Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

2/13 2014

Coals, Tongs and Human Mediation

In the lectionary, we have just finished contemplating Jesus’ presentation in the Temple—or, as we call it in Orthodoxy, “the Meeting” of the Lord. That is a particular gift to me, since my decision to enter the Orthodox church came partly as a result of this feast. (But God works in mysterious ways!) Five years ago I was working through Isaiah 6 for my worship book, Grand Entrance. I was struck by the numerous tensions or paradoxes when the heavens are opened for Isaiah. The Lord is transcendent (holy! holy! holy!) but also immanent (“the earth is full of his glory”). The seraphim have faces like us, yet cover their strange forms with wings. There are two seraphim, and yet one voice calls out. The coal is not to be touched, picked out gingerly with tongs, yet carried in the angel’s hand and placed immediately upon the prophet’s lips.  It is the last paradox that struck me.

What is it about our Lord that makes it both possible for him to come to us personally, and that demands that this “coming” be mediated? I had always thought that the immediate presence of the Lord and mediation were incompatible. But here, Isaiah blithely puts the concepts side by side, without comment. Visions are indeed wonderful, for in them the mysteries of God, the things that we find paradoxical, can be poignantly and convincingly pictured for us. Could it be that my suspicion of mediation was an over-reaction to mediation wrongly pictured and unhelpfully taught? Medieval stories of exaggerated and magical intercession of the saints certainly figured in my thinking at the time.

In my memory also echoed the chorus that I sang as a child Sunday after Sunday, “For there is one God and one Mediator, ‘twixt God and man…the Man Christ Jesus!” (Oops! 1960s exclusive language!) Yes, it is true that “only One is holy; only One is the Lord”—but this Holy One is not jealous of his own glory, and in his incarnation has shared it with us. This includes the grace of mediation:  “How do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband?” (1 Cor 7:16);  “[Saul,] rise, and enter the city, and you will be told [by a human being] what you are to do!” (Acts 9:9); “Whoever brings back a sinner …will save his soul from death” (James 5:19).  Evidently, our God delights to use human mediators!

So what does this have to do with baby Jesus in the Temple. The answer is in an ancient Orthodox hymn: “Christ, the coal of fire, whom holy Isaiah foresaw, now rests in the arms of the God-bearer Mary as in a pair of tongs, and He is given to the elder” To Simeon, and to us!  Jesus the Christ, comes to us by human as well as divine agency, born of the Holy Spirit AND the Virgin Mary. So I learned to give thanks for her, and for others who have borne Him to us. That thanks does not rob him of his unique glory but celebrates the wonder that we have seen his glory since he has met us, used us, and enlightened our darkness.

Written by Dr. Edith M. Humphrey, William F. Orr Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary


1/23 2014

Questions are the answer?

Questions are the saving grace of our Wednesday night youth group at Homestead United Presbyterian Church.

To provide a bit of context, our group meets at 6:00 p.m., we share a meal prepared by a gracious church member, we play an ice breaker game, and then we have an hour-long Bible study! I give a short 10-15 minute presentation on the passage chosen for the week, after which the remaining 45 minutes is just a traditional Bible study. This includes ages ranging from 6th grade to the youth group adult helpers whose age I prefer to leave unannounced.

The Bible study, (rightly so) has become the climax of our night. It is truly a magnificent experience and has helped all who are present grow in our knowledge of scripture and our relationship with God. Often times I wonder how this is possible. Yes of course through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, but how does this Bible study with such a wide range of ages not become another lecture from the older generation to the younger? The answer for our group is found in an inquisitive teenage girl who is unashamed to ask the “tough” question and is unwilling to settle for any answer that is theologically and philosophically flawed and void of truth. (My own interpretation but I think it fits.)

When I started my internship at HUPC, I was warned about this inquisitive girl. The members groaned with pains of agony when her, and her brother, who has moved on to college, were mentioned. Sudden circumstances left the church without a youth pastor – forcing the members to pick up the burden. So, in their defense they were not trained, nor had they even considered some of the deep questions that were asked.

As someone who studied religion in undergrad and now on my way out of seminary, I was excited for the challenge and was not disappointed. To paint a picture, this young lady is home schooled, loves to read especially – Harry Potter – and carries an authentic vibe with everything she does. She has not been corrupted by the awkward social standards found in the school halls, and she is not burdeedn with the concern of other people’s opinion. It really is a blessing to the whole group. Were it not for her, our group would not be a Bible study, just a lecture.

Nonetheless, the greatest blessing in her questions is the fact that she really searches for the truth without the critical tone I’ve come to expect from my fellow classmates. She simple wants to grow in her faith; and the result, she is the one who has grown the most in my short time with the group. She is the brightest apprentice of the group, and has pushed me, the youth workers, and the other students to think deeper about everything we confess. This young lady brings to life the words of Jesus, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you (Matt. 7:7),” not only for herself, but for our entire group and I couldn’t be more thankful.

Written by Damian Berry, M.A. student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary


11/13 2013

The Quest for a Common Loaf

“Take and eat,” Jesus said, passing the bread around. And everybody did, except for Philip, who went away hungry, for he was allergic to gluten.

Oh, wait, that’s not how the story goes!

There is no evidence to suggest that any of the disciples suffered from a wheat allergy, but lots of Christians do today. And that makes it challenging to come up with communion elements that everyone in a given Christian community can enjoy together. Yes, there are other ways you can handle the issue.You can of course have a little plate of gluten-free wafers on the side for those who need them. But somehow it just doesn’t match the extravagant spirit of the meal itself—those forlorn little wafers for the complicated ones in the shadow of the big crusty loaf blessed and broken for everyone else.

Those of us who support the PTS chapel program have been on the quest for a common loaf for a couple of years now. We have tried many a gluten-free loaf, looking for that perfect combination of breakability and taste.

There have been some real disasters over these months: There was the loaf that was, yes, gluten-free, but exploded into a fine crumbly powder when broken, with each worshipper leaving behind a trail of bread crumbs that would make Hansel and Gretel proud. There was the one that didn’t show its true colors until a hunk of it was dipped into the cup of wine, at which point it promptly dissolved. What are you supposed to do as you watch your piece of bread sink beneath the waves never to be heard from again? The body of Christ, sunken for you? All you could do was choke out a mournful “Amen” and head back to your seat. Finally there was the one that worked beautifully for the gluten-intolerant members of our community, but it did so by adding ingredients from the nightshade family, thus rendering it off limits for another member of our community! Back to the big crusty loaf and the lonely wafers.

The turning point came a couple of months ago, when PTS M.Div. senior Charissa Howe found a recipe for gluten-free, nightshade-free, nut-free, vegan bread and did some tweaking. The final version calls for some uncommon ingredients: chia seeds, maple syrup, psyllium husks, and garbanzo flour, to name a few. It does not explode, crumble, or dissolve into the cup, and it has a wonderful taste and texture.

Four people from the PTS community have graciously been baking this new bread for our Thursday chapel service each week, passing the basket of unusual ingredients around: Kendra Smith, Charissa Howe, Shana Hutchings, and Greg Steible.  We also have some new volunteers who will soon join the rotation, but we can always use some more! If you are interested in baking bread for chapel, contact our chapel coordinator Greg Steible (gsteible@pts.edu).

So next time you come to chapel on a Thursday, take a good look at that uncommon, common loaf there on the table.

Kind of a parable, don’t you think?

Written by The Rev. Dr. Angela Hancock, Assistant Professor of Homiletics and Worship




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