Tag Archives: Obedience

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 3 (Cont)

Despite a number of scholars suggesting that Zadok is the “faithful priest” (2:35) who will replace Eli, the author or editors of 1 Samuel have placed the call of Samuel immediately after this prophecy. This shows that in the present narrative at least, Samuel is seen as the successor of Eli and his sons, in terms of national leadership if not as high priest. Once more, as Evans suggests (p. 39), the story highlights “the power of God and his empowering of the powerless: The inexperienced youth, the decrepit priest and the barren woman are all presented as significant tools in the outworking of God’s purposes.”

In her exposition of this chapter, Francesca Aran Murphy meditates on the idea of calling or vocation: “a vocation is not a project I make for myself, but a call to me, from someone else, to which I hear and respond. Vocation results from calling” (27). Samuel begins to be the person God intends him to be only because he hears God’s call and responds obediently to it.

Murphy insists that the story of Samuel indicates the importance of the individual in the making of history. This runs counter to much social-scientific philosophy which would lodge the rationale for historic change in mass movements, social dynamics and environmental features. Murphy demurs: “it is characters, not conditions and contexts, that make history” (28). This, perhaps, is a “both-and” question. The sixteenth-century Reformations were no doubt assisted because of the social, political, religious, and economic factors in play at the time, but whether they would have occurred without the catalytic character of Martin Luther is indeed questionable. History, in this sense, is not inevitable, but “the one God guides history by calling out unique actors to stage a providential history” (28). While the study of such historical factors is not unimportant, biography is more so.

Most ancient New Eastern cultures created national records and lists of their kings with their purported achievements. Israel surpassed them in history writing and created, in Regum [i.e. the books of Samuel and Kings], the first real long-range historical work because it grasped more deeply than these collectivist cultures the principle that “men are free and responsible moral agents is the fundamental principle of historical thinking: no free will, no history—no history in our sense of history” (28, citing John Lukacs, Historical Consciousness, 252, original emphasis).

But Murphy goes further: God does not simply call individuals, he creates them by his call. God’s call separates the one called from the collectives to which they belong (in Samuel’s case, family and tribe) into a direct relationship with himself. The divine call constitutes the moral individual as they respond in obedience to that call, answering God and becoming a responsible participant in what God is doing. Such persons not only act in history, but in partnership with God they become co-creators of it (29).

God’s call separates a person his or her culture, and this break with the internal social dynamic of a culture gives them the spiritual wherewithal to found a genuine community, spreading from and embedded in the work or task that is named in the divine call. Such characters are made individuals in order to give their lives to their community (30).

The divine call is not to privilege and status but to service. Samuel is to serve the word which has been addressed to him, and this is neither easy nor comfortable. His call is not to lead “his best life now,” but to hear the word of God and declare it, in spite of his discomfort in doing so. He must announce judgement to Eli, and later to Saul. He would mourn over his task, yet he proved faithful in its execution.

God’s call is the foundation of personal identity and mission. Our identity is not self-grounded, not established in anything within ourselves, but is a gift received when the personal God calls us by name to bind him to himself. In this call is given a task or a mission issuing in a life of self-dispossession that a community might be founded and gathered, which in turn will hear the divine voice and call. Here the call of Samuel becomes our call, and his story ours. Will we hear as he heard, and respond as he did?

The boy-priest in his little ephod became a prophet declaring the message of God, and if not a king, still a national leader and king-maker, a precursor of kings, the last and greatest of the judges, though still an isolated and lonely figure. As such, “Samuel is a living analogy to the prophet, priest, and king that Christ will be in the fullest sense. Of none of Israel’s kings can it be said with historical plausibility that he was prophet, priest, and king. It can credibly be said of only Samuel” (Murphy, 18).

Reading Karl Barth

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics IV/4:31-40, Baptism with the Holy Spirit.

Karl Barth brings his meditation on “Baptism with the Holy Spirit” to a conclusion with a summation in five points of what he means by this term, including a discussion of the form of Christian life which issues from this work of God, as is appropriate in a discussion of ‘the command of God the Reconciler.’

