Jesus exorcises a man in the synagogue.
From Les Trés Riches Heures du Duc du Berry, ca. 1412-1416. Public Domain.
See the texts, artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers for this service at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.)
Leccionario en Español, Leccionario Común Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes.
Para obtener más recursos leccionario, Estudios Exegético: Homiléticos.
Lectionnaire en français, Le Lectionnaire Œcuménique Révisé
The people are afraid to hear God's voice directly. God promises to raise up a future prophet, like Moses, to continue speaking to them. The people will be accountable for what the prophet tells them. And the prophet must speak only God's word, or die.
Psalm Response: Psalm 111 (UMH 832).
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.
Today marks the midpoint and a turning point in one stream of readings in the Season after Epiphany. In the OT/Gospel stream of readings, we shift from an emphasis on calling disciples to the kinds of ministries disciples are called to be part of. This week’s focus is on ministries of prophecy and deliverance. Next week’s focus is on ministries of healing. The season concludes with the “bookend Sunday” of Transfiguration in three weeks.
The other stream of readings (epistle) continues its focus on the qualities needed for a congregation to surround those preparing for baptism and discipleship with a “community of love and forgiveness.” This week’s focus is on being careful not to offend those who are in different stages of spiritual maturity.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, February 18. Our planning article for Lent and Easter Season (Year B) will help you keep these seasons focused on their original purpose of making, equipping, and sending disciples of Jesus Christ.
All Month: Women's History Month
It’s the midpoint of this series. If last week needed to carry the momentum from the previous week, this week needs to help carry that momentum “over the hump” into the next two.
Which series you started (OT/Gospel on calling and discipleship, or Epistle on qualities of Christian community) should continue to drive your choices about imagery, lighting, soundscape and the arrangement of worship space through the end of this season. 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.
OT/Gospel Stream -- Core Ministries of Disciples, 1: Prophecy and Deliverance
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’sGospel 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 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!
At one level, the Old Testament reading and the gospel today may look like they’re talking about two different things. Deuteronomy promises a stream of prophets to come. Mark describes Jesus performing an exorcism, an act of deliverance from an invading spiritual power.
In reality, the two roles, prophet and deliverer, were one, and, indeed, were often embodied as one throughout the history of the people of Israel and into the time of Jesus. Prophets were typically raised up to speak God’s word to power when power had become oppressive, and so to deliver the people from such oppression, just as Moses had done. And, as we see in the case of Elijah, and more especially his protégé Elisha, prophets also often performed “mighty deeds of power,” including exorcisms, as part of their prophetic ministry.
At another level, there appears to be a distinct difference between the expectations of the promised prophet in our reading from Deuteronomy and the role of Jesus as prophet/deliverer 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). 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. 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/deliverer.
This tension between these two readings invites us to consider our own approach to God and to discipleship to Jesus. Do we want or need others to offer prophetic ministries of deliverance for us, while we cheer them on at a distance? Or are we prepared to follow Jesus into taking on such ministries ourselves in his name and the Spirit’s power?
God is ready to meet us where we are, and lead us on. In Christ, we are invited to be witnesses, and also to engage in ministries of prophecy and deliverance ourselves.
In Your Planning Team
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 and send planning team members as well to talk to people who are already embodying something of what these texts describe. 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. Some of the very best work you can do as worship planners seeking to connect people with the truths of God is 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 next (prophecy/deliverance and healing), 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 have learned to speak and act as prophets with authority.
This is Black History Month in the U.S. The African-American cultures of the U.S. are full of such prophets, including Dr. Martin Luther King. They spoke and still speak truth to power with authority to deliver all people from bondage to oppression.
And African Americans in this culture are not alone in being prophet/deliverers.
So, go find the prophet/deliverers you know and get their stories. Be sure also to get the testimonies of others about them. And keep in mind, and in the minds of your congregation, that these people were not “special” from the beginning, nor did they “get it” all at once. Rather, they have been made special because they have learned from the Master, because they have been disciples of Jesus, schooled over time in his ways of prophecy and deliverance. To be his disciple means in part that we learn, and fail, and learn, and fail, and keep learning to be faithful prophets and deliverers 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: Getting the Church Ready (to Surround Others with a Community of Love and Forgiveness), 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 makes two points that the vast majority of us simply take for granted. The first: “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” 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 his will, is to prevent 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 ends where your nose begins.”
