Divisions in the Early Church

A quick look at the 13 books historically attributed to Paul, recognition of which probably were and were not actually written by Paul, and a focus on those that are “authentic.” This is the other “side” of the Pauline story.

Scripture Readings:

  • Galatians 1:11-17 (Paul’s conversion, per his own description)
  • Romans 3:21-31 (it’s interesting to read the entire chapter for context)
  • Romans 6:1-14 (again, would suggest reading the whole chapter)

Teaching Points:

  • Traditionally, 13 books (letters) were attributed to Paul: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon. (Hebrews was sometimes included as a 14th attribution.)
  • In modern scholarship, only 7 letters are agreed upon as authentically Pauline: Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon. The remaining 6 (or 7, if you include Hebrews) were probably not written by Paul, though debate remains about some more than others.
  • When I preach to my congregation about Pauline authorship, I include only the 7 books known to be Pauline.
  • We want listeners to understand that writing under the pseudonym of one’s mentor/teacher was a common practice at that time and was seen as an honor to the teacher (Paul, in this case). Authors were not trying to be intentionally misleading or trip us up.
  • That said, it is really helpful to know which books are Pauline and which are not, because they are quite different in theme, style and content… and can give confusing messages if we are not clear on their context and timeline.

Discussion Questions:

  • Paul describes his own conversation in much less detail than does the author of Acts. Paul was writing earlier and, obviously, knew his own story. What do we make of that?
  • The letter to the Romans is a deeply theological (and complex) book in which Paul articulates his understanding of concepts like sin, grace, justification, and righteousness. These passages from chapters 3 and 6 articulate some of his thinking. How do we make sense of the idea of justification today?
  • How does Paul seem to explain grace in relationship to our responsibility to avoid sin? This has been a real point of contention in the church over the years! How do we understand it today?
  • Paul loves to use the metaphors of dying and rising, in conjunction with the idea of baptism, to talk about how we are transformed as Christians. How does this use of metaphor help us understand the way Paul writes?
  • Though they are not included in our readings, the authentic Pauline letters (like the letters to the Corinthians and Philemon) seek to address some very real problems and conflicts in the church at the time. Who is writing the “contemporary epistles” of our own time and attempting to address and unravel conflict in the church?

Podcast:

Practically_Honest_Bible_Series_29

Image by TuendeBede from Pixabay

Paul’s Missionary Journeys

This week we are talking about Paul and one “side” of the Pauline story. This also introduces some of the attributes of the early church (communal, house churches, etc) and controversies that developed early on.

Scripture Readings: Acts 2:1-21 (Luke-Acts’ Pentecost story)

Acts 9:1-9 (Paul’s conversion, per the author of Luke-Acts)

Teaching Points:

  • The same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke authors the book of Acts. We might think of Acts as a continuation of the story of Jesus as begun in Luke. As such, there is a cohesive writing style and some consistent themes throughout. We refer to this as Luke-Acts.
  • Acts has two key structural principles.
    • The movement from Jerusalem, core location for the Jews, to Rome, core location for the Gentile world.
    • The roles of Peter and Paul –  Peter deals with the Jewish Christian church; Paul embraces the mission to the Gentiles
  • Thus, the first half (or so) of the book focuses on Peter’s work and the early church (including Paul’s conversion), and the second half of the book focuses on Paul and his missionary work.
  • There are three missionary journeys described in Acts (ch.13-14, 16-20), although a few people assert a possible fourth journey or sometimes the voyage to Rome (ch.27-28) is included as a fourth trip.
  • Acts presents a very different picture of the early church than is presented in Pauline writing. For example, Acts presents a very harmonious church and a peaceful relationship between Peter and Paul. Paul’s own (earlier) writings signal discord in early faith communities and significant disagreement between Peter and Paul.

