Archive for June, 2014
FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: You are great, O God, and greatly to be praised. You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Grant that we may believe in you, call upon you, know you, and serve you, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Today the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. In this case three closely held corporations, Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Mardel Publishing Co. sued the Department of Health and Human Services claiming that regulations promulgated under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (popularly or unpopularly known as “Obamacare”) violate their religious freedoms. The regulations require specified employers’ group health plans to furnish preventive care and screenings for women. Coverage includes twenty contraceptive methods approved by the Food and Drug Administration, including four that may have the effect of preventing an already fertilized egg from developing any further by inhibiting its attachment to the uterus. The owners of these three companies claimed to hold a sincere religious conviction that life begins at conception. They further maintained that regulations compelling them to facilitate access to contraceptive drugs or devices that operate after conception would violate this conviction.
Of greater interest to me than these regulations, however, is the statute under which the corporate plaintiffs brought their lawsuit, namely, The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA). That law prohibits the “Government [from] substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability” unless the Government “demonstrates that application of the burden to the person—(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” The law was amended in 2000 to specify that it was applicable to any exercise of religion, “whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” The Supreme Court agreed that the requirement for provision of preventative care and screenings for woman was a compelling government interest; thus, the regulations satisfy the first condition of the law. The Court held, however, that requiring the corporations to supply such coverage contrary to the religious convictions of their owners was not the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. The Court pointed out that there were other means less restrictive by which the government could have provided the required coverage for women in this particular instance. Accordingly, it struck down the regulations. The issues addressed in this ninety-five page opinion are a good deal more numerous and complex than this brief summary might lead you to believe. Anyone interested in reading the entire opinion may do so by clicking on this link.
Coincidentally, this decision comes down to us on the eve of Independence Day, a holiday on which it is customary to celebrate individual liberties. One such liberty is the freedom to practice the religion of one’s choice without governmental interference guaranteed under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It was supposedly in furtherance of this very freedom that RFRA was enacted, though I am unclear as to why. The Supreme Court cases interpreting the Frist Amendment already provide essentially the same liberties enshrined in the statute. Moreover, I question the wisdom of granting individuals (to say nothing of corporations!) the right to opt out of any law of general applicability on the basis of their idiosyncratic religious beliefs. Given the many profound and complex ethical issues related to modern medical care, this case could well open the floodgates to a host of demands for religious exemptions. Given the ever rising cost of medical care, it would be all too tempting for a company’s owners to manufacture religious objections for exempting the most expensive treatments in order to keep premiums down and protect the bottom line. As the Court is strictly prohibited from probing the sincerity or reasonableness of religious objections, it would be hard put to reject even the zaniest argument.
The Supreme Court seems to have sensed this danger. It limited its ruling to the matter of contraceptives and warned that its decision should not be deemed applicable to any other medical treatment such as vaccinations and blood transfusions. Yet I cannot understand how the Court could deny the request of a company owned by a sincere Jehovah’s Witness to exempt blood transfusions from its employer provided health coverage after having granting the Hobby Lobby plaintiffs the right to exempt contraceptives. Are the religious convictions of Jehovah’s Witnesses any less worthy of protection than those of Conservative Evangelicals or Roman Catholics? I don’t think it is insignificant either that all five Justices making up the majority favoring the opinion are members of the Roman Catholic Church which takes a dim view of contraception. In view of that, the limitation of the opinion’s reach to exemptions for coverage of contraception alone should raise our eyebrows just a bit. I fear that in our efforts to defend religious liberty we might be laying the groundwork for religious favoritism-the very thing the First Amendment was intended to prevent.
Religious liberty is important-but it is not all important. Like it or not, we live in a pluralistic society that may or may not share our individual religious convictions. If we are going to live together in any semblance of peace, we cannot allow any individual the right nor impose upon him or her the obligation to police the ethical conduct of another. I may disapprove of my employee’s participation in gambling, porn and drinking. But at the end of the day, I still have to pay him or her. What s/he does with the paycheck is none of my business. Similarly, I may disapprove of my employee’s use of her health coverage for contraception. I might hope that she does not so use it and, for all I have a right to know, she might not. It seems to me, though, that I have neither the moral obligation nor the right to prevent her from doing what is perfectly legal even if I believe it to be altogether wrong. For the life of me, I cannot understand how anyone’s religious convictions are violated under these circumstances.
Often I think our debates over the scope of religious freedom revolve too much around freedom “from” restrictions we don’t like. The more productive question is, what have we been set free “for”? I believe that Saint Paul can give us some direction here. For Paul, freedom consists in union with Jesus lived out in his Body, the church. It is all well and good to exercise our citizenship to make government more responsive to the wellbeing of its people. But Paul had no interest in Christianizing the Roman Empire (that dreadful turn of events did not occur for another three centuries), nor should we in this age be consumed with trying to Christianize the United States. Churches transformed by Christ become united in Christ. Churches that seek to transform society into some ill begotten notion of a “Christian Nation” simply become a microcosm of that society, incorporating all of its fault lines. Empire and discipleship do not make for a good mix.
Paul would have us understand that legislation can bring about neither faith nor righteousness. Law can regulate, but it cannot re-create. Only the good news about Jesus can initiate the change we need to become new people. Discipleship is exercised in communities shaped not by laws, precepts and moral codes, but by the Holy Spirit forming in them the mind of Christ. Believers are called to live now under the gentle reign of God in the midst of this sinful world. We are challenged to become communities where the health and well-being of all people is sought, especially the most vulnerable among us. We are to be communities where children are welcomed and cared for, their families supported and their needs for education, nutrition and health care assured. Within such caring communities, many of the hot button issues revolving around sexuality, contraception and abortion become non-issues.
Zechariah is identified in the opening lines of the book bearing his name as son of Berechiah son of Iddo. Zechariah 1:1. His name means “The Lord is renowned.” He is identified, along with Haggai, as one of the prophets prophesying encouragement to the Jews newly returned from the Babylonian Exile. Ezra 5:1, Ezra 6:14. Such encouragement was sorely needed. Having left Babylon in high hopes of witnessing a miraculous recovery for their homeland, the people arrived to find only a ruined city and rubble where the temple of Solomon once stood. Conditions were daunting and soon the little settlement was reduced to subsistence living and concerned only with survival. This was hardly an ideal time to begin a stewardship campaign for a new sanctuary! Yet through his repeated proclamation of visions and oracles, Zechariah was able to assure Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah , and Joshua, the high priest, that together they could complete reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Zechariah’s preaching must have been persuasive, for the temple was indeed rebuilt and dedicated around 516 B.C.E.
Sunday’s reading is familiar to us. All four gospels cite or allude to verse 9 in connection with Jesus’ triumphal procession into Jerusalem riding on the back of a donkey. Matthew 21:5; Mark 11:1-10; Luke 19:28-38; and John 12:14-15. Note the contrast: Zion’s king, though triumphant and victorious, comes riding upon a donkey; but the “war horse,” “chariot” and “battle bow” are destined to be cut off. Vss. 9-10. This king will command “peace” to the nations. Vs. 10. His weapon, his “bow,” “arrow” and “sword” is the people of Israel. Zechariah 9:13 (omitted in the lectionary reading). Through the faithful witness of the covenant people, the king prevails over his foes. This is another of many instances in the Hebrew Scriptures where Israel’s God forsakes war as the means for saving and liberating his people. So too, Jesus will forsake violence repeatedly in the gospels as the means for bringing about God’s reign.
“Blood of my covenant” is a conventional way of referring to the covenant relationship between Israel and her God. Vs. 11. That it was sealed with blood emphasizes the irrevocable nature of that relationship. “Prisoners of hope” is a difficult phrase and resort to the original Hebrew does not give us much further insight into its meaning. Vs. 12. Yet one might well describe both Israel and the church as “prisoners of hope.” Both communities were created by covenants established in the past, yet which also look to the future for their fulfilment. Hope is not a vague optimism that everything will finally work out in the end. It is shaped by promises of a new age, a new heaven and a new earth, resurrection and a new creation. It is fed by sacred narratives of God’s past acts of salvation and God’s steadfast faithfulness to us throughout history. We are in bondage to this hope that will not let us go.
This psalm is a hymn in acrostic form. Every verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostic poems usually do not develop ideas but consist rather of loosely connected statements. The technique aids in memorization, but also conveys the message that the whole of the topic is being addressed “from A-Z.” Other psalms in the acrostic family are Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; and Psalm 112.
As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 145 in its entirety. The verses making up our reading contain a refrain found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures: “The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Vs. 8. See, e.g, Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Jonah 4:2; and Psalm 103:8. This core confession belies the all too common belief on the part of ill-informed Christians that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is a “God of wrath,” whereas the New Testament God is a kindly, old, overindulgent grandfather. God does not need Jesus to be gracious or the cross in order to forgive. It is rather because God is gracious that his Word became flesh and because God is infinitely forgiving that God’s Incarnate Word embraces with love those who would nail him to the cross.
All creation testifies to God’s grace and mercy through praise. This “all” includes God’s faithful people Israel as well as the natural world and its non-human creatures. Vss. 10-12. The term “kingdom” might better be translated “reign.” The psalmist is not speaking of something in the distant future and certainly does not refer to a place located “beyond the blue.” God reigns now, whether that reign is recognized and acknowledged or not. In talking about the nature of God’s reign, it might be helpful to reflect back on the reading from Zechariah and the humble king riding not a war horse, but a donkey. God does not rule the world in the way of all the tribes, kingdoms and empires that have drenched the earth in blood to establish their respective reigns.
Standing on its own, this little snippet from Romans is a bit confusing. So let’s give it some context. Paul has been discussing the role of the law and its relationship to sin. Law is binding only upon the living. For example, a person is bound to another in marriage for “as long as they both shall live.” But if one spouse dies, there is no longer any marriage and thus no legal obligation of faithfulness for the surviving spouse. So also a person baptized into Christ’s death is liberated from the law which attaches only to the living. The new person raised in Christ’s resurrection is, as we have said, a servant of God over whom sin has no power and the law no jurisdiction. Romans 7:1-6. The gospel is not about reforming sinners. It is not about teaching an old dog new tricks. The old dog must be taken out back and shot. What is raised up constitutes an entirely new creature.
Law, as we have said before, is given to protect us from ourselves. It serves as a protective hedge around covenant life, ensuring the proper worship of Israel’s God and the essential elements of human life, i.e., marriage, livelihood and sustenance. The law, however, must not be confused with the covenant itself. When the law is understood as a means of drawing near to God rather than as a gift designed to protect and nurture that nearness, it becomes just another occasion for sin. Using the law as a means for achieving right relationship with God is rather like trying to drive your car along a winding mountain road by keeping your eye fixed on the guard rail. In addition to losing sight of your destination, you practically ensure that you will eventually go off the road.
The law functions, then, to bring into focus the nature and depth of sin. On the one hand, the law paints a portrait of life as it ought to be in covenant with God. Yet it is precisely this portrait that illuminates my own life and the extent to which it fails to work itself out peaceably within that covenant relationship. To the extent that I see reflected in the law my own brokenness and despise it, I affirm the law’s judgment. So far, so good. The law works well as a diagnostic instrument, but it is not a cure for what ails me. When I try to use it as a cure, it only becomes increasingly clear that I am hopelessly in bondage to sin. Instead of a protective hedge, the law now becomes a ruthless master whose demands I can never satisfy. So too, my understanding of the God who gives the law becomes distorted.
“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.” Vs. 21. Paul speaks from experience here. It was, after all, his zeal for the law that led Paul to persecute the early church and so the messiah he now serves. Similarly, it was the religious leaders of Israel who were seeking to uphold the law and put an end to blasphemy that brought Jesus before Pontius Pilate seeking the death sentence. For his part, Pilate was simply doing his job and trying to keep the peace when he had Jesus crucified. Jesus was not killed by notorious sinners, but by decent, law abiding citizens who were only trying to do the right thing. Sin twists the law as it does everything else to serve its own destructive ends. That is why the folks who never tire of warning us that unless we enshrine “Christian values” in the laws of our land, society will disintegrate. Society might well disintegrate, but anyone who thinks that laws, however “Christian” they might be, can prevent such catastrophe has never listened to Saint Paul.
