Adult Bible Study & Current News

Clayton Gladish

December 9, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. Choose to Love and Serve God

Joshua 24:1-3, 13-15, 21-24

What does it mean to love God? Here, as well as in other passages, it seems that it is less about fuzzy feelings and more about faithfulness. In our time, this word love has come to mean a lot of different things, so I tend to not even use it if I can avoid it. Instead, I lean toward words like allegiance and loyalty.

Loyalty seems especially meaningful and understandable in my context. It conveys both a conviction of the mind and an orientation of the heart. It brings a sense of deep emotional connection that is, in many ways, unconditional. It’s both personal and communal in nature. It is what you would expect of a partner that includes but is not subject to fickle feelings that may come and go with the wind. Loyalty is also risky.

Loyalty is important to our survival. Very few of us can make it fully alone in the world. Being loyal to others shifts how we act and how we treat people. This morning, on the radio, I heard of the controversy over the suspension of the chief of police in Elkhart, Indiana. The exact details are less important to my point, but the consideration of his loyalties might shape how we see those details.

As leaders and supervisors, we often develop loyalty to those under us and the organizations we serve. This can be a very positive thing in the workplace, that is, except when that loyalty comes into conflict with a loyalty to those you serve. When this occurs, we are forced to choose, and that choice has implications and consequences.

When it comes to our love for God, our loyalty to our creator, sustainer, redeemer, and teacher, we are faced with choices, too. At times, our loyalty to God and the people in our city, state, country, and world may align. At other times, we will be challenged with conflicting values and loyalties. Navigating these will show where our true loyalties lie. Obviously, we won’t choose perfectly all the time (praise God for grace!), but that doesn’t stop us from trying!

So, as we consider how we might love God, let us consider how we might express our loyalty to God.

  • What things, people, activities, or ideas have we made into our gods by placing them above the one, true God?
  • What might we lose by expressing our sole (and soul) loyalty to God? What could be gained?

—Clayton Gladish  claytong@hesstonmc.org

An ABS reproducible hand out is available at www.MennoMedia.org/abs for this session.

 

December 2, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. Love and Devotion

Deuteronomy 6:1-9

Parenting is not for the faint of heart. Reading the same story over and over, picking up the same thing off the floor multiple times while sitting at the dinner table, and scouring the house for that one special stuffy that’s always there at bedtime—these repetitive acts can drive a person crazy. And yet, they are some of the most formational moments in a child’s life. Why? Because repetition builds trust, establishes a sense of security, and creates a sense of belonging. As we grow, repetition has a way of teaching as well as centering us in the midst of the chaos of life.

It should not surprise us that God invited God’s people to find these things in the repetition of a short passage: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (vv. 4-5). As we enter the Advent and Christmas seasons, we are greeted at seemingly every turn with a host of carols that tell of that same God’s entry into the world. Though the medium is different, the effect is the same. The repetition of these songs reminds us of when God entered into human existence in a new way to bring God’s people together again.

It is all too easy to allow these songs to be background music as we go about our lives. But what would happen if we stopped to listen? What would happen if we allowed these songs to remind us of the way God, through Jesus, entered the world with humility and grace to turn the world upside down—or rather right side up—inviting us to follow and join in that work? How might that change the way we interact with our families, friends, neighbors, and even those we might view as enemies? How might these songs call to mind the love-showing, kindness-sharing, peace-making, and justice-seeking ways of Jesus in our everyday life?

I can’t think of any other time of year when the words of Scripture can be heard in the supermarket and sanctuary alike—the blurring of sacred and secular in the most positive of ways as God’s kingdom breaks into everyday life. What an opportunity to be reminded of God’s great love and to respond with devotion to God by loving others in all we do!

  • What will you do to be more thoughtful and active about the familiar Christmas songs you hear and sing this Advent?

—Clayton Gladish   claytong@hesstonmc.org

Clayton Gladish joins us for Our Love for God, our Winter 2018–19 study. As one of the pastors at Hesston Mennonite Church since 2013, Clayton focuses his energy on faith formation for youth and adults, while also dabbling in teaching adaptive leadership and unusual writing projects.

 

November 25, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. Enter God. Again.

Genesis 30:22-32, 43

Our study for the fall quarter is ending, but we are far from the end of Genesis itself. Even so, many years have passed since Jacob’s ladder dream, and the young migrant is now middle-aged and rich—surrounded by wives, children, and great wealth in his sheep and goats. And now he would like to take all of them to his birth home many miles to the south.

Genesis’s origin stories leave me with divided observations and emotions. On one hand, the cultural gap between 21st-century North America where most of us live and a pastoral Palestine of nearly 4,000 years ago is staggering. People lived in clans, with large, extended families. Apparently, no government made laws, so men took as many wives as they could afford or were available. Slavery existed within such a clan, so wives had handmaids over whom they had total control—women who were forced to bear a wife’s child during her own periods of infertility. (Think of Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.)

The fertility/infertility theme continues to the goats and sheep, and Jacob maintains his practice of cheating his relatives. He tells Uncle Laban that he will take only the spotted and striped animals as his wages—then uses magic to multiply those with spots and stripes!

On the other hand, we connect with these stories because their main characters are rounded-out human beings like us, not flat, cardboard silhouettes. All of us know women who have struggled with infertility, or you may be one of them. We are often painfully aware of cheating and stealing in our highly automated culture. Barely an AARP Bulletin comes out without some mention of phone or social media tricks that scam vulnerable seniors. Labans and Jacobs persist in our society—made all the worse when they are family!

Three additional and interrelated points are worth considering. First, what happened to the birthright of the oldest son? Jacob has many sons, and so far they all seem equal in their anonymity. Was that birthright struggle worth all the fuss? Second, the focus is not on a man who cannot produce a child—Jacob has many—but on a woman! Rachel is so special that Jacob wants a son from her—the only woman among his wives that he truly loves. (But what if Joseph had been a daughter!)

Third, a quote from The Interpreter’s Bible in our study reminds us that at this time there was no evidence of a belief in an afterlife among the Hebrews (ABS, p. 76). Thus, a man without male descendants would never survive in the patrilineal genealogies of these patriarchal societies.

  • What value do you as a (probably Gentile) Christian see in exploring these ancient origin stories of the Hebrew people of God?

—Lareta Finger
laretafinger@gmail.com

Two ABS Reproducible handouts are available for this session at www.MennoMedia.org/abs.

We are grateful to Lareta Finger for helping us find meaningful connections with the ancient stories of the earliest God followers in Genesis. Clayton Gladish joins us for a study of Our Love for God, the upcoming winter study. He is on the pastoral team at Hesston Mennonite Church, Hesston, Kansas.

 

November 18, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. Dream Come True

Genesis 28:10-22

Editor’s Note: In the ABS student guide, under Exploring God’s Story and Vision, the first sentence should read, “Last week we left the ongoing soap opera of Isaac, Rebekah, and Sons. . . .”

“Have you only one blessing, father?” Between last week’s lesson and this week, we hear the anguished cry of the cheated son. “Bless me also … father!” Finally, Isaac promises that, although Esau shall serve his brother: “When you break loose, you shall break his yoke from your neck” (27:38-40 NRSV).

Although my Bible dictionary places Jacob and Esau in the 18th century BC, one may wonder if this story of brotherly struggle sets the pattern for the continued conflict in the Middle East. Now a migrant in Genesis 28, Jacob symbolizes the scattered Jews streaming into Israel in 1948. But as these “chosen Jacobs” push Palestinian “Esaus” out of their homes and off their lands, deep resentment and anger fester for decades with little hope for justice and peace.

In April 2018, Jews celebrated the 70th anniversary of modern Israel’s birth, and Palestinians mourned the catastrophe of the same event. Since then, 210 Palestinians have been killed and thousands wounded by Israeli soldiers. Even worse, the United Nations has predicted that by 2020, Gaza, part of Palestinian land today, will be uninhabitable because already 97 percent of its water is contaminated for the two million people who live there and cannot leave.[1] Will the “Jacobs” care?

But in our Genesis story, this same land seems almost uninhabited. Jacob is fleeing his home for two reasons: Esau’s threat to kill him, and because Rebekah wants him to find a wife among her own people (27:46–28:2). He travels from Beer-sheba (just east of Gaza) on his way to Haran in the north. Does he walk like some of today’s migrants who also trudge north?

About 100 kilometers into the journey, the fugitive stops to sleep at “a certain place” (v. 11), safe from wild animals but with no creature comforts except a stone pillow. That night Jacob dreams about an angelic staircase to the sky. From the top, Yahweh gives Jacob the same promise he gave Abraham: descendants, land, and the divine presence (28:13-15).

We have no previous indication that Jacob was religious. But now his spiritual encounter results in his vow to the one God of his ancestors (vv. 20-22) and deserting any other deities that abound in his culture. Yet one thing troubles me. If God meets Jacob’s physical needs (v. 20), then he will worship only this God and give a tithe of all he has been given.

Will the bargain work, or is Jacob still a trickster? We’ll have to wait and see.

  • Have you ever had a spiritual experience that changed your life?
  • Is it okay to bargain with God? What if God doesn’t agree to your terms?

—Lareta Finger  laretafinger@gmail.com

An ABS Reproducible handout is available for this session at www.MennoMedia.org/abs.

[1]. Sandy Tolan, “How Can Gaza’s Contaminated Water Catastrophe Be Solved?” Al Jazeera News, October 30, 2018.

 

November 11, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. Mess this Blessing

Genesis 27:5-10, 18-19, 21-29

When my great-aunt Sara died, she left behind many antiques and historical remembrances. As her blood-niece, my mother deeply resented the (non-Mennonite) second wife of her cousin who had quickly appropriated the most coveted of Aunt Sara’s possessions. “We hardly even knew her,” groused my mother, who had been named Sara Perle after her aunt. “She had no right to take all that stuff just because she lived across the street and got there first!”

No doubt many families have some history of intra-family fights or resentments that leave scars. My mother’s grievance was eventually laid aside, and I am forever grateful that in my family of origin, with four siblings, I never noticed any favoritism of either parent toward one child over another. For us, this has been a lifelong blessing that neither Esau nor Jacob received, despite all those fancy words Isaac mistakenly poured over his second-born son in Genesis 27:28-29.

Writing these columns on Genesis has plunged me deeper into these stories than ever before—and this one really troubles me. It involves cruel deception on the part of both Rebekah and Jacob to fool their blind husband and father, and to cheat Esau out of his rightful blessing as the firstborn son. The results have changed history. Carol Duerksen raises “I wonder” questions about this text and asks, “What are your ‘wonder’ questions?” (ABS, p. 66).

Here’s mine: I wonder why such hierarchy is necessary. Why should the elder have to serve the younger? (Genesis 25:23). Can’t twin sons share equally in the inheritance? Isaac’s blessing includes “Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you” (Genesis 27:29 NRSV).

I don’t like this language. It sounds like autocracy—or like the white nationalist rhetoric that divides people into separate camps, produces the pipe bomb packages, a synagogue massacre, and prejudice toward and fear of immigrants, refugees, and people of color. It doesn’t sound like Jesus. As I write, funerals are being held for 11 Jewish worshipers gunned down in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh—because one heavily armed man hates Jews.

Genesis 26:34 may hold a clue to my hierarchy question. Esau marries two Hittite women, making “life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah” (NRSV). Is the story of deception in Genesis 27 Rebekah’s revenge on Esau for marrying outside the family? Stay tuned for next week’s lesson!

  • What are your “wonder” questions?
  • What intra-family scars do you carry?
  • What fears do you—or other people—have of people who look or act differently?

—Lareta Finger, laretafinger@gmail.com

November 4, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. Cabela’s and Whole Foods Market[1]

 “The Nonidentical Twins”
Genesis 25:19-34

Rosey, who rents a room from me, has become a good friend. In these preelection days of heightened tensions, she weeps for the Central American parents and children fleeing poverty and death in their home countries to walk endless miles hoping for asylum in the United States.[2]

She also rages at reactions she hears, both from members of her Baptist congregation and from friends or acquaintances on Facebook. Some urge the military to meet the caravan at the U.S. border and shoot to kill. Some interpret the hurricane that plowed into Mexico’s western coast as the hand of God that potentially could have destroyed the caravan. Someone else wrote, “Let’s hire them to clean up from Hurricane Michael.”

Ever since Noah’s flood, people have interpreted acts of nature as God at work to wreak vengeance on sinners. But with the birth of Isaac and Rebekah’s twin sons, the story gets more complicated. There is no good guy and bad guy. No sinner gets punished.

Instead, Rebekah gives birth to nonidentical twins who seem to have opposite natures and interests. We do not know how old the boys were when the birthright incident occurred, but Esau sounds like an immature, rough-and-tumble adolescent whose immediate hunger seems far more important than some intangible birthright. (He sounds just like my teenage grandson!)

Jacob, on the other hand, has more typically feminine interests, but is also a clever trickster. He seems more intelligent than Esau—at least more able to plan ahead. And he is ruthless.

The Genesis author downplays Jacob’s manipulative behavior by including God’s previous prophecy to Rebekah before the twins were born. “Two nations are in your womb … and the older will serve the younger” (25:23). Jacob couldn’t help his behavior; it was predestined.

Many texts in both Old and New Testaments portray prophecy and fulfillment. They are meant to show God’s control over human life. The revelation to Rebekah is one example. However, these ancient stories were handed down orally for centuries before being written down (probably not before the time of David). In that sense, the fulfillment occurred before the prophecy was written down—which may have shaped the prophecy.

Nevertheless, the miracle of these texts is that they do not whitewash human nature; their main characters have feet of clay, as we do. Jacob is a trickster, and later he himself will be tricked.

Are you making predictions about that caravan of desperate people slowly moving north? Are they wrong-headed, or do they resemble Abram moving to a new country, Rebekah wondering what’s happening with her pregnancy, or the Israelites fleeing enslavement in Egypt? We cannot know for sure what will happen, nor do we know if the justice of God will be accomplished.

  • What do you think?

—Lareta Finger  laretafinger@gmail.com

Two ABS Reproducible aids are available at www.MennoMedia.org/abs for use with this session.

[1]. Cabela’s is a retailer of hunting and outdoor equipment in the United States and western Canada. Whole Foods Market is a grocery store chain in the United States, British Columbia, and Ontario that features organic and other specialty foods.

[2]. Nick Miroff, “Migrant Caravan: Mattis Is Preparing for a Humanitarian Crisis at the Border—Not an Invasion,” The Washington Post, October 25, 2018.

 

October 28, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. A Strong Woman

Genesis 24:12-21, 61-67

My father loved the Bible. As a child, I’d sit beside him on our sofa, my little brother Jimmy on the other side, as he told us stories from the King James Version. When he would recount a brutal battle or something else beyond our experience, Jimmy would ask breathlessly, “Did that really happen?” “Yes, indeed,” Daddy would assure him.

What puzzled me was how God talked with these biblical characters just like a human person would. God would tell Noah, Abram, and Moses what to do, and they would question God and even argue. Why doesn’t God talk to me like that—or at least to our church leaders? Was God closer to people of long ago? No one could answer my questions.

Today, I better understand how origin stories work. But what still amazes me about Rebekah’s story is how utterly foreign its customs are from our culture. First, a parent arranges a marriage. Sarah has been dead three years; Isaac is now 40 years old, and Abraham is 140. It’s time to plan ahead! Rather than sending Isaac himself, Abraham sends a trusted servant to make the choice.

