This text tells how it works: The Christian faith is passed from person to person. That’s how it started with Jesus, and that’s how it’s been for 2,000-plus years.
What was it about Jesus that caused people to believe in him and follow him with no evidence? We don’t know. Some might remember the old radio program “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” The appearance of Jesus was dressed up with music, so that before he spoke you heard violins in the background. Most assuredly that did not really happen. Jesus didn’t need background music to impress people. There was something about him that drew people to him.
Had Philip and Nathanael known him before? Had Philip heard about him from Andrew and Peter, since they lived in the same town? The text doesn’t say. It only says that Philip followed Jesus straightaway, then told Nathanael that “we” had found the one promised in the Old Testament. Was the “we” Philip spoke of other people who were following Jesus? We don’t know.
When Nathanael expressed skepticism about anything good coming out of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, Philip simply says, “Come and see for yourself.” When Jesus tells Nathanael that he saw him already Nathanael is so impressed that he impetuously calls him the “Son of God” and the “King of Israel.”
What was there about Jesus to have this kind of effect on people? The New Testament gives us a slight hint. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew concludes with the observation, “for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes,” a phrase repeated in the other gospels (Matthew 7:29, also Mark 1:22, Luke 4:32,36, John 5:27 and others).
Without doubt there was something about Jesus that drew people to him. When British biblical scholar J.B. Phillips translated the Gospels, he was struck by the personality of Jesus and how he drew others to himself. He concluded that there must have been something extraordinary about his person that affected those with whom he came into contact. He described his own reaction in his 1967 book Ring of Truth, that there must have been something magnetic about Jesus’ personality to have such an immediate effect on people.
Read the Gospels and note the profound effect Jesus has when he meets people: the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28), the blind man at Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26), the Roman centurion (Luke 7:1-10), the woman at the Pharisee’s home (Luke 7:36-50), Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), the woman at the well (John 4), the sick man at the Bethesda pool (John 5:1-9), the thief crucified next to Jesus (Luke 23:40-43), and the centurion at the foot of the cross (Mark 15:39, Luke 23:47) — to name only a few.
People meet Jesus, and they are changed. Whatever their deepest need was, Jesus meets it. Then they tell others what happened.
And that’s how it has worked ever since. One person says to another, “I follow Jesus and invite you to do so too.” Later on as the church grows, parents bring their infant children to Jesus in baptism and then bring them up to follow him.
It’s always person-to-person.
Follow the story throughout the New Testament. An Ethiopian eunuch is puzzled by a passage in the Old Testament, and Philip “proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). Peter went to the household of the Roman centurion Cornelius and told them about Jesus, and “while Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word” (Acts 19:44), which was the breakthrough of the Christian faith to the Gentile world.
The spread of the Christian church across the world is the person-to-person story of the thousands of people who fanned out across the globe to tell the story about Jesus and what Jesus had done for them.
People become Christians because they have seen what the Christian faith has done for those whom they know. The saying passed down from the early years of the church still rings true: “See those Christians, how they love one another.”
I have known only one person who came to faith by reading about a Christian, in this case C.S. Lewis’ account of his own conversion, Surprised by Joy. But that too was person-to-person, merely through the medium of the printed page.
The Old Testament lesson carries the same message — but with a twist. The boy Samuel was “ministering to the Lord” under the priest Eli, probably the equivalent of our youth serving as acolytes. God called him, “Samuel, Samuel,” and the boy naturally assumed it was Eli. When it happened again, Eli realized it was God calling and instructed the boy to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” When Samuel heard God’s call the third time he responded as Eli had instructed, and God told him what message to deliver to Eli.
The pattern in the story is still person-to-person, this time God to Samuel, with Eli as the middleman so to speak, with Samuel then delivering God’s message back to Eli (1 Samuel 3:1-10, 11-20).
Our task as Christians is not to “prove” the truth of the Christian faith, although many scholars have written persuasively of the truth of Christianity. Our task is not even to persuade others to become Christian. Our task is to say, “Come and see.” Philip could have given Nathanael some of his own opinions. He could have said, “This Jesus knows a lot about the Bible.” Or he might have said, “There is something about this man Jesus that draws me to him.” Even when Nathanael expressed skepticism about “anything good coming out of Nazareth,” Philip might have listed some successful people from Nazareth.
But no: Philip simply said, “Come and see,” as if to say, “You don’t need me to advertise for Jesus; come and see for yourself.” Nathaniel came and saw for himself.
That now becomes our task, to tell people, “Come and see.” Come and see what Jesus has done and is doing for you!
The opening chapters of 1 Samuel provide background for the institution of Israel’s monarchy.
