Before sampling the theological wisdom and divine guidance for daily living to be found in the Revised Common Lectionary’s suggested biblical readings for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, it behooves us to consider briefly the contextualization afforded us in “the other 3:16-17” as well.
Many if not most Christians are familiar with our foundational John 3:16-17, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Recalling this observation, many if not most understand that studying the life and ministry of Jesus, and their foundation in the Hebrew Scriptures — Law, Prophets and Writings — is essential in order to make the most of our lives by achieving what we can of godly value, and “overcoming” (however defined) all perils and shortcomings.
My introductory thesis this week is that in approaching Holy Scripture we would do well to keep in mind the context in “the other” 3:16-17,” namely, the similarly numbered verses in the Apostle Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
In sum, we must never take lightly in our daily living the Holy Wisdom in Bible, as we consider how the words of the Word have been “breathed” through millennia of Divine inspiration and responsive insight — not only how the Word has been laid on human hearts and minds but also as discerned through faithful debate and life experience in, for better and sometimes for worse, evolving human civilization.
It is then with great solemnity, facing and delving into the truly sacred, that we “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” what we are offered by way of lessons in this week’s Exodus 1:8-2:10, Psalm 124, Romans 12:1-8, and Matthew 16:13, of which the following are just a few key samples:
• In Exodus 1 and 2, we see that the Egyptian kingdom and her rulers have profited enormously from the economic and other administrative strategies put in place for the pharaohs and their people by Joseph, son of Jacob (Israel). But Egypt by now (approximately 400 years later and perhaps even earlier) has forgotten that this tremendous assistance and education in so many aspects of their sound governance came from a Hebrew tribesman — from one of those whom the pharaohs now wish to subjugate with oppressive slavery.
Do we espy here a parallel, a lesson, and perhaps a warning, in the oppressive treatment of Jews all across much of Europe, from the Middle Ages on through the middle of the 20th century? How about the treatment of the African-descended who built so much of early America but whose contributions were in time twisted into essential components of their own slavery. Perhaps the disabling loss was and is that of the entire nation. What are the lessons here?
• In the vitality and even prosperity that came to the enslaved Hebrew people in Goshen, perhaps we see ancient proof of the adage: “The adversity that does not break (or kill) me, can make me a stronger person.” Is here there a European parallel here too.? Is there an American parallel? (Perhaps the answer is a mixed one: “yes, to some extent.”)
• Whenever I re-read the story in Exodus 1 of the essential roles of faithful, conscientious objection — disobeying the pharaoh’s murderous orders — played by the Hebrew mid-wives Shiphrah and Puah in saving and strengthening the Hebrew community in Egypt, including the infant Moses, I think of Rosa Parks in the mid-1950s and several others like her. They were humble, godly women who played essential roles in some respects initiating aspects of the mid-20th-century Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
And I remember the movie “The Help” early in this decade, depicting much the same. For me the lesson is clear and two-fold: 1. We must obey God first (as determined by consensus of the faithful and prophetic), above all others. 2. This manner of sacrifice is not just the business of leaders and the otherwise privileged. All have roles to play.
• As for the responsive Psalm for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost (Psalm 124, well, if I were in the pulpit at this moment, I would simply sing, in as impassioned a manner as you will find in the renditions on YouTube: “If it had not been for the Lord on my side, tell me where would I be, where would I be!”
• In Romans 12, the Great Apostle Paul introduces a now-common admonition often heard in houses of worship and hopefully in many homes raising children, and also raising ourselves to higher, more edifying and fulfilling standards of comportment — namely, the familiar but too often neglected command that we should recognize that our “spiritual worship” includes presenting “our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” … and that we should “not be conformed to this world, but (instead) be transformed by the renewing of (our) minds, so that (we) may discern what is the will of God.”
The precise standard of comportment is not set forth in this New Testament wisdom (as compared with the many invocations in the Old Testament codes). Nevertheless, whatever our minds help us to discern God’s will to be for us in our place and time, we need to follow through. And as our bodies, relationships and overall standards of conduct are indeed part of our “spiritual worship,” we need to keep them undefiled.
• The Great Apostle goes on to admonish us not to think too highly of (ourselves), but instead to see the particular gifts each has by God’s grace. Perhaps an understanding of this admonition would be aided by application of the familiar logic of the economist Adam Smith’s comparative advantage (or perhaps David Ricardo’s comparative advantage referenced by Adam Smith). That is to say, for example, if minister A can both preach and teach well, and his co-pastor minister B can preach perhaps not quite as well, but cannot teach at all, then it is best that minister A spend all of his time teaching, and let minister B do the preaching (albeit perhaps with a little coaching from minister A). Both ministers then would have more time for pastoral labors.
Meanwhile, by God’s grace, everyone has at least some righteous gift; and that gift should be respected and put to use. And why not? After all, the Great Apostle seems to say, no one is uniquely outstanding at everything.
• We find this week, in the recommended Gospel passage from Matthew 16, the all-important Confession of Peter, who alone among the disciples accompanying Jesus in Caesarea Philippi, answered correctly the Master’s question concerning Jesus’ identity. Peter alone said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” and Jesus made it clear that this answer was correct, and indeed had been given to Peter by God.
Then Jesus went further and said, “On this rock I will build my church.” The question for us, then, is what “rock” was Jesus referring to?
There is strong consensus that the “rock” in question was Peter or, better, Peter’s understanding (exhibited in his confession) and underlying faith.
I believe, however, that there is more to Jesus’ rejoinder. My sense of the matter is that Jesus was referring, all together, to:
1. Peter’s humanity, winning our hearts as he gets it sometimes right (as here) and sometimes wrong (as on the Mount of Transfiguration), and sometimes falls down on the job altogether, as in the Garden of Gethsemane in his denial of the Master, and as at the Crucifixion and Resurrection which found Peter afraid and behind locked doors.
2. Peter’s humble station, an unlearned fisherman, probably illiterate, unable to read or write, and his overall humility, worshiping God and not himself as Christ’s Vicar.
Peter’s leadership notwithstanding, including ability like King David to rise energetically to the occasion and command the respect of his followers, listening to them as he formed his judgments, in faith articulating in an impassioned way, as in his Pentecostal sermon, reflecting incomparably deep faith.
May we be like Peter — flawed in our humanity but able to overcome, drawing on a deep well of ever-growing and ultimately unshakable faith. Amen.
— The Rev. Dr. Wesley S. Williams Jr., K.St.J., is Bishop’s Sub-Dean for St. Thomas and St. John and Vicar of Nazareth by the Sea Episcopal Church in the Diocese of the Virgin Islands (U.S. and U.K.) and chairman of SRMC All Faiths Hospital Chaplaincy