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‘Go to Galilee’: A Perpetual Post-Resurrection Mandate

‘Going to Galilee’ has special meaning in Mark’s Gospel, the first of the four to be written. It’s original ending, which includes that phrase, has left Bible students head-scratching, however, for centuries.  Referring to Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome just after encountering the ‘young man dressed in a white robe” (Mark 16:5) outside the tomb, it reads:

Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid (16:8a, NLT). 

Could this possibly be where Mark truly ended his story?!  A significant majority of Bible scholars agree, explaining a short ending of v. 8b was added in the 2nd century CE.  Then the longer ending (vv. 9-20) was a compilation of traditions that related to the resurrection appearances of Christ Jesus found in the other Gospels as well as Acts.

Back to the original ending.  Why?!  New Testament scholar, R. Alan Culpepper writes one of the clearest explanations I’ve found:  “How could the women, who had witnessed the death of Jesus and who had seen the empty tomb…go and not tell anyone?  Mark was a skillful writer.  Perhaps shock and surprise were the reactions he intended for the church to have, for now it knew everything the women knew.  So the question comes home to haunt those who hear Mark’s Gospel.  How could they, how can we, hear these words, go and tell no one?”  (emphasis added, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary on Mark, p. 597).

And why would we be surprised to find that Mark’s Gospel actually tells us how to share the Gospel in the verse immediately before:    

‘But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

Jesus’ ministry was in Galilee, filled with so much of the healing, teaching and preaching.  This is where his words came alive, where both disciples and crowds were eye-witnesses to the piercing through of a spiritual reality they had only hoped for.  It is to his lifework that we turn in order to follow him, to continue the work he began.  And in doing our own work as disciples, we find that resurrected Christ continuing to guide, comfort, and encourage us forward.

Perhaps Mark meant that every Christian has to find their own ‘Galilee’ – the marketplace, the neighborhood, the political arena, the home or school – where people still need to be uplifted, fed, healed, comforted.  Our ‘Galilee’ is where we find/make the time to pray, to be led, to discover the work our Father has for us just as Jesus had for his ministry. 

I find it especially comforting that even though the women might have been afraid, the angel still charged them, still called them to discipleship…and still calls us regardless of our often hesitant–or even detouring– footsteps.  That’s heartening. 

See you in ‘Galilee’.

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Where Even Angels “Long to Look”

Raphael angel Vatican

Raphael’s angel, Vatican Museum.

Do you ever come across a snippet of a verse that so captures your thought and heart that you stop everything to stay with it? Maybe you see how it’s translated across multiple Biblical versions. Maybe you simply sit with it for awhile, listening for further inspiration because you know its coming if you’ll be still. You find yourself lifted, filled with a quiet joy of knowing this is true. This happened to me recently while reading 1st Peter.

In an opening section addressing the hope of salvation for believers, the author reminds us that the Good News of the saving grace for all is not from clever men or women but brought by the Holy Spirit. And that this message is so extraordinary that these are even things into which angels long to look (I Pet. 1:12,New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

I love that! It stopped me– which any student who loves the Bible finds increasingly happening. I pay a lot of attention to such moments and try not to read past or through them. Something arrested thought. That’s the gift of the Holy Spirit, still inspiring and transforming us today as in the first century.

Yet just as you’re lifted into this rather charming description of the uniqueness of the Good News, comes this salvo:

Prepare your minds for action and exercise self-control (I Peter 1:. 13, NRSV).

Whoa. What was happening that caused such a warning bell to be sounded? Persecution. Thought to be written in the latter part of the tumultuous first century, Ist Peter is addressed to the many church communities at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, still under the grip of the Roman Empire.

Was the disciple Peter, writing these mainly Gentile communities with a message of encouragement? Loved Bible scholar, C. H. Dodd, explains that although these two brief epistles carry Peter’s name, they were not penned by him. Copyright law not being what it is today, this was a common practice: to ‘borrow’ the name of a more famous disciple in order for your message to be read.

The Greek is too sophisticated and the references make us think it came after Peter’s martyrdom under Nero around 64 CE. Dodd explains, “Like Revelation claimed the authority of a Christian prophet writing in the name of Jesus, so the Roman church wrote in the name of Peter” (“New Testament Studies, by C.H. Dodd, Manchester University Press, 1953).

And, like the variety of Christians worldwide today, this brief letter speaks to a disparate population in language and custom, but united by Christ’s message of saving grace. The author refers to such a mix as a bold, new people:

“You are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession [I Pet. 2:9, New Living Translation (NLT)].

But lest we start thinking much of ourselves, marching orders are immediately delivered.

As a result you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light” (I Pet. 2:9, NLT).