Many cultures in Paul’s day and ours did not and 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. They had to develop a sort of working toleration of cultural differences to keep some semblance of order and peace among incredibly diverse practices of peoples from all over the Mediterranean and beyond.
Enter Christianity, as Paul introduced it in Corinth (Acts 18:1-11). Paul was clear our freedom in Christ meant we no longer lived under all of the law of Moses. Christians were free, right? They could act as they felt individually led, right? So though the Old Testament, and even the council in Jerusalem (Acts 15) had banned eating meat offered to idols, that no longer really applied to Christians, did it?
Here, as elsewhere in his writings, Paul moves from answering a specific question to articulating a principle for Christian living—a core characteristic Christians need to embody in order to be a community of love and forgiveness.
As to the question, Paul noted that he and some other Christians had gained enough theological sophistication to understand that idols and their rituals were meaningless and all gifts come from the one real God there is (verse 6). Therefore, in theory, it needn’t matter where meat comes from. Meat could simply be received with gratitude as from God. Christians have the freedom to make this choice.
However, there is a real limitation to this liberty. That limit is love. What does it mean to love persons inside or outside the Christian community who do not have the same level of theological awareness?
Paul noted persons who have just recently come into the Christian community could be damaged by seeing other Christians eat meat offered to idols. Many of them would have come from a lifetime of training to regard the meat offered to idols as 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 would be anathema to such persons. That is why seeing others in the Christian community engage in a practice felt to be anathema could be destructive.
Paul offered his own witness and commitment. He would not eat meat at all if it could cause someone else to stumble. It is very possible that in Corinth in the first century, as we know of 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. 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.
There’s the answer. Don’t eat meat.
The why behind that answer matters even more. Love all in your community well enough, especially the weakest or newest members, to exercise self-discipline for the sake of those whom your liberty could cause spiritual harm. This is more than John Stuart Mill’s limit about causing “palpable harm.” It’s not just about personal restraint. It’s about love that displaces one’s own preferences for the sake of the least.
This is the very kind of love the Spirit seeks to embody in and through us so we can be and surround others preparing for discipleship with a community of love and forgiveness, “that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life” (UMH 35).
In Your Planning Team
Today’s text directly challenges what may be bedrock cultural assumptions for many of your members and participants. We are called to more than personal liberty. We are called to love, and especially to love the folks who could most easily mistake some of our personal liberties for license, or worse.
Whenever you find a text, as this one does, that so directly challenges deeply held and often unquestioned cultural assumptions, simply asserting the biblical assumption alone as over against the cultural one is rarely a good strategy to prompt growth or change.
The better strategy is to help people hear how people in their midst are in fact embodying the biblical principle, and an invitation to the rest to join them in doing so.
Like all places where the call to discipleship is a call against standard cultural assumptions, learning to limit our liberty for the sake of love for the least can be hard, full of starts, stops, failures, and trying again.
So as you find stories to lift up among members of your planning team and the wider congregation and community, be sure to include not just the “success stories” of “triumphal living,” but also the struggles, failures and learnings folks have encountered along the way.
What we want is for more of the congregation to be more ready to surround those preparing for baptism and discipleship during Lent than they are today. None will be perfect at it. But by hearing stories of those who are endeavoring, and making real headway with the help of the Spirit and one another, you will encourage more folks in your congregation with the truth that what the Spirit calls for the Spirit in fact makes possible in all of our lives.
We are halfway to Lent or halfway between Epiphany (the end of Christmas Season) 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, between baptism and Transfiguration. 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!
How in the prayer and liturgy of this day could the experience of being on the path between what we are moving away from or on 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).
- BOW 303, 305, 456 (I Corinthians)
- UMH 6
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: Ireland, United Kingdom
The Great Thanksgiving: Word and Table I (UMH 7-11)
Prayer of Thanksgiving if there is no Communion: BOW 551 (second item, 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 (second item) or UMH 669.
- BOW 563 (Psalm, Mark)