Second, we see endogenous marriage in this story—marriage within the clan or family. Abraham had married his half-sister, Sarah. Now he wants Isaac to marry a relative, even a camel’s journey away. Later we learn that Rebekah is Abraham’s grandniece! (v. 15).

Rebekah’s willingness to leave home is also unusual for such a young girl (see Genesis 2:24, which implies that the man should join his wife’s family). My friend, Wilma Bailey, a Mennonite Old Testament scholar and Adult Bible Study writer, suggests that Rebekah was prepubescent. (Due to nutritional limitations until the last century or so, girls didn’t reach puberty until their late teens.) Thus, when she first meets Isaac, he brings her to Sarah’s tent (24:67) where she can live with other women until reaching sexual maturity.

Despite the chasm between our cultures, this story exemplifies three important truths. First, God keeps making a way out of almost-no-way. Compared to the slow start of Abraham and Sarah’s line, the text repeatedly contrasts it with the fertility of other female relatives (see 22:20-24; 25:1-4).

Second, Rebekah models for women the resourcefulness and courage we’ve seen during this year of the #MeToo movement’s beginning. Let’s believe the stories women tell from their life experiences.

Third, don’t forget the critical role of servants—workers we often take for granted. Though nameless, when Abraham’s servant prayed, God answered him to the last detail! (24:10-21).

  • Who are the resourceful and courageous women who have influenced your life?
  • Who are the servants God might be using to speak to you or your church?

—Lareta Finger, laretafinger@gmail.com

An ABS Reproducible page is available at www.MennoMedia.org/abs for use with this session.

October 21, 201
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. Patience and Promise

Genesis 18:9-15; 21:1-7

Reading this story of Abram and his God in any other context except sacred Scripture could sound almost comical. Yahweh (God’s name in Hebrew) calls Abram to a new land and promises, “I will make you into a great nation” (Genesis 12:2). The years go by, and stuff happens, but no babies. Now and then Yahweh and Abram converse about the problem, and Yahweh assures him the promise is still good (Genesis 15:1-6).

More time passes, and Sarai has had enough. It’s time to let women run things for a change! If she can’t conceive, her young handmaiden can be her surrogate. Abram submits to Sarai’s plan, impregnates Hagar—and behold—a son! (Genesis 16). Promise fulfilled at last!

Thirteen years later, Abram and Sarai are 99 and 90 years old. Yahweh interrupts again and says in chapter 17, “Course correction! Yes, your son Ishmael will father a great nation, but now it’s time to include Sarai. Here’s my covenant with both of you. I’ll change your names to demonstrate your fertility, and your part of the deal is to circumcise all males in your extended household to set you apart from all other people.” Abraham complies.

Enter our current texts in Genesis 18 and 21. Yahweh appears in human form to announce the fulfillment of the covenant. Against nature itself, Sarah conceives and bears a son.

What is the point of this “cat-and-mouse” game between Yahweh and Abraham? To demonstrate God’s radical freedom to do what is humanly impossible? To test the patience and faith of Abraham? To remind him that, despite his male-only genealogy (Genesis 10–11), nothing will happen without Sarah?

All true, and Duerksen eloquently reminds us that “nothing is too hard for the Lord” (ABS, p. 46; see Genesis 18:14) and we can trust God to do more than we can imagine. But let’s not forget the context of this story: genesis means “origin.” The story of Abraham and Sarah tells their Hebrew descendants how they came to exist—through the miraculous birth of Isaac!

For you and me today, there are two more lessons. As (mostly) gentile Christian believers, we are grafted into this genealogical tree (Romans 11:17-18), so Sarah and Abraham are our ancestors as well—even if we don’t find them on ancestry.com!

Further, today we understand how truly special each of us is. You are the product of one sperm from millions and one egg from hundreds, with an unrepeatable set of genes. You never happened before and will never happen again. Let us remember how special each of us is and put our trust in a God for whom nothing is too hard.

  • What does it mean to you to be a child of Sarah and Abraham?
  • What do you see as especially unique about yourself?

—Lareta Finger, laretafinger@gmail.com

An ABS Reproducible discussion sheet is available at www.MennoMedia.org/abs for use with this session.

 

October 14, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session 

  1. For All the World to See

Genesis 10:1; 11:10, 27, 31-32; 12:1-4

 How did we get from Noah in last week’s lesson to Abram and Sarai? Look at Genesis 10–11, and you’ll find a genealogy! This migrating couple descended from Noah’s son, Shem, although the genealogies of his brothers, Ham and Japheth, are also included. The lists of names are meant to encompass all the people who populated the earth after Noah’s flood. God’s promise to Abram that “all peoples on the earth will be blessed through you” (12:3), refers to the descendants of Noah’s three sons (and their wives!).

Knowing where and who we come from can help solidify our identity. A few weeks ago, I visited a longtime friend in Chicago. As we mused about our different religious roots, she told me about a younger friend of hers who is African-American-Vietnamese and had been adopted by a white family living in Vermont. She felt driven to search for her roots in Vietnam. Only after an extended visit could she claim her identity and be at peace.

To know one’s roots is a gift I did not fully appreciate until watching the 1977 TV miniseries based on Alex Haley’s book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Haley traced his roots back seven generations to Kunta Kinte, who was brought from Gambia in Africa to Maryland as an enslaved man. I am grateful for the Mennonites who traced my genealogy back to the early 1700s, when most of my maternal and paternal ancestors immigrated to the New World for religious freedom in William Penn’s colony.

I still have many questions about Noah’s descendants. Who kept these records? Were they first handed down orally? How were they preserved after the “confusion of languages” in the Tower of Babel story? (11:1-9). In what language or languages?

Further, where are the mothers in these genealogies? Matrilineal descent is implied in Genesis 2:24, where a man leaves his parents and joins his wife’s family. Is the omission of women the result of the fall in Genesis 3?

I’m grateful that my genealogy also includes mothers. On a wall in my living room hangs a framed fraktur created by my youngest sister, Jennifer. It includes the names of my maternal and paternal foremothers to the fifth generation of great-grandmothers—58 names! Unlike a patrilineal genealogy, I am glad mine contains mothers as well as fathers.

  • What does your genealogy mean to you?
  • As Yahweh worshipers, what is the value of honoring Abraham and Sarah as our spiritual ancestors?

—Reta Halteman Finger, laretafinger@gmail.com

 

An ABS Reproducible dramatic reading is available at www.MennoMedia.org/abs for use with this session.

October 7, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. Faithful through Floods

Genesis 6:9b-22

The origin stories of Genesis are ancient, yet so evocative of current events. The wonder of creation in chapter 1, the temptation to wriggle out of responsibility for the messes we make in chapter 3, and now a flood! The flood! Days and days of no sunshine, and, as Duerksen aptly notes, piles of manure.

As I write, millions of people in the Carolinas and beyond are cursing the latest flood wreaked on them by Hurricane Florence. Even here in western Virginia, basements are sopping, crops are rotting in the saturated ground, and our rainfall accumulation is 14 inches above normal. At the same time, my sister lives in drought-stricken Arizona, a part of the western United States where huge wildfires have devastated the forests, and decreasing snowpack due to warm winters has contributed to major water shortages.

Additional evidence of a great flood in the ancient Near East comes from other cultures that wrote their own flood accounts. But the story of Noah’s family stands as both a memorial and a warning in our time. Yes, our text says that never again will God cause a flood to destroy the whole earth (Genesis 9:8-17). But today we are doing this to ourselves.

Already in the 1970s, corporations like Exxon and Shell knew that their oil was releasing enough carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere to warm the earth, thaw polar ice, and eventually raise ocean levels 10 to 20 feet. Yet they hid this research, kept pumping oil and gas, and publicly denied what they knew.[1] We do not know the exact corruption and violence that caused God to flood the earth (Genesis 6:11-13). But today even a child can understand the importance of creation care, and that denying climate change is indeed selfish, thoughtless, and cruel “corruption.”

The destruction of our one-and-only planet occurs in many ways, and we are all responsible. During the week of September 25–28, PBS News Hour did a series of reports on plastics, most of which are trashed and yet are virtually indestructible.[2] Plastics fill our oceans and the stomachs of birds and fish. Remember those creatures God lovingly formed on Day 5?

The hour is late. Without farsighted, righteous Noahs to help us slow global warming, most living creatures will suffer and die for the human sin of climate denial.

  • Would you consider climate denial and unconcern for God’s creation sins?
  • If it is sin, how can we repent and change our lifestyles and systems?

—Reta Halteman Finger, laretafinger@gmail.com

[1]. Neela Banerjee, “Exxon’s Oil Industry Peers Knew About Climate Dangers in the 1970s, Too,” Inside Climate News, December 22, 2015, https://insideclimatenews.org/news/22122015/exxon-mobil-oil-industry-peers-knew-about-climate-change-dangers-1970s-american-petroleum-institute-api-shell-chevron-texaco.

[2]. Amna Nawaz and Lorna Baldwin, “Plastic Lasts More Than a Lifetime, and That’s the Problem,” PBS News Hour, September 25, 2018, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/plastic-lasts-more-than-a-lifetime-and-thats-the-problem.

 

September 30, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. Missing the Mark

Genesis 3:8-13, 20-24

“The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it. It’s all her fault, of course, and it’s your fault too, because you gave her to me!”

If the purpose of these reflections on the current Sunday school studies is to contemporize the text, we don’t have to look very far for current examples of this story in Genesis 3! From your favorite preschooler up to the occupant of the highest office in the land, we all know how to pass the buck—especially if we’ve been disobedient or want to cover up something we did that was wrong.

And it’s not just the man making excuses. The woman accuses the talking snake of deceiving her. Did she know about the prohibition that was given to the adám (earth-creature) in Genesis 2:17, before male and female human beings were differentiated? The story implies that she is guilty, thus providing evidence that the prohibition was passed on to both persons.

It is always easier to expose the sins of other people rather than of my own, so a couple public examples come to mind. The first is the recent announcement of the decades-long sexual abuse of children and young people by Catholic priests and the coverup by their superiors in Pennsylvania. These men obviously justified their actions, helped along by hierarchical structuring and perhaps by the requirement of celibacy. Related to that is the sin of male sexual domination that the #MeToo movement is exposing, actions that grow out of buck-passing attitudes such as “What’s wrong with that?” and “Women like the attention!”

Another example is the continuing “dance” between President Trump and the Mueller probe, which moves ever closer to Trump’s possible involvement in illegal actions related to the 2016 presidential campaign. The more these hints emerge, the louder Trump’s attacks on Robert Mueller, Jeff Sessions, and the FBI become. They’re corrupt; not me!

  • What evidence of passing the buck do you see in your life or in the lives of others around you?
  • Why is acknowledging and repenting of sin vital to maintaining a relationship with God?

—Reta Halteman Finger    laretafinger@gmail.com

An ABS Reproducible dramatic reading is available at www.MennoMedia.org/abs for use with this session.

 

September 23, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session 

  1. Home Sweet Home?

Genesis 2:18-24; 4:1-2

One of the highest values in many cultures today is the honor of the male. In some places, any perceived challenge to a man’s honor by his wife or daughter gives him the right to kill her. Khalida Brohi, a young woman activist, grew up in a rural area of Pakistan where women had few rights, including not even to go to school. In a recent interview, she broke down as she talked about how her cousin had married the man she loved rather than the man her parents had chosen for her. The couple tried to flee, but the men in her extended family captured Khalida’s cousin and murdered her.[1]

Though Khalida’s experience was extreme compared to western societies, patriarchy persists throughout the world. Sadly, many Jews, Christians, and Muslims have for centuries used the Genesis 2 story of human origins to insist on male headship because the man was created first.

But in 1978, a Hebrew scholar, Phyllis Trible, challenged this interpretation in her book, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. The text of Genesis 2:7, where Yahweh kneels down to shape a living being out of the dirt, includes a wordplay: “Out of adamáh (earth) comes adám (earth-creature). An earth-creature from the earth—thus far without gender. Because every noun in Hebrew is gendered, adamáh is feminine, and adám is linguistically masculine. But adám does not become ish (male) and ishsháh (female) until Yahweh performs an operation on the earth-creature and creates two human genders, a man and a woman.

Then Genesis 2:24 asserts something quite astounding. The man leaves his mother and father—his ancestral home—to cling to his wife! In strict patriarchal cultures, this never happens. Instead, the woman leaves her family and joins her husband’s. Everything is about his home and his children, and if he ever decides to divorce her, she leaves with nothing.

In American culture today we still have vestiges of this patriarchy: a married woman takes her husband’s name; a father walks his daughter down the aisle to give her to her new husband. But Genesis 2:24 suggests matriarchy or, at the least, matrilineal descent.

  • To promote the equality God intended, should we change these marriage traditions?
  • Do religious people tend to be more patriarchal than secular people? What is your experience with male-female equality?
  • If male and female are created together in Genesis 1:27, how should we understand the Genesis 2 story?

—Reta Halteman Finger, laretafinger@gmail.com

An ABS Reproducible dramatic reading is available at www.MennoMedia.org/abs for use with this session.

[1]. “Her Father Gave Her the Courage to Speak Out Against ‘Honor Killings,’” Fresh Air, National Public Radio, September 4, 2018.

September 16, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. Holding and Molding

Genesis 1:26-31; 2:4-7

When it comes to understanding the Bible, some well-meaning efforts can make it harder than necessary. Although Carol Duerksen does a fine job highlighting the complex creation of humankind in this study, those choosing the Uniform Series texts didn’t make it easy for her. They omitted the climax of the story—the seventh day of rest (2:1-3)—and tacked on the beginning of a different creation account in Genesis 2:4-7.

But the problem goes back in time much further. The Bible was first divided into chapters in the early 13th century. Chapter divisions normally help organize our reading. But in this case, those medieval scribes missed their mark by placing the seventh-day climax of Genesis 1 at the beginning of Genesis 2!

Verse divisions were added in the mid-16th century. We’d be lost today without them, but some later scribal copyist actually concluded the end of Genesis 1 with the beginning of Genesis 2 in the same verse! Fortunately for us, both the NIV and NRSV make this clear, but it seems awkward that the first account of creation in Genesis runs from 1:1 to 2:4a.

The second creation story—2:4 to 3:24—differs from the first in various ways: both the method and the order in which God creates, the writing style, the theological purpose, and even the differing names for God (“God” means El in Genesis 1 and “Lord God” means Yahweh in Genesis 2). The second account is called “etiological,” because it explains why things are the way they are: why we have gender, where sin came from, why women suffer in childbirth, and why growing crops is such hard work.

  • How is this text disrespected if the concept of inerrancy forces one to harmonize the two creation accounts?
  • Where do you see God’s creativity at work in the people around you? How does being created in God’s image shape your relationship with God and with people?

—Reta Halteman Finger  laretafinger@gmail.com

Two ABS Reproducible teaching aids are available at www.MennoMedia.org/abs for use with this session.

 

September 9, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

 

  1. It All Came Together

Genesis 1:14-25

The creators of the Uniform Series lessons probably divided Genesis 1 into three sections to help readers focus on each smaller section. After all, God was having a very busy week! But let’s not forget the rhythm and repetition of this carefully structured poem.

The second set of three days parallels and complements the first three days. Day 4 elaborates on Day 1—explaining the origins of light and darkness by way of the sun, moon, and stars. Ancient Hebrews could see our universe only from earth with the naked eye. They could not have imagined that many of the stars they saw were galaxies, each containing millions of stars and burning uncounted light-years away. The Creator God is greater than they could have imagined!

