Planning - The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
See the texts, artwork, and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers for this service online at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
The people are afraid to hear God's voice directly, so God promises to raise up a future prophet, like Moses, to continue speaking to them. The prophet must speak only the words of God or die, and the people must obey or face the consequences.
Psalm Response: Psalm 111 (UMH).
Praise to God for fulfilling promises of deliverance, establishing the nation, and providing guidance for the people.
1 Corinthians 8:1-13.
Some in the church in Corinth have no qualms about eating meat that has been offered in pagan rites (which may very well have been nearly all the meat in Corinth!), because they personally do not recognize the existence of the gods to whom the meat was offered or the validity of the rites by which they were offered. Paul reminds these "cognoscenti" that while their reasoning may be correct in theory, most folks in Corinth would have been so saturated by the polytheistic culture that following Jesus for them would require them to stay away from any association with other ritual practices. Therefore, he warns them not to engage in any action that could be misinterpreted and so "wound the conscience" of "the weak."
Jesus teaches with authority and performs an exorcism in the synagogue at Capernaum. In Jewish practice, a person known to be a demoniac would not have been admitted into the synagogue. The presence and prophetic authority of Jesus both surface the demon and cast it out. The people are amazed, and the report about this "went out" (same verb in Greek as the command to the unclean spirit to "come out") to the entire region of Galilee.
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Today marks the midpoint of the Sundays in the season after Epiphany. This period of Sundays in Ordinary Time ends with The Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord on February 19. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, which is February 22 this year. See "Planning Worship for the Season after Epiphany, Year B" for more details.
Coming in February are Black History Month and Scouting Ministries Sunday (February 12). Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts provide resources or recommendations for such recognitions. The National Association of United Methodist Scouters prefers that the February date be used for recognizing scouting programs with both boys and girls to avoid conflicting with Lent.
February 2, this coming Thursday, is called "Candlemas" or "The Feast of the Presentation" in many churches. It is the day for observing the ritual purification of Mary forty days after the birth of Jesus as well as the presentation of Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem (see Luke 2:21-40).
If you are celebrating Candlemas/Presentation, the colors are white or gold. For more on the ritual of purification, see Leviticus 12. For more on Candlemas or "the Presentation," see "Candlemas History, Information, Prayers, Resources, Traditions, & More."
The day has pagan roots in Ireland and was a Christian adaptation of the older practices for this midwinter festivity from which we get our "Groundhog Day." If you choose to offer a celebration on February 2, use the texts and resources for Candlemas at Textweek.com. If you are transferring the celebration to this Sunday (Church of England practice) or next Sunday (many American churches) or Wednesday night (it is customary to begin the celebration of this festival with an evening service on the night before), consider doing so as an additional evening liturgy rather than displacing the morning readings and Holy Communion.
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It's week 3 of this 5-week series. If last week needed to carry the momentum from week 1, this week needs to help carry it "over the hump" into the next two.
Whichever series you started (OT/Gospel on calling and discipleship, or Epistle on Christian Lifeways) should continue to drive your choices about imagery, lighting, soundscape, and the arrangement of worship space for these weeks. Remember, you always can build on the atmospherics you started -- adding more or making slight variations. It is better not to change them radically from week to week. The feel of the space and of the flow of these services will do more to convey a sense of connection between them than anything you can say, tweet, or preach.
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OT/Gospel Stream: This Call's for You, 1 -- Prophets and Deliverers
While the pairing of the Old Testament and gospel readings for the first two weeks has allowed for a primary focus on either one; for this week and the next two weeks, the gospel is front and center, and the Old Testament is "color commentary."
We begin here a shift in the gospel readings from Jesus calling disciples to Jesus giving his disciples "on-the-job training." Our readings from Mark's gospel starting today and for the next two weeks portray Jesus performing miracle after miracle in the presence of his disciples. Being discipled by a master, after all, means learning to say and do what the master says and does so that the disciple becomes like the master. It does not mean simply oohing and aahing at how amazing your master is!