Discussion Questions:

  • We could spend—and people have spent—an enormous amount of time trying to understand and detail Paul’s various missionary journeys and the development of the early Christian church. Undoubtedly, we have some of it correct and some of it totally wrong. What do we make of this account of Peter and Paul, their relationship, and their movements that is so very different from what Paul describes himself? What are the overarching themes and principles that we might draw out of such complex stories and narratives?
  • What might have motivated the author of Luke-Acts to present a cohesive-looking vision of the early church?
  • Acts presents a communal picture of the early church, in which every shares what they have and gives large sums of money (even selling off property) to support the mission. What do we make of this?

Podcast:

New Life, New Hope

We are talking about the new church and what the followers of Christ were going through after his death. It’s interesting to take a look at bodily resurrection, ways to understand and interpret Jesus’ various appearances and the words he shares with followers post-resurrection.

General Background:

  • We are coming into the home stretch with our podcast series! These final podcasts address some of the remaining “hot button” questions that we know young people ask and also address (as best we can) the remaining parts of the bible that we have not yet talked about.
  • Since these podcasts cover broader swaths of scripture, we’ll try to focus in on a few passages here and there as representative of the genre we are discussing.

Scripture Readings:

Luke 24:13-35

John 20:19-31

Teaching Points:

  • We want to remain cognizant of the time frame in which these stories were written. The Gospels were written between about 70-110 CE, or 2-3 generations after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
  • Luke, in particular, was probably written around 90 CE. John was the last gospel written, sometime after 100 CE.
  • It’s important to remember that the authors were writing down parts of the historical memory of Jesus, not necessarily eyewitness accounts that were meant to be taken literally.

Discussion Questions:

  • We sometimes gloss over the sadness and despair that Jesus’ followers experienced after his death. But they didn’t know how the story was going to end. How do you think they were feeling? What do you they were talking about?
  • How might this be helpful for us to remember in our own walk of faith?
  • How does remembering the sadness of the community around Jesus help to frame the Emmaus story? What jumps out in this narrative and what is the author trying to tell us about Jesus?
  • Luke commonly tells stories about Jesus in lengthy parables. There has been some assertion that the Walk to Emmaus is, in fact, one of those parables. Does this change our understanding of the story?
  • The idea of a bodily resurrection is one of the theological assertions with which some people struggle. How important is it to believe that Jesus’ physical body was reanimated? Are there other ways to understand resurrection that are equally helpful and valid?
  • The story of Thomas’ encounter with Jesus in the upper room is often preached as a story about doubt/belief. What do we do with our own doubt? How does Jesus respond to it?
  • This might be a neat place to talk about the various Greek words that we translate “faith.” (assensus, fidelitas, fiducia, visio)

Podcast

Losing a Savior and Gaining a Future

During this Holy Week, as we prepare for Easter, nothing is the same as before. We can not prepare to gathering in one building for Easter services, or plan Easter dinner with extended family. But we can still celebrate. It may take digging a little deeper this year to search for the blessings, but they are still there. Please take a few minutes to listen to the podcast and challenge yourself to look at the Easter story in a new way.

Scripture Reading: John 18:28-38

Book recommendation: “The Last Week”

https://www.cokesbury.com/9780060872601-The-Last-Week?cid=6663109565&aid=79443367579&keyword=895352700411%3A%3Apla-895352700411&kid=895352700411&gclid=Cj0KCQjwybD0BRDyARIsACyS8msfCg2i0srr7yhAf-jUzfNdtZjUomZuT2J1iSjqoIkwHzTYehMbj6IaAhLlEALw_wcB

Discussion Questions:

  • Theologians assert that this exchange between Jesus and Pilate is a profound statement about non-violence. (It helps to know that other men claimed to be the Messiah and usually tried to prove it through efforts to overthrow the Roman government through violence.) What do you think?
  • Much ink has been spilled over verse 38, in which Pilate asks, “What is truth?” What do you imagine he was thinking when he asked that question?
  • The story of Good Friday raises some tough questions for us as Christians.
    • Do you believe that it was impossible for God to forgive humanity without the death of a sinless person? Why might that story have made sense to Jewish communities? Is it harder for us to understand now?
    • What is atonement theology? Is that the only way to understand Jesus’ death and resurrection?
  • The Easter story is central to the Christian faith, and it is not uncommon for Christians to assert that belief in a bodily resurrection is “the” non-negotiable element of being Christian. At the same time, many young people wrestle with the idea of a physical, bodily resurrection from the dead. What do you think about it?
  • Are there other ways of understanding resurrection that might be equally valid?

