Monday, February 19, 2018

New Names for the Faithful - 25 February 2018 - Second Sunday in Lent

Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, and followers of Jesus become cross-bearers. “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” God makes outrageous promises, and the faithful who hear the call and trust in it are exalted with new identity.

It is told of Martin Luther that he said each morning as he splashed water on his face, “I am baptized.” It was this sure knowledge of being marked as God’s own forever that fueled his courage as he faced both pope and emperor and refused to stop calling for reform. . .

As we walk the road to Jerusalem with Jesus in this season, as we face the powers of this world to declare, despite the consequences, that love is more powerful than hate, that peace needs to “made” as intentionally as war, that the hungry deserve bread, we live the baptismal truth that nothing. . . can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus [Rom 8:38-39]. . .  –– Scott Haldeman

Mark 8:31-38

In Mark 8:31–38, what appalls Peter about Jesus’ prediction is not just that Jesus must suffer but that, inevitably, those who follow him will face suffering and rejection, too. In contemporary parlance we sometimes trivialize the “cross we have to bear.” What are the more important crosses we might face, the circumstances in which today’s Christians might have to make real sacrifice for the sake of the real Gospel? –– David Bartlett

In Mark 8:27–30, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Predictably, he gets widely variant answers, but Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus does not respond directly to this claim, but “ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” Among the many different claims about the Messiah in Jesus’ time, none of them would have called for the Messiah to suffer and be rejected the way Jesus describes in this passage. It should be no surprise then that Peter would question Jesus’ statements and likely he would have been shocked at the sternness of Jesus’ rebuke, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” –– Jonathan D. Lawrence

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

One of last week’s readings described God’s covenant with Noah and all living things. This text focuses on God’s covenant with Abraham and through him with all of his descendants, promising land, descendants, and a blessing. . .  

Of course, the very idea of descendants is shocking in this story, since Abraham and Sarah were too old to even imagine having a child. Yet. . . God’s promise of a son is fulfilled, as proof that with God all things are possible.

In the course of their encounter with God, Abram and Sarai become renamed as Abraham and Sarah. Sarah’s name does not change significantly in its meaning “Princess,” but Abraham, formerly “Exalted Father” becomes “Father of a Multitude.” –– Jonathan D. Lawrence

Romans 4:13-25

Paul suggests that the promises to Abraham were fulfilled not through the law but through “the righteousness of faith.” He refers specifically to Genesis 17:5 and God’s promise that Abraham would be the “father of many nations.” He speaks of Abraham’s unwavering faith that God would fulfill those promises, which could refer indirectly to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac at God’s command. This deep faith is presented as a model for Christians who put similar trust in Jesus and his death and resurrection. –– Jonathan Lawrence



David Bartlett, an ordained American Baptist minister, is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, and Lantz Professor Emeritus of Christian Communication at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut.

W. Scott Haldeman is associate professor of worship at Chicago Theological Seminary, Illinois.

Jonathan D. Lawrence, an American Baptist Church ordained minister, teaches Religious Studies and Theology at Canisius College, Buffalo, New York.


Homily Service 39, no. 4 (2006): 22-32.




Monday, February 12, 2018

Beasts and Angels in the Wilderness - 14 February 2018 - First Sunday in Lent

Mark 9:9-15

This short passage in Mark combines two important events that are described in much greater detail in Matthew and Luke—the baptism and temptation of Jesus. Thus several important details found in the other versions are lacking here, such as John the Baptist’s reaction to Jesus’ request and his testimony to the heavenly acclamation. (See Matthew 3:13–17, Luke 3:21–22, and John 1:29–34.) . . .

Mark also deals with Jesus’ temptation only in passing. Given that Mark’s impetus is to emphasize that “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near,” and to get to the story of Jesus’ passion, such minimal detail in these early episodes may be understandable. . .

The reference to beasts and angels in the wilderness could be an allusion to Elijah, who was helped by ravens during the drought and later by angels on his forty-day flight into the wilderness. The idea of forty days, often in the wilderness, appears in one form or another in three of the readings for today, an echo in a sense of the forty days of Lent which we have entered this week.

