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Daily Bible readings: Paul as the gatekeeper for the Good Shepherd

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Judaism by Alex L. on May 21, 2009

I often follow the daily readings of the Orthodox Church in America and think about how the passages selected each day relate to each other. Sometimes the connection is clear and sometimes a common lesson is hard to discern or seems to not even exist.

The daily readings for today are from the Book of Acts and the Gospel of John. The first reading describes Paul’s mission to some of the Gentile cities (Acts 14:20-27), the second one presents Jesus Christ claiming to be the Good Shepherd and the gate to God’s kingdom (John 9:39-10:9), and the third reading shows Paul defending himself before King Agrippa and describing his credentials in Judaism and conversion to Christianity (Acts 26:1-5, 12-20). What is the connection between the readings? I think the compilers of the lectionary are drawing attention to the relationship between the Apostle Paul and the teaching of Jesus Christ.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, ” ‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice.’ ” If in this allegory Jesus is the Good Shepherd who enters through the gate to the human community, then the Book of Acts suggests that Paul is the gatekeeper. After describing Paul’s mission in Gentile lands, the author of Acts states that “[Paul] had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles”.

Though he is the gatekeeper, Acts also describes Paul’s credentials in Judaism, how he “belonged to the strictest sect of [Judaism] and lived as a Pharisee”. Thus the daily readings establish both the Apostle Paul and Jesus Christ as trustworthy teachers who approach the human community through the front gate of old Judaism. While Jesus is the Good Shepherd of God’s people, Paul is the gatekeeper that opens the door for the Gentiles to receive this teaching.

Holy Week commentaries: Sunday

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Religion by Alex L. on May 8, 2009

From my journal, the last segment of the Holy Week commentaries:

“PASCHA. Slept late into the morning. Went to Agape Vespers, the last service of Holy Week. How interesting: the gospel reading, the very last Scripture in the Holy Week services, ends with Thomas doubting Christ’s resurrection (John 20:19-25). But the following verses about Jesus showing himself to Thomas are not read! [. . .] There is no closure, interestingly. But I don’t know what that means. [Actually, as my friend Jesse has pointed out, the readings on the next day, Bright Monday, pick up where the ones on Pascha leave off. Nevertheless, it’s still odd that the Holy Week readings ‘end with a whimper’ with the doubting Thomas passage].”

Holy Week commentaries: Saturday

Posted in Christianity, Religion by Alex L. on May 8, 2009

From my journal:

“Went to the Pascha midnight service. The joy of the holiday, I think, was not mimicked in our congregational celebration [. . .]:

‘Before the symbolic ark, David, God’s forefather, did leap and dance. Let us, therefore, the holy people, seeing the fulfillment of those symbols, rejoice with divine rejoicing; for Christ the Almighty is risen’ (719).

“The Paschal Orthos service, during the Paschal Canon, refutes the point I mentioned yesterday and describes why Sunday is now the day of rest for Christians:

‘The Paschal Feast was called Pascha from the Jewish name; for Christ by his Passion and Resurrection translated us from the curse of Adam and the bondage of Satan to the ancient liberty and bliss. As for the day of the week, which is called in Hebrew, the first day, being dedicated to our Lord for his glorification and magnification, it is called in Greek, Kyriake, or the Lord’s Day. The Disciples transferred to it the dignity of the sabbath after the Law of the Old Testament, and prescribed that it be a holiday and a day of rest’ (724).

“I wonder about the source documenting the ‘transfer’. The readings of the Paschal Divine Liturgy are interesting because they suggest that Christ has become known to us. The Epistle is of the beginning of the book of Acts, which begins the story of the work of the Holy Spirit after Christ’s resurrection was revealed to his disciples. The Gospel reading is from the beginning of the Gospel of John, which is the gospel book that reveals Christ’s nature from the first chapter of the book. Finally, I admired the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom for conveying God’s love and mercy to all people, regardless of their faults [. . .]:

‘Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and, whether first or last, receive your reward. O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy! O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the day! You that fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today! The table is rich-laden; the calf is fatted; let no one go forth hungry! Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness. Let no one lament his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one mourn his transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free’ (787).