Podcast:

Everything Happens for a reason, or does it?

Judas was the one who betrayed Jesus to the Jewish leaders. He had a key role in the story of the arrest and eventual crucifixion of Christ. Was Judas a pawn in this event? Was it free will or predestination? What if he had made a different choice? We dive into these questions and more in this podcast.

Scripture Readings: John 13:21-30 and 17:6-19 (focus v12)

Discussion Questions:

  • Do you think everything happens for a reason? What situation could arise where this idea may be damaging to a person?
  • How do we answer that same question from the framework of our faith?
  • In the gospels, there is some suggestion that Judas was “used” in order to accomplish a greater purpose. What is your reaction to that?
  • Do you think God uses people to accomplish certain purposes?
  • How do we understand the relationship between free will and God’s will?
  • Can you think of other stories in the Bible in which it seems that people do/don’t have free will?
  • How does this help/change your perspective on your own life?
  • Or in your life decisions?

Podcast:

Sheep & Goats: Heaven, Hell, Judgement

We spend a lot of time as humans wondering and talking about afterlife. There have been movies and books created to offer renditions of what things may be like after our time on earth is done. But what does the Bible say? What do you think? Take some time to listen to the podcast and read some scripture, and see what conclusions you draw.

Scripture Readings: Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 16:19-31

Discussion Questions:

  • The afterlife is a matter that concerns and interests Christians and, frankly, most people in general. Why do we suppose that is? How important is the idea of the afterlife to people’s understanding of Christianity?
  • What does the passage from Matthew seem to suggest about the afterlife? Is that Jesus’ central concern?
  • There are many images of hell, most of them from literature and other non-biblical sources. Regardless of how we envision it, what do we do with the idea of eternal punishment? How does that square with God’s character?
  • Similarly, most visual renderings of heaven come from non-biblical sources, and scripture does not paint a single, uniform picture of heaven. What are some of the ways that people define and understand heaven?
  • Is it possible that, through God’s grace, everyone will ultimately end up in heaven? Why or why not?
  • The parable of Luke paints a picture of the afterlife in which there is clearly a positive place (with Abraham), a negative place (Hades), and interaction between those realms and the mortal world. Is this meant to be taken literally? Does the author of Luke share Matthew’s view on how these outcomes will be determined?
  • Does this parable from Luke suggest anything surprising about who will receive blessing and who will receive condemnation and for what reason?

Podcast:

Diving into the Gospels

We will spend the next couple of weeks looking at the gospels and the beginning of the New Testament or Christian Testament.

General Background:

  • Over the next several weeks, we’ll be looking at the gospels and the life/ministry of Jesus. It is important to understand that these are not the earliest or most raw accounts we have of Jesus’ life. In fact, Paul was our earliest New Testament writer and the most likely person to have actually met Jesus.
    • The gospels appear first because of their narrative structure, and they were given priority as the most thorough accounts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
    • They are not in chronological order themselves. Mark was the earliest gospel, probably written sometime around 66-70 CE. Matthew and Luke were written somewhat later and almost certainly had the gospel of Mark available to them as they were writing their accounts (thus the many similarities and overlapping stories). The gospel of John was the last to be written, roughly around the turn of the first century and has relatively little in common with the other three in terms of content.
    • Matthew, Mark and Luke are the Synoptic gospels, each giving narrative account (“synopsis”) of Jesus’ life. John is quite different and does not take the same narrative approach.
  • It’s important to understand that no one was taking notes or making recordings as Jesus taught, healed, and traveled among the people. In that day, it was common for stories to be passed down by oral tradition and the stories of Jesus were no exception. Bear in mind that the literacy rate at this time in history was roughly zero, and everyday folks did not have access to paper, writing utensils or books. The bibles (Old Testament) in existence at that time would have been incomplete, meticulously copied on scrolls, and guarded carefully at the temple or synagogue to be read by an educated religious teacher.
  • All of the gospel accounts have come to scholars in fragments. We do not have a single, complete version of any of the gospels. Rather, fragments have been found over many years that have enabled scholars to piece together their best possible effort at a complete rendering of each book. There are many textual variants and differences between the various fragments, so biblical scholars do their very best to sort out copy errors (we can explain this) and determine which variations date to the earliest possible manuscript of each text.