This marks a distinct difference between the role of the promised prophet in our reading from Deuteronomy and the role of Jesus as prophet (in this text) with his disciples. In Deuteronomy, the people wanted a prophet like Moses precisely so they would not have to encounter the voice of God themselves (see verse 16). And God was willing to accommodate their request, noting they were not ready for such a direct encounter themselves (verse 17). But as disciples of Jesus, we expect nothing less than to encounter directly and learn how to call upon the presence, power, and voice of God ourselves. The people in Deuteronomy wanted someone else, someone special, to be a prophet for them. Disciples of Jesus expect to be made special by becoming like their master in "all his offices" -- including, as we see this week, his office as prophet.
By the first century, those who were considered prophets were often more in the mold of Elisha and Elijah than Jeremiah. They were wandering teachers who not only proclaimed truth to power in an authoritative way, but also demonstrated mighty acts of power as they did so. Among these was exorcism.
This is to be noted: What was remarkable in this story was not that Jesus cast out a demon, or even that he talked to the demon. There were plenty of other exorcists in his day. What was remarkable was the authority with which he did so. He did not call upon any other authority in the spirit world to act. Jesus spoke the word, "Shut up, and come out of him!" The demon immediately complied.
What do we as disciples learn from a master who teaches, prophesies, and casts out demons "as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (Mark 1:22)? What does it mean for us, as individual disciples and as the body of Christ, to do the same, here and now?
Remember that Jesus spent several years with his disciples, training them in the ways of the kingdom of God. They were certainly not expected to see this happen once, and immediately do the same thing. Indeed, Mark's gospel, more than any other, shows just how poorly the disciples were "getting it" at nearly every turn.
But eventually they did. And so may we, if we continue to follow Jesus as they did.
So perhaps the better question for your worship planning team to discuss, and perhaps for your spiritual formation team as well, is how might worship today, designed around these texts, help the people in your congregation who seek to be disciples of Jesus realize that Jesus intends to equip them to be prophets with such authority?
Week after week and year after year, if you've been reading this section of these helps, you've seen me advocate the same basic strategy: Go talk to people who are already doing this. Why do I keep saying that? Frankly, it's because I believe Jesus. The kingdom has drawn near. The signs are everywhere, all around us, if we'll but open our eyes and ears. The very best work you can do as worship planners seeking to help connect people with the truths of God are to connect them with the stories of the people among whom God is already doing this work.
When it comes to the kinds of things Jesus is training his disciples (and us) this week and in the next two weeks, probably all of us can think of examples of people who are charlatans. Probably all of us, and rightly so, reject the sort of "word-faith, name-it-and-claim-it prosperity gospel" we can find on television every hour of every day if we had the stomach for it. Probably all of us know people who have been taken in and had their hopes dashed and perhaps their bank accounts emptied by the false hopes raised by some of these "evangelists." Good. This means we know what counterfeit spiritual authority looks like.
But that doesn't mean Jesus wasn't training his disciples or won't train us to exercise the real thing in his name.
So go talk to people in your congregation or to other people you or members of your worship planning team know, who are clearly learning what it means to speak and act as prophets with authority. Get their stories. And get the testimonies of others about them. And keep in mind -- and in the minds of your congregation -- that these people are not special, nor did they "get it" all at once. Rather, they have been made special because they have learned from the Master; they have been disciples of Jesus. And to be his disciple means that we learn, and fail, and learn, and fail, and keep learning to be faithful prophets in his way.
So go talk to these folks. And let what you learn from them inform how you plan worship for today.
And then get yourselves ready for more people in your midst to start learning, and failing, and learning, and failing, and continuing to learn to be faithful prophets in his way, too.