But they did have one huge advantage over us. On a cloudless, moonless night they saw a blazing panorama overhead that few of us will ever witness. With light pollution affecting 80 percent of the inhabited earth today, we’d have to climb high mountains to see what they saw most nights of the year. I, for one, am envious!

Day 5 of creation complements Day 2. The watery vault above the land produces birds, and the river and seas below teem with fish—and whales, octopuses, and dolphins! Then, on Day 6, the plant-covered land from Day 3 produces all the rest of the animals. The appearance of “livestock” in verse 24 (NIV) amuses me. The author clearly means “domesticated animals”—which taken literally implies humans had already been around to domesticate them!

  • The poet of Genesis 1 was keenly observant of the natural world. What sciences and what tools, such as telescopes or microscopes, help us today to penetrate even more deeply into our macro and micro universe?
  • How can James Weldon Johnson’s poem, “The Creation” (poets.org/poetsorg/poem/creation) help us better appreciate the Bible’s poetic power to convey truth and beauty

—Reta Halteman Finger
laretafinger@gmail.com

Two ABS Reproducible teaching aids are available at www.MennoMedia.org/abs for use with this session.

 

September 2, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s sessio

  1. God Created the Heavens and the Earth

Genesis 1:1-13

On the second day “God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it” (v. 7). On the third day “God said, ‘Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees’” (v. 11).

Here in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, after a week of continuous rainstorms followed by previous weeks of rainstorms, I am overwhelmed with too much vegetation! High grass choked my lawnmower, and weeds overtook my garden. Many basements were flooded. If only we could send this rain to the fires burning in the arid western states! Where is the perfect world of Genesis 1?

Our Adult Bible Study sessions for this quarter are all from the book of Genesis, which means “origin.” After telling these stories orally for generations, the Hebrews eventually wrote them down so they would never forget their origins in the womb of their Creator.

Genesis 1 contrasts with other ancient creation accounts in two important ways. Instead of a cataclysmic war among a pantheon of gods and goddesses, as in the Babylonian creation account, Genesis features only one God who peacefully brings forth the universe by speaking, “Let there be . . .”

Ever since Charles Darwin, western people have debated creationism versus evolution. I believe we can avoid this dichotomy by understanding both the historical context of Genesis 1 (noted above) as well as its literary style. As stressed in our quarterly, this repetitive, rhythmical account is liturgy. It’s poetry! It’s not written like a science textbook but is more akin to Psalm 104, another joyous creation poem. Let us chant it in worship!

Nevertheless, many of us do have scientific questions about the origins of creation. I recommend The Language of God, by Francis Collins, a Christian geneticist who helped develop the human genome project.

  • How do you understand the debate between creationism (“intelligent design”) and evolution?
  • If God created plants and trees bearing fruit with seeds “according to their various kinds” (vv. 11-12), is it wrong for farmers to use genetically modified seeds?
  • Compare the peaceful, fruitful story of Genesis 1 with our current planetary warming and extreme weather. Are humans responsible?

—Reta Halteman Finger  laretafinger@gmail.com

An ABS Reproducible teaching aid is available at www.MennoMedia.org/abs for use with this session.

Reta Halteman Finger joins us for our study of God’s World, God’s People. Since retiring from teaching Bible at Messiah College, Reta teaches part-time at Eastern Mennonite University, writes a Bible study blog at eewc.com/retas-reflections, and is a contributing editor at Sojourners magazine.

 

August 26, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. Practicing Justice

Colossians 3:5-17

Paul makes it plain; living for Christ requires serious surrender. We will never get to a level of discipleship in which we no longer need to engage in the discipline of spiritual transformation and examination.

As I consider the times in my brief half a century of living when I thought we surely had crossed transformational thresholds of race and gender equality, I realize that we still have much to do.

The very first record I recall my mom replaying was the song “Respect” (with the famous lyrics, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”) sung by Aretha Franklin. Through the years, that song has remained in my playlist, although my perspective has changed. Last week, the lady we proclaimed Queen of Soul died.

As I reviewed the news reports covering her concerts, achievements, awards, and life, I wondered if she ever felt respect. Life for her was transformed as she sang in her father’s church. Her God-given talented propelled her into celebrity.

Her unmistakable voice carried our great nation through the civil rights era. She comforted us as Martin Luther King Jr. was buried. She led us in national celebration as Barak Obama became the 44th president of the United States. She was a national treasure for Americans. Yet at her death, it’s uncertain if she had ever gained the respect she desired and deserved.

None of us will reach the divine respect we deserve as long as church remains an arena for sordid activities. White evangelicals support Trump, despite his record of deplorable racist and social behaviors. Acts of sexual abuse remain unaccounted for in many churches. In North America, churches are largely racially and economically separated.

The civil rights era took on compassion and understanding when four black girls died in a church bombed on a Sunday. Perhaps Aretha, who became a mother at age 12, and many other unnamed girls and boys suffering abuse may get respect when we identify and eradicate the profane from the sacred.

Jesus, the King of kings, taught that we know we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers and sisters. The Queen of Soul just wanted a little respect. May we challenge ourselves to live out the justice that only comes when we discipline ourselves to live out our faith daily.

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. (Romans 12:2 NLT)

—Kelly Bates Oglesby, kellyoglesby@gmail.com

We are grateful to Kelly Bates Oglesby for helping us connect biblical truth and insights with our lives and current events in the church and the world during our study of Justice in the New Testament.

Reta Halteman Finger of Rockingham, Virginia, will be our ABS Online writer for our fall study, God’s World and God’s People. Join us!

 

August 19, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. God-Shaped Transformation: Living in Love and Justice

Romans 12:9-21

The observation of how others speak on righting the wrongs in society is perplexing. Often, nearly always, it is in a benign way. Yet, when we read of God’s ideas and visions for justice, a complete inversion of society structures is called for.

In Amos 5:24, God speaks of justice rolling like a river. Moving water is a powerful force. Water consistently moving changes the direction of nature, forcing the development of new ecosystems.

Water often symbolizes the Holy Spirit. The power of many Holy Spirit-filled believers can bring about justice. We can be the force that brings justice rolling down like a river when we come together in one accord.

Contemplating Paul’s writing, it becomes clear that as disciples of Jesus Christ we have a mandate to care for each other in a radical way. We are to rearrange society through love. This love distributes justice and finances to all.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.—Romans 12:9-13

If we want to see the goodness of God transform our society, we must commit to being bearers of justice, workers of peace, and faithful in sharing what we have to transform those around us who are in need.

The Holy Spirit is working in us. Will we see strong changes that uproot habits and overrun traditions? Look around.

  • How much will you give to those around you?
  • How will you practice hospitality, and to whom will you demonstrate it?
  • How radical is your commitment to living Christian faith?

Kelly Bates Oglesby
kellyoglesby@gmail.com

An ABS Reproducible page is available for use with this session at http://www.MennoMedia.org/abs.

 

August 12, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. Material Redistribution and Global Equality: A God’s-Eye View

2 Corinthians 8:7-15

Will I become poor that others may be lifted out of poverty? How much giving is enough? Is it even helpful to give to those in poverty? I struggle with these questions as I contemplate giving.

I want to excel in giving; I want to give as Jesus gave. Trouble is—I keep ruminating over these and other questions.

Poverty is inextricably tied to justice or the lack thereof. Systemic constructs create and sustain generational poverty stemming from educational levels, job opportunities, family make up, and more.

We do not often think and talk about poverty from the perspective of faith. Yet the Bible speaks explicitly on how we, disciples of Jesus Christ, are to give to relieve the economic suffering of those around us.

“The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” —Walter Brueggemann[1]

The dominant culture teaches us to acquire, consume, hoard, and bequeath. Cultural indicators of success or happiness revolve around living in the respectable ZIP codes, driving luxury vehicles, wearing clothing that is known/desired. Even our efforts to live peacefully with creation can become enmeshed with name-brand bottled waters or specialty reusable containers.

We can break through these cultural strongholds of affluence by imagining and implementing a different reality. We can awaken and be committed to deconstructing systems of poverty. Imagine lifestyles that empower us to give to the needy and support those struggling to overcome barriers. As believers, we have myriad resources—through small groups, congregations, or conferences—that can uplift struggling but determined entrepreneurs.

The Criterion Institute provides pathways to strengthen entrepreneurship through its Kiva platform. Their Bible study resources are available online. Moving from the perspective of “me, myself, and I” to the lens of intentional giving to others is an amazing experience.

I challenge you to join with a few friends in the experience of intentionally giving to and supporting those impacted by systemic poverty and structural injustice. After you give, testify of the experience by sharing the joys and the challenges of intentional economic justice advocacy. Let us encourage one another to join together in becoming more excellent givers.

—Kelly Bates Oglesby kellyoglesby@gmail.com

[1]. The Prophetic Imagination.

August 5, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session 

  1. Jews, Greeks, and the Justice of God

Romans 2:1-16

 “Criticisms, Preferences, and Attitudes but No Justice”

God has been kind to you. He has been very patient, waiting for you to change. But you think nothing of his kindness. Maybe you don’t understand that God is kind to you so that you will decide to change your lives (Romans 2:4 ERV).

Paul’s address is appropriate in our day. We invest so much time and many resources in proving we are right that we do not seek the righteousness of God. Somehow, after the initial joyfulness of accepting Christ as our Savior, we forget that Christ is Lord as well. Instead of becoming disciple makers, we lord over people and their lives. This storm of criticisms, preferences, and attitudes swirls into our families, congregations, conferences, and beyond, obliterating the potential for us to exemplify Christ in our lives.

Sadly, we bruise and deform the body of Christ with our determination to have others live according to our beliefs. Hemmed into our personal interpretations of how to best live for and like Christ, we abandon the teachings of Christ. Focusing on people’s music choice, fashion style, or biblical translation will not make disciples for Christ. Moreover, it will keep us from having a prayerful, practical, and peaceful influence in the world.

We must stop making our perspectives into precepts of godliness. A scarcity of justice exists, and a heap of work remains for us to focus on and get done. Injustices abound, and when we are so busy infighting we miss opportunities to insist on and protest for justice. Today (July 26, 2018), hundreds of children remain separated from their parents despite a court order to reunify all refugee families separated at the U.S./Mexico border. This matter demands our attention. Reminiscent of the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign focused on the Boko Haram a few years ago, this time the United States government has traumatized families by forced separation.

Yes, it is important that we learn how to live as examples and witnesses for Christ. It is also imperative that we identify tenets of conduct so that we can live in peace; however, the more we add on, the more like Pharisees we become. Living our faith is to be joyously simple. Jesus gave us two principles on which to build our morality.

Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them” (Matthew 22:37-40 MSG).

Stay away from mindless, pointless quarreling over genealogies and fine print in the law code. That gets you nowhere. (Titus 3:9 MSG)

Interestingly, the Aramaic for Titus 3:9 can be interpreted to mean to avoid tribal traditions or spiritual genealogies. Our schisms and chasms are steeped in our theological pedigrees, and we group ourselves into spiritual tribes using our perspectives to criticize, judge, and ostracize others. Let’s put down our weapons, stop attacking one another, and begin to change the world with the love of Christ our Savior and Lord.

—Kelly Bates Oglesby

kellyoglesby@gmail.com

 

July 29, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session 

  1. The Parable of the Great Banquet

Luke 14:15-24

“Intentionally Receiving God’s Invitation”

In this parable of the great banquet, Jesus reveals the responsibility of invitees to arrive ready to partake in the banquet. If they do not, the celebration is not canceled but extended to include others. Another significant point is that the expansion of the banquet occurs because the servants go out and persuade/compel others that this banquet is open to them.

Those who offer excuses as to why they cannot participate in the fellowship of Christianity are much like the people who refused invitations to the banquet. The busyness of making money and acquiring material things can distract us from the invitation to salvation. Sure, we all have obligations, but we set our priorities. Moreover, our excuses fall as flat as those of the people in this parable. God sees and knows all; God discerns our hearts. Just as one would not foolishly buy property without inspecting it, rejecting the discipline of salvation is inexcusable.

Oh, the excuses—“I cannot come to worship because the game is on,” “I would help with outreach but my own family needs me,” or “I cannot join in fellowship because I have to prepare for another event.” We can make an unending list. Everyone has 24 hours in a day and 168 hours in a week; we prioritize our schedules as we wish. If we do not have time to assemble with other believers, we need to examine our priorities. The people in the parable knew ahead of time of the banquet plans and from whom the invitation came. Those declining the invitation simply thought any excuse would be acceptable.

Likewise, God is calling us today to the fellowship that celebrates salvation offered through Jesus Christ. Excuses offered will yield no exceptions; invitations will go to those willing to make time to join with others, making time to share in the discipline of salvation.

Let us hold on firmly to the hope we profess, because we can trust God to keep his promise. Let us be concerned for one another, to help one another to show love and to do good. Let us not give up the habit of meeting together, as some are doing. Instead, let us encourage one another all the more, since you see that the Day of the Lord is coming nearer (Hebrews 10:23-25 GNT).

That the invitation to join in the banquet is made on behalf of the host by the servants is significant. Do not overlook the responsibility of servants/disciples of Christ to invite others into the joy we have in salvation through Jesus Christ. Sure, we will run into those with illogical excuses, but we must keep reaching out to others. We must invite those who are different, those experiencing difficulties in life, and those seemingly invisible to others. Our mission is clear—we are to make certain everyone knows that God is preparing a banquet/feast and excuses for missing the celebration/salvation are not acceptable. Some people will need to be compelled/persuaded that they are indeed welcome/worthy of the invitation.

  • How might our worship services, fellowship meals, and celebrations be transformed if we understood them as an invitation to participate in Jesus’ celebration of salvation?
  • Who is awaiting an invitation to the banquet?

—Kelly Bates Oglesby

kellyoglesby@gmail.com

 

July 22, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. Entering God’s Kingdom

Luke 13:22-30
“The Narrow Door to the Wide Love of God”

Entering the life of Christian faith is an opportunity open to all. However, life as a disciple of Christ requires acceptance of and adherence to standards set by Christ. In this parable, Jesus makes it clear that disciples/believers in Christ are to live differently than others. The narrative provides one significant example that will exclude people from the kingdom of God, because the owner of the house does not identify with the people or know from where they came (v. 25). These people summarily are refused entry and described as evildoers. Fellowshiping with Jesus and being aware of Christian teaching are insufficient experiences to gain access to the kingdom.

Those denied entry, much like people whose credit/debit card is declined, insist that the decision be processed again. While we may hope for and possibly receive a different outcome with financial transactions, it is not so with interactions of faith. That which is required to gain entry into the kingdom of God should not be ambiguous. It is crucial that we make it as plain as Jesus did in this parable, that there is one way to salvation and eternal life—faith in Christ Jesus, our Savior and Lord. We come into relationship with God and all the blessings of salvation through Christ alone.

This parable clarifies that hanging around those who believe in Jesus or hearing about Jesus is not enough to identify us with Jesus. Evildoers are synonymous with workers of injustice. Our presence in meetings for ministry does not allow us entry into the kingdom of God. Hearing or studying the gospel does not include us in salvation. Accepting Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is the one way to salvation. We can engage in fellowship with believers and even have an intellectual understanding of the gospel; however, that does not make us part of the body of Christ or open the kingdom of God to us. The weeping and gnashing of teeth demonstrates how utterly shocking it will be to those who are rejected. The realization that we have been so close to Jesus but chose not to connect with intention and integrity will be indescribable.

