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The Way of Love: Learn

Part of a series on The Way of Love.

By Paul D. Wheatley

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.
Luke 24:44-48, NRSV

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve.
1 Cor. 15:3-5, NRSV

As a priest and pastor, having preached and taught the Scriptures in a large wealthy parish, a diverse pastoral-sized mission, and a family-sized rural congregation, and now as a teacher of the New Testament at a seminary, I celebrate the primacy of place Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has given to the study of Scripture in the Way of Love plan for spiritual formation. I have found a genuine hunger for (and an equally-genuine puzzlement at) the Bible in all of the pastoral and teaching contexts in which I have served. People long to hear the Word of God preached, explained, and made applicable to the challenges of their daily lives. For Bishop Curry to bring an encouragement to learn from the Scriptures to those who embark upon the Way of Love is a development I welcome from the leadership of the Episcopal Church. I hope to see more in years to come.

In Bishop Curry’s video introduction to the series, he charts a simple, approachable course for engaging with Scripture as a foundation stone for spiritual practices for daily life. He begins with a rhetorical question, “Every day, what can I learn from the Word of God through the reading of Scripture, the reading of spiritual materials that help to train up the spirit?” Here, daily Bible reading, approached with a posture of learning from it as the Word of God, guides the reader in this spiritual training. The goal is not a dry scan across the words on the page, but an active encounter with “God’s Word written” that results in training us for the spiritual life according to God’s revelation. Bishop Curry makes this training metaphor more explicit as he encourages the participants “to wrestle and to live with Scripture,” in imagery evoking Jacob’s divine wrestling match in Genesis 32:22-32.

I cannot determine whether Bishop Curry’s reference to Genesis was intentional or not. However, I highlight the resonance of this passage as a way of offering a biblical image that can serve both as a commendation, and a gentle critique, of the emphasis of the Way of Love’s emphasis on “Jesus’ life and teachings” in the Learn practice primer. The story of Jacob’s wrestling match in Genesis 32 is full of word play, hints, and ambiguity as it (for lack of a better word) struggles to covey the transcendence and immanence of God’s presence in this event. The language of this story first conveys that Jacob wrestled with a “man” (Gen. 32:24 NRSV), who Jacob later indicates is a divine being (“God” Gen. 32:30, NRSV, Elohim in Hebrew), following his wrestling partner’s suggestion of such in Genesis 32:28. Elohim, a plural form of the Hebrew term El, can refer to mighty people such as kings and judges, angelic beings, or indeed the God of Israel.

Early Jewish interpretation casts this Elohim as a sort of guardian angel to Esau, Jacob’s brother, who prepares Jacob to be received by Esau in blessing (e.g. Genesis Rabbah 77:3). In early Christian interpretation, some, like Augustine, also understood this divine man as an angel, but pointed to how the encounter functions of a prophecy of Christ (Questions on Genesis, Question 104). John Chrysostom understood him to be a mysterious manifestation of God that prefigures the condescension of God into human flesh at the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. The question of how God could, in the form of this man, encounter Jacob corporeally points to the mystery of the Incarnation Christians celebrate in Jesus Christ, and to the mystery of Israel’s election in Jewish thinking (cf. Genesis Rabbah 77:1-2).

As a teacher of the New Testament, and as a scholar of the gospels, I commend the way in which Bishop Curry poses a clear starting point for reading, focused on “reflect[ing] on Scripture each day, especially on Jesus’ life and teachings.” A Christian approach to the Scriptures must, after all, begin and end with the affirmation that opens the New Testament epistle to the Hebrews, that “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word” (Heb. 1:1-3a, NRSV).

God has spoken definitively in the person of Jesus Christ, the author of Hebrews tells us, and all creation holds together through the sustaining force of “his powerful word”. If we’re going to start reading the Bible anywhere, as Christians, starting with Jesus is a fantastic place — perhaps the best place — to begin.

And yet, to offer my gentle critique: as the story from Genesis 32 demonstrates, and as the epistle to the Hebrews affirms, “Jesus’ life and teachings” are far from the only places where, to quote Bishop Curry’s introductory video, “we actually hear the voice of Jesus.” I assume here that Bishop Curry is gesturing towards a sort of red-letter reading strategy, as the Way of Love materials advocate. If we are to learn how to “wrestle and live with Scripture… in those passages and teachings where we actually hear the voice of Jesus,” we must recognize and accept how God has “spoken to us” both “by a Son” and “in many and various ways by the prophets” (Heb. 1:1-2, NRSV).

Just taking Jesus’ own words as a guide, we might discern that “everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled,” including “that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:44, 46, NRSV). To put it plainly, a red-letter reading strategy should impel the reader beyond the red letters into wrestling with the story of Israel’s election and God’s self-disclosure to Jacob, his grandfather Abraham, and their descendants Moses, David, and the prophets. No Christian reading of Scripture can neglect the two-testament witness of the Law, Prophets, and Writings of Israel’s Scriptures, the Christian Old Testament. To do so brings us not closer to Jesus, who pointed his disciples to these Scriptures, but closer to Marcion, who censured the reading of Moses and the Prophets and ultimately created, through a process of omission, a non-Jewish Jesus who was nothing more than a figment of Marcion’s misunderstanding.

Bishop Curry, of course, is no stranger to this two-Testament Bible, having famously begun his royal wedding sermon on the Way of Love with the Song of Solomon: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is as strong as death, passion fierce as the grave, its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame” (Song 8:6, NRSV). “Old Solomon was right in the Old Testament,” Bishop Curry said as he moved toward his conclusion, “that’s fire” (Sermon transcript available here).

With Jacob in Genesis 32 and the author of Hebrews, I join Bishop Curry in encouraging those who would follow the Way of Love to engage in daily Bible reading. There, in the writings of the Old and New Testaments, we “hear the voice of Jesus,” learn about the God who has offered to us a Jacob-like encounter in the Scriptures where we could say, “I have seen God face to face” (Gen 32:30, NRSV), and that’s fire.

If you’re looking for a starting point, you could begin with the gospel readings from the Daily Office and add the readings from the epistles and Old Testament once the habit has taken root. If you want a big-picture overview of the whole Bible, twenty minutes a day in a One Year Bible would yield its fruit many times over in years to come. Try a chronological One Year Bible to see the development of God’s saving acts through history. Whatever you do, start. Once you have done that, keep going. That, after all, was how Jacob finally wrestled his way to the blessing at the end of that dark night.

The Rev. Paul D. Wheatley is instructor of New Testament at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. candidate in Christianity and Judaism in Antiquity at the University of Notre Dame.


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