After a narrative on the Hannah’s unlikely pregnancy (1 Samuel 1) and her accompanying prayer (1 Samuel 2), 1 Samuel 3 describes the call narrative for the Israelite leader.
The story is familiar to many of us. Eli is aged, both physically and emotionally from the parenting heartaches at the end of 1 Samuel 2. And as the young Samuel ministers under Eli, he hears God’s voice three times. Upon finally realizing through Eli’s direction that this was, indeed, the voice of God, he gives his stunning answer in verse 10, “Speak for your servant is listening.” The word God to Samuel reveals the next phase of God’s activity and in revealing to Samuel, his prophetic credibility is established.
But within this familiar story, sometimes we can miss certain details in our reading. Those details are exegetically significant, as the Bible tends to be laconic.
Both of these phrases do not occur anywhere else in the entire Hebrew Bible. In biblical Hebrew, the descriptor of “rare/precious” is typically reserved for an item like jewelry, the idea of something extremely valuable due to pure lack of supply. Certainly, the preceding chapters reveal an anarchic time in Israel from the wider political chaos of Judges (particularly Judges 17-21) or the activities of Eli’s sons with little word from God.
Eli is already aged in the previous episode. But the statement that his eyes had grown dim ties this passage to a weakened Isaac (Genesis 27:1) and contrasts with the model of Moses who had excellent sight even as he died (Deuteronomy 34:7). Whether the weakened leadership of Eli or the religious debauchery, Eli’s lack of vision reveal a hopeless social state of Israel.
Three times, Samuel responds to a calling. Among those three times, Samuel responds, “Here I am” four times, once to God (1 Samuel 3:4) and three times to Eli (vv. 5, 6, 8). Although Samuel’s obedience and alacrity are admirable, he mistook an ailing Eli for God’s actual voice. The reason is explained that despite Samuel’s anointing, he was still very young in faith. In fact …
The meaning of this phrase is difficult, but consider this sample of biblical characters who similarly did not know the Lord: Pharaoh (Exodus 5:2), the generation after Joshua (Judges 2:2), the sons of Eli, or as the Bible calls them, “scoundrels” (1 Samuel 2:12), Judeans about to be punished through exile (Jeremiah 8:7).
This is not exactly flattering company!
But there is one key word that separates Samuel from this list in that, “Samuel did not yet know the Lord” (1 Samuel 3:7, emphasis mine). I don’t mean to open up the narrative on free will, determination, sovereignty. It is there, but it is theologically tangential to the crux of this passage.
I see two overarching themes emerge within these details of Samuel’s call. First, Samuel learns to forego his own agency in favor of God’s agency.
Interestingly, during the primary call (1 Samuel 3:10), Samuel no longer answers, “Here I am.” Why is that? Is Samuel less confused (definitely)? Is Samuel less panicked (probably)?
Verse 11 affirms Samuel’s deference when God responds, “See, I am about to do something.” Structurally, the passage outlines movement from Samuel’s repeated “Here I am” replies to God’s “See, I am.” When Samuel suppresses his own voice to hear God’s, he gets the spectacular proclamation beginning with the word that, “Will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” God then declares that prophetic fulfillment has finally arrived. Remember, the Word of the Lord had been rare and precious.
Samuel’s eagerness is commendable (“he ran” v.5), but an overzealous human spirit needs to take a backseat to God’s sovereignty (cf. 2 Samuel 7:5). Though we should be slow to judge Samuel, as in those times the Word of God had been rare.
Second, Samuel displays his full humanity. This passage informs our understanding of the rest of the life of Samuel. The Lord was with Samuel, but somehow, this divine appointment does not at all diminish the totality of the human experience. In 1 Samuel 3, Samuel undergoes eagerness, confusion, maturity, growth, realization, knowledge, panic, and affirmation.
Eventually, we see Samuel as a successful prophet (1 Samuel 3:20), military leader (1 Samuel 4), and interceder for the people of Israel when they fail (1 Samuel 15). Towards the end of his life, the corruption of his own sons will ironically mirror Eli’s failure (1 Samuel 8:1-3).
Why does the passage unabashedly display the full humanity within one of Israel’s pivotal prophets? I suspect that this helps us relate to the struggles of our own communities as they walk with God. I suspect that this helps us relate the biblical texts to our own lives.
The word of the Lord is precious. But instead of saying “Here I am,” perhaps we can quietly ask God to “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
The homiletical possibilities for Psalm 139 are numerous and varied, ranging from satisfying to complex to potentially problematic.
My nephew was born on the day I started working on this commentary. When the picture of Mason James arrived, my initial thoughts were, “There you are. What were you doing in there all of these months?” And then I read:
For it was you who formed my inward parts;you knit me together in my mother’s womb (vs. 13).