As we get into the busyness of faith, it is essential that we do not forget that the first order of business is faith in Jesus Christ as redeemer. Faith compels us to engage in good works, but we must avoid the false narrative that good works equals faith. It seems nearly impossible until we sit with the words of John 6:28-29 (ERV), “The people asked Jesus, ‘What does God want us to do?’ Jesus answered, ‘The work God wants you to do is this: to believe in the one he sent.’”

When we believe in Jesus, we live differently from those who are doing good works. Indeed, our faith in Jesus is what distinguishes us from the charitable organizations and service clubs. Because of Christ, we are the church. As Christians, we believe and share that Jesus is the door to salvation. Jesus is the narrow door that opens into the wide and abiding love of God.

Martin Luther King Jr. wrote this observation in a college paper: “It is our job as ministers to bring the church back to the center of the human race. But we can only bring the church back to the center of the human race when we bring Christ back to the center of the church.”[1]

 —Kelly Bates Oglesby

kellyoglesby@gmail.com

[1]. Martin Luther King Jr., “Is the Church the Hope of the World?” http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/Vol06Scans/14Sept1948-15Feb1950IstheChurchtheHopeoftheWorld.pdf.

July 15, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. The Widow and the Unjust Judge

Luke 18:1-8

 Persistence in Prayer”

Jesus taught the disciples a parable about the importance of persistent prayer. Often in the dynamics of the story, we miss the important point, so we misunderstand the importance of the parable’s dynamics.

The widow is without social agency, voice, or safety. She has lost the male counterpart who gave her identity, resources, and protection during this era. The widow represents socially powerless and marginalized people. The judge represents those with power yet lacking compassion. The temperament of the judge represents those people too apathetic to concern themselves with the needs and treatment of the needy and vulnerable of our society. These people refuse to look around to identify the ways they can change the circumstances of the least of those in their midst.

We can see the widow representing people in communities that lack nutrition and wellness resources or the under- and unemployed. Conceivably, the widow represents women who make less than their male counterparts. The widow can represent any group we identify as needy or oppressed. The judge represents those in power or those refusing to use their power to relieve the struggle of others.

The pattern of prayer this widow provides is praying eyes wide-open and ever voicing the need for relief from injustice and depraved indifference. Too often we think of prayer as peaceful meditation, a quick grace before a meal, or a bedtime ritual. Jesus is teaching another prayer model in this parable; a prayer that is unrelenting, public, targeted, and full of urgency. As we pray for heavenly deliverance, we continue to resist, advocate, and mobilize to effect change. Indeed, we are to make a ruckus, create a scene, and disrupt the normalcy of the lives of people oppressing us and others. We are social disrupters agitating for change, and we want that change immediately.

I believe we understand the necessity of this type of persistent prayer when we get pushed so far down that we cannot even remember there is a possibility of up. During the Civil Rights era, Fannie Lou Hamer expressed it this way, “All my life I’ve been sick and tired. Now I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”[1]

I believe Jesus is teaching us that every believer should have a point that, when reached, they will mobilize in relentless and persistent prayer. With the widow’s example, Jesus is demonstrating that even those of us with the least political and social agency are a powerful force when engaged in prayer. Jesus closes this parable with a question. When Jesus returns, will any faithful be found? The faithful are those mobilized in persistent, provocative prayer. The faithful understand that desperate times demand a different type of prayer positioning and claiming of our power.

I believe that is what propelled Patricia Okoumou up the Statute of Liberty on the 4th of July. She knew the treatment of refugee families in detention centers demanded drastic action.[2] Similarly, this point of persistence was reached in South African Apartheid resister Allan Boesak, who taught, “When we go before Him, God will ask, ‘Where are your wounds?’ And we will say, ‘I have no wounds.’ And God will ask, ‘Was there nothing worth fighting for?’”[3]

—Kelly Bates Oglesby

kellyoglesby@gmail.com

An ABS Reproducible handout for this session is available at www.MennoMedia.org/abs.

[1]. For background on Fannie Lou Hamer’s famous quote, see www.thisdayinquotes.com/2010/08/im-sick-and-tired-of-being-sick-and.html

[2]. Anne Branigin, “Patricia Okoumou Knows She Could Have Died During Her Statue of Liberty Protest; She Did It Anyway,” The Root, July 9, 2018, www.theroot.com/patricia-okoumou-knows-she-could-have-died-during-her-s-1827443582

[3]. See www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/256414.Allan_Aubrey_Boesak

 

July 8, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session 

  1. Hypocrisy and the Life of Faithful Discipleship

Matthew 23:1-8, 23-2

“Holy Hypocrisy”

Jesus is clear—there is much for us to do if we are his followers. Tithing and giving of our firstfruits is just the beginning. We must be active in showing justice, mercy, and faithfulness. This goes beyond the civil niceties we demonstrate while cloistered in our congregations. We must come out into the uncomfortable and unfamiliar territories of our society to ensure that the least among us are receiving justice and mercy, and that we are living out our faithfulness.

It is not enough to say we support foreign missions when families in our midst struggle without the necessities to survive. Community projects at our biannual conventions are insufficient while the police are called to check on black people for doing routine things—more than a dozen reported incidents in the first six months of this year alone. Refugees are suffering within our borders. Families have been separated. There is no justice when toddlers and preschoolers are ordered to appear in hearings without legal representation to give an account of why they fled their native countries.

Jesus expects us to be moved by compassion to give of our money, time, talents, and spirits to correct the grievous injustices suffered by those in our midst, our neighbors. To initiate changes that bring justice and mercy, we must speak up in our congregations and speak out in our communities. Thoughts and prayers are not enough. Roll up our sleeves and pull on our boots. We must be in the thick of the ugliness of insidious injustice. While we are giving canned goods and food, we must also assess how we can correct the systems that cripple people in poverty for generations. We must march, protest, and resist until our civic leaders legislate corrective action for racism, poverty, mass incarceration, denied refugee rights, denied human rights, health care inaccessibility—the list goes on.

“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” Desmond Tutu

In the last few weeks we have received a court order stating there is no right to literacy in the United States.[1] Numerous reports of black people detained, questioned, or disrupted from simply living are all over the news. The federal government is demanding refugees return to their homelands with or without their children. More than 2,000 children are unaccounted for or cannot be located.

“We have to use our collective voices to yell whenever we see these injustices. It doesn’t matter how small because sometimes the cameras aren’t available.” —Bozoma Saint John[2]

I hear Jesus telling us that being part of the peace church tradition is not enough. We must become part of the mobilization and movement for all people to experience peace, justice, and mercy. Our faithfulness compels us into uncomfortable positions and requires us to engage in conflict so that we might do justice so all people might live in peace.

—Kelly Bates Oglesby kellyoglesby@gmail.com

[1].  Jacey Fortin, “‘Access to Literacy’ Is Not a Constitutional Right, Judge in Detroit Rules,” The New York Times,

July 4, 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/07/04/education/detroit-public-schools-education.html.

[2]. Felice León, “Can We Live While Black?” The Root, June 27, 2018, www.theroot.com/can-we-live-while-black-1827153850.

July 1, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. Learning Forgiveness from A God’s-Eye Perspective

Matthew 18:21-35

 “We Are a Forgiving People Because We Are a Forgiven People”

Unless and until we see that we have a need for the divine forgiveness offered through Jesus Christ, we will not be effective in carrying out the gospel ministry. Our missionary efforts and outreach projects will be hollow, just as our lives are empty. When we perceive God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ personally, we will understand the essentiality of forgiving others. In this parable, Jesus admonishes Peter, who thinks he has developed a reasonable formula on forgiveness. “Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?”  Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-22 MSG).

I believe Jesus is teaching Peter and us that forgiveness is not to be in short supply; we do not need to ration it or control it. Forgiveness is to be available without restraint. The crux of Christian faith is that we are a forgiving people because we are a forgiven people! Our forgiveness fuels our faith; forgiveness relieves us of the burden and baggage of holding grudges.

On June 18, 2018, Antwon Rose of Pittsburgh died; the Allegheny County medical examiner declared his death a homicide. Antwon was fleeing a police officer.[1] This incomprehensible death has exacerbated tensions in the black community as yet another teenager is buried. His hopes and dreams are dead, his family shattered. There are protests, yet many are growing weary of protests that bring insignificant change. Others are exhausted by the inconvenience of the protests that close highways and city intersections, or are apathetic about the reasons for protests. I am often asked why I and other clergy do not lead our community in racial reconciliation efforts. I do. I am often asked why I and other clergy do not teach our youth to assimilate, to not live so publicly by cultural habits, fashion, and interactions. I cannot and will not.

Racial reconciliation requires everyone to acknowledge that racial discrimination exists and impacts certain groups in systemic ways. It requires an intentional, consistent commitment from all sides. Can you or I make a difference individually? Yes, we can and we must. We must seek forgiveness for intentional and unintentional complicity in racial oppression. Those privileged to be born in a race that does not require them to be constantly aware of where they are, with whom they are, and where the exits are located must use that privilege as power to dismantle racist societal systems and structures as well as personal bias.

When we recognize the endless forgiveness God has given us, we will willingly extend forgiveness. Moreover, we will discipline ourselves to share with others how to enter into this life-changing and everlasting forgiveness. Will our efforts change society? Yes! As for me, I was amazed and elated during the funeral for my beloved nephew killed in street violence to see members from a suburban, traditionally and predominantly white church make their way to the inner city and the urban church where services were held. Their presence was a living testimony to the power of God’s infinite forgiveness. No racial conflict occurred. These brave souls were received with hospitality. They left with changed minds and hearts about a community of people within their own community, whom they did not know.

Let’s reflect on the forgiveness we receive through Jesus Christ and become vessels of forgiveness in our families and communities.

—Kelly Bates Oglesby

kellyoglesby@gmail.com

[1]. Darran Simon & Hollie Silverman, “The Death of the Unarmed Teen Killed by an East Pittsburg Police Officer Is Ruled a Homicide,” CNN, June 22, 2018.

 

June 24, 2018

Adult Bible Study Online

A current connection to each week’s session

  1. Reaping God’s Justice

Luke 16:19-31

“Recognizing Justice”

Suppose a brother or sister in Christ comes to you in need of clothes or something to eat. And you say to them, “God be with you! I hope you stay warm and get plenty to eat,” but you don’t give them the things they need. If you don’t help them, your words are worthless. It is the same with faith. If it is just faith and nothing more—if it doesn’t do anything—it is dead. James 2:15-17 ERV

I have been blessed to both receive during my time of need and happy to share with others when possible. When I needed help, I dreaded the humiliation of the questions, suggestions, and criticisms that come as a result of asking for help. Why do I need help? Because while I may reside in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the barriers and opposition to me just being able to acquire basic necessities are great.

My education and skill sets cannot help me close the wealth gap of being born black and female in these United States. The wealth gap for me and many like me began when our ancestors were ripped from the continent of Africa and brought here as slaves. The refusal of this country to demand the formation of a reconciliation and reparations council to address the systemic, racial inequities of our nation resulted in perpetual debit and deficit budgets for most people of color. “In 2016, the median wealth for black and Hispanic families was $17,600 and $20,700, respectively, compared with white families’ median wealth of $171,000.”[1]

In this narrative of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus gets right into personal economics and giving. Just beyond the comfort of the rich man’s economic safety existed Lazarus, close in proximity but widely separated due to personal wealth. The sores on this poor man’s body represent the injuries and trauma one experiences when there is just not enough. The man’s sores were obvious, the needs were plain, and yet the rich man could or would not see the needs and the dignity of the poor.

I have been Lazarus and most likely I will be Lazarus again real soon. My lack and need does not come from poor stewardship. Nor am I lazy and unwilling to work. I am simply too often underemployed. My education and willingness to work has not afforded me opportunities, despite graduating at the top of my class in college and seminary. I have applied and applied to several openings within Mennonite Church USA and not yet been hired. Nevertheless, I continue to serve as contributor and volunteer as opportunities arise. I work as often as possible through temporary placement agencies. I receive rejections for permanent positions because employers in corporate and nonprofit sectors fear that I will leave as soon as I am called for a ministry position. Temporary positions come without stability or benefits.

In May, I received financial support from a local Mennonite congregation, for which I am grateful. However, the amount did not match the need, and I continue to decide which prescriptions I can fill and medical appointments with copays I can miss. My groceries come from local food banks. Anxiety denies the ability to rest or dwell in peace. I often wonder if those who are the exception to being black, brown, and poor are the focus of white Christians because it is painfully unpleasant to look right out your door and see people that need justice—economic and racial justice.

  • What is your response and reaction to your neighbors in need?
  • How does the peace church resolve to engage in justice initiatives, resistance, and solutions for the people just on the other side of their gates

There are many needs, but the structure that built and perpetuates those needs can be dismantled when the followers of Jesus engage in radical justice redistribution endeavors.

  • Can you see my needs?
  • Can you see those in need with compassion

—Kelly Bates Oglesby

kellyoglesby@gmail.com

[1]. Angela Hanks, Danyelle Solomon, & Christian E. Weller, “Systematic Inequality: How America’s Structural Racism Helped Create the Black-White Wealth Gap.” Center for American Progress, February 21, 2018.

June 17, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session 

  1. Jesus Teaches about Justice

Matthew 15:1-9

Traditions, rituals, and customs are not essential to how I live out my faith and devotion to Christ Jesus. But when I came to share and dwell among the Mennonites, the energy was charged, and we were all changed. I believe something better came from each of us.

I came to First Mennonite Church (FMC) of Indianapolis, Indiana, in 2012. The congregation was traditionally and predominantly white, and I was definitely and obviously black. Our cultures came to the precipice of our demonstration and expression of faith. I came as a seminarian to a congregation that intentionally opened itself to journey with those being trained to serve the kingdom of God.

I bumbled and fumbled my way through the practices and procedures of collaborating and discerning. I shook and shocked the congregation with unscripted prayers and extemporaneous expressions of faith. I was welcomed and warned. I was not adhering to certain practices, and it discomforted some people. Others were energized and joined in the experiences I introduced. The thing I most remember and respect is Ryan telling me that my faith would not be restrained by the limitations of his experience or the traditions of congregation. Ryan gave footing to my exploration of First Mennonite’s history, practice, and possibilities.

Erv Boschmann, a congregational leader, pulled me aside and told me I was a holy conduit “bringing people together in unexpected yet holy ways.” He encouraged me to fly into sharing myself and opening myself. As a congregation, we bumped and collided as we journeyed together but they embraced me even when they didn’t understand me. I learned to enjoy God in diverse ways that I doubt I would have experienced if not for the people of FMC: how to discern and plan worship services, collaborate in leadership, and listen to four-part harmony.

The team that led and supported my journey at FMC deepened my faith in substantial ways. I engaged in Mennonite USA experiences and introduced FMC to the community I love in the same region of their church but just beyond their familiarity.

My way of knowing and serving God is steeped in a culture that believes we serve the living God, so our living must bear witness to God in practical and purposeful ways. We celebrated Pentecost by bringing gifts for the Damien Center, Indiana’s oldest and largest HIV/AIDS service organization and leader in HIV prevention and care. Our gifts were what the Damien Center needed most at the time: toilet paper and powdered milk. Remembering the marginalized of our community, we refused to opt out of outreach and mission because we had given to God at FMC. No corban for us (Mark 7:9-13).

