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Bible Study for the tenth week of the Covid 19 church building closure | Barn Church Kew

Parishes of St Philips and All Saints Kew with St Luke’s Kew

Where all God’s Children are Welcome

Section 1:  Isaiah 40: 12-17, 27-end

Prayer:  God of love, you speak to us in so many different ways.  Open our hearts to the wisdom of your word, that we may understand your truths, and walk in your paths.  Amen.

Read the passage through twice:

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand,
    or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens?
Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket,
    or weighed the mountains on the scales
    and the hills in a balance?
13 Who can fathom the Spirit of the Lord,
    or instruct the Lord as his counselor?
14 Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten him,
    and who taught him the right way?
Who was it that taught him knowledge,
    or showed him the path of understanding?

15 Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket;
    they are regarded as dust on the scales;
    he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust.
16 Lebanon is not sufficient for altar fires,
    nor its animals enough for burnt offerings.
17 Before him all the nations are as nothing;
    they are regarded by him as worthless
    and less than nothing.

27Why do you complain, Jacob?
    Why do you say, Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord;
    my cause is disregarded by my God”?
28 Do you not know?
    Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
    and his understanding no one can fathom.
29 He gives strength to the weary
    and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
    and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.

Background

              This magnificent passage comes at what most commentators believe to be the opening section of a new writer.  There are at least 4 potential authors of the book we now call “Isaiah”, and its composition probably spanned over a century of experience.  Chapters 40-55 are generally agreed to have been written during the exile in Babylon, and are an encouragement to the Jewish people to broaden their understanding of their God.  During the late 7th century BC when this was probably written, most tribal gods were believed to operate only on behalf of their people and within their own borders.  In exile, this belief has to be challenged, or the only hope for the people of Israel is to return to their own land – a decision over which they have no control, as they are slaves of the Babylonian Empire.  The writer of these chapters sets out a vision of the God of Israel as the only God, the God of the universe, who is universally present with his people and with every people across the whole world.  He achieves this task in some of the finest poetry ever to be produced in the Hebrew language.

Some questions

  • Who is being addressed in this first verse?
  • What answer is expected to these five questions?
  • Jewish poetry works in balanced phrases, with the emphasis coming on the second half of the verse eg. v13 “Who can fathom the Spirit of the Lord // or instruct the Lord as his counselor?” – ie. it is one thing to work out God’s ways, but quite another to give him any advice.  However, the first line of our passage has three lines balancing two in the opening half.  Why?  What is achieved by this?
  • This opening verse lays out the foundation of the argument that is to come in the remaining verses – God is beyond us, but he cares for us.  Is the writer simply appealing to his readers’ emotions, or is he trying to convey something greater than that?  If so, what?
  • The next few verses pile up impossible images of the created order influencing God.  This both distances the reader from God, yet at the same time it is intended to build up the reader’s awareness of the greatness of their God.  Does it work?
  • Lebanon was renowned for its forests at this time, and for the abundant herds of cattle and sheep that could be raised there, yet they would not provide sufficient offerings to appease this mighty God.   This is daunting enough, but it is taken even further in the next verse: “Before him all the nations are as nothing // they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing.”  Is this becoming a little scary?  Or off-putting?  Do we want our God to think in this way?  Is it even true?
  • The verses that are left out drum home this message – God is greater and stronger and more powerful than anything else on earth – humanity is compared to grasshoppers in God’s sight. 
  • The writer then turns to the complaints of Israel – complaints of a captive people, who believe that their God has abandoned them and cannot be found, as they are outside their own territory, and their temple in Jerusalem has been utterly destroyed.  Are those complaints justified?  Is it reasonable for such sentiments to be expressed by an exiled and enslaved people?
  • The answer that God gives (for that is what the prophet wants us to believe – he is writing down the very word of God) is magnificent.  It is quoted in the film Chariots of Fire, when the athlete who refuses to race on a Sunday reads this passage in church, which lends it a special resonance.  God never tires, God never sleeps, God is on the side of the weary and the powerless.  God will renew all things and all people.  These lines are intended to be uplifting – do you find them so?
  • In Babylon, the people of Israel had to find a new way of worshipping their God.  They were not allowed to build a temple of their own, and they wouldn’t have wanted to anyway, as the only place for a temple was in Jerusalem.  The writings of Isaiah are part of the movement that inspired two incredibly important movements: synagogue worship, and the formalisation of the Old Testament texts.  The impact of those movements is still with us today.
  • We are not able to worship as we would want to at the moment.  This is not because we have been conquered, but is part of a world-wide attempt to limit the impact of Covid 19, and churches must play their part in this effort to preserve life and to celebrate mutual care.  This passage from Isaiah could play an important part in our current efforts to worship in new ways, and to be encouraged amidst the restrictions of lockdown.  This text calls us to re-examine our understanding of God and to increase the limits of his goodness.  It also calls us to hold on to the fact that God will always watch over us and support us in our daily lives and struggles.  This text also rallies us when we cannot meet together in a sacred space by making all space sacred, even the virtual space of the internet.
  • List the encouragements to faith and perseverance that are contained in these verses. 
  • How have these verses expanded your understanding of the God of the universe?
  • Is it still possible for this great God of the universe to be interested in and care for me?
  • How does this text relate to Trinity Sunday?