“How did you go from a hoped-for dream of your parents to flesh and blood, bones, muscles and those long, skinny fingers and those cute ears?” I wondered. Then I read:
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance (vs. 15).
I wanted to shout, “Mason, you are perfect.” Yet this acclamation paled in comparison to his parents’ “You are perfect!” which pales in comparison to God’s “You are PERFECT!”
My hope for this little guy on his first day, his birth day, was that one day he would realize and pray with the psalmist,
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made (vs. 14).
As we all know, context changes how we read biblical texts. Mason’s earlier-than-expected entrance into this world affected the center of gravity of Psalm 139 for me. That might be the case for you too. If there are newborns in your congregation, highlight God’s deep relationship with them from the beginning … and even before that … and from this day forward.
The words of this Psalm are similarly powerful for those of us who are well beyond our days of birth. To recall our own humble beginnings and God’s intimate involvement in that dawning is to bring us to pray with the Psalmist,
O Lord, you have searched me and known me (vs. 1).
While the verses included in the lectionary seem to compel preachers to emphasize the pleasing imagery identified above, the omitted verses cannot be overlooked. Since life’s delights are often peppered with complexities, attending to the “spicier” verses helps the preacher model a way to call a thing what it actually is (Luther’s definition of a theologian of the cross). When preaching on Psalm 139, that means being honest about the complexity of being known.
Some people struggle with a fear of really being known even as they desire to be known. Some go to great lengths not to be known by hiding their true identities even (especially?) from God. It cannot be assumed that verse 7 is received as good news for all.
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? (vs. 7)
Once again, context changes how we view biblical texts.
A colleague reminded me that while this Psalm’s references to “hand” (vss. 5, 10) can be comforting and serve as a guide, they can also weigh heavily. “Being so close to God is as burdensome as it is beautiful.” The Psalmist admits, one cannot flee (vs. 7) from the one for whom darkness does not overwhelm (vs. 11). Why would he flee from something beautiful? For some the thought that God lurks and works even in dark places (in Sheol and in the womb!) might be burdensome.
The complexity of being known is a rich homiletical theme for this Sunday’s epiphany sermon. As the primary preaching text, Psalm 139 could be illustrated by Samuel’s story of being known and sought out by God (“The Lord called Samuel again, a third time.”), and Nathaniel’s story of being known and seen by God (“Nathaniel asked Jesus, ‘Where did you get to know me?’”).
Ultimately, the Psalmist recognizes that when the knower is God, the vulnerability is worth it. The Psalmist resigns to God’s inescapable presence in his life and embraces it by confirming his own identity in light of how God sees him:
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well (vs. 14)
Although Psalm 139 takes a noticeably ugly turn at verse 19, this too cannot be ignored. One possible way to attend to the often-ignored verses at the end of the Psalm is to imagine what it might be like to be so convinced of one’s intimate connection with God that an assault on one’s own identity is an assault on God, and an assault on God’s identity is an assault on oneself. No wonder the Psalmist is passionate. The intimacy between one’s own identity and God’s identity might be prompting Paul’s question: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (I Corinthians 6:19)1
I can imagine a sermon progressing from 1) a simple and pleasing articulation of what it is to be known, to 2) identifying and illustrating the complexities of being known, to 3) proclaiming that the God is a trustworthy and faithful knower, to 4) describing our own identity as the people of God in light of who God is and what God does. Even more, this is a wonderful opportunity for the preacher to describe the hearers’ identity according to how God sees them. “You are fearfully and wonderfully made” might pale in comparison with how God actually sees them, but this glimpse might be just the epiphany that prompts some to embrace it for themselves and to the glory of God.1
1 For a helpful article on imprecatory Psalms, see Joel L. LeMon, “Saying Amen to Violent Psalms: Patterns of Prayer, Belief, and Action in the Psalter” in Soundings in the Theology of Psalms: Perspectives and Methods in Contemporary Scholarship, ed. Rolf A. Jacobson (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 93-109.
In 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, we meet the Paul one either loves or hates.
He gives lessons, stands on solid ground, and provides a clear moral compass. Flee “porneia”, he says. Flee debauchery, pornography, prostitution … Either the command horripilates because of its moralizing tone, or it reassures, because it provides a clear behavior to follow and adopt. Whatever reaction one has, it is important to go back to what Paul says, and particularly, how what he says about prostitution and debauchery functions in his general argument.
