Faith to Persevere: Acts 14:8-11, 19-23
Teaching Strategy: Have participants talk about how they face doctrinal and practical conflicts that arise when Christians of different faith traditions seek to minister together, such as the prosperity gospel, same sex marriage, gays and lesbians in the pulpit, etc. How do these controversies affect their Christian life and ministry?
Increased – even extreme – polarization in the U.S. has affected not only partisan politics, but also the unity and ministry of Christian churches and denominations. For some believers loyalty to a particular party has become more important than living that is faithful to Christ and consistent with his teaching. Ultimate allegiance to God has been replaced by ultimate and unquestioning allegiance to America as they envision it. With regard to particular issues, such as acceptance of LGBTQ persons and marriage equality, or attitudes about the Middle East, the differences among Christian perspectives are profound and seemingly insurmountable. In these difficult times all Christians are challenged to live in accordance with their understanding of God’s will and at the same time seek the unity that is promised in Christ. We can do so only with God’s help.
- Why I Can No Longer Call Myself an Evangelical Republican; Evangelical Conservatives are Proving their Harshest Critics Right
- What Churches Must Do Right Now to Stop Being Part of the Sexual Harassment Problem; In Alabama, Evangelicals Weigh Good, Evil and Roy Moore
- NCC Opposes U.S. Decision to Declare Jerusalem as Capital of Israel; Why Evangelicals are ‘Ecstatic’ about Trump’s Jerusalem Move
- Current Tax Bills Cannot Be Biblically Defended; What Christian Leaders Are Saying About The Tax Bill
Winter 2017 Theme: Faith in Action
Unifying Principle: Sometimes the good things we do are blocked by an unexpected obstruction, but we pick up and go on anyway. What gives us the strength to keep going? Even though he was stoned and persecuted, Paul’s faith in his message impelled him to continue to proclaim the good news of God.
Faith to Discern: Acts 3:1-12
Teaching Strategy: Discuss how in your church community you discern between true and false teachings. What is the role of faith in this discernment?
The daily news is full of accusations of “fake news.” During the 2016 election, there were many made-up stories posted on social media such as Facebook. Following the election, one presidential advisor described inaccurate information as “alternative facts.” Last week a high level White House official pled guilty to lying to the FBI, a felony which carries the possibility of a prison sentence. There are numerous accounts of the President himself making false statements and changing what he has said from one occasion to another.
In these tumultuous and polarized times, it appears that the importance of facts and the meaning of truth itself are no longer widely shared assumptions. Believers are challenged to ask themselves how they discern between true and false teachings – in the church and in the world. What is the role of faith in this discernment? “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Philippians 4:8 (NRSV)
- Being People of Truth in a World of Fake News
- Lying Has Consequences
- Donald Trump’s “Fake News” Tactics
- Fox News’ Shepard Smith Says ‘It’s A Lie’ To Call Trump-Russia Probe ‘Fake News’
Winter 2017-2018 Theme: Faith in Action
Unifying Principle: Sometimes we are at a loss when unexpected events interfere with our goals. How can we keep our commitments and forge ahead? Empowered by their faith in Jesus, Paul and Barnabas preached and taught about Jesus despite a false prophet’s efforts to deter them.
Faith in Jesus: Acts 3:11-21
Teaching Strategy: Invite participants to share stories of healing they have experienced, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual. Encourage them to reflect on the meaning of what they experienced. What impact did their experience of healing have on their faith – and in what ways did their faith affect their experience?
As we enter into the Advent season, we are aware of the profound brokenness within our world. Lives are lost to opioid addiction. Relationships are disrupted by harassment, discrimination, and violence. Churches are divided by conflicting perspectives. America is polarized by political disagreements. Terrorist attacks continue and the threat of war seems all too real.
We desperately need the healing power of God’s love that comes to us in the infant Jesus and saves us through our faith in the risen Christ. As we wait for Jesus to enter our hearts anew, how can we prepare ourselves to receive his healing power? How can we equip ourselves to be instruments of his healing power in a broken world?
- The Opioid Epidemic: A Crisis Years in the Making
- Sexual Harassment, Then And Now; The Religious Community Is Speaking Out Against Sexual Violence With #ChurchToo
- A diverse group of Christian theologians release a Boston Declaration at the Old South Church to challenge the corruption of Christians in the United States; The Boston Declaration
- Key Takeaways on Americans’ Growing Partisan Divide over Political Values
- Egypt Mosque Attack Leaves at Least 305 Dead in Sinai Peninsula
Winter 2017 Theme: Faith in Action
Unifying Principle: People who are broken want to be made whole. How and where do they find wholeness? Peter proclaimed that faith in Jesus restores people to wholeness.