The early church called for forty days of preparation for catechumens, which ultimately developed into the observance of Lent for all Christians, not just new believers. –– Jonathan D. Lawrence

Genesis 9:8-17

Genesis 9 introduces the first of several covenants that will be discussed in the lectionary over the next few weeks, God’s covenant with Noah and all living creatures. Here God promises never again to threaten extinction or destruction by floodwater and gives the rainbow as a sign of that promise of protection. Ironically, that sign seems to be more for God’s benefit as a reminder not to destroy the earth than as a comfort to humans that God will not forget. –– Jonathan Lawrence

1 Peter 3:18-22

This short passage connects the story of Noah to the practice of baptism and the significance of Christ’s death. The writer sees Christ’s death and rebirth in the spirit as an innocent suffering or sacrifice on the behalf of all people. The reference to “the spirits in prison,” is cryptic, especially since the description “who in former times did not obey” is presented in the context of the Noah story where the emphasis is on Noah’s obedience and faith.

Early Christians drew on Peter’s symbolism here and used the ark as a symbol of baptism, since “a few, that is eight persons, were saved through water.” Christian paintings in the catacombs and elsewhere used this symbol, in connection to the Eucharist as well. The idea is that just as Noah spent forty days in the ark, as a sign of faith and as the water washed away the sins of the world, Christians wash their sins away (not just physical dirt) and seek God’s care and rescuing. Again, as in the other passages for today, repentance, humility and trust are required of those seeking to follow God. –– Jonathan Lawrence



Jonathan D. Lawrence, an American Baptist Church ordained minister, teaches Religious Studies and Theology at Canisius College, Buffalo, New York.



Homily Service 39, no. 4 (2006): 13-21.




Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Rend Your Hearts - 14 February 2018 - Ash Wednesday


Welcome! At midnight tonight begins the Season of Lent, a time of forty days leading up to Easter. It is a time of prayer and reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ presence in our lives and in the world; a time to look within ourselves to see what needs changing and healing as we seek to follow Jesus more willingly and more completely.

In Bible times when people sinned and were sorry they would sometimes put ashes on their heads as a symbol for their sin, and as a way of saying they were sorry for doing wrong. Sin is when people act and think as if they don’t care about God or about themselves or other people or about God’s world.

Tonight, we too will use the symbol of ashes to express our sadness about sin. The ashes come from the palms we used last Palm Sunday as we welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem. They remind us that Jesus is King and that we are God’s creation of the earth. They also remind us of new life, from which new plants grow and abundant life comes. The ashes are mixed with oil, which in Bible times was a sign of God’s favor and God’s healing. –– Sara Webb Phillips

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

There’s no evading the odd fact that Matthew 6:1–6 and 16–(18)21 seems to be an anti-Ash Wednesday text assigned for Ash Wednesday. The passage apparently warns us away from every kind of visible piety. In order to live out Jesus’ injunctions everyone should stop at a restroom on the way out of Ash Wednesday services and wash off those ashes. Matthew’s gospel more than any other is a manual for discipleship—piety is done secretly; charity is done openly. How do we relate the appropriate concern with liturgical faithfulness to the warnings against showiness and hypocrisy? –– David Bartlett

Joel 2:1-2,12-17

In the Hebrew Bible, fasting and repentance are often prescribed in times of suffering and danger or under threat of such concerns. Here the threat is not attack by a human army, but the “day of the LORD” and the destruction and terror it brings.

. . . Joel calls for fasting, but in a redefined form. He calls upon the people to return to God with fasting and repentance, but rather than rending their clothes as a sign of that repentance, they are asked to “rend your hearts and not your clothing.” –– Jonathan Lawrence

2 Corinthians 5:20b––6:10

Just as the psalmist pledged to “teach transgressors your ways,” Paul seeks to reconcile the Corinthians to God, serving as an ‘‘ambassador for Christ.’’ In many of the readings for today, it is not the act but the motivation that counts, the way we respond to God’s gifts. So too here, he urges them “not to accept the grace of God in vain.” He cites Isaiah 49:8 in its reference to an acceptable time, a day of salvation, which Paul says has arrived. –– Jonathan Lawrence



David Bartlett, an ordained American Baptist minister, is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, and Lantz Professor Emeritus of Christian Communication at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut.

Jonathan D. Lawrence, an American Baptist Church ordained minister, teaches Religious Studies and Theology at Canisius College, Buffalo, New York.

Sara Webb Phillips is a United Methodist minister serving North Springs UMC in Sandy Springs, Georgia.


Homily Service 39, no. 4 (2006): 2-12.