We expanded our faith practices and engaged deeper in living the call of God. Our lips expressed the faith in our hearts. We experienced God in wild and wonderful unexpected ways as we developed relationships of love and grace.

—Kelly Bates Oglesby, kellyoglesby@gmail.com

 

June 10, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. Parables of God’s Just Kingdom

Matthew 13:24-33

“Finding Peace, Power, and Purpose in Parables”

Parables provoke me to examine myself. Am I a weed or am I wheat? In these parables, Jesus is discussing how the kingdom of God thrives amid weeds or is enmeshed in the surrounding world but still fulfilling its purpose. Am I in the world, leavening the people and processes around me? Does my presence cause a rising that multiplies the reign of God? How do I manage to fulfill purpose when weeds/obstacles are popping up and rooting down around me?

Personally, how am I making a difference right where I am in time and space? I am faithfully partnered in sacred relationship. My marriage is growing because my husband and I are seeking to serve God by serving each other, and together we serve God by serving the people of God. Our home continues to be a shelter for those who would otherwise become entangled by the weeds of poverty, crime, and addiction—or be discarded as weeds themselves.

In the kingdom of God, each of us exists in a plot of God’s vineyard/garden, but none of us has authority to expel or dismiss anyone. The tension is present, and we must discipline ourselves not to isolate ourselves from others. We must live in this garden until God alone declares us wheat or weed. Our purpose is to aspire to be wheat and help others transform from weed to wheat. It is a trying yet wonderful existence; we have the opportunity to grow and allow the seeds of our growth to cross-pollinate or work through the process to help others rise into their purpose.

Consider the significant issues we are experiencing: rampant racism, nationalism on steroids, and increases in the cost of basic living. I hear Jesus calling us through the parables to resist evil in all forms, to insist that equality and justice are more than platitudes. We are to lead and sustain change efforts, and yet it was entertainment conglomerates and social media protests that called Roseanne Barr to account for her vitriol. Cable news reporters leading ever-present town hall forums on racism that are far too normalized and powerless. We must live out the wisdom of our faith!

Being complacent, doing nothing, avoiding the responsibility of making a decision, is also making a choice. You are responsible for both your action and your inaction. —Akiroq Brost

A parable is defined as a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson. If we do not respond more creatively and divinely after engaging with the parables of Jesus, then the lack of power is not due to the ineptness or emptiness of Jesus. We have failed to learn and live our faith if we do not rise with integrity and empathy to make life better for all.

  • Are you a weed or wheat?
  • Are you in the world, leavening the people and processes around you?
  • Does your presence cause a rising that multiplies the reign of God?
  • How do you manage to fulfill purpose when weeds/obstacles are popping up and rooting down around you?

You can ask the same questions about your congregation.

—Kelly Bates Oglesby  kellyoglesby@gmail.com

 

June 3, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. Justice and Sabbath Laws

Matthew 12:1-14

“Sabbath: A Radical Demonstration of Justice”

There is far more at stake here than religion. If you had any idea what this Scripture meant—“I prefer a flexible heart to an inflexible ritual”—you wouldn’t be nitpicking like this. The Son of Man is no lackey to the Sabbath; he’s in charge (Jesus, Matthew 12:6-8 MSG).

In Matthew 12, Jesus was accused of not keeping the Sabbath law. He was called out for the profane act of doing justice on, of all days, the Sabbath. He reminded the Pharisees that his disciples were doing what was allowable—picking heads of grain to feed themselves. But then Jesus had the holy audacity to heal a man on the Sabbath.

What are some radical acts of justice that might be offensive to Christians, on the Sabbath or Sunday or any other day?

Recent police actions, prompted by calls from white citizens, confirm the awful truth that racism is alive in the USA in 2018. Indeed, many believe that the recent incidents brought to light, usually through social media, are not creating an increase in racial violence but raising awareness of what has always been. Being black is to live a traumatic experience that impacts individuals’ mental and physical health. Living while black foretells economic hardships that are passed on to future generations. Blacks report less than favorable views on policing agencies as well as the overall justice system.

Communities of faith and denominational leadership are by and large segregated along racial lines. The integration present in the church is usually the result of interracial marriage, not intentional ministry. In these congregations, people of color typically are not in positions of leadership; when one person of color is a leader, organizations are quick to applaud their own diversity and inclusion.

Here’s the point. As we seek to follow Jesus and live our faith in everyday experience, consider what might happen if on the Sabbath and every day we challenged systems and traditions embedded in racist practices and perspectives. Could we remember the Sabbath and keep it holy if more men and women of color comprised congregational and conference leadership? What would white people, specifically white men, say or do if the structures and systems of faith shifted toward greater diversity?

Would we find “policing practices” within the peace church that obstruct inclusive leadership? Can we look inward and around and challenge ourselves to live in ways that fulfill the vision of love and justice that is so central to the gospel message? Can we commit to finding ways to feed the spirit of diversity and inclusion in Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada? Will we intentionally begin the healing work in our congregation, conference, and community? Can we put down our coffee long enough to make certain everyone is welcomed and served? Can we do it today so we don’t find ourselves turned into a meme or caricature?

—Kelly Bates Oglesby

kellyoglesby@gmail.com

Kelly Bates Oglesby of Indianapolis, Indiana, is our ABS Online writer for Justice in the New Testament, our Summer 2018 study. She is joyfully married to Herman Oglesby. Kelly enjoys writing and teaching. She is discerning opportunities for pastoral ministry.

 

May 27, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. Rejoicing in Restoration

Psalm 34:1-10; Hebrews 2:17-18

When my friend’s contract job ended two months ago, she didn’t have enough hours for employment insurance. Since then, she’s had six job interviews. The last one was a gruelling two-hour question period regarding how she would respond to a number of office scenarios. The next day, she was informed via a phone call that she did not get the position. The news left her feeling anxious and depressed.

At times we may think that things are under control, only to be blindsided by some unexpected problem (toothache, nosebleed, broken bone, sickness, unemployment, personal conflict, addiction, spiritual issue, etc.). On such occasions, we can take comfort in the psalms, which model many of the everyday conflicts people face.

In one such situation, the meek and humble psalmist finds himself attacked by enemies who are arrogant and haughty. Blindsided by this unprovoked enmity, he is initially thrown for a loop. After his instinctive response of confusion, anger, and self-pity, he brings his woes and suffering to God and achieves a measure of comfort and peace. In Psalm 34, the writer realizes that the Lord can deliver him from his difficulties: “The righteous person may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all” (v. 19).

Sometimes we react before we bring our discontents to God, perhaps with a discourteous retort or with self-condemnation. But the psalms are useful, providing a larger perspective and indicating how to redirect anger or despair. Nearly all the psalms end with an attitude of worship and praise.

In Hebrews, the author explains that Jesus understands our human frailty and sympathizes with our concerns. He not only is aware of our sinful nature but has already atoned for our sins. Therefore, we can approach him with confidence, knowing that he has both the power and the willingness to deliver us from our negative circumstances.

  • What strategies do the psalms commonly advise for dealing with our difficulties?
  • Why does the writer of Hebrews believe that we should be confident in taking our concerns to Jesus?

—Kevin McCabe

kmccabe57@hotmail.com

Editor’s note: We are grateful to Kevin McCabe for sharing his insights and encouragement to acknowledge and honor God in our worship and our lives.

Kelly Bates Oglesby of Indianapolis, Indiana, joins us this summer as our ABS Online writer for our study of Justice in the New Testament.

May 20, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. Remembering with Joy

Leviticus 25:1-12

Last week, a city council approved a $1.5 trillion development project that will occupy one third of a biologically sensitive area of woodlands and wetlands. If local citizens had petitioned to use such environmentally significant land, they almost certainly would have been turned down. However, applications from mega-corporations and offshore consortiums are almost always approved. Huge amounts of investment money sometimes expedite such processes, whereas ordinary citizens might be told that regulations forbid such land use. The gap between rich and poor—as well as the politicized and nonpoliticized, special interests and average taxpayers—widens daily.

There is a definite connection between the use of land and justice. We see it in the troubled history of Israel, which, similar to our modern era, was a story of empires and oppressors. The books of Moses, such as Leviticus, often appear as templates that didn’t always work out in reality. Indeed, the prophetic writings continually challenge the Hebrews to repent and return to the biblical vision. Certain perceptions of Jewish identity went deep, including their understanding of themselves as a Sabbath-observing people. In Leviticus 25, the Sabbath concept is expanded to include agricultural, social, humanitarian, and economic measures.

Every seventh year was a sabbatical year, during which Hebrew slaves were freed, debts were forgiven, and the earth itself was given 12 months of rest. Although this provision seems strange in an agricultural society, it became something that Israelites were proud to observe. In effect, all regular farming practices were forbidden, and farmers became gleaners on their own land.

The sabbatical year helped to restore a measure of equality among Israelites, including those who had been enslaved for debt. This practice also emphasized that the land itself and the people themselves belonged to God.

The jubilee year concept eventually proved to be unmanageable and is rarely mentioned as a historical reality. Nonetheless, many of its provisions were embodied in the sabbatical year, which was a reality during times when Israelites had some control of their national destiny and economy.

  • How did the sabbatical year embody certain ideas of social justice and respect for God’s creation?
  • Do you know of real instances where God’s biblical standards of justice (agricultural, social, humanitarian, or economic) were not served in regard to the use of land?
  • Jesus announced a “jubilee” in his mission statement (Luke 4:18-19) at the beginning of his ministry. How does the concept of jubilee fit with the mission of the church?

—Kevin McCabe, kmccabe57@hotmail.com

May 13, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s sessio

  1. Bringing Firstfruits

Leviticus 23:9-14, 22

An acquaintance was working with the Salvation Army kettle campaign last Christmas. Although it was almost Christmas day, people were ignoring the kettle. Worried about this, my friend was convicted that he had not yet donated anything. He emptied his wallet into the kettle, and soon people were lining up to give.

At a recent meeting of a Christian society, an officer kindly told me that I did not need to contribute anything to the meeting costs. So I didn’t. Later, when a call for donations was given, I gave half of my cash. The Holy Spirit immediately convicted me, and I quickly added the other half.

In today’s society, we have a tendency to see all offerings to God as freewill offerings. But in Leviticus, not giving to the Lord is more than a sin of omission. Old Testament prophets continually railed against those who dodged the “firstfruits principle.” For example, Malachi reported the Lord’s words: “You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse” (Malachi 3:9-10a).

In Leviticus 23:9-14, the Israelites were charged to symbolically offer a sheaf of the first grain they harvested, along with a lamb for sacrifice, flour, and wine. This had to happen before they used anything made from the new grain. Both God’s ownership of the land and God’s complete sovereignty over Israel are emphasized.

Today, we are likely to consider situational ethics, and hedge these matters with a number of “ifs.” We may presume that volunteering is itself an adequate offering. However, by making our donation, along with our other efforts, we come closer to the biblical understanding of firstfruits.

Just as we are called to “love God” (Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37) and to “love our neighbor” (Leviticus 19:18: Matthew 22:39) so Leviticus instructs us to offer the blessings of the harvest both to God and to our neighbors. Farmers and landowners are instructed not to clear the field completely of grain, but to deliberately leave some grain for gleaners, that is, for landless people who have no other access to the harvest (Leviticus 23:22).

  • How to you understand the biblical commandments regarding firstfruits?
  • What are some contemporary versions of the gleaning principle?

—Kevin McCabe, kmccabe57@hotmail.com

 

May 6, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session 

  1. Giving from a Generous Heart

Exodus 35:20-29; 2 Corinthians 9:6-8

The subject of generosity has great potential for debate. While in some churches and denominations the subject of money can spark competitive activity, in others the subject of money is taboo. Church traditions and cultural assumptions often shape these attitudes. One area of debate continues to be the use of money for church buildings versus for humanitarian aid.

The people in the book of Exodus lived in a closely knit community where God was the ruler and Moses was God’s representative. As a result, the people paid their taxes/tithes to God. So in Exodus 35:20-29, we see the Israelites coming together to build a tabernacle. This is somewhat similar to the cathedral builders of the Middle Ages.

The early Christian church seldom constructed buildings for worship. Offerings were mostly taken to support poor members and others in need. Paul’s appeal in 2 Corinthians may be related to a famine in Palestine, the needs of the Jerusalem congregation, and the desire to show gratitude to the mother church. One suspects that Paul especially targets the Corinthian church because of its conspicuous wealth.

Given that the New Testament rarely refers to church buildings, the Reformation leaders tended to shy away from large, elaborate structures. In some cases, the murals from pre-Reformation churches were whitewashed, and statues and ornaments were removed. Some older churches were destroyed.

In northern Europe, expressions of religious art inspired by historical, biblical events generally became a matter of private/special interest, or an occasional “frill” when times were good. Churches continued to be built, often as a way of bringing communities together. My home church, an impressive structure, was designed and largely constructed by members of the congregation.

Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians are somewhat like today’s pleas for foreign aid or disaster relief. That is, they are a matter of practical humanitarian concern. This may reflect a slight shift from the Old Testament focus on “fearing God” to the New Testament emphasis on “loving your neighbor.” But perhaps the two are not so opposed that beautiful buildings and humanitarian aid are always mutually exclusive.

  • Why might generosity and “cheerful giving” be “iffy” subjects in many churches?
  • Explain how there might be tensions between art/beauty in worship buildings and in appeals for humanitarian aid.

—Kevin McCabe, kmccabe57@hotmail.com

 

April 29, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. Blessing, Glory, Honor Forever

Revelation 5:6-14

In Revelation 4:1-6, 8-11, we hear the heavenly equivalent of the “Hallelujah Chorus” addressing “the Lord God the Almighty” (cf. Revelation 19:1-6). Obviously, praise could go no further, or so it seems.

In Revelation 5, the focus of the praise shifts from the enthroned God Almighty to the Lamb (also described as the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” and the “Root of David”). Our Scripture passage concludes with “every creature in heaven and on earth” praising both “him who sits on the throne and … the Lamb” (v. 13).

This exaltation of the Lamb (cf. John 1:29, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”) has been a stumbling block throughout the ages. After all, why was God Almighty himself not able to save people from sin?

The equal worthiness of the Lamb has seemed to many as untidy. Philosophically speaking, it appears to violate Ockham’s razor, the axiom that “entities should not to be multiplied beyond necessity”[1] (in other words, the best explanation is the simplest one). Revelation 5 asserts nonetheless that no one else but the Lamb was worthy to open the scroll with seven seals. Worthiness is ascribed to the Lamb “because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation”

(v. 9).

So, in summary, God Almighty’s worthiness is evident as Creator, whereas the Lamb is worthy as Savior. Incidentally, Revelation 5 is one of the most powerful trinitarian passages in the New Testament.

When we enter today into discussions with Unitarian, Islamic, Judaic, or sectarian faiths (e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses), it is possible that their first remarks may be to question the divinity of Jesus. For them, Christ may have been a prophet, a good man, or a promoted angel, but he was not God. Perhaps Christians need to become more familiar with Scriptures that emphasize the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This is a feature of Christianity that clearly distinguishes it from the other Abrahamic religions.

  • Do you find it natural that the heavenly hosts should praise God Almighty and the Lamb equally?
  • Have you been challenged, or challenged others, on the divinity of Jesus? What scriptural passages come to mind regarding this topic?