First, Barth reiterates that the beginning of Christian life is the ‘direct self-attestation and self-impartation of the living Jesus Christ’ in the work of the Holy Spirit. He alone is the author and finisher of Christian faith. Jesus Christ himself is the divine change which occurs in a person’s life and by which they become a Christian. Barth’s emphasis here is to preclude the idea that the Christian life results on account of the mediation of the Christian community, or even the Scripture. Jesus Christ may use these means as an instrument of his Word, but his call to a person is direct and immediate. This is a person’s Baptism with the Holy Spirit, whereby Jesus Christ imparts ‘Himself as at once the Guarantor of God’s faithfulness to him and of his own faithfulness to God’ (33).

Second, this divine work whereby Jesus Christ gives himself to specific persons in the work of the Holy is the form of grace in which God actually reconciles the world to himself. ‘Baptism with the Holy Spirit is effective, causative, even creative action on man and in man. It is, indeed, divinely effective, divinely causative, divinely creative’ (34). That is, it is not the human response or the ecclesial work of water baptism which is the means of this grace, but the direct work of Jesus Christ as he baptises with the Holy Spirit. By this grace a person is changed ‘truly and totally,’ and is liberated for their own decision of faithfulness in correspondence to the faithfulness shown them by God. This divine change is so transformative the person can and will never forget it (35).

Third, this ‘omnipotently penetrating and endowing’ grace demands the response of gratitude, for this grace not only liberates the person for a new obedience but claims them for this obedience to their new Lord and Master whom they have now acquired. The grace that forgives and frees also commands (35).

The problem of ethics is thus raised for him, or more exactly, the problem of the ethos corresponding to it, of the response of his own being, action and conduct. … He has to take up a position in relation to this, the only position in relation to this, the only position which can be taken, but a position taken in freedom. It is not that God’s act on and in man makes of him a cog set in motion thereby. The free God does not act thus with man. On the contrary, what the free God in His omnipotence wills and fashions in Jesus Christ in the work of the Holy Ghost is the free man who determines himself under this pre-determination by God, the obedience of his heart and conscience and will and independent action. Here man is taken seriously and finds that he is taken seriously, as the creature which is different from God, which is for all its dependence autonomous before Him, which is of age. Here he is empowered for his own act, and invited, commanded and encouraged to perform it (35).

The human person is set in an immediacy of relation with their God from whose direct command they cannot escape. They have been snatched from the power of sin and death, liberated from their own impotence, and freed from their assumed autonomy whereby they were supposedly ‘free’ alongside God; God has ‘beset them behind and before’ (cf. Psalm 139:5).

Fourth, the beginning of Christian life is the beginning of a person’s life in a distinctive ‘fellow-humanity.’ That is, the Baptism with the Holy Spirit sets a person in the Christian community where they become the companion and fellow of others who themselves are likewise bound to God and so to one another. ‘He ceases to be a self-enclosed man, and there is actualised his relationship to all those to whom Jesus Christ has also attested and imparted himself as Lord and Brother. … He is redeemed from all isolation and also from all contingent or transient attachments to others, and incorporated in the communion of saints (37). The Baptism with the Holy Spirit is not identical with a person’s entry and reception into the Christian community, but it will lead to this. Further, in this community the person will receive their own special spiritual power and their own special task in the total life and ministry of the community (38). These spiritual gifts can never be rigidly defined or limited to institutional offices:

The criterion of the authenticity of the discharge of all institutional office in the Church is always and everywhere the question whether the one who serves in this or that office is a recipient and bearer of the charisma indispensable to his work, and first and finally whether he is a recipient and bearer of the love which is above all spiritual gifts. At no time, then, in the life and ministry of the community, in the fulfilment of Christian fellow-humanity, can one dispense with the petition: Veni Creator Spiritus. Always and everywhere this must be prayed afresh.

Finally, the Baptism with the Holy Spirit is only the beginning of the Christian life, a beginning which must be ever-renewed in its always fresh continuation. Just as the seasons are always renewed, so the fruit-bearing Christian life is ever renewed, and so requires ever-new sowing and reaping, cultivation and pruning, a daily penitence and striving for those new possibilities which lie ahead (39). The whole of the Christian life is one long Advent-season, a life of ‘waiting and hastening’ (2 Peter 3:12) toward the ultimate kingdom, in prayer and eucharist, caught up in the movement of God: ‘the power of the life to come is the power of his life in this world’ (40).

