Today in the Spirit: Proper 7A

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The messaging the church puts forward at this stage on Sundays in Year A is hard going on both the ears and the heart, and yet as always laced with grace. Building on readings from prior weeks, the focus is on the reality of spiritual opposition to our Lord’s work of the gospel and to our own as we continue with it in Christ. The Collect in Proper 7 petitions the Lord who is both powerful (always able) and generous (always willing) to work in us four important gifts needed to serve. In a compounding sequence in the prayer, they are: “the love of your name;” then “true religion;” then “all goodness;” then “the fruit of good works.” The Gospel reading out of Matthew 10:16-33 is a continuation of Jesus’ discourse to the twelve before they go out for the first time on their own to locations in Palestine, this time with the frightful revelation that they will be as sheep in the midst of wolves. The OT reading from Jeremiah 20:7-13 is a complaint from the prophet whose suffering from Israel has been so great that he feels YHWH has deceived him. The appointed Psalm 69:1-15(16-18) is a plea for help from “David”–Save me,O God– but, in contrast to Jeremiah, with an awareness of folly on his own part. Finally, in Romans 5:15b-19, continuing with our readings in the early chapters of Romans this cycle, Paul further enlightens his audience on justification by faith with a compelling comparison between the consequences of the trespass of Adam and the free gift of Christ’s saving acts.    

The Collect

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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O LORD, You Have Deceived Me (Jeremiah 20:7-13)

O Lord, you have deceived me,
    and I was deceived;
you are stronger than I,
    and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all the day;
    everyone mocks me. 
For whenever I speak, I cry out,
    I shout, “Violence and destruction!”
For the word of the Lord has become for me
    a reproach and derision all day long (7-8).

The persecution experienced by Jeremiah at the hands of one Pashur in Jerusalem (see 20:1-6) has the ring of that which Jesus predicts for his disciples in the Gospel reading for this week (Matthew 10:17ff). That Jeremiah apparently remained strong through his ordeal does not mean he did not feel profoundly the pain of betrayal, even when it came from close friends. Clearly in the text Jeremiah even feels betrayed by God: O LORD, you have deceived me (note: some translations say persuaded, as in NASB). Devotionally, we might ask, is it ever just to feel betrayed or deceived by God, and then to complain to him about it? I often tell my congregation that you really don’t know God intimately, unless you can be angry with him. The fact is Jeremiah was told when he became a prophet that [the people] will fight against you (see 1:19); but we know from experience that the burdensome reality of opposition (like the freeing reality of grace) almost always takes us by surprise. Our protests, like those of Jeremiah, arise from the pain of passing through the suffering. God in heaven can handle our complaints; we need only be ready, like Jeremiah, to expect some deliverance and to acknowledge the same with thanks: But the Lord is with me as a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble; they will not overcome me.

Today, Holy Spirit, let my complaints to you like those of Jeremiah be not be in vain. Give me the courage to enter my service to the Father and the Son knowing there will be opposition but also deliverance from it, for he who is in you (me) is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).

What I Did Not Steal Must I Now Restore? (Psalm 69:1-15(16-18))

Save me, O God!
    For the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
    where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
    and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying out;
    my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
    with waiting for my God.
More in number than the hairs of my head
    are those who hate me without cause;
mighty are those who would destroy me,
    those who attack me with lies.
What I did not steal
    must I now restore? (1-4).

Again, with Jesus’ warning to his disciples about suffering on mission in this week’s Gospel reading (Matthew 10:17ff), we receive both the OT reading from Jeremiah and this psalm as laments the disciples might have on their lips when the persecution actually begins. Most other English translations render the last line above as a statement of fact, like [Those who hate me] bid me restore things I never took (Coverdale, BCP). As a question, it comes across as perhaps even more agonizing; like, This injustice too, my good name and my livelihood? The longer you serve in ministry, the more you come to treat false accusations as the cost of doing God’s business; yet, however much we may anticipate them, they always present themselves as the greatest of hurts to endure. Are you, minister of Christ, enduring some outlandish false claim against you that may be costing you time and money and sleepless nights? There is some comfort in knowing others like David here have gone through it before you–but in the end the only real consolation in our guts where we feel the pain is the comfort of Christ: that he is with us and that in one form or another he is restoring you. So David in his torment does not fail to direct his prayers to YHWH, saying later in the psalm, Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.

Today, Holy Spirit, meet me in the distress of facing opposition in my ministry in your name. Where I am in the wrong, show me and forgive me my sin. And where I am being falsely attacked, inspired by the faith of David, I pray that you protect my life, my livelihood and my loved ones in Jesus’ name. Amen.   

Much More (Romans 5:15b-19)

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass[a] led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness[b] leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

There is much that is mysterious and even incomprehensible in this passage. We tend to get stuck on the question, If sin coming through Adam affects everyone and justification through Christ helps only those who believe, how can we say the free gift is really much more than the trespass? Short of adopting a doctrine of universalism by which everybody will be saved, it’s a difficult point to reconcile. Here may be one way to think about the abounding grace which is more in this passage: Imagine the mother of a child. One day she must give out a punishment for the child’s wrongdoing, the next she is able to reward a child’s good behavior (stay with me here, and don’t take the analogy too far). Which will she prefer to do more? Surely, give the reward over the punishment; in every way, because of her love for the child and her delight in him or her, the reward will come forth as much more than the punishment. So in this passage I think we have to move out of the realm of quantity, the number of those saved, to quality. In every respect, considering the saving ministry of Jesus has affected the world in ways we will never be able to grasp until later, with the free gift of Christ amounting to much, much more than the trespass of Adam–and this in no small part because God the Father, like the mother of the child, wants to release grace far more than he wants to judge and condemn. Remember YHWH speaking through the prophet asks rhetorically, Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? (18:23). No, God’s pleasure is in the repentance of sinners and the restoration of all things. For that Jesus teaches the Father will never cease to strike up the dancing and lay out the banquet in heaven. There is Paul’s much more.

Today, in the Spirit, as much as we may not understand everything in Paul’s writing, we tune into the grace that has abounded to us and the many in Christ.    

Fear Not (Matthew 10:16-33)

[Jesus to his disciples]: “So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?[d] And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (26-31). 

Our Gospel reading this week seems to be the second of three major sections in this teaching discourse of Jesus to the disciples found in Matthew. If the language comes across as severe for the delivery of basic instructions in missionary service, that could be because this material was transferred here by Matthew from harsher end-time teaching found in Mark and Luke. Devotionally, this teaching challenges our tendency to fold up and hide our Christian witness in the face of opposition. Few of us have faced or will face (God willing) official court tribunals for giving Christian testimony, but we all can relate to the temptation of leaving off our confession of Christ in conversations with others when we sense the coming of uncomfortable pushback. We need to hear the principles of giving testimony our Lord puts forward here: opposition is inevitable; you will be disliked by some; Jesus faced enemies and so must we; your eternal security is assured no matter what happens in the world; and disowning Jesus is worthy of judgment (though it is never beyond the bounds of forgiveness dispensed on the cross). 

Today, Holy Spirit, let your boldness to speak of the love of the Father and the Son overtake every desire in me to be liked and well-thought-of at home, work, school, and in my community.   

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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