—Kevin McCabe, kmccabe57@hotmail.com

[1]. New World Encyclopedia contributors, “Ockham’s razor,” New World Encyclopedia, www.newworldencyclopedia.org/p/index.php?title=Ockham%27s_razor&oldid=986578.


April 22, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. The Lord God the Almighty

Revelation 4:1-6, 8-11

Although Yahweh had appeared in glory before this passage (e.g., to Isaiah and Ezekiel), Revelation is an unusually extended vision of the divine realm. This series of visions begins with the exalted Jesus (Revelation 1) and continues in chapter 4 with God the Father.

This epiphany serves to emphasize the glory of God. That today’s passage should provide a pattern for our human worship is not indicated. Nonetheless, the songs of the four living creatures have been an influence on hymns and worship songs.

In English, the words worship and worthiness have the same root. Yahweh’s worthiness relates to God’s creation of all things and God’s power to accomplish this work. Similarly, in chapter 6, Jesus is proclaimed worthy to open the seven seals because he has ransomed us through his blood.

In contemporary society, we have political leaders who demand to be exalted above all other people. Likewise, entertainment figures and celebrities are given special status. In human terms, the phrase rock star is a superlative, which can even be used to praise God, as in “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Caught up in the hype, we may give our worship to those who are not worthy.

The four living creatures and the 24 elders praise God because God is holy, eternal, and our Creator. But as G. K. Chesterton said, we clearly perceive that our human idols did not make the heavens and the earth.

Just as our powers of technology confer political and military might, so our advances in communications make it easier to attribute special qualities to those not possessed of them. It is also true that materialism has blunted enthusiasm for nonmaterial qualities.

Our passage immediately follows Jesus’ messages to the seven churches, in which their good and bad works are highlighted. Thus, the connection is made between the scene in the heavenly courts and the churches on earth. This reinforces God’s intention that God’s “will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). These messages include the promise to the churches that whoever overcomes evil will also join with all the saints and heavenly beings in worshiping God forever and ever.

—Kevin McCabe, kmccabe57@hotmail.com

 

April 15, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

Follow Me
John 21:15-25

The “ingredients” of this session can be found in Luke 5:1-11, when Jesus first calls Simon Peter. When Jesus called his disciples then, the salient words were “Follow me!” In John’s gospel, although there is a recommissioning, Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”

Quite unusually, Jesus caps this second call with a personal prophecy—that when Peter is old, he will be led away to death. This gives special point to the question, “Do you love me?”

Peter wonders aloud whether John will experience a similar fate; that is, whether John’s love for Jesus will be tested the same way. Jesus replies that the outcome is a matter between the disciple and his Master.

History and legend suggest that of the twelve disciples, only John did not die a martyr’s death. Because of this and because the disciples were chosen to be witnesses to Jesus and his resurrection (Acts 1:21-22), the word witness (Greek “marturia”) acquired its present meaning. That is, witnessing to Jesus can be the prelude to martyrdom.

As a graduate student, I wrote a letter implicating a prominent professor and the university hospital as promoting abortion on campus. This immediately politicized the community into factions—pro, con, and “keep the lid on.” I was soon asked by older and more experienced people to lead the pro-life group, and so received considerable publicity personally.

This new role led to some interesting confrontations, including one with a fellow graduate student and another with one of my professors. One night after midnight I was telephoned by a lady who berated me for raising an issue that was causing her great personal anguish. She was soon weeping, remembering her early experiences. We were able to have a meaningful discussion and communicate across a wide chasm.

In much of today’s world, literal martyrdom remains a fact. In North America, it usually takes such forms as being socially ostracized, publicly criticized, losing one’s job, or simply being laughed at. In all such situations, we may hear Jesus’ question, “Do you love me?” and the further inquiry, “Really? How much?”

  • What sort of feelings might Peter have experienced after being told that he would die for his love?
  • In what ways might your Christian witness be rejected today?

—Kevin McCabe, kmccabe57@hotmail.com

 

April 8, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online

A current connection to each week’s session

The Risen Lord Appears

John 21:1-14

It happens more than we want to admit. A church plant, a new mission, or a new ministry effort is launched with great potential and response, only to be undone by a lack of resources or a loss of leadership. Even if the leader survives, things will not be the same. Things didn’t work out the way we hoped and prayed for. Good things happened, but the risks outweighed the sacrifices. Now what?

When things change and the future seems unclear, we gravitate to comfort food, comfort work, comfort places, or comfort people. These sources of comfort are not always easy or without complications, but nonetheless seem old and familiar. In these situations, the prospect of discomfort may be off-putting, even if we recognize it as part of a recommissioning.

Today’s story gets its special quality from the light of the resurrection. We have familiar subject matter (disciples fishing, Jesus offering bread and fish, a miraculous catch), but somehow, a different outcome. Jesus’ death cast a cloud over the whole movement. The disciples know that Jesus is alive, but now what? They return to Galilee, and following Peter’s lead, seven of them go fishing. Amid the familiar, they experience the unfamiliar: a miraculous draught of fishes, signaling the presence of the risen Lord.

Jesus starts with the comfortable and draws his disciples into a closer fellowship. He prepares a breakfast of bread and fish for them, and invites them to contribute some of their newly found resources (v. 10). His acceptance is an invitation for the disciples to reengage in God’s activity. The disciples will be witnesses to the risen Lord in a largely hostile environment. This is emphasized by the Lord’s three appearances to them (v. 14).

The common meal (v. 13), which was a kind of communion, may represent the need for a new coming together between Jesus and the disciples. Those who forsook their Lord needed to be brought into fellowship again by some tangible form of communal activity. This may also demonstrate a model of reconciliation for the church today.

  • In what ways may “the comfortable” become a limitation or barrier to our participation in Jesus’ mission?
  • What are some advantages and disadvantages of having a very recognizable chain of leadership in the church?
  • Why might we view the common meal as an important part of church fellowship today?

—Kevin McCabe, kmccabe57@hotmail.com

April 1, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. He Has Risen

Luke 24:1-12, 30-35

Many of us are so familiar with the resurrection accounts that we often overlook some obvious details. One focus is on the role of a group of women who were witnesses to the empty tomb. At least in conservative Jewish circles, the position of women was similar to that in Muslim states today. The fact that women followed Jesus has been especially noted by some commentators. According to Luke, “These women were helping to support [Jesus and the 12 disciples] out of their own means” (8:3b).

From the absence of any scandal attached to this, we can conclude that these women were “of discreet age”—that is, probably past childbearing. One of them, Salome, was the mother of James and John (Matthew 20:20) and probably the sister of Jesus’ mother, Mary (John 19:25). Mary Magdalene would likely have belonged to this older generation. While nearly all these women came from Galilee (Luke 23:55), Luke includes “Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household” (8:3a), who likely lived in Jerusalem. Present at the crucifixion were Mary Magdalene, Salome, Mary the mother of James the younger and Joseph, and others (Mark 15:40).

In ancient societies, women were not normally permitted to testify in court, so for women to be the first witnesses to the circumstances of the resurrection is significant. Not surprisingly, the 11 male disciples did not accept their testimony. Later, Peter set out the requirements for someone to replace Judas as a disciple (Acts 1:21-22). Except for not being men, the women at the tomb had those qualifications. It would follow that Jesus had several female disciples and apostles.

Young girls and women, some the successors of these Jesus followers, are rising up today with messages of good news. They too have witnessed violence against children, youth, men, their communities, and themselves. They are addressing such issues as human trafficking, homelessness, and poverty, giving witness to the power of our resurrected Christ to change lives. Some of these peacemakers are just getting started; others have been working tirelessly for decades to bring God’s new life and peace to all.

Recognizing the women who came to the cross and the empty tomb as apostles is compatible with the heart of the gospel message; namely, that Jesus is the Savior of all people in a particularly personal way and that all of us are called to share that good news. The involvement of a group of women in Christ’s resurrection sends a strong, positive message of affirmation.

  • Who are the women you know who stand with Jesus and tell others of his good news, even when they are not believed?
  • What qualities of these women disciples (in the Bible and today) do you admire and desire to emulate?

–Kevin McCabe   kmccabe57@hotmail.com

March 25, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. Keep My Statutes and Ordinances

2 Chronicles 7:11-22

Today’s passage comes very close to the heart of the matter—what the Lord clearly requires of King Solomon and Israel.

In pop culture, we commonly refer to karma—“the force created by a person’s actions that . . . causes good or bad things to happen.”[1] In the Hebrew scriptures, however, it is a person who rewards and/or punishes: “Because they have forsaken the Lord . . . that is why he brought all this disaster on them” (v. 22).

This manner of thinking may not immediately touch a responsive chord today. It seems less familiar than police court justice: “You do the crime, you do the time!”

If we consider this more spiritually, we may conclude that pride is the greatest offense against God. But many biblical passages suggest that idolatry is at the root of evil. Even “the love of money” (1 Timothy 6:10) could be called idolatry.

In Psalm 51, King David confesses to God: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight (v. 4a). “Wait a minute,” we might say. “What about Uriah and his companions, Bathsheba and her family, and David’s own family?” But David may have grasped a more essential principle, namely, that all sin is a turning away from God toward something else—something that appeals to us more strongly at that moment.

Applying the concept of idolatry to contemporary life may seem problematic at first. After all, we don’t actually set up idols in our living rooms. Or do we? If we listen to pop cultural language of rock stars, cultural icons, American Idol, Madonna, and the Fab Four, we can pick up that vibe. Indeed, mass culture is largely in the business of setting up and selling idols.

The role of advertising, promotions, and marketing tends to be overlooked. Actually, there is no shortage of other gods, including those who champion self-gratification, entitlement, empowerment, and self-actualization. Regarding the public arena then, we may ask whether anyone speaks as a counterpoise. Hmmm . . . maybe the chronicler is not so outmoded after all.

  • How would you define idolatry?
  • What problems does idolatry create in contemporary society?
  • Why is it so difficult to turn toward God as directed in verse 14?

—Kevin McCabe, kmccabe57@hotmail.com   www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/karma

 

March 18, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

3. The People Gave Thanks to God

2 Chronicles 7:1-10

The chronicler’s account of the dedication of the temple presents an idealized picture of public worship. Even the Lord sends fire from heaven on cue. The whole multitude of Israel worships and gives thanks together. All participants are united, including Yahweh.

To bring these features into harmony is a challenge for churches today. One congregation with a tradition of faith healing brought 30 people with disabilities up to center stage where the pastors prayed over them, but no healing occurred. Disappointment and disillusion resulted.

Solomon led a united Israel. Nowadays, the spirit of unity is often difficult to attain. One Canadian leader stated that Canadians have no unifying traditions except their belief in basic human rights. How then do we celebrate our faith, our heritage, and our church?

One attempt to bring diverse people together is the “messy church” movement,[1] which is concerned for those currently outside the church. By intentionally creating a mini-community where people interact together from the start, members can learn to celebrate their unity in worship and service.

Broadly observed, in Chronicles the emphasis is on Israel’s collective theocracy (a government in which God is acknowledged as the supreme civil ruler with laws interpreted by priests). In the Old Testament, normally Israel sins and needs to repent, whereas in the New Testament  individuals sins. No wonder then that the church is up against a strong current of individualism.

Like the chronicler, we may be tempted to take refuge in the glories of the past. But Solomon’s example can also make us feel inadequate. His offering of twenty-two thousand cattle (v. 5) is way out of our price range.

We recognize that royal weddings and state funerals need to be arranged with great care. Yet things will go wrong even in the best-planned celebrations. I think that the angel song had it right (Luke 2:14). Let us (1) give glory to God, (2) strive for peace on earth, and (3) show good will to all.

—Kevin McCabe, kmccabe57@hotmail.com

[1]. One description of Messy Church is Lori Basheda’s “Messy Church Brings Celebration, Food, Crafts and Service for Adults and Children,” Los Angeles Times, October 12, 2017, http://www.latimes.com/socal/daily-pilot/news/tn-wknd-et-messy-church-20171012-story.html.

 

March 11, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session 

  1. There Is No God like You

2 Chronicles 6:12-21

I confess that I am often tempted to skip the many scriptural passages that recount construction plans for the tabernacle or the temple, the rituals and sacrifices, and the roles of the priests, Levites, and singers. I notice that some contemporary translations render these passages in small print, or even as footnotes.

To our chronicler, however, these are matters of supreme importance. For him, the religious life of Israel and Judah centers on the temple, as it was established first by the theocratic kings David and Solomon. Like the psalmist, the chronicler might emote, “Zeal for your house consumes me” (Psalm 69:9).

Older people today remember when conventional wisdom dictated large church building projects. (If you build it, they will come.) Today’s wisdom is to sell off the old churches and use the funds accrued for social and community programs, storefront outreach, and niche evangelism. If big-box church buildings are built these days, they need to be multipurpose, multiprogram facilities, established among growing and youthful populations.

Have we perhaps come to regard holy places such as Jerusalem, Mecca, and the Ganges River as too messy (too fraught with religious and political baggage)? We may instead talk about “sacred spaces,” often wilderness areas far away from obvious human impositions.

Mark records Jesus’ declaration: “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers’” (Mark: 11:17). In his prayer, Solomon emphasizes that the temple is not the particular home of God, but a place where God’s presence may be found. It is especially a house of prayer—prayers that God will hear in heaven, his dwelling place.

The concept of local churches as houses of prayer may not be in the forefront nowadays. Most churches no longer have regular prayer meetings, and Sunday morning prayers may be quite limited in duration and content. But, especially given our interconnected world, perhaps viewing our home church as “a house of prayer for all nations” is not too extravagant an idea.

  • What makes a place sacred?
  • Is your congregation’s meeting place a house of prayer? What are you praying for?

—Kevin McCabe Kmccabe57@gmail.com

March 4, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. The Lord Will Provide

Genesis 22:1-3, 6-14

Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac has a special significance for all the Abrahamic religions. In the New Testament, it is referred to as an example of faith being reckoned as righteousness (Romans 4:1-3). Human sacrifice was acceptable among Israel’s neighbors, and at times was practiced by the Hebrews. To sacrifice one’s firstborn son was an especially powerful religious statement. Moreover, though God spared King David’s life, the firstborn son of David and Bathsheba was taken in expiation for David’s sins (2 Samuel 11–12).

The prophet Micah asked: “Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (Micah 6:7). Well, maybe. Since the Enlightenment, the goal of western culture has been to enhance the material well-being of the individual within the framework of the dominant economic/political system. The logic of the system suggests that birth control and abortion should be preferred to live births. Even inside the church context, it is rarely affirmed that “the Lord will provide.”

I found myself conflicted when both my daughters attended the university where I was teaching. A considerable number of large introductory classes were deliberately designed to indoctrinate students into the dominant mind-set there. At this point, parents either demonstrate special trust in their children or give up on the entire education system.

How many ways might parents sacrifice their children while intending “what is best”? When we encourage our children to go to “good” schools, meet the “right” people, adopt the “correct” values, and so forth, are we playing the system or affirming that “the Lord will provide”?

Kierkegaard referred to Abraham’s test as “a leap of faith”—a dive into unknown waters. However, Watchman Nee’s study, Changed into His Likeness, follows Abraham through many tests of faith, culminating with the sacrifice on Mount Moriah. Abraham had been walking with God for many decades and had failed a number of tests. When we face a great challenge or decision, it may be in one sense a blind leap of faith; in another sense, it may be something we have been preparing for every day of our lives.