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Vs. 24. That is finally the proper question. It is not a matter of what one believes or what one does. It is a matter of who one trusts. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Vs. 25. When one trusts Jesus enough to share his death through baptism, one shares also in Jesus’ resurrection. Care must be taken to avoid the misunderstanding of “trusting Jesus” as simply another work of the law. Such trust or faith is not a precondition for salvation from sin’s bondage. Rather, the proclamation that Jesus is trustworthy works the miracle of trust in our hearts. Because sin is an absence of trust, its power is broken when the heart begins to trust God once again. When the power of sin is broken, law is superfluous.
In its usual paternalistic concern for the simple and unlearned, the lectionary has excised Jesus’ culturally offensive and intolerant language from our readings. Specifically, we have been spared Jesus’ harsh pronouncement of judgment upon the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum where he had performed miracles and works of power. Jesus even suggests that, had his works been performed in the proverbially wicked city of Sodom, that city would have repented and been spared. Matthew 11:20-24. As Professor Stanley Hauerwas points out, “Jesus pronouncement of judgment on the cities in which he performed deeds of power makes us, contemporary Christians, profoundly uncomfortable. We want a gospel of love that insures when everything is said and done that everyone and everything is going to be okay. But we are not okay. Like the cities of Israel, we have turned our existence as Christians into a status meant to protect us from recognizing the prophets who would point us to Jesus. Of course we do not like Jesus to pronounce judgment on the cities in which he performed deeds of power, because we do not want to recognize that we too are judged. But the gospel is judgment because otherwise it would not be good news. Only through judgment are we forced to discover forms of life that can free us from our enchantment with sin and death.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brozos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 116.
The text begins with Jesus citing a child’s proverb: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” Vs. 17. Like spoiled children who cannot be induced to play at any game, the people of the three towns in which Jesus ministered remain unresponsive to God’s reign. First, they reject the ministry of John the Baptist. That is not surprising. John is an unsettling character. He lives off the bounty of the wilderness and so is impervious to the ups and downs of the economy. He has no stake in the social order and whatever entitlements it may provide. John’s very existence is a challenge to the status quo. His mere presence literally shouts that things need not be as they are. God has no need for children of Abraham, the line of David or the temple in Jerusalem. Fruits, not roots, are what God treasures. Small wonder that the public at large dismisses John as a madman.
If John was unsettling, Jesus is downright threatening. Consider the “mighty works” Jesus has already done. He begins his healing ministry by touching a leper. Matthew 8:1-4. Note well that this touch was given before the leper had been healed. That should have rendered Jesus ritually unclean, but instead it cleanses the leper. Next, Jesus heals the servant of a centurion, a hated representative of the Roman Empire. To add insult to injury, Jesus remarks that the centurion’s faith outshines that of all Israel! Matthew 8:5-13. Jesus has the audacity to declare forgiveness to a man stricken with paralysis-presumably by God as punishment for his sins. Matthew 9:1-8. Then, to top it off, Jesus is found eating in the company of notorious sinners. Matthew 9:10-13. It might have been acceptable for Jesus to feed sinners at a shelter of some kind. Nobody would have objected to Jesus preaching to sinners. But to sit down and share meals with sinners who have not repented and have shown no inclination to clean up their acts-that is a bridge too far. Jesus seems to think there is no difference between sinners and the righteous, the clean and the unclean, the legal and the illegal. All those fine social distinctions that define us, tell us who we are and where we stand come apart in his presence. No wonder the good people of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum dismiss Jesus as dunk bohemian.
Both Jesus and John are written off with cheap ad hominem attacks. The critics cannot argue with the witness of John or the works of Jesus. So they resort to attacks on their characters. John is crazy. Jesus is a drunk. Their followers have been brainwashed by the media. The lectionary is likewise uncomfortable with Jesus. Rather than openly discrediting him, however, it simply edits the offensiveness out of him. But as Hauerwas observes, the good news is not good news until we are made to recognize that the status quo to which we so desperately cling is bad news.
Jesus concludes with a prayer thanking his heavenly Father for concealing the reality of God’s reign from the “wise and understanding” and for revealing it “to babes.” Vs. 25. This is not an attack on wisdom or understanding as such. Rather, it is an assault upon the intellectual energy we expend resisting the kingdom. We all know from our own experience what so often happens when you promote change, however modest, to a group of people set in their ways. Usually, you get all the reasons for why it cannot be done except the true reason, namely, that they don’t want it done. Adults will tell you that poverty, starvation and war are inevitable and give you an endless supply of well thought out reasons for why trying to change any of that is futile. A child will simply ask why we don’t stop fighting and start taking care of one another. It is not that the child is smarter than the adult. Clearly, s/he is not as well educated or knowledgeable. Yet precisely because the child lacks the conceptual tools of adulthood that enable us so effectively to lie to ourselves and rationalize our sin, the child manages to arrive at the truth from which we flee. The child knows what we steadfastly deny. Things don’t have to be the way they are.
Children are too young and inexperienced to understand that the status quo ensures them and their parents a comfortable lifestyle and security that few in the rest of the world can dream about. Children have not yet come to understand that the world is a shrinking pie and we all need to protect our slice. Children have not yet learned the importance of being white or straight or wealthy or physically attractive. A child must be educated to appreciate these distinctions and learn the importance of ensuring that they remain in place. In short, the child must be taught the fine art of self-deception. S/he must learn that the way things are is the way they must be if we are to maintain our way of life. It is not helpful for people like John and Jesus to confuse these little ones by declaring that things do not have to be as they are.
Clearly, the good news of Jesus Christ is not about tweaking the status quo to make it more humane. The good news is the reign of God that makes all things new (and of necessity breaks apart the old.) It introduces a new reality that lies at the core of both the Hebrew and New Testament scriptures. As observed by Walter Brueggemann, “At the root of reality is a limitless generosity that intends an extravagant abundance. This claim is exposited in Israel’s creation texts, sapiential traditions, and hymnic exuberances. This insistence files in the face of the theory of scarcity on which the modern world is built. An ideology of scarcity produces competitiveness that issues in brutality, justifies policies of wars and aggression, authorizes an acute individualism, and provides endless anxiety about money, sexuality, physical fitness, beauty, work achievements, and finally mortality. It seems clear to me that, in the end, all of these anxieties are rooted in an ideology that resists the notion of limitless generosity and extravagant abundance.” Brueggemann, Walter, An Unsettling God, (c. 2009 Fortress Press) p. 171. I would add that the same limitless generosity and extravagant abundance lies at the heart of Jesus’ proclamation of God’s reign. God would give us the kingdom, but God must first pry the status quo away from us so that our hands will be free to receive it.
THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you direct our lives by your grace, and your words of justice and mercy reshape the world. Mold us into a people who welcome your word and serve one another, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Though we will be observing the third Sunday after Pentecost at Trinity this coming Sunday, I note that the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul falls on the same day. Because the gospels and the Book of Acts are not biographies, it is impossible to construct anything like a historical chronology of their respective lives. We are told that Peter was a Galilean fishermen. As such, he would have been from humble origins, but by no means the poorest of the poor. Peter was one of the Twelve disciples chosen by Jesus to share most intimately in his ministry. In Matthew, Mark and Luke he is portrayed as the spokesperson for the disciples, voicing questions likely on the minds of both his fellow disciples and the reader of the gospels. All of the gospels confirm that Peter denied knowing Jesus after Jesus was arrested and brought before the high priest. He appears in the Book of Acts, once again serving as the spokesperson for the disciples on the day of Pentecost. Some gospel passages suggest that Jesus conferred upon Peter a degree of leadership among the Twelve, but the nature of such primacy, if it even existed, is difficult to ascertain.
Paul, by contrast, never met Jesus during the years of his ministry in Palestine. He appears to have been a diaspora Jew born in Tarsus, a historic city in south-central Turkey. He was fluent in Aramaic, Greek and possibly Hebrew as well. According to the Book of Acts, Paul was educated in the Pharisaic tradition. He was, by his own admission, an enemy and a persecutor of the church in its early years. But he encountered the resurrected Christ and underwent a dramatic conversion while on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus where he had intended to arrest and prosecute followers of Jesus. Through Paul’s missionary activity the good news of Jesus was carried throughout Greece, Macedonia and Asia Minor to diaspora Jews and to gentiles. According to tradition, both Paul and Peter were put to death by the Roman government.
In many respects, the most remarkable things we know about these two men are their flaws. The New Testament does not airbrush the saints. Peter’s cowardice in the courtyard of the high priest is given no moderating spin in the gospels. His failure to grasp the scope of the gospel is evident throughout the New Testament. Even after Jesus’ resurrection and the miracle of Pentecost, Peter had difficulty seeing past his own ethnic cultural conditioning. That appears to have been the issue that brought him into conflict with Paul according to Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
Paul was equally flawed, though in different ways. The deep seated anger and narrow mindedness that led him initially to persecute the church did not simply evaporate after baptism. While Paul could be generous, compassionate and understanding of human shortcomings, he could also be ruthless in criticizing his opponents, sarcastic when writing to his congregations and just a tad self-pitying in the face of opposition. His letters bear that out, particularly his second letter to the church in Corinth.
Finally, the testimony of both men is flawed in that they are men. I don’t mean to say that they should personally be penalized for their gender or blamed for the fact that the New Testament cannon was not more inclusive. I seriously doubt that either Peter or Paul ever dreamed that there even would be a New Testament, much less that their words would be part of it! The point is, their witness is lacking the richness, harmony and depth it might have had if only their voices had been joined by the likes of Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Prisca, Persis, Phoebe, Lydia and countless others whose names are lost to history, but known to our Lord.
Like all literary works, the Bible is a product of its times. The ugly realities of imperial oppression, slavery and patriarchy are all too evident and they have often distorted the preaching and teaching of the church. Still, they have not been able to suppress the persistent witness to a larger vision breaking through the seams of the text. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with stories of women who, notwithstanding the cultural, religious and political impediments in their way, nevertheless found opportunities to shape the destiny of Israel in redemptive and life giving ways. Some of them are noted in the lengthy genealogy at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel (leading me to wonder whether that gospel was not actually composed by a woman who is subtly letting us know, “Hey, we’re here too, you know!”). The gospels faithfully preserve the fact that women were the first witnesses to the resurrected Christ (though women were legally disqualified from giving testimony in court under First Century Jewish law). Paul acknowledges women as his fellow apostles. That my church (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) is currently led by a seasoned pastor who happens also to be a woman testifies to the potency of these latent witnesses.
At the end of the day, we love and cherish the Bible, not because it is a perfect book or because it was written in some supernatural way or because it answers all of life’s pressing questions. We love the Bible because it has proven over two millennia to be a faithful and reliable testament to the God of Israel who is the Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Like the imperfect saints who first preached the gospel, the Bible is likewise an earthen vessel bearing precious good news about the God who sent his only begotten Son into the world, not to condemn the world or enslave it, but that the world might have life.
Today’s lesson comes from a larger drama in the Book of Jeremiah that could be given the title, “The Dueling Prophets.” Unfortunately, you only get a little snippet of it in the reading. It all begins with God commanding Jeremiah to proclaim to the people of Judah that God is about to bring the Kingdom of David and the Temple to an end by the hand of the King of Babylon whose armies are even now advancing upon Jerusalem. To make the point, Jeremiah is told to wear a yolk over his shoulders, the kind used for oxen. It is God who brings the yolk of Babylonian bondage upon Judah. To resist Babylon is to resist God. Jeremiah 27:1-11. You can imagine how that must have gone over. How would you like to be sent out to meet the Fourth of July parade with a yolk on your neck to tell everyone that God is about give victory in the war on terror to Al Qaeda?
