What I learned writing Bible lessons

Sunday school lost momentum during the pandemic. What would spark a revival? A teacher shares the joy of discovery in studying Scripture.

Reta Halteman Finger teaches children at Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va. — Jim Bishop Reta Halteman Finger teaches children at Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va. — Jim Bishop

Two weeks before ­Easter, the worship service at my church ­featured a dramatic reading instead of a sermon. Several people reenacted the text in John 19 about Jesus’ trial before Pilate and the Jewish high priests. This text is awash in irony as these two political powers battle over how to get rid of Jesus and blame the other party for it. The climax comes when Pilate seats Jesus on the judge’s bench and taunts the priests with, “Shall I crucify your King?”

As leaders of a people pledged to worship only Yahweh God (Deuteronomy 20:10-20), the high priests shockingly betray their highest loyalty by insisting, “We have no king but the emperor!” With that admission, Pilate knows he has won the battle. He can now hand Jesus over to be executed without inciting a riot. The One whose kingdom is not of this world is condemned by both religion and the state.

After that service, I yearned to meet with a group to discuss this powerful text and how it might speak to our political loyalties today. The drama reminded me of divisions in America that draw Christians toward different sides. In the struggle between church and state, where is truth? Jesus says in John 14:6, “I am the truth.” But how do we find it?

The COVID-19 pandemic forced congregations to cancel or make major adjustments to their Sunday education hour. What did we lose over these two years? Can we, like the woman with the lost coin in Luke 15:8-10, find it again?

Although I am just as concerned about children’s Sunday school, this article is about adult Christian education. As you can see on the next page, MennoMedia’s Salt & Light curriculum represents a shift toward choosing more Anabaptist-oriented texts for our weekly Bible studies.

I became keenly aware of this during the locked-down winter of 2020-21. I was writing the lessons on “God’s Approachable Community” for the fall quarter of 2021. As I wrote about “Church Means Assembly” and “Open Table Fellowship,” I hoped that by fall we could assemble and share fellowship at tables. Sadly, the virus had other ideas. At my congregation, we canceled many social occasions and Zoomed only one adult Sunday class most quarters. Children lost many hours of Sunday school education.

Even so, digging into the 13 texts chosen for the fall quarter proved to be a rich experience. Four passages from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) brought me deeper into the life and teachings of Jesus — a major goal of Salt & Light. From where did Jesus draw his wisdom and ethics as he grew to adulthood? Surely from the Scriptures of his own people.

Discovering how these texts interact with the Jesus story in the New Testament illustrates how studying the Bible together strengthens our Anabaptist faith and theology. Let’s have a look.

Hospitality in a hostile place: Jeremiah 29:4-14

The context sharpens the drama of the first lesson, “Hospitality to Strangers and Enemies.” In the sixth century BCE, the Babylonian empire conquers Judea and hauls its king off to their capital city, along with the temple treasures and the leading Jews. Two prophets, Hananiah and Jeremiah, try to offer hope to both the captives and the broken lives of those who remained. But they do not agree. One prophesies information and the other disinformation. Which is which?

Representing the Davidic kingship, Hananiah encourages war preparation and promises that within two years the king and all the exiles will return.

Jeremiah draws from a more non­violent, Mosaic perspective. He writes a letter to the exiles to tell them it will be another 70 years before Jews can return home. Instead, they should settle down in Babylon, build houses, have families and “seek the welfare of the city where I [Yahweh] have sent you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:7).

We can imagine the exiles’ reply: “Yahweh did this so we could learn to cooperate with our enemies? Jeremiah, are you crazy? These pagan people have torn us from our homes, devastated our land and marched us to an idol-worshiping city to suffer and die!”

Yet Jeremiah persists: Pray for this city, “for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

When I compared Jeremiah’s letter with Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels, I realized where Jesus’ love-your-enemies ideas came from. He didn’t make them up. He didn’t receive a lightning bolt from heaven. Jesus learned proactive pacifism from studying Scripture.

Creating peace with food: 1 Samuel 25, Isaiah 25 and 55

Within the unit on “Open Table Fellowship,” we find another example of averting war and hate.

Matthew’s Gospel begins by naming Jesus as the son of David. Jesus would have learned stories about ­David from the writings of 1 and 2 Samuel.

This story is a cliffhanger. In 1 Samuel 25, a young David is roaming the “wild west” countryside with his band of outlaws who guard farmers’ sheep from other outlaws. The plot is complicated and political, and values of honor and shame pervade the story. Nabel is a nasty, selfish farmer who dishonors David and his men by refusing to invite them to the end-of-summer feast as a thank-you for their protection.

War is imminent, but thanks to a whistleblower, Nabel’s wife Abigail learns about this and, with her servants, provides food for David and his 600 men. War is averted, and David’s future as king is secure.

As the young Jesus learned he was a descendant of King David, this story would have given him insights into how to share food in community. Throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal or coming from a meal. Often at these meals Jesus challenges honor/shame issues of who gets invited and who sits in the place of honor (see Luke 14:7-24).

Speaking of food, who can forget the stories in the Gospels where Jesus becomes Abigail as he provides a meal for thousands. Luke also cites Jesus’ women disciples who, like Abigail, “provided for them out of their resources” (Luke 8:1-3).

Surely these meals, along with the Last Supper Jesus planned, prefigured in his mind the great meal to come that the prophet Isaiah described in 25:6-10 and 55:1-3. Read this magnificent poetry about “God’s Super Supper,” featured in the final lesson of the fall quarter.

Covenant renewal: Deuteronomy 29

Deuteronomy 29:1, 10-20 lays out the details of what it means to worship only one God and not idols. In this way, Israel was set apart from every other people group in the ancient world. That text was vividly in my mind as I listened to the Jewish high priests in the readers theater from John 19:1-15. They were forsaking that basic commitment as they recognized no other king and lord but Caesar.

These texts are just surface examples of the learning that happens when we dig into our sacred texts and their literary and historical contexts. Just as Jesus put into practice the lessons he learned from Scripture, we too can learn from the powerful and often counterintuitive interactions between the Testaments. Perhaps here we will find Jesus’ truth from John 14:6.

Yes, the ancient world of Jesus was vastly different from ours. But human nature hasn’t changed. Our idols may not be made of wood or stone, but they still distract us from loving God with all our hearts and souls, and our neighbors as ourselves.

We are still recovering from the pandemic’s disruption of our worship, fellowship and Bible study. Did it do lasting damage? Are we sliding into secular life? How can we revive Christian education? Can we return to what we had? Or do we need new ways to learn the Bible together? Can MennoMedia’s Salt & Light materials inspire us? Is it time for covenant renewal?

Reta Halteman Finger attends Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va. Since retiring from teaching New Testament at Messiah University, she writes for Christian publications and lessons for Salt & Light. See her Bible study blog at “Reta’s Reflections” at eewc.com.

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