Read the passage through again, out loud if possible

Review

What has this passage taught you about

  • God?
  • Jesus Christ?
  • The Church?
  • Our current situation?

Prayer:  Loving God, creator of all and lover of each individual.  Fill our hearts with the knowledge of your love, and keep us ever filled with the hope that you alone can give.  Amen.

Section 2:  2 Corinthians 13: 11-end

Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.  Greet one another with a holy kiss. All God’s people here send their greetings.  May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

Prayer.  God of all grace and mercy, open our hearts as we read your word.  Help us by your Holy Spirit to see you as you are, and to welcome you into our lives.  Amen.

Read the passage through twice:

Background

This short passage is incredibly important for today’s subject: Trinity Sunday.  It is only the second time in all the New Testament that the Trinity is so clearly evoked, and historically it was written before Matthew 28.  It is also the summation of arguments and counter-arguments about all that was wrong in the church at Corinth that Paul had addressed in his first letter – marriage problems, squabbles over the gifts of the Holy Spirit, bad practice at the Sunday night eucharists, misunderstandings about life after death – the list is endless.  Frequently at the end of his letters, Paul grabs the pen from his amenuensis and scribbles the farewell section – this is probably the case here.  It is therefore a highly personal and heart-felt piece of writing and deserves careful scrutiny.

Some questions

  • Paul is incredibly upbeat.  How does he manage it?  What inspires his instruction to rejoice?
  • What on earth does “Strive for full restoration” mean?  What or who needs restoring?  This is addressed to a congregation which is meeting in someone’s house, so it has nothing to do with buildings.
  • Restoring from what?  Restoring to what?
  • Paul obviously believes that this can happen, but there is urgency in his words.  Why?
  • Is it possible, within a church congregation, to agree with one another?  Or does “be of one mind” actually mean something a bit more nuanced?
  • Are we “of one mind”?  If not, why not, and should we be?  What might we disagree on?
  • If this congregation is instructed to “live in peace”, what does that suggest about the current state of affairs?  How can Paul’s instructions be enacted, if there is discord and disagreement?
  • Is the God of love and peace not always with us?  It could appear contingent on restoration, unity and “living in peace”
  • Why the encouragement to greet each other with not just any old kiss but with a holy kiss?  What is the difference?  (nb. In Graeco-Roman culture at the time, only immediate family members kissed each other in public.) If this Christian greeting is holy, what does it say about the Christian family? 
  • How radical is this teaching?
  • Should we follow Paul’s exhortation today?  We have replaced it with the Peace in our liturgy – is that enough?  Does it make the same statement as Paul’s idea of the “holy kiss”?  If not, how could it?  If that cannot be replicated today, how can we make as strong a statement as Paul wishes?
  • “All the saints greet you” – Paul speaks on behalf of many – is he justified? 
  • Do we ever send greetings to other groups of Christians?  Should we?  If so, how? And to what purpose?
  • The last sentence has passed into liturgical usage, and is commonly known simply as “The Grace”.  It has a beautiful simplicity about it while being incredibly complex.
  • Why are these three attributes applied to the three different members of the Trinity?  Why “grace” to Jesus, “love” to God and “fellowship” to the Holy Spirit?  Could these be used interchangeably?  If not, what does that say about trinity?  If they can, what does that say about trinity?
  • Grace is best defined by the following acrostic
    • God’s
    • Riches
    • At
    • Christ’s
    • Expense
  • Grace in the Christian context is about undeserved favour.  We are not worthy of God and of his love.  God did not have to do anything about our sinfulness and unfaithfulness to his laws.  But God did deal with our sin, God did reveal himself in the person of Jesus Christ – we are the recipients of grace, chiefly through the person of Christ.
  • Divine love is creative, powerful, biased to the poor – do we believe that?  Do we think of those three things when we read these words?  Just how big is your concept of God’s love?  Can it get any bigger?  Should it?
  • What does “fellowship” really mean?  We use it in many ways – academically it can define a particular sort of university teaching role, BAFTA always hands out a “fellowship” at its annual awards ceremony.  Christians use it about coffee after church or as part of the value of shared social events.  It is so much more than all of those.
  • The Holy Spirit dwells within us through our baptism, through the indwelling love of God, through communion and through reading God’s word – to name just a few.  Are we conscious of that fellowship with us, at all times?  If not, why not?  If you are aware of that fellowship, what does it feel like?
  • How easy would it be to share these ideas with others?  Do we have an essentially personal response to God?  Yet the whole thrust of this farewell is that everything of God should be experienced collectively.
  • What does this text teach us about the Trinity?  Anything at all?  Is it helpful in our understanding of God?
  • We live in altered times.  We cannot greet each other with a holy kiss, and probably won’t be allowed to for some time to come.  How can we share the peace of the Holy Trinity in these days of lockdown?