Remembering the Covenant: 1 Corinthians 11:23-34
Teaching Strategy: Explore your faith tradition’s view and practice of the Lord’s Supper. What roles do promises and remembering play in those views and in how the practice is carried out?
This passage from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians includes the familiar words of institution recited at the beginning of the Lord’s Supper in many churches: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (vs. 23-26).
These words remind us that sharing the Lord’s Supper is the act of a covenant community. Believers are called to remember the covenant promises – both God’s promises to them and the promises they made to God and one another. These are promises about how they will live for God, follow God’s ways, and love one another. Paul chastised the Corinthians who ate the body and drank the cup of the Lord “in an unworthy manner,” and challenged them all to examine themselves before partaking.
What might Paul’s message mean for Christians today? What are the promises we have made in covenant with God through Jesus Christ – about how we will live? What are we called to remember when we come to the Lord’s table? How do we go about examining ourselves so that we partake of the Lord’s Supper in a worthy manner?
- The Matthew 25 Pledge (video)
- A Year into Trump’s Presidency, Christians are Facing a Spiritual Reckoning; Roy Moore and the Sorry State of Evangelical Politics
- A Church Confronts Its Racist Past (video); When Neo-Nazis Called Pastors “Heretics” in Charlottesville; Why I’m Leaving the Southern Baptist Convention
- Two Months After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is Still in Crisis
- Joint Statement on the Rohingya Refugee Crisis
Fall 2017-2108 Theme: Covenant
Unifying Principle: It is often easier to make promises than to keep them. How can we remember to keep the promises we make? Paul exhorted believers to remember these promises through celebrating the Lord’s Supper in a way that affirms the covenant it embodies.
Mediator of the New Covenant: Hebrews 12:14-15, 18-29
Teaching Strategy: Explore current examples that point to humankind’s lack of holiness. Invite participants to share personal experiences – times when they felt awe and fear in encounters with God and times when they felt the saving grace of Christ drawing them close to God.
The scripture lesson describes human encounters with God as terrifying because of God’s pure holiness and awesome power. God is “a consuming fire” (v. 28) that purifies the sin of an unholy people. Yet believers experience God’s grace and forgiveness and are able to draw near to God through Christ who is the mediator of a new covenant.
In what ways does gathering for worship help believers to enter into the presence of our holy, loving God? How is the experience of worship affected by contemporary culture and current events?
- Churches Look to Tighten Security, Even Arm Congregants, After Texas Shooting; Texas Church Is Transformed Into Poignant Memorial For Mass Shooting Victims
- Sing! How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family, and Church; A Deeper Debate over Drums in Church: Native Christians Still Wrestle with How Their Culture Fits Into Their Churches
- Mulling over Soli Gloria Dei on the Reformation’s Anniversary
- Sermon Worship Service for Climate Justice 12 November 2017, Bonn, Germany
Fall 2017 Theme: Covenant
Unifying Principle: Humans desire to experience a power greater than themselves, but do not always realize that drawing near to such needed power can be an awesome prospect. How can people approach such a power without being consumed? The psalmist affirms that God allows humans to approach the Divine; the writer of Hebrews proclaims that Jesus provides the means of boldly approaching the presence of God.
Promise of a New Covenant: Jeremiah 31:27-34
Teaching Strategy: Discuss what motivates and guides participants in living in right relationship with God and others. What roles do external laws/expectations play compared and contrasted with what God has written on their hearts? Encourage participants to reflect on the ways their lives have been changed because God’s law is written on their hearts.
There are numerous conflicts today in which reliance upon written laws stands in contrast to expectations that people will do the “right thing” without rules and regulations. Examples include the ownership and responsible use of guns; discrimination against other based upon religion, race, or sexual orientation; and care for the environment. The debate about stronger gun control or anti-discrimination laws, for example, is often quite heated. How might scripture inform Christians’ response to this controversy? How can God work through Christians to inspire people to live as God intends – whatever the civil law requires (or does not require)?
