the Bread of Heaven theme from John 6. Next week the major lectionaries all revert to Mark, the default Gospel for Year B in the three year cycle.

It is something of a surprise to read (6:59) that Jesus has been delivering this discourse in the synagogue at Capernaum, since the action has all seemed to be outdoors until this note.

John now describes a conflict within the band of disciples (not between Jesus and “the Jews” such as we often find in GJohn). Some of the disciples find this teaching about eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood to be offensive. As John tells the tale, this is evidence that they were not blessed by the Father with the spiritual disposition required for discipleship.

The Johannine community had evidently experienced painful schism towards the end of the 1C, with those who had separated even earning the new label, “antichrists:”

Children, it is the last hour!
As you have heard that antichrist is coming,
so now many antichrists have come.
From this we know that it is the last hour.
They went out from us,
but they did not belong to us;
for if they had belonged to us,
they would have remained with us.
But by going out they made it plain
that none of them belongs to us. [1John 2:18-19]

Something of that painful experience—of separation from those who cannot embrace the idea of Jesus as the human (flesh and blood) face of God—is seen in another passage of 1John 4:1-3:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world.

The readers of the Gospel are to imitate Peter who responds (6:68-69) when asked if the remaining disciples will also abandon Jesus:

“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

 

Jesus Database

 

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:

 

Music Suggestions

See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.

About gregoryjenks

Anglican priest and religion scholar. Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University. Dean-elect, Cathedral Church of Christ the King, Grafton. Formerly Dean at St George's College, Jerusalem. Currently serving as the locum priest at Byron Bay Anglican Parish.
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