“And so we feasted after the service and came home late, in the early dawn.”

Holy Week commentaries: Friday

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Religion by Alex L. on April 30, 2009

“Church services of Burial Vespers and Lamentations. I missed the Royal Hours services but read them later. I was struck by how many types there are in the Bible of the silver that Jesus was sold for: the silver paid to Joseph’s brothers for selling him into slavery, the warning of Zachariah (Zach 11:10-13), the prophecy of Jeremiah (quoted somewhere in Matt 27:1-56), and of course in the gospel stories themselves. A part of the Third Hour service nicely parallels the quote about Judas I copied yesterday:

‘When thou wast led to the Cross, O Lord, thou didst say, “For what act do ye wish, O Jews, to crucify me? Is it because I have strengthened your cripples? Is it because I raised your dead as from the sleep, healed the woman of her issue of blood, and showed mercy upon the Canaanitish woman? For what act, O ye Jews, desire ye my death?” But ye shall behold him who ye pierced, O law-transgressors, and know that he is Christ’ (501).

“In case we think that Judas and the Jews are to blame for the shedding of the innocent blood of Jesus instead of ourselves, the following Epistle reading (Rom 5:6-10) reminds us otherwise:

‘Brethren, while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man – though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ (503).

“We who are saved by God are not to number ourselves with the ‘good man’ who would not crucify Christ, but with Judas and the Jews. On the other hand, a frank plea is addressed to those who swear by the laws in the Torah and are among God’s chosen tribe:

‘Do not err, O Jews; for it is he who saved you in the sea and nourished you in the wilderness. He is the Life, the Light, and the Peace of the world’ (512).

“Jumping back to the motif of betraying the innocent God, a quote from the Ninth Hour:

‘When the lawless nailed thee upon the Cross, O Lord of glory, thou didst cry unto them, “Wherein have I angered you? And who before me delivered you from sorrow? And now wherewith do ye reward me? Instead of goodness, evil; for the pillar of fire, ye nailed me on the Cross; for the clouds, ye dug me a grave; instead of water, ye gave me vinegar to drink. I will henceforth call the Gentiles, and they shall glorify me with the Father and the Holy Spirit’ (525).

“I am still confused about the Christian notion of judgment as expressed in Heb 10:19-31: if the law is designed to trip us up and show us that we are sinners, how are we then expected to ‘sin no more’ even after hearing the law of Christ [A study of God’s recurring mercy towards Israel in the Bible – forgiveness being the cornerstone of love – went a long way to helping diffuse this earlier confusion of mine]?

“On to the Burial Vespers service. Here ends the paralleling of the Exodus and Job stories that began in the Orthos services earlier in the week. God shows himself to be a friend of Moses and restores Job’s lost fortune twofold. Both remained faithful to God in their tribulations (cf. entry on [Monday]). The gospel story told during this service strangely cycled through passages from the different gospels. We stayed at church for only half of the Lamentations service. I was intrigued to discover that Eve, Mary, and the Church are intertwined symbols:

‘Thou didst come from a Virgin who knew no travail. Thy side, O my Creator, was pierced with a spear, by which thou didst accomplish the re-creation of Eve, having thyself become Adam. Supernaturally thou didst fall into a sleep that renewed nature, raising life from sleep and corruption; for thou art Almighty’ (586).