- Change Our Violent Culture; The Gospel for Gun-Loving Christians
- U.S. Department Says Anti-Bias Law Does Not Protect Gay Workers; Discrimination Against Muslims is Increasing in U.S., Pew Study Finds
Concern about gun violence increased again on Monday, November 6, when 26 people were killed in a Baptist church in Texas. There are no easy solutions, but there can be no doubt that the U.S. must find a way to reduce gun violence and eliminate mass shootings wherever they are occurring. The question is more urgent than ever: How can God work through Christians to inspire people to live as God intends – whatever the civil law requires (or does not require)?
- Texas Shooting Kills 26 at Southern Baptist Church; We Grieve With Sutherland Springs, Call for Sensible Gun Measures;
Fall 2017 Theme: Covenant
Unifying Principle: Try as we might, humans often fail in our relationships. How can we restore broken relationships with others? Jeremiah foresaw a time when God would make a new covenant, writing God’s law on human hearts with the vow to be Israel’s God and to make Israel God’s people.
Faithful God, Unfaithful People: Numbers 25:10-13; 1 Samuel 2:30-36
Teaching Strategy: Compare and contrast people keeping their commitments and failing to keep them, including the reasons they give and the outcomes that result from their faithfulness or lack of it. Discuss the ways in which God’s faithfulness enables us to be faithful in our service to others in God’s name.
The Bible is full of stories about how people have failed to keep God’s covenant and yet God has remained faithful to God’s promises. In this week’s scripture passages, God punished Eli’s children for their misbehavior, but rewarded Phinehas for his faithfulness.
What does it mean to be faithful to commitments in a time of broken promises, public lies, political polarization, and revelations of widespread sexual harassment?” To what values and behaviors are believers – people of the new covenant in Christ – called to be faithful? To whom are they called to be faithful – to God in Jesus Christ or to their country? What happens when faithfulness to Jesus conflicts with loyalty to one’s nation? These are hard, but essential and timely questions.
- Eric Holder: Harvey Weinstein Revelations Must Prompt Culture Shift On Sexual Harassment
- Count the Broken Promises in the GOP Tax Plan
- President Trump has Made 1,318 False or Misleading Claims Over 263 Days
- Polarization Deepens in American Politics; Polarize and Conquer
- The Religious Right Will Rise and Fall with Donald Trump
Fall 2017 Theme: Covenant
Unifying Principle: Some people are more faithful to their commitments than others. How do we respond to those who are faithful to their commitments and to those who are not? God rewarded faithful Phinehas and punished Eli’s unfaithful children, thus proving that God is faithful to the everlasting covenant with God’s people.
God’s Covenant with the Returned Exiles: Nehemiah 9:32-38; 10:28-29
Teaching Strategy: Brainstorm the form and content of a national prayer of repentance for today, with a view toward using the same for class participation on the next National Day of Prayer (U.S., May 3, 2018).
This week’s scripture lesson includes a description of the Israelites’ continued wrongdoing – and their recommitment to following God’s ways because of God’s faithfulness and repeated forgiveness. Noteworthy is the corporate confession of the people and the people’s leaders, the description of how we have sinned, rather than confessions by individuals of their personal sins. “You have been just in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly; our kings, our officials, our priests, and our ancestors have not kept your law or heeded the commandments and the warnings that you gave them” (vv. 33-34).
Invite participants to think about wrongdoing at the level of society – whether in a community, state, nation, or global context. How do the ways that we live together fall short of God’s justice and righteousness? In what ways have we failed to treat the “least of these,” our brothers and sisters, as children of God?
A few examples to stimulate your thinking….
- Racism? How Will the Church Reckon with Charlottesville; Air Force Academy Head: Show Respect or Get Out; Hate Rising: White Supremacy’s Rise in the U.S.
- Inequality? Record Inequality: The Top 1% Controls 38.6% of America’s Wealth ; Median Wealth of Black Americans ‘Will Fall to Zero by 2053’, Warns New Report
- Sexual Harassment? Millions of Women Say ‘Me too’ About Sexual Harassment
- Recovery from Disaster? What Every American Needs to Know About Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Disaster
- Rohingya Refugees? Discussing the Rohingya Refugee Crisis; There’s Only One Conclusion on the Rohingya in Myanmar: It’s Genocide
- Hunger? World Hunger Again on the Rise, Driven by Conflict and Climate Change
Fall 2017-2018 Theme: Covenant
Unifying Principle: People find themselves in painful consequences of their own wrongdoing. In the embarrassing angst of suffering for their own wrongs, how can they dare ask for help from others? The people of Israel, hurting from painful losses of the exile for their sins, followed Nehemiah in confessing their wrongs and making a covenant with God to obey the law given through Moses.