If this text were a Beethoven symphony, we would have just heard Ludwig’s kettledrums thundering away– just in case we floated off and needed to be roused back to the main point.

There are so many reasons we treasure our Bibles. Moments of study that transport us to the heart of Christ Jesus’ teachings, encourage us to continue on, to be one more in the long chain of faithful followers, and providing the inspiration to do so – this is priceless stuff.

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Another Reason for Giving Thanks: Our Bible

Biblia Moralizada de Nápoles

Biblia Moralizada de Nápoles

Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us” (The Message, Eugene Peterson II Tim. 3:15).

Not everyone likes a paraphrased translation in which the exact words are not translated so much as the ideas captured. Yet there are times when those paraphrases seem to better capture the spirit of a Biblical writer’s sentiments than a more formal translation. This one from II Tim. is an example.

When you break down that passage above, do you find any commonality with the Timothy writer in how the Bible is impacting your life?  I do.  The phrase, ‘training us to live God’s way’, stands especially out. I knew it intellectually before, but life has the best way of moving these powerful ideas from head to heart.

This year has been about discovering how much of the Bible is God’s story, and how figures like Paul and the author of Luke/Acts really glimpsed that.  As Luke wrote about Jesus’ ministry and how the early Church worked to continue it through the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit, you realize all these early Christians were living their lives by new rules — by God’s rules.

Nothing has really changed today.  We listen for where to go, who to work with or for, which partner to bond with for life, how to raise children, how to move through tragedies and sorrows, better ways to interact with those in our faith communities, how to support our friends and neighbors when they’re going through deep water and all the other demands life throws at you.   This is training time!  We’re being trained by having all those rough edges get rubbed off through love and patience and kindness,  just as those Biblical characters had to learn to do.

Maybe that’s why the Bible is the Living Word.  It lives inside us, shapes us, trains and forms us — or we ignore it, let the culture tell us it’s increasingly anachronistic or only fable-based.  Bless the hearts of all who underestimate this library of books (the actual meaning of ‘biblia).  Each of us have an enormous privilege to learn how much the Bible can guide our lives,  provide shortcuts of heartache, and above all, enter into a relationship with our loving Creator that isn’t abstract but concrete, real, present.  That’s actually possible and the Bible is a record of people who got that and proved it.

Virtually every civilization has looked for ways to know a higher power, yet so many of those were man-created gods, usually more dreaded and placated than just worshiped. Then along came the Israelites, that ethnic group of the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament that early glimpsed, through Moses, that although God is not seen with the senses or made of matter as other deities, He is the great “I AM” (Exodus 3:14).  We have the opportunity to be a modern “Moses”, metaphorically climbing our own version of ‘Mt. Sinai’ to experience God’s saving power as Moses experienced it centuries ago. In fact, we could look at each Biblical character’s life and see how our experience mirrors their own, then pull out and apply lessons from each of them.

So for all the special weeks designated for this cause or that individual, I’d say “National Bible Week” is a perfect time to put everything on pause and really think about our Bible, what it means to us, how better we can delve into its stories and parables and letters to find God more.  After all, it’s Her story.  Please share your ideas and comments below. Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

 

Image credit

 

 

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Thanksgiving Gratitude for Biblical Artists

The_sacrifice_of_Abraham

“The Sacrifice of Isaac”, by Rembrandt (1635), The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Maybe you also have friends who are remarkable artists, talents that their families say began emerging from earliest childhood.   Then there are the rest of us who can appreciate art.   I long ago reconciled myself to being in the latter category, justifying that someone had to troop through all those galleries and museums oohing and aahing.

When I saw the first Biblically themed painting by Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn, however, my appreciation was lifted to a new category of reverence. Look at what this master of light and brush strokes glimpsed–often something of the very details I had imagined and pondered in the same Biblical account. We somehow met across the centuries–in New York, London, Paris– or wherever his work was gracing a museum. He, with his inspired insights, and me (joining millions of other viewers) with our gratitude of wonderment for his genius in capturing what before had been in the mind’s eye.

Slowly it began to dawn, after looking at his magnificent work over the past three decades, that he was interpreting the Scriptural text every bit as much as the person whose medium was the written word.

An example of this visual interpretation is Rembrandt’s depiction of that turning point in the book of Genesis when the angel stops Abraham just as he is about to obediently obey God to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. While it is clear the painting is based on Genesis 22, there are certain decisions Rembrandt had to make in his visual retelling.

  • Did Isaac go along with the sacrifice or was the boy terrified?
  • What was Abraham’s attitude in all this: heartbreak, acquiescence, resolve?
  • Was the angel so close Abraham could almost ‘feel’ this symbol of God’s presence?
  • And where is God in all this?

The text doesn’t spell all this out so it is left to us – and the artist—to discern.