“Christ’s days in the tomb are likened to the Sabbath (588-89) – a good argument why the Sabbath should be observed on Saturday rather than on Sunday!? [An argument flatly refuted later on in the Paschal Orthos service on Sunday, p. 724]. The three stases of lamentations are unlike anything I have heard in any other church service: I felt uncomfortable and out of place hearing them sung at church. I do not know why. Jumping back to the motif of Christ addressing his accusers, here is one more beautiful passage:

‘Oh, how the assembly of the law-transgressors condemned to death the King of creation, not being ashamed nor abased by his benevolences, of which he had assured them formerly, calling them to their remembrance, saying, “My people, what have I done to thee? Have I not showered Judaism with wonders? Have I not raised the dead by only a word? Have I not healed every sickness and every weakness? With what, then, hast thou rewarded me? For healing, thou hast inflicted wounds upon me; and for raising the dead, thou dost cause me, the benevolent, to die suspended upon a Tree as an evil-doer; the Giver of the Law, as a law-transgressor; and the King of all, as one who is condemned.” Wherefore, O long-suffering Lord, glory to thee’ (545).

Holy Week commentaries: Thursday

Posted in Christianity, Religion by Alex L. on April 28, 2009

This post has been very late in coming (Holy Week – and Bright Week which follows – have passed), but I decided to complete the series anyway. Here it is, from my journal of last year:

“I missed the service of the Twelve Passion Gospels but read it anyway in the service book. The Vesperal Liturgy readings followed the story of Moses and Job, emphasizing their steadfastness with the Lord and the Lord’s faithfulness to them. The gospel readings describe the betrayal of Jesus. The service of the Twelve Passion Gospels is fittingly named: the gospel readings are about the Passion. I remembered a few passages from the service:

‘What caused thee, O Judas, to betray the Saviour? Did he set thee aside from the Disciples? Did he deny thee the gift of healing? Did he eat with the others and send thee away from the table? Did he wash the feet of the rest and then pass thee by? How much goodness hast thou forgotten? Yea, thine unpraiseworthy mind hath been exposed. But his incalculable long-suffering which is beyond all measure and his great mercies are proclaimed with praise’ (435-436).

“That passage emphasizes how ungratefulness is a betrayal of God, while the following text delves into the biblical imagery of the tree:

‘Because of a tree, Adam was estranged from paradise; and the thief because of the Tree of the Cross abode in paradise; for the former in tasting, disobeyed the Commandment of the Creator; but the latter, who was crucified with thee, confessed, admitting to thee that thou art a hidden God. Wherefore, O Saviour, remember him and us in thy kingdom’ (452).”

Holy Week commentaries: Wednesday

Posted in Christianity, Religion by Alex L. on April 15, 2009

My journal entry for this day last year discussed Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (“On Christian Love”) before I commented (briefly) about the Holy Week services for Wednesday. My remarks about the former are more interesting than the latter so I include both below:

“I like the encyclical, especially the first part about romantic love (the second part was about charity). I appreciated his point about the English language not having a robust enough vocabulary to describe love. The Greeks distinguished between eros – an acquisitive love – and agape – a self-sacrificial love – and I agreed with the pope that both are important. The Hebrews, I was surprised to find out, made a similar distinction about love. There is the love called dodim, “a plural form suggesting a love that is still insecure, indeterminate and searching”. There is also ahaba, which is similar to agape. I especially appreciated his point that the highest form of love is not only loving the person in exterior action but also liking the person:

‘Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend. Going beyond exterior appearances, I perceive in others an interior desire for a sign of love, of concern. This I can offer them not only through the organizations intended for such purposes, accepting it perhaps as a political necessity. Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave.’

“I was also impressed by the pope’s condescending to address objectives to the faith presented by modern philosophers. The pope wisely responded to Friedrich Nietzsche’s argument that Christianity ruined eros in villainizing it by noting that it was the pagans who were ruining eros (e.g. having prostitutes in fertility cult temples). The pope also objected to the Marxist idea that charity is bad because it supports an unjust social structure and delays revolution by saying that to deny your neighbor of his immediate needs for the sake of a hypothetically-better future is immoral. Very impressive!