The drama unfolds in Jerusalem where the prophet Hananiah is rallying the people of the city behind the flag. “Salvation is on the way! The Lord is coming to the aid of his people just like he always has in the past! The Lord is coming to rescue Jerusalem! The Lord is coming to save his people! The Lord is coming to whoop those “Babliofascists,” that terrorist scum and give victory to Israel! Within two years we are going to see all the treasures taken from us by the Babylonians returned. We are going to see freedom! We are going to see peace! Do I hear an ‘Amen.’?” (Paraphrase of Jeremiah 28:1-4) “Amen” shouts a voice from the midst of the cheering crowd. Everyone turns to see the prophet Jeremiah-wearing his yolk. “Amen!” shouts Jeremiah. “I hope you are right Hananiah. I hope everything you say comes true. Nothing would make me happier than to be dead wrong about everything I have said. But this is much bigger than you and me, Hananiah. This is much more important than who is right and who is wrong. The question here is, ‘What is the word of the Lord for us this day?’ Don’t forget,” says Jeremiah to Hananiah, “there have been prophets before you and me. Not all of them prophesied salvation. Some foretold disaster and destruction. Remember Elijah, remember Amos, remember Micah who once prophesied that this very city would be laid bare as a mown field. Time will tell what the word of the Lord is, who proclaimed it and who received it faithfully.” (Paraphrase of Vss. 5-9). So ends the lectionary reading, but not the story. Next Hananiah, in a dramatic and brilliant show of oratory, jumps down from the podium, breaks in two the yolk off of Jeremiah’s neck and cries out, “So shall the Lord break the yolk of Babylon from the neck of his people.” Jeremiah 28:10-11. The crowd roars its approval and Jeremiah goes his way. He lost the duel.
It is easy for us two and one half millennia later to recognize Jeremiah as the genuine prophet. But what if instead of being here today, you were among that crowd in Jerusalem at the outbreak of war? Who would you believe? Both prophets have biblical precedent on their side. Hananiah could point to the Assyrian invasion of only a century before. Sennacherib, emperor of Assyria swept down and conquered every nation in Palestine, and most of Judah. Only Jerusalem remained standing-with what was left of Judah’s defeated army cowering behind its walls. God sent an angel of the Lord to slay the Assyrian army during the night and Sennacherib was forced to retreat. Jerusalem was saved against all odds. See II Kings 18:13-19:37. If God could do it then, God can do it now.
Jeremiah, on the other hand, could point to the time of the Judges when the Israelite army, facing an attack by the Philistines, went to the Tabernacle at Shiloh and took the Ark of the Covenant, thinking that God would never let them be defeated if it meant that the Ark would be captured. But God is not one to be manipulated by lucky charms. God handed Israel a defeat and, in fact, permitted the Ark to be taken captive. I Samuel 4. So also, argued Jeremiah, don’t think you can oppress the poor among you, worship idols, ignore the commandments and then go running into the Temple like a band of fugitives from justice to escape the consequences of your deeds. God values holy hearts over holy places. God did not spare the Tabernacle in Shiloh, God will not spare the Temple in Jerusalem either.
So we have two prophets. Both are speaking in the name of the God of Israel. Both have a word consistent with the Bible, but each has a very different message. How can we know which one is speaking the word of the Lord for this people at this time? I wish I had an easy answer for that one, but I don’t. I am not aware of any definitive test that will distinguish between true prophecy and false prophecy. But here are a few observations that might help. First, prophecy is not all about the future. Rather, it is a word that helps us understand what is taking place here and now. For the people of Jeremiah’s time, the big event was the Babylonian invasion. What does it mean? How would God have us respond? What is God’s word to us now? Which scripture speaks to this circumstance?
Second, true prophecy is tempered by humility. If you read further into the story you will find Jeremiah confronting Hananiah again-not in public this time but alone. “And the prophet Jeremiah said to the prophet Hananiah, ‘Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you made this people trust in a lie. Therefore thus says the Lord: I am going to send you off the face of the earth. Within this year you will be dead, because you have spoken rebellion against the Lord.’” Jeremiah 28:15-16. I don’t know what to make of that except this: You better be careful what you say after the words, “Thus sayeth the Lord.”
Feminist reformer Susan B. Anthony once said, “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.” I think Ms. Anthony is onto something here. I am afraid we are far too confident these days in our beliefs about what God wills, what God is for and what God is against. That goes as much for mainline “advocacy” as it does for right wing efforts to make government strengthen and preserve family values. If Roberta Combs’ Jesus looks suspiciously similar to Ronald Regan, ours sometimes bears an uncanny resemblance to Fritz Mondale. When I see churches and individual congregations neatly split along the lines of “red” and “blue,” it is hard not to conclude that we have become proxies in the so called “culture wars” and that our ministries are driven less by theological conviction than ideological prejudices.
That is the difference between Jeremiah and Hananiah. Jeremiah was prepared to admit that he might after all be mistaken, that he might have misunderstood God’s word and that he might need to listen more closely to that word. By contrast, Hananiah knew he was right, was sure he had the truth and therefore felt entirely justified in shouting Jeremiah down. Arrogance is the surest mark both of a weak mind and a false prophet.
This is a royal psalm celebrating God’s salvation as mediated through God’s covenant with David. As always, I urge you to read Psalm 89 in its entirety. Although it celebrates God’s covenant with David as God’s saving act, the psalm acknowledges that the true sovereign of all the earth is God Himself. Vs. 18. God makes a “covenant” with David. A covenant is more than a mere contract. In the ancient near east, covenants were usually made between kings-and generally not between equals. It was common for a dominant king to enter into a covenant with the king of a subservient nation. Under the terms of the covenant, the stronger king would promise to provide military protection from common enemies (and a promise that he himself would not attack!). In return, the weaker king would pay tribute and promise undivided allegiance to the stronger king. The weaker king would often give his daughters in marriage to the stronger. (The fact that one’s daughter is at the mercy of a foreign king would naturally make one think twice about commencing hostilities!).
In the covenant with David, God is clearly the dominant partner. Yet, oddly enough, God promises both protection and eternal faithfulness. God’s love for and support of David is not contingent on David’s past accomplishments or on his promise to be loyal to the Lord. This is a one way covenant in which all of the promises flow from the God of Israel to David and his line.
The Davidic covenant was not universally recognized in Israel as was the covenant made at Sinai. Sinai was definitive both for the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Both kingdoms drew from the traditions growing out of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the Exodus, the Wilderness Wanderings and the Conquest of Canaan. The David tradition belonged uniquely to the Southern Kingdom of Judah that was ruled by one of David’s descendants from its inception around 1000 B.C.E. until Judah’s final destruction in 587 B.C.E. For Judah, the rise of the Davidic Monarchy represented another of God’s saving acts, solidifying the twelve tribes and uniting them against their many enemies. Chief among these foes were the Philistine peoples whose professional armies and superior Iron Age technology gave them a significant military advantage over the loose confederation of Israelite tribes and their largely volunteer defenders. David’s political skills and his use of mercenaries to lead his armies transformed Israel into a formidable nation state.
But Israel’s view of the Davidic Monarchy was always conflicted. Doubts about the advisability of monarchy in general are reflected in I Samuel 8 where Samuel warns the people that the security promised through the reign of a king will come at the cost of taxation, oppression and military conscription. These very evils came to fruition under the monarchy and were severely denounced by the prophets. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we find denunciations of the monarchy and its abuses alongside expressions of hope for a messianic descendent of David capable of delivering Israel from her enemies and ruling justly. This hope was burning with white hot fervor during the First Century in which Jesus lived and ministered. Nevertheless, beliefs about where the messiah would come from, what he would do to liberate Israel, how, when and where he would go about doing it were varied and conflicting. Not surprisingly, Jesus appeared reluctant to claim that title. Doing so would have invited a host of misunderstandings about his mission and ministry.
For my general reflections on the book of Romans and the introduction to this chapter, see last week’s post of June 22nd. In Sunday’s reading Paul picks up where he left off last week. Again, he poses the rhetorical questions: “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under the law but under grace?” vs. 15. As discussed last week, this conclusion follows only if we assume that sin is the mere breaking of law and that successfully following the law amounts to righteousness. As Paul has already pointed out, that assumption is altogether wrong. Sin is not a matter principally of wrong behavior, but of the self-centered orientation of the heart. Because we are incurably self-centered, we wind up bending the law to serve our own selfish objectives even when we keep it to the letter. This is what it means to be in bondage to sin.
Here we come up against the much maligned and misunderstood doctrine of the “bondage of the will.” Nowhere is the brutal reality of this bondage better portrayed than in Martin Luther’s book by that name. To sin or not to sin is not a choice. Sin is the bondage into which we are born. We can no more decide to be free from sin than we can decide no longer to be bound by the law of gravity. Just so, we cannot will ourselves to be obedient or faithful to God. Luther does not mean to say that we are altogether without the ability to make choices. We can, in fact, choose to marry or remain single; to study chemistry or pursue a law degree; put on the plain tie or the striped one. Indeed, we might even choose to put an end to war, eliminate hunger or stem the tide of pollution. Ironically, folks who chafe most insistently at the notion that we are unable to will obedience to God are usually the first to complain that ending war, hunger and carbon emissions are hugely complicated tasks, fraught with opposing political/economic interests and altogether “utopian.” Yet this world with all of its conflicts and challenges is precisely the arena in which the human will is free and enjoined to act. A clearer testament to the fall into sin you could not ask for: Human freedom extends to every corner of the garden but one-and that is exactly the corner in which human nature insists on exercising it to the neglect of everything else!
So, too, Paul points out that human freedom with respect to God is illusory. We are slaves either of God or sin and, of course, a slave is not free to choose its master! Nothing will change unless God acts to alter our bondage under sin. God has done just that in Jesus. In Jesus God puts an end to our bondage under sin and exercises mastery over us. Our legal status has changed fundamentally. We no longer owe anything to sin, but everything to God. This is not simply metaphysical slight-of-hand, a magic number for X that causes the algebraic equation to work out. Sin is inability to trust God and let God be God. God’s righteousness is God’s irrevocable determination to redeem creation and win back the trust of our unbelieving hearts. This righteousness, this determination of God to remain faithful to the covenant promises made to Israel for the sake of the world is not cheap. It comes at a great cost to God. It is because and only because God is faithful to the point of the cross that faith on our side is possible. Faith comes not from any decision on our part to be faithful, but from the wonderful proclamation that God is faithful. Nothing short of this good news of God’s righteousness, God’s determination to save-no matter the cost-can turn our suspicious and distrustful hearts toward faithful obedience.
Paul therefore never conceives of freedom in the abstract. Freedom is not an end in itself, nor can it be. As between God and sin, one of them must be our master. Sin is a ruthless master whose wages are death, but Jesus is a gentle master who gives life-not as a wage, but as a free gift. Vs. 23. In Christ we are thus set free “from” bondage to sin “for” bondage to God in Christ Jesus. Freedom, then, is not the liberty to do whatever one desires, but the power to do that which is good and life giving. Freedom to sin is therefore an oxymoron. Such “freedom” is in reality the worst kind of bondage, leading invariably to death. Vss. 20-21.
This brief reading constitutes Jesus’ final words to his disciples before they embark on their mission of preaching, healing and casting out demons throughout Israel. Jesus impresses upon them the profound importance of their task. They are all of Jesus that many people will ever see. Acceptance of Jesus comes through acceptance of the disciples and their ministry. That is profoundly unsettling when one considers the degree to which the church persistently falls short of the community Jesus calls it to be. If the disciples had been exemplary saints with near superhuman goodness, we might despair of our own mission. But in all four of the gospels, we find disciples that mostly fail to comprehend the kingdom Jesus proclaims, mostly fail to be faithful precisely when faithfulness is critical and mostly fail to be the community united in love to which Jesus calls them. The church is at best a poor likeness of its Lord. Yet Jesus seems confident that his half-wit disciples will get it right. Ever so slightly more often than not, it seems they do.
The reading is also a reminder that the disciples’ mission depends upon the hospitality of those to whom they are sent. There is something beautiful about this arrangement. The mission of the disciples is not a one way transaction: “We are here to bring you the gospel. We are the helpers, you are the helped.” The disciples come to their audience with the most basic of needs; food and shelter. Just as they will call upon the villages to whom they have been sent to trust their proclamation of the kingdom and accept its gifts of healing and exorcism, so they must rely upon the kindness and generosity of their hearers. Naturally, then, the rewards of this mission also flow both ways. Not only are the disciples blessed, but also those who support them in their good work. Vs. 42.