Read the passage through again, out loud if possible

Review

What has this passage taught you about

  • God?
  • Jesus Christ?
  • The Church?
  • Our current situation?

Prayer:  Blessed trinity of love, fill our hearts and minds with the knowledge of your continued presence with us and in us, that we may live peace-filled lives and see you in everyone we encounter.  Amen

Section 3: Matthew 28: 16-20

Prayer:  Loving God, open our hearts to your word.  Help us to read, to question and to understand all that you are saying to us.  Amen.

Read the passage through twice:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Background

              Matthew’s account of the resurrection is very brief, just 20 verses.  It opens with the women going to the tomb, only to find it open, and an angel telling them that Jesus has risen.  They are to go and tell the disciples, and on the way they meet the risen Jesus.  While they cling on to him, he asks them to tell the disciples to go to Galilee, where they will meet him.

Some questions

  • There are many mountains in Matthew’s Gospel – the Sermon on the Mount, the Transfiguration,  the Mount of Olives and now this one.  Why?
  • This is a very different story from the version in Mark, Luke and John.  Why?  Is it possible to reconcile the differences?  Is it necessary to reconcile those differences?
  • “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”  The word translated “doubted” here can be rendered as “hesitated” – does that work better?
  • How might the disciples be feeling at this moment?
  • Jesus’s words are not what you would expect in this context.  There is no explanation of resurrection, no preamble about building the Church, just a statement about Jesus’s new authority and a command to make disciples of all nations.  Why?
  • Who has given Christ “all authority”?  and why?  What is he going to do with it?
  • If Christ has been given “all authority”, why does he then give the disciples this task?  The one does not necessarily follow from the other, it is not a natural flow.  The “therefore” seems a little obscure.  What is really going on here?
  • The disciples had already been out preaching the Kingdom of God during the time that Jesus was with them.  What is different about this commission?
  • The formula “baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” would appear to be a well known one.  What does this mean for our understanding of this passage?
  • We use this formula at baptism today, with the tri-fold application of water.  Does this make the person being baptised a disciple?
  • The 11 are instructed to make disciples, not Christians.  What is the difference?
  • Do you feel that you are a disciple?
  • What had Jesus commanded his disciples in Matthew’s Gospel?  Is it every parable?  The entirety of the Sermon on the Mount?  All the instructions at the Last Supper?  Is there more?  Is it sufficient for a disciple’s life?
  • Jesus promises to be with his disciples always – how important a promise is this?  Do we fully believe it?
  • How is Jesus always with us?
  • Last week we read about the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts, and Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit on his disciples on that first Easter evening.  Is this Matthew’s version of the gift of the Holy Spirit?  If so, how does it work?
  • What happens next?

Read the passage through again, out loud if possible

Review

What has this passage taught you about

  • God?
  • Jesus Christ?
  • The Church?
  • Our current situation?

Prayer:  Loving God, you give us tasks in your kingdom, and fill us with your Holy Spirit to enable us to carry them through.  Give us such grace that we may persevere in your work, and rejoice always in the comfort of your Holy Spirit.  Amen.