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:22

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:22
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.

James continues his instruction from the previous verse where he exhorted his listeners to “receive with meekness the implanted word.” Not only is his community to open themselves up to the word of God, but they are to be careful to “do” the word.

This is an idea with a long history in the Jewish tradition. When Israel came out of Egypt they were thirsty in the wilderness after days without water. When they came to the spring of Marah, they could not drink the water because it was bitter. In desperation Moses cried out to the Lord who showed him a log or a tree which Moses threw into the spring with the result that “the water became sweet” (Exodus 15:22-25a).

There the Lord made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested them, saying, “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, your healer” (vv. 25b-26).

In this story the Lord uses the Israelites’ thirst and experience at Marah as an object lesson that they should listen to and obey God’s voice. The following statement has a doubled emphasis on listening and doing, giving ear and keeping all the Lord’s commandments, together with the promise that such faithfulness will result in divine blessing. This pattern of doing God’s words is repeated in the covenant ceremony in Exodus 19:4-8 and 24:1-8, and in the descriptions of covenant blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 28:1-2, 15 (see also: Deuteronomy 29:29; 31:12; Joshua 1:7-8; 23:6; 2 Kings 17:34, 37; cf. Romans 2:13: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.”). Scot McKnight (147-148) suggests that since Torah and “do” (‘asah) appear together so often in the Hebrew Bible, we ought to see in James’ instruction a distinctively Christian form of Torah observance.

More directly, the call to do the word echoes Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:21-27 and Luke 6:46-49 (see also Luke 11:27-28; John 8:31-32). Jesus’ parable of the builder distinguishes between those who simply hear his words without doing them, and those who hear and do his words. The difference between the builders is only finally observed when the storm arises and the one who has done what Jesus says stands firm.

Thus James instructs his community to “Be doers of the word and not merely hearers” (Ginesthe de poiētai logou kai mē monon akroatai). Although most English versions translate the particle de as “but,” it may be better to read it as “and,” thus emphasising the continuation of thought of this verse with what James has just said in verse 21 about receiving the word. The imperative ginesthe may be understood in the sense of “become” doers or “continue being” doers of the word. If James’ exhortation in verses 19-21 is directed to a divided community riven with strife and malice, it may be better to read the first sense. Poiētai usually means to make, construct or compose something, but here is likely a Semitism based in the tradition of “doing the Law” (so Vlachos, 58).

What, precisely, does it mean to “do the word”? Initially it simply means to enact it, apply it and obey what it says. This is more easily understood when a direct command is in view. Much of Scripture, however, does not take the form of command, and so a broader interpretation of “do” is appropriate. The community of God’s people is to inculcate the vision and ethos of Scripture, obey the specific commands of Scripture, embody the values of Scripture, and take its place in the ongoing narrative of Scripture.

It may be, however, that James has an even sharper perspective. Verse 18 indicates that the community has been brought forth by the “word of truth,” that is, the gospel, and it may be that James intends that his hearers be doers of this word specifically. Davids suggests that it was a simple transition in the early church from thinking in terms of “doing the Law” to “doing the Word,” especially when Jesus’ teaching was understood as a new kind of law. Thus for Davids, James is calling the community to obey the gospel, which primarily has to do with Jesus’ ethical teaching (96; cf. Matthew 7:24 “the one who hears these words of mine”).

Those who merely hear the word without doing it “deceive themselves” (paralogizomenoi heautous): their faith is not authentic, but pretense, or at least, as yet immature and not fully formed. Such people may believe they are Christians, and so part of the eschatological community of God’s people, but in James’ view, they are mistaken, or more strongly, self-deceived. They are presuming on God. That the self-deception has to do with eschatological salvation seems likely given the call to repentance in verse 21. They have not actually received the saving word or carried repentance through to its conclusion. They are like Jesus’ builder who builds on the sand and so whose house collapses when the storm of judgement is unleashed. For James, this teaching must be taken with utmost seriousness: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

In this text, then, we have a foreshadowing of the theme that James will develop more fully in 2:14-26, that is, faith without works is dead. James has already acknowledged that his listeners have been “born again” through the gospel, but also allows no place for complacence or presumption. True faith is active, issuing in a life of persevering obedience to the will of God, resulting in the realisation of “the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him” (v. 12).