“[ . . . ] Before commenting on [the Holy Unction] service, let me talk about the Wednesday service of the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. This is the third and last service of such a kind during Holy Week. The first had readings from Exodus, Job and Matthewas the beginnings of deliverance stories. Today’s service does not have readings about the conclusion of those stories. Instead, we are shown the indeterminate middle, when in a way the protagonists face their moment of truth: Moses rejoins the Hebrews, Job does not deny God, and the actions of Judas are contrasted to those of the woman who annointed Jesus’ feet with oil. I must admit that I was confused about the choice and ordering of the readings in the Holy Unction service. [. . .] in Greek, the words for mercy, oil, and annointing sound the same, and I appreciated that connection in the service.”

Holy Week commentaries: Tuesday

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Religion by Alex L. on April 14, 2009

My journal entry for this day was short and bland (apparently, I was in “a rotten mood” this day last year). Here it is anyway:

“The [Bridegroom Matins] service centered around contrasting the Biblical characters of Judas and the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet.”

Holy Week commentaries: Monday

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Religion by Alex L. on April 14, 2009

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian. This week is our Holy Week preceding Pascha (Easter) on Sunday, April 19. We are a week behind the Catholic Lenten calendar this year. This week I will be publishing a post each day of some notes I wrote last year as I was following along the Holy Week service book. The services of Holy Week fascinate me because they synthesize ideas and narratives throughout the whole Bible – Old and New Testament – to recreate the story of the Passion of Christ.

Here is the first entry from my journal (quotations are from The Services of Great and Holy Week and Pascha published by Antakya Press, 2006):

“Today is the first day of Holy Week and I have begun reading the service book for this week. I was struck, having just read Genesis, by the presentation of Joseph as the first ‘type‘ of Christ:

‘On this day begins the anniversary of the holy Passion of the Saviour, he of whom Joseph of exceeding beauty is taken as the earliest symbol; for this Joseph was the eleventh of the sons of Jacob, and because his father loved him exceedingly, his brothers envied him and threw him into a pit. Then they took him out and sold him to strangers, who sold him in Egypt. He was slandered for his chastity, and was thrown into prison. But finally he was taken out of prison, and he attained a high rank, and received honors worthy of kings, becoming governor of the whole of Egypt, whose people he supported. Thus he symbolized in himself the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ and his consequent great glory’ (21-22).

I was also delighted by the readings chosen for Monday Divine Liturgy: Exodus 1:1-20, Job 1:1-12, and Matthew 24:3-35. Why group them together, I thought to myself? Then I realized that they were each the beginnings of deliverance stories. Exodus is the delivery from bondage of a people while Job tells of the delivery of one person from tribulation, which are supposed to give hope (as painful stories you can read about that have a happy ending) to the charge that we are given in Matthew for us to personally stay faithful, through the times of tribulation. Some food for thought.”

Desirability of wisdom in the Old Testament

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Judaism by Alex L. on March 26, 2009

During Great Lent, the Eastern Orthodox Church reads the books of Isaiah, Genesis and Proverbs. Why those books? I think the daily readings on March 4 and 5 suggest an answer (Isa 2:3-11; Gen 1:24-2:3; Prov 2:1-22; Isa 3:1-15; Gen 2:20-3:20; Prov 3:19-34). The three books are trying to illustrate God’s relationship to His people from three different perspectives. Genesis narrates the creation of God’s people. Conversely, Isaiah describes the destruction of God’s city because of her disobedience. Proverbs serves as a commentary on both the creation and destruction stories by arguing that seeking after wisdom is the saving grace of God’s people, that wisdom preserves God’s city. While Jerusalem has grown rich with silver, gold, and other material treasures (Isa 2:7), it has neglected the true silver and spiritual treasures of wisdom (Prov 2:4-5).

So if wisdom is to be desired above all else (according to Proverbs) and lack of wisdom caused Jerusalem’s downfall (according to Isaiah), then wisdom looks like a pretty good thing according to the Bible. Why, then, does the account of the Fall of Adam and Eve describe the desire for wisdom as evil? “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate” (Gen 3:6; emphasis added). Why is desiring wisdom considered evil before the Fall but the highest good after it?