The Cosmic Cornerstone

The Book of Acts continues Luke’s Gospel by telling the story of the Spirit of the Risen Christ let loose in the church and in the world.

Throughout this second volume of Luke’s writings, he tells story after story of the church’s experience with the Spirit and of these Christians’ faithful witness to the gospel: the good news of God’s saving work of grace and redemption that has been made available for all.

Consider Luke’s story of Peter.

Since we are reading both Luke’s gospel and Acts at the same time in our Living in The Story effort, we know quite a bit about Peter. Very soon in Luke’s Gospel, we will read about Peter’s great shame: his denial of Jesus, his betrayal of love, his fear and cowardice and abandonment of everything he had come to believe in.

But when Luke describes Peter here in Acts, we see Peter’s uncompromising boldness for the gospel; we see what a miraculous work of transformation has been accomplished in his life by the power of Pentecost Spirit.

After the healing of a lame man in Acts 4, Peter proclaims: This man has been healed, has been saved by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.

Luke’s Peter quotes Psalm 118:

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Psalm 103

Bless the Lord, O my soul!

And all that is within me, bless God’s holy name.

Bless the Lord, O my soul and do not forget all his benefits—

Then Psalm 103 proceeds to list some of those benefits.

Forgiveness

Healing

Redemption

Steadfast love

Mercy/Compassion

Goodness

Vindication

Justice

Any who claim the God of the Old Testament is a god who only judges and condemns need to read again the grace and mercy of this psalm.

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As You Read Joshua and Judges. Violence in Scripture

In our Living in The Story project, when we come to the reading of Old Testament books like Joshua and Judges, we read horrific stories of war and violence. Walter Brueggemann says:

There is no question more troubling for theological interpretation of the Old Testament than the undercurrent of violence that runs through a good bit of the text.

There is, moreover, no part of the textual tradition that is more permeated with violence than the conquest traditions of Joshua and Judges.

And so (we may well ask) why on earth are we reading these ancient stories that so offend our modern, civilized sensibilities?

What do these stories of Joshua and the defeat of the city of Jericho, of Deborah and the taking of the land of Canaan have to do with us?

Well, for one thing – like making ourselves sit down and watch a movie like Lincoln – these stories cause us to remember that this is OUR human story. Violence is a part of who we are. Atrocity is what we all are capable of.

We must remember that. We must not forget how tempting it is for every one of us humans to sin against shalom.

But when we read these stories in the Church’s Scriptures, there is another aspect that is even more troubling than the persistent reality of human violence. Very often this narrated violence is represented in the Bible to be sanctioned by – even commanded by – God.

When Joshua and the armies of Israel marched around the city of Jericho, when the priests blew the trumpets, when the walls of Jericho came tumbling down, the text says Joshua said:

Shout! For the Lord has given you the city. The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction. … Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword everything in the city – men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys …

Joshua 6

I don’t know about you, but I have trouble saying: “The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God” whenever I read something like this. It’s hard for me to stomach that this proactive violence is part of our Holy Scripture

Here are some helpful insights I’ve gained as I’ve pondered some of these difficult passages in the Bible; maybe they will help you as well.

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Pentecost People

During our Living in The Story effort, we’ve been following the story of one biblical family: Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Joseph to Moses and now (in Week 20) Joshua, Moses’ heir and Israel’s new leader.

After forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the people of Israel finally crossed the Jordan River under Joshua’s leadership and moved into the land God had promised to their ancestors.

During these past few weeks, we’ve also been following the Gospel according to Luke and considering his understanding of the Christ event.

Luke’s Jesus stands squarely in the lineage of Abraham and the tradition of Moses. He is a son of Israel, or as Christian theology would say it: THE Son of Israel. Jesus was the one who lived his life in perfect obedience to Torah, loving God and loving neighbor as no one had done before or since.

Now we add Luke’s second volume, The Acts of the Apostles, to our readings. In Acts, we encounter the Resurrected Christ and the Spirit of the Risen Christ moving in astounding ways and expanding  what it means to be the Chosen People, what it means to belong to the People of the Covenant.

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The story in Acts 2 is the story of the ancient feast of Pentecost celebrated fifty days after Passover. For a thousand year, Pentecost, “Shavuot” had been the occasion for Israel to give thanks for the early harvest that arrived with all of its refreshing renewal.

The mystery of life, the reminder of abundance, the promise of new beginnings.

So how fitting it was that Pentecost became the occasion for this family, this one people that had grown from a small like-minded kinship group to now begin exploding into an expansive and diverse people!

This is the reign of God.
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Psalm 144

Look at the gorgeous poetry of Psalm 144!

The LORD is my Rock, my Fortress, my Stronghold, my Deliverer, my Shield….

But humans are like a breath or a passing shadow…

These words echo words and sentiments from other psalms, especially Psalm 18 and Psalm 8. It’s as if our psalmist has been reading the earlier songs in Book I and is now re-reading, re-interpreting and re-newing these long ago praises for his own time.