First, the focal point of the painting is the light on Isaac’s chest, which then takes the viewer up to Abraham’s startled face. Such a registering of surprise hints at how resolute this servant of God was in obediently carrying out the directive to sacrifice his son. Abraham’s shock at the angel’s interruption could communicate just how close the knife must have come to the boy’s exposed throat. And of course the angel’s left hand, literally restraining Abraham, is another way of seeing how the father had to be forcefully stopped, so single-minded was he to carry out God’s order.

How does Rembrandt interpret Isaac’s attitude at this dramatic turn of events, when he is suddenly bound and becomes aware he is the sacrifice instead of an animal?  Isaac’s legs are one clue that he was willing to give his life out of love for his father and/or his father’s desire to follow God’s directive. The boy’s body shows he is strong and yet the legs – which could resist – are not stiff and pushing back, especially with the right one open and bent on the ground.

The knife literally falling through the air is a third example of how Rembrandt silently but so powerfully communicates the sense of urgency with which the angel had to move to restrain this father so ready to fulfill a divine directive. Does this tell us how much Abraham loves this son  he is willing to kill?  Look at how tenderly Abraham shields the boy’s eyes from his imminent death so he doesn’t have to see his father’s final act that will end Isaac’s life.

Genesis 22:17 tells of the angel’s blessing on Abraham’s progeny, so movingly declared by the angelic messenger’s raised hand, with open palm pointing upward.  And what about the blue garment underlying Isaac’s body, and how the color is picked up on angel’s sleeve and again in the sky?  Is that to unify the major ‘actors’, including perhaps God, represented by the sky?

There is so much to discern and these ideas are only touching the surface. If you like this brief glimpse, you might enjoy a book by Dutch cultural theorist, Mieke Bal, Reading Rembrandt: Beyond the Word-Image Opposition. Meanwhile, please share your insights on this painting in the comments section below.

Join me in offering a Thanksgiving prayer of thanks for Rembrandt’s commitment to interpret the Bible by bringing his enormous repertoire of artistic talents to the task.  One wonders if he suspected they were God-given.

 

 

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Letter to the Philippians: New Criteria for Measuring Success

fancy_carHave you noticed how ‘success’ keeps getting redefined? In a Western culture cruising on the ‘wealth/celebrity/image’ highway, it could be the way someone dresses, the car they drive, the size of a bank account or number of diplomas on the wall. And worse, such criteria change constantly.

The Letter to the Philippians is Paul’s way of providing an alternative to such shifting sands, and teaching us across the centuries of a permanent standard of success: to boldly follow Christ.

Before going into detail about how he did this, a word about New Testament epistles. Paul’s letters are one-way conversations, as if we were listening to someone on a phone and construe what a conversation is about based on what we overhear.   This epistle tells us that Paul’s Philippian readers are unnerved by his imprisonment. It’s to this mindset that Paul writes.

First, why was Paul’s imprisonment so difficult for the Philippians? Because of the first century’s criteria for success:  honor above all else. Honor was a pivotal value in the ancient Mediterranean world and applied more to men than women. An example is in Luke 14:8 – 10 where Jesus tells a story of guests invited to a wedding banquet.  His story follows what he observed at a dinner party in a leading Pharisee’s home to which he and the others were invited.  The guests carefully chose the places of honor, trumping any other concern such as food, drink or talk.  “Foodies” would not have been at this party!

Returning to the dilemma of the Philippians, they must have assumed that Paul’s recent imprisonment meant his honor had been lost, replaced by its dreaded cultural opposite, shame.   So in addition to concern over Paul’s physical safety, it was this underlying assumption of shame that the Apostle needed to simultaneously address and  educate them away from.

“It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20, NRSV).

Paul is teaching, through his example, that success in life means standing firm in your beliefs, supporting one another, sharing the Gospel with those who have never heard its healing message, and remaining undaunted by opponents. (See the rest of this chapter for his full teaching.)  Paul knows he has met all these spiritual criteria, even to the point of converting his Roman guards, and helps us understand that fidelity to Christ is the ultimate success.  And yes, it looks very different than achievement in any other facet of life.  Through his own imprisonment, Paul reaches across the centuries to tell us that regardless of challenges faced– heartbreak, sickness, death of loved ones, whatever – each hurdle is a way to show our love for Christ and each other.

Paul’s tenderness and obvious affection for the Philippian Christians lifted them to a whole new understanding of what prosperity and success looked and felt like. It is this Christ focus that makes Philippians such a loved epistle.

For those who have challenges with the harsh image often attached to Paul, the Letter to the Philippians is a new view of a more relaxed and deeply loving man who shepherds his flock with tenderness and encouragement. And  he continues to mentor us today in a society that sorely needs to remember what true success looks and feels like.

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