God’s Covenant with David: 2 Samuel 7:1-6, 8-10, 12-16
Teaching Strategy: What plans does your congregation have to honor God that might differ from what God wants to do with you and through you? How can we be sure that our plans align with God’s will?
David was a shepherd who became a King. God’s covenant with David included the promise that God would establish a kingdom through David’s offspring. This week’s lesson describes how David wanted to build to build a “house” for God, but it was revealed to the prophet Nathan that David would not allowed to build this house. It would be David’s descendants rather than David himself who would build a house where God would dwell.
The Unifying Principle that ties the developmental lessons together highlights the tension that is always present between what we are called to do – and can do – in our lifetimes and what God will do through others in the future. Our timing may not be the same as God’s timing. We may be called to begin work that will be completed only beyond our lifetimes. The scripture also reminds us that no matter how good our intentions, what we think God wants us to do may not in fact be what God desires of us. God’s will may not be the same as our will – even when we think we are trying to do what God wants. We are challenged to let go, to give control to God. But how do we do that? How do we discern God’s will? Who are the modern prophets helping us to know what God desires NOW?
In the midst of very challenging times, we may ask ourselves, what is God’s vision for the future of the church?
- Why I’m Not Worried About The Future Of The Church – Or The Church Of The Future
- Church Revival? More Liberals are Filling Protestant Pews
- How Will the Church Reckon With Charlottesville?
- Joint Action and Advocacy for Justice and Peace (National Council of Churches)
- Responding to the World’s Challenges: Forum Shapes Strategy on Diakonia (World Council of Churches)
Fall 2017 Theme: Covenant
Unifying Principle: When entering into relationships with others, people struggle to retain control of their plans and dreams. How can people sacrifice control in order to maintain vital relationships? God’s covenant with David is a compromise between the eternal, omnipresent God and the time- and space-bound David by allowing a temple to be built, but beyond David’s lifetime.
Obeying God’s Law: Exodus 20:18-26
Teaching Strategy: Name different covenants we make today. What is required for each party to do his or her part? What is God’s part?
The first 17 verses of Exodus 20 contain the Ten Commandments given by God to the people of Israel. These are the rules for living as God’s covenant people; they describe life in right relationship to God and one another. Verses 18-21 describe how the people “were afraid and trembled” in response to the visual manifestation of God in “thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking” (v. 18). Moses calmed them by saying that God was present to test them so that they would not sin. Verses 22-26 describe the kind of worship and altar that God required of them.
The concept of covenant offers a useful way of thinking about citizenship within a country or within the global community. What are the agreements that citizens make with one another regarding how they will live together in right relationships – in mutual respect and harmony? How do Christians understand and live out the relationship between their covenant with God and their civic covenant(s) with other people? Recent events raise questions about such agreements. To cite two examples:
In the U.S., 58 people were killed and more than 500 people injured in a mass shooting. People of many faiths are struggling to know how to respond. Many strongly protest the view that virtually unlimited gun ownership is part of the Constitution (which can be thought of as the covenant governing American society). They advocate for changes to gun laws in order to reduce gun-related violence and deaths – which occur much more frequently in the U.S. than in most of the rest of the world.
- We Mourn This Terrible Act: A Joint Statement by the NCC and the World Council of Churches
- After Las Vegas Mass Shooting, Calls for Prayer, Action on Gun Control
In international relationships, President Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un have exchanged increasingly heated threats against each other, leaving many observers both anxious and confused. Christian leaders have called upon the President to stop his name-calling and threats, to pursue diplomacy, and to recognize that nuclear war must never take place.
- An Open Letter from Americans of Faith to President Donald Trump (NCC, September 2017)
- North Korean Leader Hails Nuclear Arsenal as ‘Powerful Deterrent’; Trump’s New North Korea Tweets May Confuse Kim Jong Un — And His Own Administration as Well
Fall 2017-2108 Theme: Covenant
Unifying Principle: Without obedience to law, people live in chaos, hurting themselves, others, and their environment. Where can people get a law that they will obey? God delivered the commandments to the Israelites while showing divine and holy power that tested them to convince them to obey the laws of the covenant.