—Kevin McCabe  Kmccabe57@hotmail.c

Kevin McCabe is a writer, teacher, and poet. He was formerly an instructor in Classics at several universities, and has also been the author and editor of two books on Lucy Maud Montgomery and a number of works on the history and literature of the Niagara Peninsula. Kevin is a member ofGraceMennonite Church in St. Catharines where he lives with his wife and two daughters.

An unabridged bibliography for this quarter’s study is available as an ABS Reproducible at www.MennoMedia.org/abs.

 

February 25, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online

A current connection to each week’s session

  1. Preserving Faith for Future Generations
    1 Timothy 6:11-21

First Timothy concludes with this exhortation: “Guard what has been entrusted to your care.” This is very similar to another exhortation in the Pastoral Epistles, 2 Timothy 1:13-14: “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.” These echo Paul’s plea to “hold fast to the teachings” or “traditions” he had passed on (2 Thessalonians 2:15; cf. Romans 6:17; 1 Corinthians 11:2), and they are right in line with perhaps the best known of these New Testament appeals, Jude 3: “Contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (NRSV).

Yet what precisely are this deposit, this faith, these traditions? And how exactly do we hold fast to these traditions, or guard this deposit, or contend for this faith?

For many Christians today, the deposit of faith is a fairly comprehensive set of beliefs and practices. It might include everything from specific convictions about the nature of the Bible and how to read it to particular ideas about the timing of creation, what counts as sin, the meaning of Jesus’ death, the mode of baptism, worship style, and much, much more. It’s “the way we’ve always done things,” it’s the “faith of our fathers,” it’s that “old time religion”—even when, in reality, the generations before us went through significant adaptations to their way of faith and life.

Kathleen Kern is almost certainly correct in her suggestion, however, that the entrusted gift in view here is the gospel (Adult Bible Study, p. 78). The deposit we are to guard, the faith for which we are to contend, the traditions to which we are to hold fast—these are all describing some aspect of the good news story of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord, who brings about God’s saving kingdom on earth through his life, death, and resurrection.

How can we preserve this gospel for future generations? Our passage points to an answer. “Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness,” it says, and so “fight the good fight of the faith” (6:11-12). In other words, we preserve the gospel for future generations by living out the gospel in our own—in authentic faith and love, in genuine godliness and gracious gentleness, with patient perseverance, always seeking first God’s kingdom and justice.

  • What nonessential beliefs or practices have we added to the simple gospel of Jesus?
  • Which of these might we be wrongly expecting that the next generation keep?
  • Are we striving to live out the good news of Jesus with authenticity and integrity?
  • Are we willing to allow the next generation to live out the gospel in their way, for their time?

—Michael Pahl  michael.mmc@outlook.com

Michael Pahl is a biblical scholar with a heart for the church, a pastor with a passion for biblical theology. He is lead pastor at Morden Mennonite Church in Morden, Manitoba. He blogs at michaelpahl.com and mordenmennonitechurch.com.

Editor’s note: We are grateful to Michael Pahl for sharing his insights and timely application of the Scriptures for our Faith in Action study.

Kevin McCabe is our ABS Online writer for Acknowledging God, a study on worship as discipleship. Kevin is a writer, teacher, and poet, and a member of Grace Mennonite Church in St. Catharines, Ontario.

 

February 18, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session 

  1. Faithful Disciples

Acts 9:36-43

There was a disciple who was always doing good and helping the poor.

If you only heard that description, you could be forgiven for assuming the biblical author was talking about a man. It is true, after all, that nearly all the New Testament descriptions of a disciple refer to a man—nearly all, but not quite all. Acts 9, in fact, has the only clear reference to an individual woman as a disciple, the disciple Tabitha, or Dorcas.

This reflects Luke’s special emphasis on the universal effect of the gospel and the democratizing work of the Spirit. The gospel is for all people; and the Spirit comes on all believers, regardless of their social status, their ethnic or religious background, their age, or their gender. For many of us today this might seem commonplace. In the first-century world, this was radical.

Luke narrates the birth story of Jesus from Mary’s perspective, not Joseph’s (Luke 1–2). He tells not just of Simeon but also the prophetess Anna at Jesus’ purification in the temple (2:36-38). Luke, alone of all the Gospel authors, mentions by name the women who supported Jesus’ ministry (8:1-3). He alone tells of Mary of Bethany’s instruction at the feet of Jesus—the word disciple is not used of Mary, but Luke depicts her in the classic posture of a devoted disciple (10:38-42). Luke describes the women at the cross, at the empty tomb, and in the upper room. In Acts he mentions the four prophetess daughters of Philip (21:8-9), and he makes sure to highlight Priscilla’s role in instructing Apollos alongside her husband, Aquila (18:24-26).

All this is right in line with Luke’s conviction that the Spirit of God has indeed been “poured out on all flesh,” both “sons and daughters,” both “men and women” (Acts 2:17-18).

I said above that for many of us today this egalitarianism might seem commonplace. But recent events in North American society have exposed how far we really are from seeing the full equality of women promised by Pentecost. Women are paid much less than men for the same work, even with the same expertise and experience. Women experience sexual harassment and violence at rates far higher than men. While there are encouraging steps forward in addressing these and other inequities, there are also discouraging steps backward.

As Christians, proclaimers of the universal gospel, empowered by the democratizing Spirit, we should be leading the way in advocating for the full equality of women in every respect. And we can start by recognizing, listening to, and learning from Jesus’ women disciples—both past and present.

—Michael Pahl
michael.mmc@outlook.com

Michael Pahl is a biblical scholar with a heart for the church, a pastor with a passion for biblical theology. He is lead pastor at Morden Mennonite Church in Morden, Manitoba. He blogs at michaelpahl.com and mordenmennonitechurch.com.

Kevin McCabe is our ABS Online writer for Acknowledging God, a study on worship as discipleship. Kevin is a writer, teacher, and poet, and a member of Grace Mennonite Church in St. Catharines, Ontario.

February 11, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. Danger! Danger! Tongue Ahead

James 3:1-12

With evocative and memorable imagery, James 3 highlights the power of our words, both positively and negatively. Our words can create or destroy. They can build up or tear down. They can help or harm. The things we say, and how we say them, matter. This is especially true for anyone in a position of influence—including but not limited to the “teachers” James mentions.

For me, the most remarkable statement in this passage comes toward the end of it: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness” (v. 9). This statement is significant for at least three reasons.

First, it affirms the truth that all humans are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27). Sin has not altered this fact, nor is this a special status only for Christians who are intentionally being conformed to the image of God in Christ (Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Colossians 3:10). All humans, including those we consider “the least” or “our enemies,” have been made in God’s image.

Second, this statement affirms the truth that our relationship with God is inseparable from our relationships with others. How we treat other people is the real litmus test of the authenticity and depth of our relationship with God. This is emphasized in various ways throughout the New Testament, most bluntly in 1 John 4:20: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars” (NRSV). This truth goes back to Jesus, who linked love of God with love of neighbors, love of strangers, and even love of enemies (Matthew 22:36-40; 25:34-40; 5:43-48).

Third, this statement affirms that this second truth extends not just to our actions but also to our speech, both how we talk to other people and how we talk about them: gossiping about others, spreading unfounded rumors; slandering others, sowing known lies; harassing others, throwing cruel, demeaning words their way; bullying others, verbally intimidating them; anathematizing others, cursing them beyond the pale. How many times do we passive aggressively smile to people’s face but then cut them down behind their back?

James’s teaching here has particular relevance in our digital age, in the realm of social media. Safe behind our computers or smartphones, we say things to and about people that we would never say to their face, or never say off-line at all. Yet behind that icon on the screen is an actual eikōn of God, a human person created in God’s very “image.” If we wouldn’t speak of God in that tone, with those words of “cursing,” how can we speak of another person in that way?

—Michael Pahl,  michael.mmc@outlook.com

Michael Pahl is a biblical scholar with a heart for the church, a pastor with a passion for biblical theology. He is lead pastor at Morden Mennonite Church in Morden, Manitoba. He blogs at michaelpahl.com and mordenmennonitechurch.com.

 

February 4, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s sessio

  1. Faith and Works

James 2:14-26

As the Adult Bible Study student guide notes, it’s possible that James was responding to a misunderstanding of Paul’s teaching about being justified by faith and not by works of the Law. In fact, given the similarities in wording between specific statements in Paul’s letters (Romans 3:28; Galatians 2:16) and here (James 2:24), this is likely the case. Some had understood Paul to mean that our actions don’t matter with regard to salvation—we just need to believe certain things to be true. Sadly, many Christians today also understand Paul’s teaching this way—and they either accept this teaching as gospel or reject Paul as having distorted Jesus’ teaching.

It’s a common misunderstanding of Paul’s teaching that faith is simply belief, mentally assenting to certain truths—that Jesus died for our sins and rose again, for example. However, the word for faith (Greek, pistis) can have a wide range of meanings. It can include “belief,” but it can also mean “trust,” “faithfulness,” or “allegiance.” Paul in fact draws on this whole semantic range of the word pistis: yes, believing certain things to be true is important, but so is trusting in God in a personal way, as well as showing faithfulness and demonstrating allegiance to God. This is underscored by the many ways Paul speaks about genuine faith as that which works itself out in loving actions (e.g., Galatians 5:6).

James gives two examples of these loving actions that result from genuine faith: caring for the poor (2:1-9, 14-17), and protecting the foreigner (2:25-26). His examples are significant for at least two reasons.

First, these themes are prominent throughout the Scriptures. Concern for the poor, including the widow and orphan, and concern for the foreigner or stranger are deeply embedded in the Law of Moses and repeatedly voiced by the prophets (e.g., Leviticus 19:10, 34; Deuteronomy 15:7-11; Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 22:3). This concern for the poor and the stranger, representing the most vulnerable in society, continues through the teaching of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament (e.g., Matthew 25:34-40; Romans 12:13; Galatians 2:10; 1 John 3:17).

Second, these themes are significant because they continue to be prominent needs—and controversial flashpoints—today. Somehow, in certain conservative Christian circles, caring for the poor and welcoming the stranger, or calling on governments to attend to these needs, has become a sign of theological liberalism. But can we claim to have genuine, living, saving faith, yet refuse to stand with the poor and the foreigner, with all who are vulnerable and marginalized in society? Both James and Paul—following in the footsteps of Jesus, following the Law and the Prophets—are clear: the answer is a resounding no.

—Michael Pahl  michael.mmc@outlook.com

Michael Pahl is a biblical scholar with a heart for the church, a pastor with a passion for biblical theology. He is lead pastor at Morden Mennonite Church in Morden, Manitoba. He blogs at michaelpahl.com and mordenmennonitechurch.com.

Michael PahJanuary 28, 2018

January 28, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. A Vision of the Last Days

Daniel 10:10-19

 “The last days.”

In popular Christian parlance, the phrase suggests the final strands of earthly, human history. The thread of history stretches back before us to the dawn of time; and ahead of us, at some future point, this thread ends with “the last days.” For many Christians this phrase also conjures up images of portents in the heavens and cataclysms on earth. “The last days” is the end of it all, before God wipes the slate clean and creates a new heaven and earth.

If this is our understanding, it might be disconcerting to learn that this kind of language is used in Scripture to describe happenings within human history, including what is, for us, past history.

This is the case in Daniel 10–12. Daniel’s vision describes “the last days,” even “days yet to come”—that’s more literally the wording of Daniel 10:14. This sort of language continues throughout the vision with the literal translation “appointed time” or “time of completion” (11:35; 12:4, 9). Yet scholars are agreed that the visions describe historical persons and events in the second century BCE, now more than two thousand years ago.

This is also the case throughout the New Testament. Peter’s Pentecost sermon applied Joel’s vision of “the last days,” with all its heavenly portents and earthly cataclysms, to Peter’s present day (Acts 2:16-21). Paul declared that Jesus’ birth occurred at “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4 NRSV), and he described himself and his readers as those “on whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). The author of Hebrews declared that “in these last days” God has spoken to us through his Son, Jesus (Hebrews 1:2). And John the Seer stated that his apocalyptic visions described realities that were present in his own time, or were very soon to happen (Revelation 1:1, 19).

It’s enough to make you think that perhaps we’ve gotten the whole “last days” thing quite wrong. But then, what is the point of all this “end times” language in Scripture?

Its main purpose is reassurance. This language is intended to reassure God’s people that, regardless of how bad things might seem in the present, God is in fact working within human history to bring about God’s good purposes. And its main focus is on Jesus. Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection have inaugurated the time of fulfillment. We are in “the last days” right now: God’s good purposes have already been accomplished through Jesus, and now God is working out those good purposes throughout the earth.

In a world filled with the bad news of nuclear threat, civil wars, economic injustice, racism, divisive politics, sexual abuse, and more, this reassurance is the good news we all need.

—Michael Pahl, michael.mmc@outlook.com

Michael Pahl is a biblical scholar with a heart for the church, a pastor with a passion for biblical theology. He is lead pastor at Morden Mennonite Church in Morden, Manitoba. He blogs at michaelpahl.com and mordenmennonitechurch.com.

 

January 21, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. A Prayer of Confession, a Plea for Forgiveness

Daniel 9:4-8, 15-19

The Adult Bible Study student guide helpfully prompts us toward reflection on personal confession of individual sin. But there is another angle on this prayer of Daniel that has often struck me: this prayer is a personal confession of collective sin.

Daniel, according to all the stories in the book that bears his name, was a righteous man. It was not his fault his people were in exile. Yet he prays as if the guilt of his forebears is his own. He includes himself among previous, sinful generations in order to make a clean break with the sins of the past and allow God to move him and his people toward a better future.

Is it appropriate for children to bear the guilt of their parents, or even their grandparents? Most of us would cringe at the idea. The Bible itself gives mixed messages on this (Exodus 34:7; Ezekiel 18:20). Yet some helpful lessons can be derived from personal confessions of collective sin in the Bible.

One lesson is that sin is not merely an individual, private matter. Collective, even systemic, sin runs just as deep among us. If we think of “sin” as all the ways we harm one another and the rest of creation through our attitudes, words, and actions, then it’s not hard to see how sin has both individual and collective dimensions. Churches can develop settled attitudes that run counter to God’s life-bringing ways. Societies can nurture values that encourage abuse of power or the use of violence. Nations can enshrine injustice in the very laws that are supposed to ensure justice.

A second lesson is that sometimes what’s needed to break from the collective sins of the past is collective soul-searching and confession. This has nothing to do with whether we ourselves are personally guilty for the wrongdoing. Rather, it has everything to with naming the wrongs of our forebears, recognizing our inclination to continue in those wrongs if nothing is done, and committing ourselves to doing better, rectifying those wrongs if we are able, and avoiding those wrongs as much as we can. This is why initiatives such as the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada are so important.

There’s a third lesson. Daniel’s prayer confesses, “We have not listened to your servants the prophets” (v. 6). In every generation God sends prophets to speak truth, to call God’s people to faithfulness, to warn of the consequences of unfaithfulness, to promise the blessings of faithfulness—and yet, all too often, we crucify these prophets instead of heeding them (see Matthew 23:29-39).

  • Who are the prophets of our generation, calling us to renewed faithfulness to the way of Jesus?
  • What are they pointing us to, and how should we listen, repent, and obey?

—Michael Pahl, michael.mmc@outlook.com

Michael Pahl is a biblical scholar with a heart for the church, a pastor with a passion for biblical theology. He is lead pastor at Morden Mennonite Church in Morden, Manitoba. He blogs at michaelpahl.com and mordenmennonitechurch.com.

January 14, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. Trial by Fire

Daniel 3:19-23, 26-28

 When I was a child this was one of my favorite Bible stories. There’s an evil king with a fiery furnace, a supreme act of heroic courage, and the good guys winning in the end. The heroes even have uber-cool names: “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.” What 10-year-old wouldn’t like this story?

Even as adults, the story appeals to our natural desire for a clear “evil” and an obvious “good.” You don’t have to get far into the Ten Commandments to know that bowing down to a 90-foot idol is probably a bad idea.

If only the idols of our world were so easy to identify. If only avoiding idolatry in our day and age were as straightforward (if still as demanding) as this story suggests.

One way into this story for us is to reflect on two ideas: civil religion and civil disobedience. Civil religion, as the study material notes, occurs when the state or its leaders take on the role of a god—demanding allegiance expressed in acts of devotion, grounded in a founding narrative, and reinforced with meaningful symbols and rituals. It isn’t difficult to spot these elements of civil religion in American or Canadian society.

Civil disobedience, particularly of the peaceful protest sort noted in the leader’s guide, is an appropriate Christian response to the idolatry of civil religion, especially when there is a clash of allegiances between God’s kingdom and the earthly kingdom in which we live. As Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, so we can thoughtfully and nonviolently, yet resolutely, refuse to participate in the civil religion of our day.

However, to be effective this refusal needs to be more than simply not saying some words about a flag. It requires us to examine the deeper, supporting structures of our nation’s particular brand of civil religion—the power imbalances in society, the ethnocentric nationalism, the coercive manipulation of truth, the belief in redemptive violence—and reflect on how we can challenge or even change these realities.

  • How specifically do you see civil religion in American or Canadian society?
  • How have we as Christians unthinkingly bought into this civil religion?
  • How does this lessen our allegiance to Jesus as Lord or weaken our witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ?
  • What specific steps can we take to challenge or even change the deeper structures that support American or Canadian civil religion?

 

—Michael Pahl

michael.mmc@outlook.com

Michael Pahl is a biblical scholar with a heart for the church, a pastor with a passion for biblical theology. He is lead pastor at Morden Mennonite Church in Morden, Manitoba. He blogs at michaelpahl.com and mordenmennonitechurch.com.

January 7, 2018
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session 

  1. Holding on to Identity as a Minority Faith

Daniel 1:8-21

Christianity is the largest religion in the world, with an estimated 2.3 billion adherents. As of 2015, three-quarters of Americans and two-thirds of Canadians identify as Christians. We are hardly a minority faith.

Still, it is true that Christianity’s public influence has declined. Christianity is no longer the touchstone of North American culture that it once was. Christianity no longer defines social values or public policy in quite the way it once did. The institutions of Christianity are not as prominent or as powerful as they once were, and the institutions of our western society are no longer exclusively or even predominantly Christian—if they ever were. Christendom is no more.

This means that although Christianity is not a minority faith in North America it can often feel like it is. For some, this presents a challenge, even a catastrophe. I think it presents an opportunity.

This changed situation is an opportunity for us to reflect on and sharpen our identity as Christians: What does it really mean to be “Christian”? What marks us off as “Christian”? What distinctive beliefs or rituals or symbols or sacred stories are at the heart of this thing called “Christianity”?

The story of Daniel and his three companions in Daniel 1 is about early Jewish identity. Ostensibly about Israelites exiled in ancient Babylonia, yet really about Maccabean Jews under pressure to Hellenize, the story remains for Jews a powerful symbol of maintaining their religious and cultural identity in the face of enormous pressure to assimilate. For us as Christians, it can stand as a biblical call to reflect on our identity as Christians, asking those same questions forced upon us by our own post-Christendom context.

So, what does mark us off as “Christian”? Contra Daniel 1, the New Testament insists it’s not our diet—“all foods are clean,” Mark concludes based on Jesus’ teaching (Mark 7:14-19), and Paul declares that “the kingdom of God is not food and drink” (Romans 14:14-17).  Likewise, it’s not the observance of holy days like the Sabbath (Romans 14:5-6; Colossians 2:16-17) or covenant rituals like circumcision (Galatians 5:6; 6:15).

For Christians, beliefs, rituals, symbols, and sacred stories have tremendous value in nurturing the things that matter most, but they are not themselves those essentials of Christianity. Rather, Jesus and the apostles consistently point us to a cluster of lived-out virtues: a trusting, obedient faith; a persevering, persistent hope; and, above all, a self-giving, other-delighting love—all in the way of Jesus, all nurtured by the Spirit.

  • Which of these three virtues does the Holy Spirit draw you to nurture in a deeper way in this new year?

—Michael Pahl   michael.mmc@outlook.com

Michael Pahl is a biblical scholar with a heart for the church, a pastor with a passion for biblical theology. He is lead pastor at Morden Mennonite Church in Morden, Manitoba. He blogs at michaelpahl.com and mordenmennonitechurch.com.

 

December 31, 2017
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session 

  1. Walking Together in Unity

Ephesians 4:1-16

We live in a divided world, and it seems increasingly to be so. Where once there might have been allowance for nuanced positions that do not fit neatly into an either/or—or even a third way—there now seems to be a “you’re either with us or against us” kind of mindset in western society.

Unity in this us-versus-them world means absolute solidarity, total agreement, or even complete uniformity of belief and practice, whether we are talking about religion or politics or social issues. This “unity” is achieved through acts of power: decisive leadership giving firm direction, backroom deals and deceitful manipulation if necessary, enforced agreement with established dogma, or harsh public shaming if someone steps out of line.

 You’re either with us in all things (blessed “unity”) or you’re against us (accursed “other,” beyond the pale).

Ephesians 4:1-16 gives us a very different picture of unity. It is a unity grounded in the simple one-ness of God yet with a diversity reflected in the complex three-ness of God’s redemptive work: one-and-only-one Spirit who works among us all, one-and-only-one Lord to whom we owe our allegiance, one-and-only-one God who is “over all and through all and in all” (v. 6). Therefore we must walk in this one-ness. Yet God the Father’s work is through the Lord Jesus and by the Holy Spirit, who gives manifold gifts to all. Therefore we must walk in this many-ness.

This one-yet-many unity is a gift given to us. It already is. We just need to walk in it, to live it out, to “keep” or maintain it. And we maintain this unity of the Spirit “through the bond of peace” (v. 3), not through power politics or strong-arm tactics, but through Christlike humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance in love.

Leaders among us are not to lord it over those whom they lead; they are not “the deciders” or “the doers,” or even visionaries with great personal charisma. They are God’s gifts to us, whose sole task is to equip us to do works of service so that we might fully realize our calling to be Christ’s body in the world, continuing Jesus’ mission in the world: the unity of all things (1:9-10), including the reconciliation of all “others” (2:13-18).

  • What might happen in our world if we fully embraced this radical vision of unity in our churches, instead of the superficial “unity” our world promotes?

—Michael Pahl  michael.mmc@outlook.com

December 24, 2017
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. Seeking the True King: The True Story

Matthew 2:1-12

This is a tale of two kings, with two very different kingdoms.

The first is King Herod, known in history as Herod the Great. A ruthless tyrant, he murdered a wife and some children out of jealousy and suspicion. He is known as “the Great” because of his grand building programs—built intentionally to increase his fame, a vain attempt at immortality. Herod had been pronounced King of Judea by the Roman Senate. He seized on this title, and despite his impure lineage and dubious religious devotion he called himself “King of the Judeans”; that is, “King of the Jews.”

The second is a baby, called “king of the Jews” by others—he would never, at any time in his life, claim the title himself. This king was born in questionable circumstances himself, though his lineage from the great Israelite kings of old was secure (Matthew 1:1-25). He would become known as a prophet like Elijah, speaking truth to power while lifting up the lowly through merciful miracles. He would become known as a teacher like Moses, giving divine instruction from the mountain and further explanation along the way. He was the Messiah, the promised Jewish king who establishes God’s kingdom on earth.

Herod’s kingdom represents the way of the world: concerned with power and privilege and prestige for the few, to hell with the weak and the lowly. Jesus’ kingdom represents the way of God: concerned with compassion and equity and true life for all, to hell with the rich and mighty—should they continue their hellish, destructive ways.

It is precisely at the conjunction of these two kingdoms in history that the Magi arrive on the scene. They are seekers of secret wisdom, and they have seen the signs: a new kingdom is dawning and the old kingdoms of this world are fading into obscurity. And so, they do what any wise person would do: they pledge allegiance to the greater king and his divine kingdom, child though he be. They offer their kingly gifts to the only worthy king they have met on their journey.

The conflict between these two kingdoms occurs in every generation. The kingdoms of our world, the world’s ways of establishing human relationships, of organizing and governing societies, based around power and privilege and prestige—these kingdoms continue with ever-fading allure. We hear stories of sexual abuse, political deceit, oppressive legislation, and deadly foreign policy—these are the hallmarks of Herod’s kingdom, stumbling into self-destruction.

Yet God’s kingdom, with relationships characterized by humble compassion and geared toward mutual flourishing—this kingdom is evident among us with ever-increasing glory. Will we follow the Magi in bringing our gifts to Jesus, pledging our allegiance to this greater king and his divine kingdom of justice and peace and flourishing life for all?

—Michael Pahl
michael.mmc@outlook.com

December 17, 2017
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. The Difference between Gods and God

Acts 14:8-11, 19-23

The Bible has a complicated relationship with the “gods” of this world. Some biblical texts suggest that there are in fact other deities beyond the God of Israel. Other texts suggest these other “gods” aren’t true deity at all—there is only one true and living God. Some biblical passages describe other gods as “demons” and call on God’s people to avoid these demonic beings at all costs. Other biblical passages seem to view at least some other gods as reflections, albeit imperfect or incomplete reflections, of the one true and living God.

Ancient peoples tended to name as gods those realities they believed had power over them and so required their passive submission, their pious veneration, or even their total allegiance. We in the modern west might not use the language of “gods” to describe these powerful realities, but they are still with us. Political ideologies, economic systems, nationalism, materialism, racism, and more—all with their founding mythologies, sacred rituals, and mediating priesthoods—hold sway over us in various ways, calling for our submission, our veneration, and even our allegiance.

Within this matrix of many “gods” and “lords,” whether ancient or modern, stands this word from the apostle Paul, perhaps reflecting a common early Christian confession: “There is no God but one. Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Corinthians 8:4-6 NRSV).

  • What might it mean for us today to turn from the “gods” of our day to the one true God, to live as if God alone really is the one “from whom are all things and for whom we exist”?
  • What might it mean for us today to confess that “Jesus is Lord” and no one or nothing else is “lord,” to live as if Jesus alone truly is the one “through whom are all things and through whom we exist”?
  • And are we willing, like Paul in Lystra, to call the world to allegiance to the one true God and Lord even if it means suffering in the way of Jesus?

—Michael Pahl michael.mmc@outlook.com

An ABS Reproducible teaching aid is available at www.MennoMedia.org/abs for this session.

December 10, 2017
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session

  1. Who or What Is in Control?

Acts 13:1-12

Acts 13:6-12 is a story of identity and power.

Names are important in the story. There’s Bar-Jesus (“son of Jesus”) also called Elymas (“the sorcerer”) and “Saul also called Paul,” as well as Sergius Paulus (that is, also “Paul”). It can be confusing, but all this narrative naming boils down to this question: which of these is a true “son of Jesus,” and which is actually a “son of the devil”? This is a story of identity.

It’s also a story of power. On the one hand, you’ve got Elymas cozying up to the powerful, seeking to use the powers that be (both human and supernatural) for his own ends. On the other hand, there’s Paul speaking truth to power, the truth of the gospel, the good news of One who died at the hands of the powers to free us from all evil powers (both natural and spiritual).

Even Paul participates in a display of supernatural power, speaking a temporary blindness upon Elymas. Yet notice what wins over the proconsul Paulus in the end: “When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord” (13:12, emphasis added). It was the persuasive gospel, not coercive sorcery, that brought about change. It was the strange story of a crucified king, not the sheer force of a supernatural power, that saved the day.

We have many temptations today to seek or maintain worldly power. This is especially so when our lofty plans for bringing about good in the world seem to be thwarted. We can then become frustrated and impatient, and start to look for alternative ways to accomplish those good ends. If only we had some real power on our side, imagine all the good we could do! If only we had political control, judicial authority, economic clout, cultural influence, spiritual dominance, or even just sheer physical force—imagine what we could accomplish for the kingdom!

But this is not the way of Jesus, who deliberately rejected worldly power at both the beginning and end of his career (Matthew 4:1-11; 26:36-56). It’s not the way of the gospel, the beautiful good news of a crucified and resurrected king bringing about an upside-down kingdom through patient, persistent, selfless love.

In the end, it is those who trust in and live out this “weak power” of God (1 Corinthians 1:21-25) who prove themselves to be the true “Bar-Jesus,” the sons and daughters of Jesus.

—Michael Pahl  michael.mmc@outlook.com

Note: Two ABS Reproducibles are available for this session at www.MennoMedia.org/abs.

 

December 3, 2017
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session 

  1. Healing, Proclamation, and Repentance

Acts 3:11-21

Healing, proclamation, and repentance. These three words are an apt summary of the story found in Acts 3—a miraculous healing leads to the proclamation of the gospel and a call for repentance.I am struck not so much by the healing, nor even by the proclamation, but by the repentance; specifically, who was called to repent: the people of Jerusalem, those whom Luke in his gospel often calls “the crowd.” These were the ordinary descendants of ancient Israel, common folk yet devoutly religious—and now, complicit in the murder of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s “Holy and Righteous One” (3:12-15).

This makes me wonder who are the parallel “crowds” today—devoutly religious with a strong heritage of faith, yet collectively complicit in grave injustice?

On November 20, more than a hundred American theologians and church leaders released “The Boston Declaration,” a statement in response to systemic racism, sexism, and other forms of injustice within the United States (thebostondeclaration.com). Hundreds more have signed the declaration since. It is a powerful statement: biblically sound, theologically robust, and unflinchingly prophetic.

Among many striking features of the statement is its clear note of repentance. “We acknowledge the manifold and complicated ways we participate in these [racist and patriarchal] systems,” the authors state, “even as we are often complicit in them. We confess that the Church, in a variety of forms, has too often failed to follow the way of Jesus and perform the good news.”

The world needs to see the healing, restorative, transformative power of the gospel among us. As this happens we must be prepared to proclaim that good news of Jesus for the world and to call the crowds to repent of their complicity with the death-dealing powers of this age. This is part of our apostolic, prophetic task as God’s people in the world.

However, for us to do this, we must ourselves repent, following the example of the signatories to “The Boston Declaration.” We, the devoutly religious with a strong heritage of faith, have been complicit, knowingly or otherwise, with systemic racism, sexism, nationalism, militarism, and more. May God give us—healed, gospel-proclaimers—the grace also to be among the repentant.

—Michael Pahl michael.mmc@outlook.com

Michael Pahl is a biblical scholar with a heart for the church, a pastor with a passion for biblical theology. He is lead pastor at Morden Mennonite Church in Morden, Manitoba. He blogs at michaelpahl.com and mordenmennonitechurch.com.