Epistle Stream: Christian Lifeways, Week 3-- Liberty Limited by Love of the Least
If you live nearly anywhere in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, or New Zealand, chances are strong that you have been deeply formed in the assumptions of "classical liberalism." Here, I am not speaking of "liberal theology" or even "liberal" versus "conservative" politics. Indeed, classical liberalism is so endemic in U.S. culture, that it lies at the heart of both major political parties, from the most "progressive" to the most "conservative" philosophies of Libertarians, the Tea Party, and the disciples of Ayn Rand.
Classical liberalism embraces a set of philosophical assumptions about personal liberty that derive from principles articulated most succinctly and spread most widely in the writings of the nineteenth-century English philosopher, John Stuart Mill, and his book, On Liberty. This book includes two points that the vast majority of us simply take for granted. The first: "Over oneself, over one's own body and mind, the individual is sovereign." (Both sides of the U.S. abortion debates agree on this!) And the second, just a few lines above the first in the introductory chapter, is "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against [the individual's] will, is to prevent [or redress] harm to others."
Put more succinctly, many of us live and breathe cultural assumptions that we are and should be free to do whatever we like, as long as we do not cause clear harm to others when we do so. Or, as a political science professor of mine used to put it, "My liberty only ends where your nose begins."
Many cultures in Paul's day and ours do not live with these cultural assumptions. But the extraordinary pluralism of Corinth, because it was a major trading station on a land bridge separating the Ionian and Aegean Seas, meant that in practice, if not in law, the peoples of Corinth lived with something at least similar -- a sort of working toleration of cultural differences necessary to keep some semblance of order and peace among incredibly diverse (and at times, perverse) practices of peoples from all over the Mediterranean and beyond.
Enter Christianity, as Paul introduced it there (Acts 18:1-11), with Paul's declaration of freedom in Christ from the necessity of living under all of the law of Moses, and it is easy to see how the question, and probably the problem, Paul addresses here could arise.
The question: "Is it appropriate for Christians to be eating meat sacrificed to idols?" The problem, very likely: Some Christians were exercising their "liberty in Christ" from the law of Moses -- and by this time the decision of the Jerusalem Council as well (see Acts 15:29) -- and doing so publicly. And their "liberty" became the object of conflict in the church and among some newer believers in Corinth.
Once again, we see Paul moving from answering a specific question to articulating a principle for Christian living -- a Christian lifeway -- that can help them not only determine answers, but actually live more faithfully in their context day by day. As to the question, Paul notes that indeed for Christians who have gained enough theological sophistication to understand that idols and their rituals are meaningless and all gifts come from the one real God, there is (verse 6). Therefore, in theory, it needn't matter where the meat came from. It could simply be received with gratitude as from God. Indeed, Christians do have the liberty to make this choice.
However, he notes, there is a real limitation to this liberty-loving care for the consciences of people inside or outside the Christian community who do not have the same level of theological awareness. People who have just recently come into the Christian community could be deeply damaged by this practice. Many of them would have come from a lifetime of training to regard the meat offered to idols as having some effect on their souls, indeed, binding them to the gods to whom it was sacrificed. At the same time, in the process of becoming a Christian, they had renounced allegiance to all gods but the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ whose Spirit now dwelled in them through baptism. Eating meat offered to gods they had renounced must be anathema to such people. And to engage in a practice that so deeply felt wrong could only damage their souls.
So, once again, Paul does provide an answer to the question. He will not eat meat at all if it causes someone else to stumble. It is very possible that in Corinth in the first century, as we know it was in Carthage in the third, all or nearly all the meat available in the city had come from one temple or another before it arrived at market. So Paul was not being an extreme ascetic in saying he might, in this case, need to abstain from meat entirely. He was likely being a realist. So were were third-century Christians in Carthage while Cyprian was their bishop.
But even more important than providing an answer to this situation, Paul provides a lifeway for them to continue to practice. Our liberty as Christians is not limited by "palpable harm" to another (John Stuart Mill and all of us twenty-first century philosophical liberals). Rather, our liberty as Christians is most richly expressed by our love for the least, those with the "weakest" conscience in our midst. We who may be "stronger" or know more are freed to use our strength and knowledge to discipline our lives for their sake. This is part of what it means, as Paul later wrote to the churches near Ephesus, to "be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Ephesians 5:21).