Even after returning home from exile in Babylon, Israel is surrounded by adversaries and feels as if they are drowning in a sea of infidelity by those whose “right hand are false.” This psalmist of Israel struggles against uncertainty and against the unreliability of their betrayers.

No wonder this vision of the Savior is strong and solid and substantial. No wonder the poet imagines this Redeemer…

…bowing your heavens to come down

…touching the mountains so they smoke

…making the lightning flash and sending out arrows

…stretching out your hand to rescue me from the mighty waters.

Psalm 144 alludes to the miracles of judgment against the oppressors of Egypt and the ancient and reassuring story of rescue through the waters of the Red Sea.

Ancient history for this people is not the boring stuff of textbooks; rather history is story, OUR story.

This is us!

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Warnings and Blessings

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“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Our mothers warned us about the power of words. They cautioned us to use words that are positive and helpful and healing.

“Don’t judge another person until you have walked a mile in her shoes.” Our mothers warned us about using our own limited experience to criticize the experience and actions of another.

“You are what you eat. A penny saved is a penny earned”our mothers warned us and tried to teach us to live our lives in a good balance.

And then we grew up – and lo and behold we find our mamas’ words coming out of our own mouths.

But even as we hand on some of this age-old advice to the next generation, we can still hear our mothers’ voices in our heads reminding us to “practice what we preach.”

As we complete our reading of Deuteronomy, we hear some similar efforts of advice giving: Moses passing on wisdom to the next generation.

Deuteronomy’s stage is set with the people standing on the edge of their Promised Land.

Here Moses is pictured as the patriarch saying farewell to his children, reminding them who they are and reiterating the core truths that bind them together.

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As You Read. Weeks 18 and 19. Deuteronomy.

In James Michener’s wonderful book, The Source, a Jewish archeologist on a dig in Israel explained to his colleague: “If you want to understand the Jewish people, read Deuteronomy. Read it five times.”

“It’s the great central book of the Jews,” the character Eliav said. “If you master it, you will understand us.”

The people of Israel seem to have a strong sense of God’s faithful presence with them. They have seen God’s hand bringing them out of Egypt and into a sacred covenant relationship in a new land. They have recognized God’s amazing grace preserving them as a people and rescuing them from Exile in Babylon.

The Moses of Deuteronomy asks:

Ask from one end of heaven to the other: has anything so great as this ever happened …?!

Deuteronomy is set on the far side of the Jordan River, looking across into The Promised Land.

From this perspective, Moses recounts the story of rescue from Egypt. He retells YHWH’s presence at Sinai. He reminds of the 10 Commandments and the Law. He prepares them for the years ahead, when Moses will have passed on the baton of leadership to Joshua.

When we read Deuteronomy, we remember how the people of Israel were  a motley crew of slaves in Egypt. They went from being no people to being God’s own people.

But please remember, the story the Old Testament tells is The Story of Israel. It doesn’t pretend to tell any other people’s story in the vast sweep of human history.

There is no mention whatsoever about what the God of all creation and the Lord of nations might have been doing in Mongolia or Ethiopia or Machu Picchu during those ancient days.

I am confident God has been on the move throughout all time, in all places, creating relationship and writing the divine story in the human heart in ways we cannot even begin to fathom. However, none of those stories are the stories of the Bible.

The Old Testament is Israel’s story – and it is shot through with amazement.
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Psalm 146

Praise the LORD, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live;

I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

Psalm 146 sings of the rightness of creation with the Creator reigning as Lord and Sovereign.

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.

During the time of Exile, the Davidic monarchy ended. The experience of Israel in Babylon reminded them that blindly trusting in any human – even the king – is bound to bring disappointment and even despair.

There is only One who is truly faithful within all creation: the Creator.

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them …

For Israel, the Creator-of-All is also the personal God of Jacob.

Israel’s God: the One who called and chose them to be God’s own people. For Israel in exile, struggling to hold on to hope and faith, it is God alone who is faithful forever.

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Loving God, Loving Neighbor

Love is a verb. You can write that down.

This may sound familiar to you because just a few blogs ago, I talked about how faith is a verb. So now here I am claiming that love is a verb.

Sometimes we think we can love in the abstract. Warm, fuzzy feelings for people in general but – no – love is not so much a feeling as it is a verb.

Listen to what 1 John has to say:

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

1 John 4:9-12

Authentic love is always active.

Because God loves us and lives in us – therefore – we can love one another.

And when we make even a fledgling effort to love one another, God’s own life grows in us, God’s own love becomes more and more complete within us.

It’s a cycle of life, a circle of love.

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Psalm 49

Hear this, all you peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world, both low and high, rich and poor together.

My mouth shall speak wisdom; the meditation of my heart shall be understanding. I will incline my ear to a proverb…

Psalm 49 sings like the couplets of the Proverbs.

This is a wisdom psalm, reassuring the faithful that God’s way is the way of true wisdom. Human wealth and success may look like a wise course, but the psalmist has no doubt that – finally, ultimately, eschatalogically – God’s way is the only way that will endure.

The Wisdom Tradition of Israel offers an intriguing mix of literature. The Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job – each gives insight into various approaches for making sense of the world.

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