A historical topos
In the first century, any respectable Jew would have condemned porneia, namely debauchery, fornication, and prostitution. This was the sin of the Gentiles, precisely what the Jews did not do. In that regard, Paul remains squarely into his tradition, and one would have been hard-pressed to find a Jew who did not condemn porneia. Dale Martin writes,
For many Jews of Paul’s day, porneia could refer to sexual immorality of a number of types; it was used to denote Gentile culture and idolatry in general and, often, prostitution in particular. The condemnation of porneia in Jewish circles was a way of solidifying the boundary between the chosen people and everyone else … porneia was something ‘they’ did.1
Paul maintains this distinction. His Christ-believers cannot engage in a behavior that makes them look like “regular” pagans. They need, as he says in Romans, to be in the world, without belonging to the world (Romans 12: 2). Engaging in fornication would put them on the wrong side of the cosmic battle between the world and God.
An oriented freedom
In contrast, thus, with what the Corinthians seem to have understood, or at least with the manner in which Paul represents what they have understood, Paul strongly affirms that the freedom given to the Christ believers is not absolute freedom: all things are indeed permitted2 to me, but not all things are beneficial.
For Paul, freedom is always oriented freedom; and for the Christ believers, this freedom depends on their lord, Christ. Through their baptism, the Christ believers now belong to Christ. For them the question is no longer what is permitted or not, or what is legal or not. Rather, they have to orient their freedom in order to embody their new life in Christ.
In this new freedom, the body is not bad in itself. Paul is not a dualist who opposes body and soul, or an ascetic who advocates purification. The body continues to play a role in the life lived in the realm of the spirit. It remains part of the Christ believer’s life once he/she is reconciled to God. And in this new life, one cannot at the same time use one’s body for Christ and simultaneously give one’s body over to a prostitute.
Paul’s understanding of sexuality
Paul’s reaction to the situation of a man continuing to see prostitutes even after being reconciled to God tells us several things. As I have mentioned previously, it shows that Paul belonged to Judaism’s discourse about pagan porneia. It also indicates that, at least in Corinth and according to Paul, some Christ believers understood that freedom in Christ meant that one was free to be a Christ believer and visit prostitutes. It also indicates how Paul understood sexuality, and what it meant for him.
For Paul, sexuality engages the person in its entirety. One cannot at the same time belong entirely to Christ and gives oneself over to a prostitute. In sexual union, one becomes part of the other, belongs to the other. It is incompatible for Paul that a man who belongs entirely to Christ, who is a slave of Christ, could also at the same time belong to another human being, in particular a prostitute. It is in a way a problem of allegiance. Either, one gives its allegiance to Christ, or to a prostitute. For Paul, one cannot combine both. As Halvor Moxnes point outs, one cannot overestimate “the importance of the divine presence in the Christian lives for their understanding of identity.”3
A question of identity
According to Moxnes, Paul is here preoccupied with constructing an identity for his male Christ believers. He has no interest in the identity of the women involved. But at the same time, the identity he constructs for the male Corinthians is an identity that challenges their social identity as free Corinthian men.4 Moxnes underlines that the concern for the body central to 1 Corinthians 6 is “not set in the context of concern for ordinary life. In many ways the ordinary life of the body, especially in sexuality, marriage and procreation, was highly problematic”5 for the early Christ believers.
In 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Paul’s argument does not actually “make sense within an ‘ordinary life’ ethics,” especially since in the Graeco-Roman world “prostitution was common and at least partly accepted.”6 When Paul redefines the identity of his male addressees in Corinth, by asking them to renounce their visits to prostitutes, he challenges their status as free men, and invites them to embody another type of identity, the one of slave of Christ. The question thus is not so much about morality than about the type of identity one embraces.7
A possible opening
This appears quite clearly in 1 Corinthians 10:23, an important parallel to 1 Corinthians 6:12. In 1 Corinthians 10:23, Paul writes, “All things are permitted, but not all things are beneficial; all things are permitted, but not all things edify.” The verse that follows invites Paul’s addressee to seek first the good of the “other,” instead of their own good. In this broader appropriation of the saying, Paul reorients the Corinthians on what really matters: the good of the community.
1 Dale B. Martin, The Corinthian Body (New Haven : Yale University Press, 1995), 169.
2 Here I disagree with the NRSV’s translation of exestin by “lawful”. I do not think that Paul is worried with legality (the issue with prostitution is not whether it is legal or not), but he is concerned with what men (and here I do think that Paul is only interested in men’s actions) are permitted to do in regard to their new identity in Christ.
3 Halvor Moxnes, “Asceticism and Christian Identity in Antiquity: A Dialogue with Foucault and Paul”, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 26.1 (2003), 3-29, here 16.
4 Moxnes, “Asceticism and Christian Identity in Antiquity,” 3.
5 Moxnes, “Asceticism and Christian Identity in Antiquity,” 7.
6 Moxnes, “Asceticism and Christian Identity in Antiquity,” 17.
7 See Moxnes, “Asceticism and Christian Identity in Antiquity,” 19.