In liberal cultures where there is so much emphasis on rights of expression and free exercise of personal choice, this call to loving self-restraint as an expression of our liberty in Christ may feel like an oxymoron, at best, or even like a kind of tyranny to be overthrown or a kind of repression to get over, certainly not encourage!
There is no question such "liberty expressed by love" would have been hard to live into in first-century Corinth. There is equally no question it is hard to live into now for those of us living in individualistic, liberal cultures.
But in Christ, through the Spirit dwelling in us that leads us to perfect love of God and neighbor, it is more than possible. It is exactly what God seeks to do in and through us. And it is what God is in fact doing in the lives of some folks you already know.
So in your worship planning team, identify and send folks to talk to people you or they know who have learned or are learning to embody this lifeway of Christian liberty in your midst. Ask them how they've learned this and how they've struggled and even failed. Ask them what they've seen God do in and through them because they have sought to live their liberty with such love.
And of course, don't stop with good anecdotes in worship or strong ritual that helps people connect with God around this text. Draw on the stories you've heard to identify people and processes that helped them get where they are, and especially those that can help others in your congregation take the next step toward the same lifeway in Christ.
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We are halfway to Lent or halfway between Epiphany (the end of Christmastide) and Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent). This is not startling or significant, except to see where we are on the path between the conclusion of one major cycle of the Christian practice of observing time (the cycle of light -- Christmas/Season after Epiphany) and the prime cycle of the year (the cycle of life -- Easter). Experientially, a lot of the Christian journey is living between "this day" and "That Day" -- between memory and hope, between what we know and what we long for, between the summons of the kingdoms of this world and the call of the kingdom of God. Israel knew Moses and longed for another leader-prophet to speak with God's authority to them. The Corinthians were living between ongoing connections to their pagan and idolatrous culture and the new reality of the one God and the "one Lord, Jesus Christ." The villagers in Capernaum found themselves between the debatable teaching of the scribes and the authoritative teaching of Jesus, whom the demons hidden in their midst confronted but obeyed!
Candlemas picks up this sense of "betweenness" in its perpetuation of pagan rites marking mid-winter -- given new interpretation through the story of the purification ritual of Mary and the presentation of Jesus in the Temple.
In our American experience, we have lived for much of the past decade between fear of economic collapse, unemployment, and terrorism on the one hand and hope for a more peaceful, compassionate, democratic world order on the other. How in the prayer and liturgy of this day could the experience of being on the path between what we are moving away from and what we long for be enacted? Play with the images and opposites in shaping prayer: memory and hope, captivity and freedom, separation/segregation and embrace, war and peace, violence and tenderness, defensiveness and compassion, self-focused ("I" songs) and God-focused ("Thou" songs).
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- BOW 303, 305, 456 (I Corinthians)
- UMH 6
- BOW 310 (Mark), BOW 308 (Candlemas)
- From the Book of Common Prayer (the Presentation/Candlemas):
The Presentation, February 2
Almighty and everliving God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the Temple, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Prayer of Confession:
- UMH 7-8 (Invitation, confession, and pardon)
- BOW 476 (1 Corinthians)
Concerns and Prayers:
- BOW 312, 500, 504, 518, 546 (Mark, 1 Corinthians)
- BOW 525 (1 Corinthians, for Wisdom)
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden
The Great Thanksgiving: Word and Table I (UMH 7-11)
Prayer of Thanksgiving if there is no Communion: BOW 551 (Deuteronomy, Psalm)
Dismissal With Blessing:
- A deacon or assisting minister/layperson could dismiss the people using BOW 559 and the pastor speak the blessing using BOW 561 or UMH 669.
- BOW 563 (Psalm, Mark)
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