This text is also a reminder to me of the hospitality I experience each day of my life. Every week between 25 and 40 people gather to listen to me talk. How many friends do you have who would put up with that? That people are willing to give us pastors an hour of their time to listen is already a huge act of hospitality. Moreover, I am surrounded by people who give of their time, their incomes and their prayers to ensure that the work I do goes on. After almost six years, these folks know my shortcomings, my flaws and my failures. Yet hardly a day goes by without a word of encouragement, a prayer for support or some random act of kindness. Yes, I know how difficult life in the church can be and I spoke about that last week. I know all about “clergy killers” and “alligators.” Some days we need to take more than our share of aggression. “Into each life some rain must fall.” But let’s not choke to death on the camel while trying to strain out the gnat. We preachers have received an enormous helping of hospitality from the people we serve. They are deserving of our thanks and recognition.
SECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Teach us, good Lord God, to serve you as you deserve, to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labor and not to ask for reward, except that of knowing that we do your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Let’s be honest. Whether we are pastors, congregational leaders or merely solid members of the church, we have been wounded by the church at some point in our lives. Somebody has broken a confidence and shared information about us or a loved one that was not intended for public consumption. A particular group of people with an agenda has undermined our leadership by working behind the scenes fostering opposition to our plans and proposals. We have heard words of judgment, condemnation and criticism when we most needed a word of grace. We have been bullied and intimidated by alpha males who can find no other place than the church to prove their manhood. We have had to hear self-righteous church ladies’ scold us for the antics of our children during the service. So even though nobody has ever beaten me up and left me in the stocks overnight, I can sort of understand how Jeremiah felt when he uttered the prayer we find in our first reading for this coming Sunday.
Jeremiah does not pull any punches with his prayer. He lays it all on the line. He is mad as hell! He is angry with God for leading him into a ministry that has proved to be just one failure after another. He is angry with his congregation for its rejection of his preaching, its opposition to his mission and its violence against his person. He is ready to throw in the towel and call it quits-except that he can’t.
“If I were to say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name, there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in and I cannot.”
Jeremiah 20:9. It seems Jeremiah simply can’t help himself. He has to preach.
The first bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Rev. Herbert Chilstrom, once told a group of college students considering pastoral ministry, “Don’t become a pastor unless you just can’t help it.” Jeremiah seems to fit that profile to a tee. He is captive to the word of the Lord. As much as he might like to abandon his calling (and who wouldn’t after spending a night in the stocks?) he cannot bring himself to do it. As bishops, pastors and church leaders of all kinds know, proclaiming the word of the Lord is sometimes a thankless task. You sometimes have to tell people things they would rather not hear. You can count on being misunderstood, misinterpreted and misrepresented. It goes with the territory. Discipleship is a risky business. Follow Jesus and you might lose a few friends. You might lose your job. You might get the crap beaten out of you. You might get nailed to a cross. A prophet who understands all of that, but still just can’t keep his/her mouth shut is the real deal.
The Book of Jeremiah stands out from the other prophetic books in this respect, namely, that it presents us with a rough chronology of the prophet’s career and a deep look into his soul. In brief outline, Jeremiah received his call at the beginning of what turned out to be the twilight years of the Davidic kingdom in Judah. He was most likely born at some point during the reign of King Josiah from 640 B.C.E. to 609 B.C.E. Josiah presided over Judah’s brief return to independence and power. This revival took place shortly after the dominant Assyrian Empire experienced military setbacks causing it to lose its hold over Palestine. Under Josiah’s leadership, Judah seized this window of opportunity to reassert her power, not only over her original territory, but also throughout what had been the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Josiah, then, was presiding over a kingdom comparable to that of David and Solomon.
Like nature, geopolitics abhors a vacuum. Beginning in 609 B.C.E. events moved quickly for the nation of Judah. Josiah was killed when he attempted to block the Egyptian army from joining up with the remnant of Assyrian forces struggling against Babylonia, the new rising imperial star of the Near East. Evidently, he feared a resurgence of Judah’s old foe, Assyria, more than any threat Babylon might pose. Josiah’s son Jehoahaz succeeded him, but ruled only three months. The victorious Egyptians took Jehoahaz captive, brought him back to Egypt and placed his brother Jehoiakim on the throne as their vassal. As it turned out, Babylon, not Egypt or Assyria, would prove the greater danger for Judah. The Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar ultimately defeated the joint Egyptian and Assyrian forces at Carchemish ending Egyptian sovereignty over Palestine. Recognizing that discretion is the better part of valor (initially at least), Jehoiakim surrendered to the Babylonian force and became a puppet of that empire.
After three years of Babylonian vassalage, Jehoiakim (or his advisors) decided that Judah had had enough. He rebelled against the Babylonian empire. Perhaps he thought that his overlords were preoccupied with weightier matters and could not spare the military resources required to subjugate his small kingdom. He was wrong. The Babylonian response was quick and brutal. Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem and was on the point of crushing it when Jehoiakim died. His son, Jehoiachin, took the throne immediately thereafter and promptly surrendered himself to the Babylonians. Nebuchadnezzar took the king and his family as prisoners back to Babylon along with the king’s military leaders, his advisors and all the smiths and craftspeople in the land. He also removed everything of value from the temple in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, Nebuchadnezzar spared the city of Jerusalem and placed on the throne of David Jehoiachin’s uncle, Zedekiah, to govern the kingdom as Babylon’s vassal.
One might think that Zedekiah would have learned a thing or two from observing the rash actions of his brother and their dire consequences. But there was no learning curve for the house of David. Almost immediately Zedekiah began to plot with Egypt and other Palestinian nations against the reign of Babylon. His ill-fated rebellion ended in 587 B.C.E. during the eleventh year of his reign. The Babylonians besieged the city of Jerusalem. The king was captured when attempting to escape the city and flee to Egypt. After being forced to witness the execution of his sons, Zedekiah was blinded and taken prisoner to Babylon where he died. Jerusalem was sacked, the city walls broken down and the temple destroyed. Another substantial number of persons were taken prisoner and deported to Babylon.
It was during these tumultuous times that Jeremiah prophesied to his people. He had the unenviable job of proclaiming the end of Judah’s existence as the kingdom of David in the land of Canaan. Babylon was God’s agent of judgment and would prevail over Judah and Jerusalem. Resistance was not only futile, but constituted rebellion against the Lord. There would be no miraculous rescue this time. Like all prophets, Jeremiah carried a message of salvation and the promise of a new beginning. But salvation lay on the other side of judgment. There would be no way around exile. Jeremiah knew, though, that faith could find a way through it.
Scholars have debated the dating of Jeremiah’s call to prophesy, the timing of his oracles and utterances as well as the approximate date of his birth. Generally speaking, there remains a scholarly tradition that regards the early part of the Book of Jeremiah as coming from him and credits the narrative sections with being historically reliable-though commentators differ on the history they reflect! More recent biblical study pays more attention to the process of the book’s formation and assumes that the person of Jeremiah set forth therein is a literary product of post-exilic scribes piecing together preserved oracles, narrative traditions and anecdotes in ways meaningful to the post-exilic community. I am no more interested in the historical Jeremiah than I am in the so called “historical Jesus.” I tend to agree, however, with the observation of Walter Brueggemann that it is “probable that the person, memory, and impact of Jeremiah were so powerful and enduring that personal reality presided over and shaped the imaginative reconstruction.” Brueggemann, Walter, “The Book of Jeremiah,” Interpretation, Vol 37, #2, April 1983, pp. 131-132.
The prayer of Jeremiah found in our reading for Sunday has been labeled one of his many “confessions,” the others being Jeremiah 11:18-12:6; Jeremiah 15:10-21; and Jeremiah 17:12-18. This literary characterization is inaccurate and needlessly confusing. What we actually have here is a classic lament. Prayers of this type are found throughout the Psalms, e.g., Psalm 3; Psalm 4; Psalm 5; Psalm 22. The lament, as I have noted before, is not just a lot of “bitching and moaning.” It is a complaint made to God by God’s covenant partner, Israel. The Psalms are altogether unintelligible unless that covenant relationship is presupposed. It is precisely because God has made promises to Israel that Israel may be so bold as to demand that God keep those promises and even challenge God when it seems as though God has failed to live up to the terms of the covenant. This has nothing to do with the general and woefully tiresome whine, “How come God let’s bad things happen to good people?” To that puerile inquiry one could easily respond, “What obligation does God have to get involved with anyone’s individual woes?” But Israel is not just “anyone,” and God is not simply “the supreme being.” God is the one who liberated Israel from slavery and promised her a land, a people and a blessing. The lament arises not out of any foggy notion that God is somehow ethically obliged to reward good behavior and punish bad. It springs from the terms of a covenant under which God has agreed to be bound to this people Israel.
That said, we need to focus on Jeremiah’s call in which God promises, “I am with you to deliver you.” Jeremiah 1:8. In obedience to that call and in reliance upon God’s promise to deliver him, Jeremiah preached in the courts of Jerusalem’s temple the message of judgment he had been given. Jeremiah 19:14-15. If you were to read the verses immediately preceding our lesson, you would discover that Jeremiah received for his trouble a severe beating and a night in the stocks. Jeremiah 20:1-6. So now Jeremiah understandably wants to know where God’s promised deliverance was when he needed it! Like most of the laments found in the psalms, Jeremiah’s complaint is accompanied by affirmations of God’s faithfulness. In a strange way, the prophet’s complaint of abandonment and even betrayal reflect his confidence in God’s faithfulness. Jeremiah is convinced that his status as a covenant partner entitles him not only to a hearing, but ultimately to vindication. “In response to Yahweh’s questionable reliability, both the confessions and the biography show Jeremiah enacting a Joban steadfastness in which doubt and patience define one another and in which even the momentary wish for non-existence is but the dark coloration of the light of faith and unquenchable vocation.” Janzen, Gerald J., “Jeremiah 20:7-18,” Interpretation, Vol 37, #2, April 1983, p. 180.
This is the second most frequently quoted psalm in the New Testament (the first being Psalm 22). Like the prayer of Jeremiah in our first lesson, this psalm is a lament in which the individual pours out his/her complaint and plea for deliverance to the Lord. It bears repeating that the context for such prayer is the intimate covenant relationship between Israel and her God which makes prayer possible.
It is impossible to determine the date and historical context of the psalm. Given that “zeal for [God’s] house” has consumed the psalmist (vs. 9), we might infer that it was composed prior to the temple’s destruction in 587 B.C.E. or after its reconstruction which began in 520 B.C.E. and was completed in 515 B.C.E. It seems just as likely to me, however, that composition took place during the period before construction began. We know that the first returning exiles faced opposition from the local peoples to their plans for reconstruction of the temple, that reconstruction was a long time in coming and that prophetic encouragement was required to get the job done. A person zealous in promoting the temple project might well have met with opposition from folks less committed to the task or merely preoccupied with survival. In any event, the hostility experienced by the psalmist appears to arise from his or her faithfulness to the temple as the place where God’s name dwells. This verse is quoted at John 2:17 to explain Jesus’ cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem.
The opposition faced by the psalmist is intense. “I am the talk of those who sit in the gate.” Vs. 12. This individual is the subject of cruel gossip and public ridicule. Even the drunks make fun of him/her. Hostility cuts deep into the psalmist’s immediate family relationships. Vs. 8. In a culture where one’s identity is bound up with family and clan, such abandonment amounts to an existential crisis. Who is a person when s/he is no longer part of the family that bore him/her, named him/her and serves to identify him/her to the community at large? Such a person has only the God who regards with tender care the orphan, the widow and the stranger. Only in Israel, where the most fragile and vulnerable are of special concern to the God of the covenant, could a prayer such as this be made with confidence.
“Answer me, O Lord.” Vs. 16. The most intolerable aspect of the psalmist’s suffering is that s/he has cried out incessantly to God, but God has not yet responded with deliverance. In desperation, the psalmist pleads, “Turn to me.” Vs. 16. This is reminiscent of days long ago when my son, then only two or three, used to grab my head and turn my face toward his when I was on the phone or otherwise engaged in conversation and he needed my immediate attention. So the psalmist pleads: “hide not thy face from thy servant.” Vs. 17. S/he desperately needs face time with God and s/he is not afraid to demand it!
“Redemption” is a technical word in Hebrew referring to one who redeems or restores property for another by payment of a debt or satisfaction of a lien. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 97. The plea “redeem me” might therefore be translated, “Do your duty by me.” Ibid. Again, the psalmist can make this bold demand only because of the intimate covenant relationship binding Israel to her God.
I will be preaching regularly on the Romans texts that we will be encountering throughout the summer. Thus, a few introductory remarks are in order. Unlike Paul’s other letters, this one is not directed to a church that Paul founded or with which he had developed a pastoral relationship. From all we know, it seems clear that Paul has never visited the church in Rome. He does, however, appear to known many of the apostles, leaders and missionaries currently in Rome. What purpose, then, does Paul have for writing this letter? Some commentators suggest that he was simply writing the letter to introduce himself before coming in person. That, however, would seem to be unnecessary given the number of people well known to him already present and active in Rome. Others maintain that Paul’s intent was to generate support for his intended mission to Spain. There is some support for this view in Romans 15:24 and Romans 15:28. However, these two verses appear to me a slim reed upon which to divine Paul’s motives. Paul knew very well how to ask for money for his missions and he was not afraid to be blunt. E.g., I Corinthians 16:1-4. If this were a stewardship letter, I think it would be impossible to miss the point!
As I have said in prior posts, I believe that Paul’s primary concern is expressed in Romans 9-11. In that section, Paul discusses the destiny of Israel in God’s saving work through Jesus Christ. It is not Paul’s intent to discredit his people or their faith. Rather, he is making the argument that through Jesus the covenant promises formerly extended exclusively to Israel are now offered to the gentiles as well. Though some in Israel (most as it ultimately turned out) do not accept Jesus as messiah, it does not follow that God has rejected Israel. “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Romans 11:29. Paul points out that Israel’s rejection of Jesus as Messiah has occasioned the inclusion of the gentiles into the covenant promises. “A hardening,” says Paul, “has come over part of Israel until the full number of the gentiles come in.” Romans 11:25. I must confess that I don’t quite understand how Israel’s rejection of Jesus as messiah makes it any easier for the gentiles to believe. Nevertheless, Paul sees some connection here and, in any event, Israel’s salvation (which is assured) is inextricably bound up with the salvation of the gentiles. According to Paul, Israel and the church are both essential players in God’s redemptive purpose for creation. I believe that Paul’s letter to the church in Rome was written to make that very point to a church in danger of splitting apart along a Jewish/gentile fault line.
Martin Luther says of Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “The sum and substance of this letter is: to pull down, to pluck up, and to destroy all wisdom and righteousness of the flesh (i.e., of whatever importance they may be in the sight of men and even in our own eyes), no matter how heartily and sincerely they may be practiced, and to affirm, establish, and make large the reality of sin (however unconscious we may be of its existence).” Luther, Martin, Lectures on Romans, The Library of Christian Classics (c. 1962 L. Jenkins, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 3. That certainly describes the way in which Paul begins his letter. In Romans 1 Paul lambasts the gentile culture of Rome for its gross immorality. In chapter two, we discover that this critique of the gentiles was but a sucker punch. The knockout blow comes in Romans 2:1 when Paul turns to his real audience, the Roman church, and says, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge are doing the same things.” I suspect that the readers are remarking at this point, “You can’t be serious, Paul! We don’t take part in any of those horrid, immoral practices!”
Paul is serious, though, and he is setting the stage for his argument in the chapters to come that sin is far deeper, more complicated and pervasive than his readers imagine. He is out to demonstrate to them that their supposed righteousness and moral superiority over the gentile culture they excoriate is an illusion. Sin is not a matter of living up to moral standards. It is a matter of the human heart being so hopelessly turned in upon itself and away from God that it cannot possibly obey God. The good news of Jesus Christ is not about reforming sinners. It is about crucifying and raising them up as new people. That, I believe is the theological core of Paul’s letter.
In chapters 3-5 Paul argued that the believer in Jesus lives by faith rather than by human accomplishment through obedience to the law. Now Paul begins to speak of how the believer lives by faith. As he so often does, Paul begins with a rhetorical question: “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” Vs. 1. The question is a serious one as Lutherans like myself know well. Nothing has bedeviled us more than trying to explain how and why good works still matter even though they bring us no closer to God, cannot atone for sin and are so thoroughly contaminated by our selfish motives that they frequently bring about more evil than good. We have attempted to address this question under the rubric of “the priesthood of all believers.” In our tradition, all believers have a “calling” or “vocation.” For some of us, that calling is an ecclesiastical one. We are pastors, associates in ministry, church musicians, bishops, etc. For most of us, however, our callings are lived out in the secular world, though because the world is the arena of God’s action, we ought not to call it “secular.” God has two hands, the right hand being the church through which God brings sinners to saving faith in Jesus Christ. God’s left had works in the world through the orders of government, family and trade to ensure a semblance of order so that human life can thrive and the church can do its work. Therefore, if I am a pastor I must exercise my calling through attendance to preaching, the administration of the sacraments and pastoral care. If I am a lawyer, my calling is to represent my clients to the best of my ability so that the system of justice will function as effectively as it can be expected to do in a sinful world. If I am an engineer, I must use my skills to ensure that airplanes, elevators and ski lifts are well constructed and maintained for the good of all who use them. If I am an executioner, I must practice my craft with skill so that I do not botch things up as recently happened in Nebraska and wind up causing excessive pain for the people I kill.
In addition to ensuring that the reader is still awake, that last example was intended to bring into sharp relief a problem I have with our Lutheran view of the “priesthood of all believers.” It rests on the assumption that human institutions as we find them are ordained by God to achieve justice. To be sure, we do not claim that these institutions are perfect, but that is all the more reason for disciples of Jesus to engage with them. By our faithful participation in government, work and family, we become the leaven that raises the loaf. So goes the argument, but I am not convinced. As observed by Robert Brimlow:
“Of course, many of us believe the myth the churches help perpetuate that the common good will be advanced by our work as teachers, physicians, lawyers and managers. But the reality is that physicians need to spend more time answering to HMO’s and guarding costs than to patients’ needs. And lawyers need to increase their billable hours to 100 or 150 per week to cover office expenses and partners’ profits, leaving less time for family and community. And managers either worry about being downsized themselves or need to downsize others in a vicious game of productivity and survival. And teachers must adapt to increased class size, standardized curricula and standardized tests as a means of assessing their students and their own teaching effectiveness. And at the college and university level, more classes need to be taught to enable others to enter the professional ranks, as though the world really needs more plastic surgeons, corporate lawyers and professors of philosophy.” Brimlow, Robert, Paganism and the Professions, (c. 2002, The Ekklesia Project), p. 8.
It is difficult to see your job as a divine calling when deep inside you wonder whether that job is even necessary, whether it is not actually inflicting harm on people and whether the cost of advancing or even just hanging onto your job requires conduct altogether inconsistent with following Jesus. So far from being a transformative presence, disciples of Jesus are typically transformed by their work environments and their societal roles. The job, the school, the community dictate how time, money and attention are focused. Anyone involved in the church knows how hard we must struggle to extract time for worship, corporate prayer and instruction in discipleship from these competing interests. The understanding of the church as a community that empowers disciples to carry out their vocations in the world is another one of those ecclesiastical dogmas that sounds better in theory than it has ever worked out in practice.
Paul suggests a different answer to his question about how we should live by faith. He points out that we have been baptized into Christ’s death and so united with him. It is important that we do not lose sight of Paul’s understanding of the church as Christ’s Body. Baptism and incorporation into the church are one and the same thing. This text must be read with I Corinthians 12 in mind. To be united with Christ is to be grafted into a new community whose loyalty to Jesus transcends the ties of race, soil and blood. Even the sacred bonds of family are superseded by the unity of Christ’s Body. So far from being the cheerleader for individuals trying to live out their Christian faith by participation in a dehumanizing culture, the church constitutes an alternative culture, a radically different way of being human. The church is a community of persons of diverse backgrounds and formerly conflicting loyalties that have been renounced for the sake of loyalty to Christ. Paul will spell out specifically what this alternative lifestyle looks like in Romans 12-15. For our purposes today, it is enough to point out that Paul understands the church to be both the Body of Christ through which God is reconciling the world and the furnace in which sinners are transformed into saints by the work of the Holy Spirit. Church is not some place you go to be rejuvenated for the more important tasks that lie ahead on Monday. The church is what you are 24/7. That assertion raises questions too numerous and complex to tackle on a single post!
These uncompromising words of Jesus complement the reading from Romans by spelling out the consequences likely to occur for those united in Christ’s death by baptism. The context is Jesus’ commissioning of the Twelve Disciples to proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew 10:5-15. A disciple is not above his Master and so the Twelve can anticipate rejection, opposition and persecution. Their activity will generate hostility within their own families such that the disciple’s most ardent foes will be members of his/her own household. Loyalty to Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims must take precedence over the closest and most intimate national, social and family ties. In the Kingdom of Heaven, water is thicker than blood. Baptism is what finally defines who we are and who is our family.
“A disciple is not above his teacher.” Vs. 24. Literally translated, a disciple (mathatas) is “one who learns.” But merely hearing Jesus’ teach as he did in the synagogues would not in itself amount to discipleship as understood by Matthew. The word generally points to an allegiance to a particular teacher and involves following, living with and sharing the pattern of life practiced by the teacher. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 2005 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 191. Thus, the disciple must be prepared to share the adversities and hardships that accompany the teacher’s way of life. For disciples of Jesus, this means embracing the cross. So too, because Jesus is the church’s only “teacher” (Matthew 23:8) and because that teacher is with the church “to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:20), discipleship remains a matter of following Jesus. It is never a simply a matter of absorbing knowledge, but rather a lifetime of practicing the art of obedience to Jesus in communities where “little faith” becomes mature faith through mutual accountability and mutual forgiveness.
Just as Jesus’ works are attributed to “Beelzeboul,” so also the mission of the disciples will be discredited. The word “Beelzeboul” is a transliteration into Greek of the name for a Canaanite god, meaning “Baal, the Prince.” Over time the term became synonymous with “Satan.” Identification of your adversary with a symbol of evil is a cheap and easy way to discredit him or her without having to deal seriously with the adversary’s arguments. How often haven’t we heard politicians of all persuasions compare their opponents to Hitler? The inflammatory power unleashed by invocation of what we all know to be sheer evil is intended to distract the audience from the weakness and incoherence of the speaker’s own position. At least that is the theory. I suspect Jesus’ opponents had similar intentions when they asserted that “He casts out demons by the prince of demons.” Matthew 9:34.
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Vs. 28. The word “soul” is the English word used for the Greek word “psyche.” While there probably is no better word than “soul” available in our language, it is nevertheless misleading given all the baggage that comes along with it. Judaism in Jesus’ day knew nothing of a disembodied soul. The soul is more the essence of the whole person than an ontologically separable component of that person. Ibid, p. 436. Thus, the point is not that the soul somehow survives death, but that God has control of the whole person, body and soul, even beyond the grave. The message is one of comfort, not threat. For Jesus goes on to assure his disciples that the God who knows the fate of each sparrow also knows and values each of them intimately. Vs. 31.
‘Geehnna” is the Greek word translated as “hell” or “hades” in our English bibles. It is actually a transliteration into Greek from the Hebrew proper name, “Geh Hin·nom” or “Valley of Hinnom,” This was a ravine located south west of Jerusalem. According to the Hebrew Scriptures, the Judean Kings, Ahaz and Manasseh, offered human sacrifices there. II Chronicles 28:1-3; II Chronicles 33:1-6. The prophet Jeremiah warned that this valley would become a burial place for corpses left from the catastrophic judgment God was soon to bring upon Jerusalem and Judah. Jeremiah 7:31-35. The term is therefore more properly understood as a figure of speech than reference to an actual place.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Vs. 34. This is a verse no Sunday School kid was ever forced to memorize. I doubt you will ever see it embroidered on any wall hanging. I have never seen it on a bumper sticker or refrigerator magnet. What follows is even more problematic, particularly for those who look to Jesus as the defender of “family values.” “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household.” Vs. 35. So much for “family values.” Once again, family is defined not by ties of blood but through union with Jesus, a union that might well fragment all other ties.
This is a difficult text for us mainline churches who have always assumed that our job was to fortify societal bonds, strengthen the community and shore up social institutions like marriage, the so called traditional family and the PTA. Subconsciously or consciously, we are still trying to play that role. But our problem is that the world has now figured out that it can stand up just fine without our support. We have been downsized, laid off, pink slipped, informed that our services are no longer required. Yet like the fired middle manager in a state of denial, we continue leaving the house each day, briefcase in hand, only to be repeatedly bewildered when we arrive at the office and discover that we no longer have a cubicle, or assignments waiting for us or a parking space in the garage. We mainliners have been sidelined.
We can react to this crisis by continuing to show up at the office, hanging around the water cooler attempting to fit in, trying to look useful, hoping against hope that the boss will find some reason to re-hire us. That often appears to be the mainline strategy-if you can call it that. Or we can recognize that getting fired was probably the best thing that could have happened to the church. The old job of propping up civilization’s moral underpinnings stank and we were never good at it anyway. So let’s re-think what it means to be “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” I Peter 2:9. If we allowed our baptism to shape our vocations rather than attempting vainly to fit our baptismal identity into the functions defined for us by society, I suspect that there might soon be a lot of unemployed believers. I anticipate that this might well generate a good deal of strife and tension within families as the resulting impact on accustomed lifestyles begins to make itself felt. When we begin to make known in concrete ways to our neighbors that loyalty to our baptized sisters and brothers in nations hostile to the U.S. takes precedence over the loyalty of American citizenship, I don’t doubt that the persecution of which Jesus speaks will cease to be figment only of our past heritage. Martyrdom might once again become the norm rather than the exception for believers and so also the joy and excitement that come with being a witness to the dawn of a new age. Being church is a lot harder than merely going to church, but it’s also a lot more fun.
THE HOLY TRINITY
In the congregation where I grew up, we observed Trinity Sunday by reading in unison the Athanasian Creed. For those of you who might not be familiar with this statement of faith, it is one of what we Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Anglicans and a good many other faith communions call “the three chief symbols.” The other two symbols are the more familiar Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed. The origin of the Athanasian Creed is uncertain, but it is quite certain that it was not composed by the great theologian of the Fourth Century after which it is named. Scholarly consensus dates it from the Fifth or Sixth centuries based on its language and doctrinal foci.
The practice of reciting the Athanasian Creed in public worship has long been abandoned in most churches and for good reason. It is long, repetitive and filled with abstract language hard to digest in a single reading. Most disturbing of all are the dire warnings at the beginning and end of the creed to the effect that “whoever does not keep [the catholic faith] whole and undefiled will without doubt perish for eternity.” Athanasian Creed printed in The Book of Concord, translated by Theodore G. Tappert (c. 1959 by Fortress Press) p. 19. I don’t feel at all comfortable declaring the doubtless condemnation of anyone for any reason. That decision is far above my pay scale.
Nevertheless, I don’t advocate discarding the Athanasian Creed or even excising from it that troubling condemnation language. Though I might wish that it had been phrased differently, the creed quite properly lets us know that it matters what we believe about God. People do sick and twisted things for the gods they worship. Shooting little girls in the face for reading books, bombing Planned Parenthood Centers and disrupting funeral services with angry and hateful protests are only the more extreme acts of faithful obedience to perverse and cruel deities. More common are the cases of individuals burdened with self-hatred and guilt because they have been raised to worship a god who cares more about rules than people. I cannot tell you how many people I have met over the years who left the church because the god they met there was angry and judgmental, cold and distant or just too silly to warrant serious consideration.
A good deal of religion seems designed merely to perpetuate and justify the status quo for those in power. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard it said that the church’s job is to uphold public morality and decency. Nowhere does the Bible say anything remotely like that. That, however, was largely the role of Babylonian religion as we will see in our exploration of Sunday’s reading from Genesis. Sadly, religion bearing the Christian trademark has also been used to that end as well. We have mistaken middle class morality for the righteousness to which Jesus calls us. As a result, the church has found itself on the side of racial segregation, disenfranchisement of women and numerous other societal movements that are contrary to the righteousness to which Jesus calls us in the Sermon on the Mount. Make no mistake about it, religion can mislead, deceive and even kill. You are destined to become what you worship, so you need to be careful about who you worship.
That is why it is important to understand that God is Triune: the lover, the loved and the love between them. It is important to understand that the eternal love between Father and Son spills out over the formless deep calling nothingness into being, making time for us in eternity. It is important to understand that there is no hierarchy in God; no domination; no compulsion; no rivalry. It is important to understand that God does not ordain oppressive governments that exploit and neglect their people. It is important to understand that each human being bears the indelible image of his/her Creator and that the greatest blasphemy against the Triune God lies not in the desecration of shrines and sanctuaries or in the mockery of stand-up comedians and situation comedies but in violence, abuse, neglect and insult to human beings. The only God worthy of worship is the God who has made us capable of sharing the love known within God’s Triune self from eternity.
For these reasons, it is important that the church roundly condemned and rejected doctrinal formulae that denied the Triune nature of God; subordinated the Son to the Father; minimized or denied the incarnation. It is important that the church stood firm against attempts to introduce into our creeds the structures of hierarchy, domination and injustice that characterize human civilization in every age. It is also important that the creed makes clear how what we say about God is not a matter of irrelevant abstractions. You are what you worship so be careful who you worship.
This marvelous poetic portrayal of creation is a product of the Priestly author chiefly responsible for editing and contributing to the final form of the Pentateuch constituting the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. This editor(s)/author(s) composed during the Babylonian Exile from 587 B.C.E. to about 530 B.C.E. Throughout this period Israel lived as an ethnic minority in a culture that was hostile to her faith in the Lord of the Exodus. The people were surrounded by and immersed in the religious symbols, practices and mores of their captors, whose decisive victory over Israel called into question the validity of their faith. The temptation to become assimilated into Babylonian society was strong. Should Israel continue to worship a God that seemed to have been overcome by the deities of Babylon? If Israel’s God was God, how could this God allow his holy city and temple to be destroyed?
As discussed last week, the Babylonian Enûma Eliš saga relates how the earth was created out of a civil war between the gods and how humans were created from the divine blood shed in that conflict for the purpose of serving the victorious gods. The gods were ruled by the chief of these divine victors, Marduk, who in turn presided over a strict hierarchy. The Babylonian empire mirrored this heavenly hierarchy on earth with the emperor standing at the top of the social order. Under him were his officers, army and patrons. At the bottom of the pyramid were slaves-barely human and at the mercy of their owners whim. The empire was the gods will done on earth as in heaven according to the Babylonian creed.
Our reading from the first chapter of Genesis constitutes an alternative creation narrative reflecting a very different understanding of divinity, the cosmos and the social order. The story describes creation as the sovereign act of one God whose merciful and compassionate care ensures stability and sustenance for all creatures. There is no hint of conflict or struggle in the act of creation. Everything is brought into existence by the sovereign word of God that declares everything made to be “good.” Human beings do not spring up unintended from the blood of conflict, but are specially created in God’s image. They have not been made to serve as a race of slaves, but to be fruitful, multiply and rule over the good world God has made.
The command to “fill the earth and subdue it” has spawned some unfortunate misunderstanding about human responsibility in the realm of creation. I am not convinced that this verse, much less the Biblical witness as a whole, can be saddled with the responsibility for global warming. I believe rather that ideologies spun out of the Enlightenment extoling the power of reason and desacralizing the natural world are chiefly responsible for that and other ecological woes. Nonetheless, this verse has often been lifted out of its context and employed to give religious sanction for ruthless exploitation of the earth and its resources. One popular commentator recently remarked, “God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, ‘earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours.’” Colter, Ann, If Democrats had any Brains They’d be Republicans, (c. 2007 by Crown Forum) p. 104.
In all fairness to Ms. Colter, the Hebrew text actually does support her literal interpretation. The Hebrew verb for “subdue” is “CABAS” meaning “to tread down, beat or make a path or to subdue.” In at least one instance, the Bible uses this word to connote rape. Esther 7:8. The word can also mean to “enslave.” Jeremiah 34:11. For the most part, however, it is used to describe the conquest of Canaan and its inhabitants by Israel. Numbers 32:22; Joshua 18:1; I Chronicles 22:18. This is important because the land of Canaan was given to Israel in trust. Very specific provisions were made for care of the land, including a year of rest from cultivation each seven years. Exodus 23:10-11. Israel’s reign over the land of Canaan was to mirror God’s gentle and gracious reign over creation. This in marked contrast to the Babylonian empire’s brutal domination of the Near East reflecting the violence and brutality of the gods it worshiped.
Thus, I believe that the poet of Genesis 1 was using the term “CABAS” to undermine the imperial model of world domination in much the same way Paul employed images of weaponry to undermine the militaristic reign of Rome. Just as Paul points out that the weapons of the church are the good news of the gospel, prayer, faith and peacemaking (Ephesians 6:14-18), so the poet makes clear that God overcomes and rules the world by God’s exercise of patient, faithful and everlasting compassion. That is how God subdues us and that is the means by which God’s people subdue the world. Thus, if I were to forego preaching about the Trinity this Sunday, I might consider talking about the mythological framework behind the national and corporate empires of the Twenty First Century. Imperial power is as tyrannical today as it was in Sixth Century and even more destructive to the earth and its ecology. Is the assertion of personal property rights, national self-interest and territorial sovereignty consistent with the claim that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”? Psalm 24:1.
In addressing Trinity Sunday, it is worth observing that the term “Trinity” is nowhere found in the scriptures. That is not to say, however, that the doctrine lacks scriptural support or that it is inappropriate to speak of the Triune God in understanding this text. I do not share the strict historical critical assumption that the meaning of a biblical text is arrived at through stripping away all residue of the church’s interpretation and applying objectively the tools of text criticism, source criticism, redaction analysis, form criticism, literary criticism and whatever else I left out. This is not to say that these individual components of the method are not useful in some measure to critique and correct our interpretations. They are clearly important, but they are not the key to preaching the text. I believe that at the end of the day, the Bible is the church’s book and it cannot be read faithfully (by Christians anyway) apart from the Church’s confession that Jesus is Lord. So be warned that I confess unashamedly to reading and preaching the scriptures through the lens of the church’s Trinitarian faith. Historical critical tools are sometimes helpful to that end, but they don’t get to drive the bus.
At the very beginning of the Hebrew Scriptures we are told something very important: that God speaks. It is only because God speaks that it is possible for us to speak of God at all. God initiates a conversation within God’s Triune self through which all things are spoken into existence. As creation progresses, God’s speech spills over to address the creation. The earth is commanded to bring forth vegetation, the lights of the firmament are commanded to give light to the earth, the waters are commanded to bring forth swarms of living creatures, the earth is commanded to bring forth living creatures. Creation can respond with praise, prayer and thanksgiving because and only because God gives it a word to which it can respond. Then in verse 26 for the first time we overhear the Trinitarian deliberation and dialogue concerning our own creation. We learn that we are uniquely created in the image of our Creator.
Much ink has been spilt pondering what it means for us to be made in God’s image. I am not convinced that the poet in Genesis gives us much in the way of an answer to the inquiry. That is not surprising given that poetry is always more suggestive than definitive. We may infer, as I have already said, that humanity’s reign over the earth is to reflect God’s gracious reign over all creation. Yet the shape of both reigns must await further development as the scriptural narrative progresses. The call of Abraham from the wastes of Babel, the sojourning of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the liberation of Israel from bondage will dramatize both God’s judgment on dehumanizing ways of existence and God’s promise of an alternative way of being human. The shape of human existence in obedience to God is spelled out in God’s covenants wherein God’s faithfulness is demonstrated and the promise of true humanity is held out. Israel is ever in the process of becoming human precisely so that by its light the world may finally learn the proper way of being the world.
The image of God is finally realized in Jesus, the “Word made flesh.” More than any of the other gospels, John’s narrative illustrates both the divinity of humanity and the humanity of God. We can say that humans are created in God’s image precisely because, as St. Augustine reminds us, we “are capable of Him, and can be partaker of Him; which so great a good is only made possible by [humanity’s] being His image.” Augustine of Hippo, On the Trinity, Book 14, Chapter 8:11 (c. 2012 by Fig-books.com) p. 372. In the 17th Chapter of John, Jesus prays for his disciples, “Holy Father, keep them in my name which thou has given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” John 17:11. It is through this perfect oneness in love that the world will know the love of the Father for the Son reflected in the disciples’ love for one another. John 17:23. Moreover, this love will spill out into the world for which Jesus died to all those who believe through the disciples’ witness. John 17:20. Jesus has sheep that are not yet of his flock and who must also be embraced by the Father’s love. John 10:16. In short, Jesus is the only one ever to be truly human and our becoming fully human depends on our unity with him. God is never more truly God’s self than when God becomes flesh and dwells among us. In this way, the final yearning of God expressed in the Book of Revelation is satisfied. “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people.” Revelation 21:3.
This psalm is one that biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann classifies a song of orientation. As such, it expresses “a confident, serene settlement of faith issues.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Publishing House (c. 1984) p. 25. It is further classified by the majority of Old Testament scholars as a “creation” psalm glorifying God for making and sustaining an orderly and reliable world in which season follows upon season, harvest upon harvest and the cycles of birth, maturation, old age and death are blessed with the gracious presence of the Lord.
The psalm points specifically to the place of human beings in the created order. Though the psalmist does not focus on human frailty and mortality, s/he is clearly aware of it when asking “what are human beings and their descendants that you care for them?” vs. 4. In comparison with God’s other works, the sun, the moon and the stars which are for all practical purposes immortal, human beings with their moribund existence and their short, fragile lives hardly seem to register. Yet the psalmist recognizes that God is uniquely concerned with human beings, that they are little lower than the angels in his estimation and that they have been appointed to rule over the earth and its creatures.
As noted in my remarks on the Genesis reading, it is important to understand that “dominion” over the earth given human beings is to be exercised as an extension of God’s reign over creation. Thus, the words of last week’s psalm should be ringing in our ears: “All of [the creatures of the earth] look to you to give them their food in due season. You give it to them; they gather it; you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.” Psalm 104:27-29. Dominion is not given to human beings for exploitation of the earth and its resources. Human beings rule as stewards who must give account for the care they have exercised in managing God’s good earth. Ecology is very much a biblical value!
Stylistically, the psalm is carefully crafted to reflect in its composition the same good order manifest throughout God’s creation. It begins and ends with the same refrain: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!” The psalm begins with people, even infants, glorifying God for the majesty of the heavens. Then the psalm turns to God’s glorification of human beings, small though they may be, in making them rulers over the earth and sea.
The only reason for lifting up these final words of farewell from Paul’s Second Letter the church at Corinth appears to be that they contain one of only two full Trinitarian invocations in the New Testament. The other such invocation is found at the end of our gospel lesson from Matthew. The Trinitarian order is significant. The Grace of Christ inspires the love of God which is actualized through the Spirit producing fellowship in the church. A better translation than “fellowship” as set forth in the old RSV might be “participation in” or “communion of,” as the NRSV has it.
There is plenty to talk about in this story of the Great Commission. The commission occurs at Jesus’ first resurrection appearance to the disciples as a whole. According to Matthew, only the women who came to the tomb saw Jesus on Easter Sunday. Jesus sent them back with instructions to the disciples to meet him in Galilee. Matthew 28:10. The disciples follow these instructions and encounter the resurrected Christ who announces that all authority in heaven and on earth have been given to him and that on his authority they are to make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the Triune name. The gospel ends with the assurance that Jesus will be with his disciples until the end of the age.
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus. Perhaps this is another way of saying, as did Luke, that Jesus is henceforth the right hand of God at work in the world. It certainly does not suggest that Jesus is simply delegating a task that he is unable or unwilling to do himself. Jesus’ continuing presence with his disciples is reaffirmed. The dialogical relationship between immanence and transcendence is at work here.
It is hard to overstate the importance of Jesus’ instruction to “make disciples” of all nations-not church members or converts. “Of all nations” does not mean that nations themselves are to be converted or drawn into the cultural orbit of Christendom. Rather, it means that disciples are to be made and churches planted “within” all nations that the gospel may be preached to the ends of the earth. One dreadful mistake we mainliners have made over the centuries is marketing to consumers instead of seeking, as the U.S. Marines would say, “a few good people.” Consumers, of course, consume. They are a demanding crowd that invariably requires more attention, more programs and more benefits than the small but committed core of disciples can meet. Consequently, they leave again disappointed that their needs have not been met. Thus, even when mass marketing is successful, it fails. Matthew’s gospel challenges the church to focus not on membership rolls, but on making disciples. Better one new disciple than twenty new members! At least that has been my own experience.
I am sure that the lectionary’s motivation for including this text was the Trinitarian baptismal formula at verse 19. I don’t know what more there is to say about this other than that it appears the church was using this Trinitarian formula from at least the 80s-90s where scholarly consensus places the writing of Matthew’s gospel. For my thoughts on the rather baseless claim that this formula was a later addition to the gospel, see my post of May 4th.
DAY OF PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, on this day you open the hearts of your faithful people by sending into us your Holy Spirit. Direct us by the light of that Spirit, that we may have a right judgment in all things and rejoice at all times in your peace, through Jesus Christ, your Son and our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The church has always been a little frightened of the Holy Spirit. Outpourings of the Spirit tend to cut across racial, ethnic and cultural barriers. The Spirit seems not to respect the distinctions of hierarchy, protocol and guidelines for ministry that are the hallmarks of ecclesial establishments. The “Azusa Street Revival” giving birth to the Pentecostal movement in the United States is a classic example of the Holy Spirit getting out of hand. This movement began in Los Angeles on April 9, 1906 during a prayer meeting conducted by William J. Seymour in a private home. Seymour and seven other persons with him began speaking in ecstatic tongues. News of this event spread throughout the neighborhood and soon crowds in the hundreds were gathering about the house with many people seeking to take part in the meetings. Remarkably for the time, the movement was characterized by racial and cultural diversity that us mainliners still have not achieved, despite our struggles to be inclusive. Worship services were altogether lacking in any regular liturgical format consisting mainly of preaching interspersed with hymns, prayers and, of course, speaking in tongues.
The responses of mainline churches ranged from cautious to hostile. Any movement crossing the color line was bound to draw ire from many different quarters, north and south. The prevalence of lay preachers challenged established doctrines of church and ministry. But more disturbing than anything else was the practice of speaking in tongues. These displays of ecstasy were simply unintelligible to rational, progressive protestant theology forged in the furnace of the enlightenment. What we cannot fit into our frame of reference, we tend to fear and reject. Thus, it is not surprising that established protestant churches dismissed the Pentecostal movement as mere religious hysteria and emotionalism.
The spontaneous and freewheeling stage of this movement was short lived. Some of its participants found their way back into established churches of one kind or another. Others developed into full-fledged denominations. The Assemblies of God is a good example of the latter. It seems that, for the long haul, the church needs some sort of structure to carry on. Paul reminds us that however impressive a gift or manifestation of the Spirit might be, it ceases to be a work of the Holy Spirit when it is used to build up the status of the recipient rather than the Body of Christ. Though we are God’s gifted people, we are nevertheless blinded by our sin and selfishness. We need structures to hold ourselves accountable to Christ and to one another as we exercise our particular gifts for ministry. Moreover, the church must have ways of recognizing and discerning Spiritual gifts and vocations. Just because I believe I am gifted in ministry of one kind or another does not mean that I really am. The tasks of preaching, teaching and worship leadership are far too important to leave for anyone who shows up and feels so inclined. Seminaries, credentialing committees and lay leadership training all have their place.
Nonetheless, the structures we create to facilitate the exercise of mission and ministry can also get in the way. Anyone who has ever attempted to start a new and innovative ministry that runs afoul of denominational guidelines and procedures knows the meaning of frustration. Every pastor or congregational leader that has attempted to introduce fresh approaches to worship, preaching and outreach in an established congregation knows how resistant the church can be to the influence of the Spirit. Throughout the Book of Acts, it always seems that the Holy Spirit is out in front of a church that can hardly keep up. Nowhere is that more evident than in Acts 11 where Saint Peter must explain to the council in Jerusalem why he went ahead and received gentiles into the church by baptism before consulting with leadership. Perhaps the rest of the apostles would have preferred to conduct a five year study on the issue of gentile inclusion and then bring it up for action at another apostolic council. But as far as Peter is concerned, this is an issue that the Holy Spirit has already decided. There is nothing left to study, nothing to vote on.
Perhaps the tension between the Spirit’s leading and the organizations we create in our efforts to follow is inevitable. Perhaps that is why we need always to be in the process of reformation. Today Pentecostal churches are the fastest growing of all others. How different might have been the course of our mainline churches if only we had been more receptive to the Azusa Street Revival? What would our churches look like today if we had entered into earnest dialogue with these believers, welcomed their newfound awareness of God’s Spirit and allowed it to renew, transform and enrich our mission and ministry? Can you imagine a church steeped in a rich liturgical tradition and having a strong confessional heritage pulsing with the soul of Azusa?
The Book of Acts continues Luke’s story begun in his gospel. Recall that in the Transfiguration Luke describes Jesus’ coming suffering, death and resurrection in Jerusalem as his “departure.” Luke 9:31. This word is derived from the term for “Exodus” employed in the Greek Old Testament known as the Septuagint. Luke means to tell us that Jesus is soon to bring about a saving event on a par with Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. Throughout his telling of the story, Luke has sought to demonstrate a history of salvation in the ministry of Jesus and its continuation through the church. This history is told against the backdrop of the Roman Empire that has been lurking in the background from the beginning, takes an interest in Jesus during his ministry in Galilee and moves to crush him as he makes his very determined last trip to Jerusalem. Luke is showing us that history is made not in the capital of Rome, but in the backwaters of the Empire where a homeless couple gives birth to an infant in a barn. The word of God comes not to the Temple in Jerusalem, but to a ragged prophet in the wilderness of Judea. God’s glory is revealed not within the Holy of Holies, but outside the city on a hill overlooking a garbage dump where the vilest of criminals are executed. By way of the resurrection, God makes clear that Caesar is not Lord. Jesus is.
The second chapter of Acts takes us to the next episode of Luke’s salvation history, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. Pentecost, known as the “Feast of Tabernacles” or “Feast of Booths” was intended as a reminiscence of the fragile dwellings in which the Israelites lived during their 40 years of travel through the desert after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. According to the prophet Zechariah, this feast of booths will become a universal festival in the last days during which all the nations will make pilgrimages annually to Jerusalem in celebration. Zechariah 14:16-19. The gathering of many Diaspora Jews in Jerusalem and their receptiveness to the disciple’s preaching indicates that the long awaited messianic age has arrived.
Some scholars have pointed out that later rabbinic teachers understood Pentecost not merely as a harvest festival or reminiscence of the wilderness wanderings, but a commemoration of God’s appearance to Israel upon Sinai and the giving of the law through Moses. Gaster, Theodore H., Festivals of the Jewish Year, (c. New York: Morrow, 1952) cited by Juel, Donald, Luke Acts-The Promise of History, (John Knox Press, c 1983) p. 58. Thus, if Jesus’ ministry culminating in Jerusalem was God’s new Exodus, Pentecost corresponds to God’s descent to Israel on Mount Sinai. The mighty wind and flame reported in Luke bring to mind the Sinai appearance accompanied by fire and storm. Exodus 19:16-25. The speaking of the disciples in multiple languages corresponds to rabbinic legends claiming that the law given to Moses was miraculously translated into every language under heaven. See Juel, supra citing Lake, Kirsopp, “The Gift of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost,” Beginnings of Christianity, 5:114-16.
Pentecost was understood by some Jewish writers as a commemoration of the renewal of God’s covenant with the earth made through Noah. See Jubilees 6:17-18. Such awareness on Luke’s part is entirely consistent with the universal appeal of his gospel. It is also tempting to read the Pentecost story as the undoing of the confusion of tongues imposed by God as a judgment upon the nations at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. I don’t believe that it is necessary to select any of these interpretations of the Pentecost event over all of the others. Luke is not building a ridged typology tying the Church’s story to that of Israel. Rather, he is alluding to episodes in the Hebrew Scriptures that illuminate the new thing God is doing through Jesus. Pentecost can therefore be seen as a new revelation from God poured out upon the disciples and spilling over into the languages of all nations. It can be understood as a revocation of God’s judgment of confusion upon a rebellious people bent on storming heaven. It is a new event in which God “storms” into the life of the world. Or Pentecost can be seen as an allusion to the coming of the messianic age through the ingathering of God’s people. Whichever emphasis one might wish to give this story, Luke means for us to recognize in it the mission of the church that will take the disciples to “the ends of the earth.”
One final note: the folks gathered here are all “devout Jews.” Though they come from Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean world and speak the languages of the localities in which they reside, they are nonetheless people of Israel. Inclusion of the Gentiles, though hinted at throughout Luke’s gospel, is not yet on the church’s agenda. Nevertheless, the mission to the Gentiles can be seen in embryonic form among these diverse Jews through the languages and cultures they have internalized.
This psalm is a remarkable hymn to God, the Creator. Its focus on God’s sovereignty over the earth, sea and sky reflects a date after the Babylonian Exile where Israel was exposed to and tempted by the creation myths from the religion of her Chaldean captors. The Babylonian Enûma Eliš saga relates how the earth was created out of a civil war between the gods and how humans were created from the divine blood shed in that conflict for the purpose of serving the victorious gods. By contrast, this psalm describes creation as a sovereign act of the one God whose merciful and compassionate care ensures stability and sustenance for all creatures. There is no hint of conflict or struggle in the act of creation. Wind and flame are God’s “ministers” (the same word used for “angels”). Vs 4. The feared sea monster, Leviathan, understood in near eastern mythology to be a fearsome and threatening divine agent, is not a rival god or even God’s enemy in the biblical view of things. It is merely another of God’s creatures in which God takes delight. Vss. 25-26. Everything that lives depends upon God’s Spirit, without which there is no existence. That Spirit is capable not only of giving life, but also restoring it. vs. 30.
This psalm has theological affinities with the creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:3, also composed during the period of Israel’s exile in Babylon. Here, too, everything is brought into existence by the sovereign word of God that declares everything made to be “good.” Human beings are created not from the blood of conflict, but from the dust of the earth and in God’s image. They have not been made to serve as a race of slaves, but to be fruitful, multiply and rule over the good world God has made. The sun, moon and stars are not magical entities whose movements and alignments control the fate of people and nations. Rather, they are luminaries created to provide light for the benefit of God’s creatures. This is not a world of haunted horrors in which humans are at best slaves and at worst collateral damage in an ongoing struggle between gods and demons. It is a good world ruled by a generous and compassionate Creator.
While Babylonian religion has long since faded into the dead zone of history, I still believe that in this so called “post-modern” era we are confronted with a secularized paganism. Babylonian religion portrayed a world ruled by warring gods, each having its own sphere of influence and all of which needed to be placated by human beings living at their mercy. So also I believe for us contemporaries, the world seems a soulless place at the mercy of corporate economic interests, nationalist military conflicts and societal expectations for conformity exercising tyrannical power over us. Humans are viewed as “cheap labor,” “voting blocks,” “collateral damage,” “demographic groups,” and categorized by other dehumanizing labels. The earth is viewed as a ball of resources to be used up freely and without limitation by anyone having the power to control and exploit them. Unlike the Babylonian and post-modern visions, the Bible does not view the world either as a haunted house inhabited by warring demons or as the battleground for competing national, commercial and tribal interests. This psalm testifies to the beauty, goodness and holiness of the earth as God’s beloved creation.
The church at Corinth was a congregation only the Apostle Paul could love. It had every conceivable problem a church could have. It had divisive factions; power struggles; sex scandals; doctrinal disputes; arguments over worship practices; and, of course, money issues. Yet remarkably, Paul can say to this messed up, dysfunctional congregation, “Now you are the Body of Christ.” I Corinthians 12:27. He does not say, “You should be the Body of Christ!” or “You could be the Body of Christ if you would just get your act together!” No, Paul is emphatic that the church at Corinth is the Body of Christ even now, with all its warts and blemishes. This is no metaphor. Paul means for the church to understand that it is Jesus’ resurrected Body. Nothing Paul says makes any sense until you get that.
In this Sunday’s lesson the issue is spiritual gifts. Understand that Paul is not using the term “spiritual” in the wishy washy new age sense that we so often hear it today-i.e., “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” (Whatever that means.) When Paul speaks of the spiritual, he is speaking explicitly about the Spirit of Jesus. That Spirit can be experienced only through the intimate knowing of Jesus. Jesus is known through communion with his Body, the church. Thus, it is impossible to speak of obedience to Jesus apart from communion with his Body. The church is the Body of Jesus precisely because it is animated by the Spirit of Jesus. Therefore, every ethical decision, every doctrinal teaching, every matter of church administration, every aspect of worship boils down to what does or does not build up the unity and health of Christ’s Body.
The reading begins with the assertion that “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Vs. 3. We need to be mindful of the political implications of this claim. The mantra of the Roman world was “Caesar is Lord.” Because there is room for only one divine emperor, asserting that anyone other than Caesar is Lord constitutes de facto treason. At best, you earn ridicule from the pagan community for making such a claim. In the worst case scenario, the confession of Jesus as Lord might be treated as a criminal offense. The assertion was equally problematic within the Jewish community. According to Deuteronomy 21:22-23, a person put to death by hanging on a tree is cursed. Consequently, confessing a crucified criminal as Israel’s Messiah could be regarded as blasphemy. In sum, making the confession “Jesus is Lord” could result in ostracism from your religious community, mockery from your pagan neighbors and possibly conviction of a capital crime. Quite understandably, then, Paul insists that making this bold confession and living by it requires the support of God’s Spirit.
In the first part of verse 3 (not included in our reading) Paul states that no one can say “Jesus be cursed” by the Spirit of God. I Corinthians 12:3. This might seem obvious. One would not expect such an exclamation from within the church community. Given the hostile environment in which the church found itself, however, it is not inconceivable that a weak member of the church might be tempted to curse the name of Jesus in order to conceal his or her affiliation from family, religious or civil authorities. Some commentators suggest that Paul is referring to the Roman practice of requiring suspected Christians to revile the name of Christ in order to clear themselves of any accusation. Fitzmyer, Joseph A., First Corinthians, The Anchor Bible Commentary, Vol. 32, (c. 2008 by Yale University) p. 456. This approach to the church was evidently taken in Asia Minor as evidenced by correspondence from Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan in 110 C.E. Though this conclusion is plausible and tempting, I rather doubt that Paul had anything so specific in mind. The church was still a tiny sect within and indistinguishable from Judaism in the mid First Century when Paul was active. It is therefore unlikely that the Roman authorities in Corinth during this period would have recognized it or singled it out for any such specialized policy of enforcement.
So now we come down to the specific issue at hand: “spiritual gifts” given to individual members of the Body of Christ for the building up of that Body. There is no hierarchy in the church for Paul. The issue is never “who is in charge.” Jesus is the Head of the church. He alone is in charge. The rest of us are all members of the body. A little finger might not seem to be particularly important-until you try using a keyboard without it or it gets slammed in the car door. Suddenly, the least important part of the body is commanding center stage! So also in the Body of Christ, the prominence of any person’s gift at any particular time depends upon what is happening. When determining the short term management of a large monetary gift to the church, someone with administrative skill in managing funds is critical. Such persons know how to transfer property quickly, efficiently and without loss to a place where it can appreciate in value as the church decides how to use it. But, when it comes to long range management of these funds, different gifts are required. The mission of the church is not to maximize income on its investments, but to use its resources to build up the Body of Christ and witness to the reign of God. To make faithful use of the church’s resources to these ends, the gift of prophetic vision is required. The gift of discernment is necessary also to evaluate such visions and find within them the call and command of Jesus. When all members of the church work together using their unique gifts to build up the Body of Christ, the gifts complement each other.
Unfortunately, such harmony was not the prevailing mood at Corinth. Certain individuals were convinced that their gifts conferred upon them greater status and authority. They were using their gifts and abilities to advance their own interests instead of building up the church. So Paul begins in these verses an extended discussion about the proper use of the gifts the Holy Spirit gives to each member of the Body of Christ. In the first place, all members of the Body are gifted and their gifts are necessary to the proper functioning of that Body. Vs. 4. So the church must constantly ask itself whether it is recognizing the gifts among its members. Second, it matters not which gift a person has, but how the gift is used. Paul makes it clear that all gifts must be used for the common good of the whole church. Vs. 7. In the example of the monetary gift, a short term manager who loses sight of the big picture and is concerned only with maximizing returns on investment rather than growing the ministry of the church is no longer serving the Body. So also the visionary with great plans for the church’s resources who is unwilling to submit his or her vision to the ministry of discernment within the Body is no longer building up the Body. Third, there is no hierarchy of gifts. Hierarchy is antithetical to the well-being of the church. Sadly, it seems today that we lack the imagination, creativity and vision to function without hierarchy and my own church body (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) is no exception to that rule. But don’t get me started on that.
As I noted last week, John’s Pentecost story is out of step with that of Luke (or the other way around if you prefer). John has Jesus breathing the life giving Spirit into his disciples on the morning of his resurrection. More than any other witness, John identifies the Holy Spirit with the presence of the resurrected Christ in his church. Of course, Saint Paul makes the same identification in referring consistently to the Church as Christ’s Body. Similarly, the Book of Acts makes clear that the mission of the church is in many respects the continuation of Jesus’ ministry of healing, feeding the hungry and preaching good news to the poor. So I believe that the New Testament witness is consistent in anchoring the outpouring of the Spirit with the continued presence of Jesus in the church. Hence, I side with the Western church on the matter of the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed, namely, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. For the perspective of the Eastern Church which rejects this clause such that the Creed affirms the procession of the Spirit from the Father only, check out this link.
Luke and John are entirely on the same page in their identification of the Spirit with the commissioning of the disciples. In the very same breath (pun intended) that Jesus says “receive the Holy Spirit,” he then says “as the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” Vss. 22-23. So also in Luke’s understanding, the Spirit is given so that the disciples can become Jesus’ “witnesses” to “the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8. In John’s account, Jesus goes on to tell his disciples that “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Vs. 23. Exactly what does this mean? According to Luther’s Small Catechism, this verse refers to the “Office of the Keys” through which the church, through its public ministry, absolves penitent sinners and withholds this benefit from the unrepentant. Luther’s Small Catechism, Part V. But is that really what John had in mind here? In my view, the context makes that interpretation extremely doubtful. The focus is not upon the internal workings of the community of disciples but upon the disciples’ mission to the world. Undoubtedly, the two are related in this gospel. It is through the disciples’ love for one another that they will be identified as followers of Jesus. John 13:35. But the principal emphasis is on the disciples’ witness to the world, not to their relationship with one another. So what can it mean to “retain” sins?
I believe that John is emphasizing the importance of the commission that Jesus has just given to his disciples. It is through them that the life giving Word of forgiveness is to be made known to the world. It is “in” them that the Spirit now resides. If the disciples of Jesus do not make known God’s forgiveness of sin, the world will remain in the grip of sin. Those sins will be retained. But if the Word is spoken, it will be accompanied by the Spirit of God that inspires faith and breaks the bondage of sin. I believe that is what commentator Raymond Brown is saying in the following quote:
“In summary, we doubt that there is sufficient evidence to confirm the power of forgiving and holding of sin, granted in John 20:23 to a specific exercise of power in the Christian community, whether that be admission to Baptism or forgiveness in Penance. These are but partial manifestations of a much larger power, namely, the power to isolate, repel, and negate evil and sin, a power given to Jesus in his mission by the Father and given in turn by Jesus through the Spirit to those whom he commissions. It is an effective, not merely declaratory, power against sin, a power that touches new and old followers of Christ, a power that challenges those who refuse to believe. John does not tell us how or by whom this power was exercised in the community for whom he wrote, but the very fact that he mentions it shows that it was exercised.” Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John, XIII-XXI, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 29a, (Doubleday, c. 1970) p. 1044.