General Talking Point(s):

  • Each gospel has a particular author, context, target audience and intent. Each gospel tells the story of Jesus a little differently, with a unique voice and with special things the author wishes us to understand about Jesus.
  • Often, it’s a waste of our energy to get very hung up on particular words or phrases because many have been subject to translation decisions and may even be one of several textual variants. Instead, we are wise to look at the “big picture” that each gospel paints about Jesus and to read each story for its “more-than-literal” meaning.

Podcast 16 – Birth Narratives & the Epiphany

Scripture Readings: Luke 2:1-20 & Matthew 1:18-2:12

Teaching Points:

  • Only two of the gospels (Matthew and Luke) contain a birth narrative.
  • We tend to roll these two stories into one rather implausible narrative for our Christmas pageants and nativities, but we lose much of the significance of each story by doing so. Matthew is all about honor and establishing Jesus as the new Moses/king of the Jews. Luke wants us to understand that Jesus is humble and is here for the humble, telling us a story in which shepherds are the first recipients of the good news.
  • These two gospels each contain a genealogy of Jesus, and they do not agree with each other. These genealogies are also part of the story, meant to establish Jesus’ lineage and tell readers something about his importance and place in history. They do not need to be understood literally or subjected to vain attempts to make them agree.
  • On Epiphany (often observed on the first Sunday in January), we essentially tell Matthew’s version of the story, in which wise persons from the East see a star in the sky and follow it to Jesus, bringing expensive gifts to honor him. These wise men travel right past King Herod (the real king at that time) to seek out Jesus, a story meant to establish Jesus as the king the people actually needed.
  • There are a number of elements of the birth narratives that are miraculous in nature, and some of these things have become stumbling blocks for contemporary readers. A good example is the notion of the virgin birth. In the interest of allowing folks to be fully informed, we must acknowledge that many powerful leaders at this time had virgin births attributed to them. It was written into the stories of kings and powerful people to establish their “special-ness” and give them an almost supernatural importance. We have to wrestle with whether the idea of the immaculate conception of Jesus was literally true or was a story told after his lifetime to establish his “special-ness” and tremendous importance to the people.
  • There are other elements of the birth narrative of Jesus that are questionable in their historicity. Though good records were kept at the time, there is no evidence that a census took place like the one described in Luke. It may have simply been a way to explain how Jesus could have been born in Bethlehem instead of his hometown of Nazareth. There is no evidence that King Herod actually killed all the young boys under a certain age, an event that would undoubtedly have been recorded. In all likelihood, King Herod was unaware of Jesus’ birth. The story serves as a way for Matthew to tell us that Jesus had come to establish God’s kingdom in direct opposition to the kings and kingdoms of this world.

Discussion Questions:

  • Why have people combined all of the gospel material and attempted to make a single narrative about Jesus’ birth and early life? What do we lose by reading the stories this way?
  • If we take a look at Luke’s birth narrative, what does the author really want us to understand about Jesus? What about the author of Matthew? Are there truths that really hit home if we read each story on its own?
  • We just celebrated Epiphany, which means to “reveal,” and is the day we tell the story of the wise men. What are some of the truths Matthew wishes to convey with this story? What are some of the perceptions about the wise men that we have come to believe that are not in the gospels?
  • How does it feel to hear that some of the elements of our Christmas stories may not be literally (or factually) true? Does that really matter in terms of what we can learn about Jesus?
  • Why do you suppose Mark and John did not include birth narratives? Instead of supposing that they just forgot or didn’t care, what does the omission tell us about their understanding of Jesus?

Podcast: