READINGS: 02/06/2021 ~ Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Known in Some Traditions as the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Isaiah 6:1-8, (9-13); Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11~ VIDEO OF THE ENTIRE SERVICE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_JPWzW-66XA.
“For I, Paul, handed on to you first of all, as of first importance, what I, myself, had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that Christ was buried, and that, on the third day, Christ was raised in accordance with the Scriptures.” — 1 Corinthians 15:3-4.
When I sensed a call to ordained ministry together with my Pastor at First Parish Church in Brunswick we set up a discernment committee. I had not been inside of a classroom for 20 plus years so they suggested I take a class at Bangor Seminary to see how it went. I took survey course in Hebrew Scriptures with Dr. Ann Johnston.
A couple weeks ago I mentioned Ann sometimes assigned a creative paper— write a play, a poem, do a painting. And that was the first paper she assigned.
I was a playwright so I wrote a play, a comedy based on the story of the Burning Bush. That’s right: a comedy based on the Burning Bush. Here’s an example.
Moses speaks to God and says: “The bush— it burns but it is not consumed. How does that work?”
God says, “Yes…. my special effects people do it. They are very, very good. Someday I might let a guy named Cecil B. DeMille use them. But right now, they are my people.”
I got A+ on the paper. Ann said that grade was because I had been faithful to the Scripture, to what the passage said and I understood it. Faithful? I had used every single word in the third chapter of Exodus. I just added extra words between the original words.
Understood it? I realized the story was a dialogue. Moses was arguing with God. I, personally, know about arguing with God. What do you mean get ordained?
Ann also explained I had engaged in an ancient Hebrew tradition called Midrash. That was the first time I had ever heard the word Midrash. I wound up doing my Master’s Thesis on Midrash.
Anyone who was here at the Christmas Eve service or saw my mediation on video heard me employ Midrash. In that meditation I used my words to retell the story in Luke. Midrash, it is hoped, restates the story in a way which helps people better understand it.
The best explanation I know of Midrash was written by Roman Catholic theologian Richard Rhor. What follows is some of Rhor’s explanation. (Slight pause.)
Rather than seeking unchanging answers, Midrash allows for many possibilities, levels of faith-filled meaning relevant and applicable to the reader. This builds a relationship with the text. Ideally Midrash lets Scripture challenge in a spiritual way and helps people grow, be enticed to respond with questions. ‘What does this passage ask of me?’ ‘How might this apply to my life, family, church, neighborhood, country?’
Rhor states biblical passages often proceed from historical incidents but never try to communicate events with factual accuracy. The writers of Scripture are neither journalists nor historians. They are theologians.
Also, since ancient times rabbis have used story telling, Midrash, to reflect on and communicate the four of the levels we find in Scripture. These levels are literal meaning, deep meaning, comparative meaning, hidden meaning— four levels.
Literal meaning is not insightful so it is rarely helpful and can be dangerous. Again, Scripture is not history. Deep meaning offers symbolic, allegoric applications. Comparative meaning compares different texts to explore new understanding.
Last, hidden meaning gets at mystery. When hidden meaning is explored with the story telling of Midrash it encourages growth, learning and discourages literalism.
This is also clear. Jesus consistently ignored exclusionary, triumphalist, punitive texts found in the Hebrew Scriptures in favor of passages which emphasize inclusion, mercy, honesty, love. Midrash does this quite well— explores inclusion, mercy, honesty, love. All that was a reflection offered by theologian Richard Rhor. (Slight pause.)
And I Corinthians says this: “For I, Paul, handed on to you first of all, as of first importance, what I, myself, had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that Christ was buried, and that, on the third day, Christ was raised in accordance with the Scriptures.” (Slight pause.)
Paul here refers to handing on the Scriptures. What Scriptures? The Hebrew Scriptures— there was no New Testament. (Slight pause.)
Now, there is no adequate translation for the words we translate as “I handed on.” The closest we can come is to say “I traditioned”— that’s not good English so we don’t translate it that way. However, “I traditioned” makes sense in a peculiar kind of way.
Here’s an example. We all have family traditions about Christmas. But do we celebrate it the same way our parents did? Probably not. Why? It is likely we took what they did, held what they did in high esteem but also modified them, made them our own.
What has Paul done with the Hebrew Scriptures? Paul explored them, understands them and traditions them. That brings up something I think is often misunderstood about this passage. (Quote:) “…that Christ died… that Christ was buried… that… Christ was raised.” (Slight pause.)
What is Paul doing here? Is Paul saying this is a prophecy found in the Hebrew Scriptures? I think we often take it that way. But is that what the Apostle to the Gentiles is getting at? (Slight pause.)
Let me restate something noted when this passage was introduced. The earliest writings in the New Testament are not the Gospels but Paul’s letters. And here Paul quotes a statement of faith which pre-dates Paul’s writings. So, the passage may reflect some of the earliest testimony about the resurrection.
Next, Paul’s writings say very little about the life of Jesus. In fact, the statement of faith found in this passage is one of the few places Paul says the Christ even lived.
So Paul takes what the Hebrew Scriptures say about the Messiah— not about Jesus— about the Messiah— and expounds on that. And what is said about the Messiah?
Promises are made about the Messiah. Do note, these are not prophecies about the Messiah. These are promises about the Messiah.
Paul sees the promises about the Messiah and the reality of what happened to Jesus as one. Paul takes what was handed on, the promises, traditions them, makes them his own, brings new understanding to them and passes them on.
Paul’s thinking is clearly in line with what the Hebrew Scriptures say. So Paul has done nothing radical but is simply being a good theologian. And in so doing Paul practices Midrash because Paul explores meaning.
Paul encourages growth, allows for learning. And therefore, just like Jesus, Paul does not settle for mere literalism. (Slight pause.)
I want to suggest we need to make Scripture our own, by first trying to understand what Scripture meant in ancient times. Next we need to try to understand Scripture for today, for our time, for us. So just as Paul did we need to be faithful to Scripture, understand Scripture and, thereby, make Scripture our own. (Slight pause.)
So, what is a call to ministry, not ordained ministry but all ministry? Perhaps a call to ministry is about Midrash, in the sense that it’s about making Scripture our own.
You see in the Protestant tradition we say are all called to ministry, called to be a priesthood of all believers. Thereby, I say we are all called to make Scripture our own.
Making Scripture our own should not break with tradition but needs to be faithful to what Scripture says. So how can we be faithful to Scripture?
We can be faithful in the same way Jesus was faithful. We can be faithful by understanding we need to emphasize inclusion, mercy, honesty and love. Indeed, we especially need to emphasize the love of God for all people. Amen.
South Freeport Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, South Freeport, Maine
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “In the passage today Paul says the Christ was seen by Peter, the twelve, five hundred, James and Paul. What Paul is addressing is the experience commonly called witness. Now generally, we say we are Protestants. What does Protestant mean? It’s from the Latin protestari— testari means testament or witness, pro means for. We are witnesses for— for what? We are witnesses for the reality of God, the Christ, the Spirit, the reality of the presence of God, witnesses to and for the transformative love of God.”
BENEDICTION: God heals and restores. God grants to us the grace and the talent to witness to the love God has for us. Let us be ready as we go into the world, for we are baptized in the power of the Spirit. And may the peace of Christ, which surpasses understanding, keep our minds and hearts in the companionship and will of the Holy Spirit, this day and forever more. Amen.