ELEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, with all your faithful followers of every age, we praise you, the rock of our life. Be our strong foundation and form us into the body of your Son, that we may gladly minister to all the world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
This is an exciting time in which to be the church. Many who hear me say this might think me mad. After all, prospects for the mainline church in which I grew up have never looked grimmer. Lutherans are old. At 58, I still feel like a kid in the congregation I serve. We are not reaching people 30 and younger. There is no mystery as to why this is so. Most of our members grew up in an age when everyone went to church because it was the thing to do. No one questioned Sunday worship any more than they would have questioned saluting the flag or brushing their teeth. It’s just what we all did. Even those of us who didn’t worship and saw no earthy reason for it usually lied and said we did. After all, going to church on Sunday was part and parcel of being a good citizen.
Those days are gone and that is a problem for us. It is a problem because most of our current members cannot explain to a rational adult why he or she should give up a leisurely Sunday morning with coffee, a bagel and the paper to attend a worship service. Especially is this so when that person is unfamiliar with the church generally and a stranger to the congregation in particular. “Why,” such stranger might ask, “would I go to a place where nobody knows me just to take part in a complicated ritual that I don’t understand and then have somebody stick a plate under my nose asking me for money? Look, I know you love your church. I know you hate to see it die. I know you want me to join and give you some “new blood” and financial support. But your church’s need is not my problem. I don’t ask you to help me pay my rent. Don’t expect me to help you keep your church afloat.”
And that’s not the worst of it. Our church has not endeared itself to younger people over the decades. In 2011 the Barna Group released results of a study focusing on young people and the church with some very troubling news. One characteristic of teens and young adults is their exposure to numerous ideas and world views outside the parameters of family, church and community. These young people are looking for ways to make sense of this data overload. But they are not looking to the church. That is because they view the church as narrow minded, fear driven and closed to anything new. In particular, young people view the church as antagonistic to science. For this reason, young people often characterize the church as shallow, detached from reality and mired in traditions no longer relevant to their lives.
Perhaps the biggest disconnect between the church and young people is the church’s preoccupation with sexual issues and its tendency to resolve those issues by appealing to a ridged, rule based morality impervious to questioning and dialogue. Frankly, congregations that insist on excluding or treating as second class members people who are gay, lesbian or transgendered might just as well kiss the upcoming generation good-by. I am thankful that my own church, at the denominational level anyway, has finally made unequivocally clear that all such persons are welcomed as fully and completely as any other person called by the Holy Spirit into the Church of Christ. I am thankful that I no longer have to endure the embarrassment of explaining to my own children why their friends are not welcome in the church I serve and represent as a pastor. For congregations and individuals who are “not there yet” I have but three words: get over it.
So given all this bad news for my church, how can I possibly believe that this is a great time to be the church? I say that because there are marvelous movements of Spirit led revival and faith to be found all over the country. Church is coming alive in many new ways as people called by the Spirit form intentional communities designed for the living out of discipleship. Throughout the whole people of God in this country there is a developing understanding of church as who you are rather than where you go. At house churches, intentional communities and re-awakened parishes in every state young people are discovering a faith that is not just an add-on to their already busy and overcommitted lives, but a thriving reality at the very center of their lives. Rather than simply offering help for coping with life as it is, these new communities are inviting people to follow Jesus into alternative lifestyles that are faithful, sustainable and life-giving. I discuss some of those movements in my comments on our lesson from Isaiah. They are small, scattered and idiosyncratic. Yet I think they may very well be the seed of the church for the 21st Century.
In the midst of mainline decline and collapse, the ancient words of the prophet can yet be heard: “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Isaiah 43:19. Yes, this is a wonderful time in which to be the church!
This reading is taken from the second section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6th Century B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. On the one hand, the prophet makes a joyous declaration of salvation for Israel and announces the potential for a new start. On the other hand, the prophet makes clear that God is doing with Israel something entirely new. This will not be a return to “the good old days” when Israel was a powerful and independent people under the descendants of David. That, according to the prophet, “is too light a thing” for the people of God. Israel and the servant prophet are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. For more specifics on the Book of Isaiah generally, See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.
Following several other commentators, Professor Claus Westermann holds that this section of the text has become disordered in the course of transmission. He would reconstruct it, working the verses from our reading into various surrounding sections of text. The finished product reads as follows:
[Isaiah 51:1a] Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord.[Isaiah 50:10-11] Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant, who walks in darkness and has no light, yet trusts in the name of the Lord and relies upon his God? But all of you are kindlers of fire, lighters of firebrands. Walk in the flame of your fire, and among the brands that you have kindled! This is what you shall have from my hand: you shall lie down in torment.
[Isaiah 51:4-6] Listen to me, my people, and give heed to me, my nation; for a teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples. I will bring near my deliverance swiftly, my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope. Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats; but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.
[Isaiah 51:7a] Listen to me, you who know righteousness, you people who have my teaching in your hearts; [Isaiah 51:1] Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. [Isaiah 51:7b-8] do not fear the reproach of others, and do not be dismayed when they revile you. For the moth will eat them up like a garment, and the worm will eat them like wool; but my deliverance will be forever, and my salvation to all generations.
Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. 1969 SCM Press Ltd.) pp 232-234. This arrangement has the virtue of solving several other perceived problems with other sections of the Isaiah text, forging them, along with fragments of our lesson, into a nicely balanced three strophe poem. With all due respect to Professor Westermann, I am suspicious of employing any interpretive tool, including form criticism, for no better purpose than to make the text more “intelligible.” Just because something is difficult to understand does not mean that it is void of meaning. Perhaps the language is obscure because the matter at hand lies at the border of mystery. If that is the case, deconstructing the language is probably the last thing you want to do. Furthermore, it is to my thinking entirely unjustifiable to break up a passage that makes perfectly good sense standing alone in order to solve problems elsewhere in the text. Accordingly, I will take the lesson as we have it.
“You who pursue deliverance” in verse 1 refers to the Babylonian exiles. Just as the Israelite slaves cried out for deliverance in Egypt, so now the exiles seek deliverance from their captivity. The prophet chooses his words carefully to evoke precisely this parallel. Throughout his/her oracles, Second Isaiah likens the return from exile to Israel’s exodus from Egypt. E.g. Isaiah 43:1-7; Isaiah 43:15-17. But in the next verse, the prophet reaches back even further in Israel’s history to the age of the matriarchs and patriarchs. “Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for when he was but one I called him, and blessed him and made him many.” Vs. 2. This is the only verse in the Hebrew Scriptures outside of Genesis referencing Sarah. Second Isaiah is filled with feminine metaphors for God’s faithfulness to Israel. Isaiah 42:14; Isaiah 46:3; Isaiah 49:1, 5, 15; Isaiah 54:1. Thus, it is not surprising that s/he should include Sarah along with Abraham in this instance.
The prophet is addressing the group of exiles that have been receptive to his/her call to make the journey back to Palestine from Babylon. In all probability, this was a small congregation. Yet the prophet is not dismayed by the meager response of the people to his/her challenge. After all, when God called Abraham and Sarah, they were but two individuals. Moreover, we also know that they were childless and past child bearing age. The prospects for fulfilment of the promise that their descendants would outnumber the stars seemed remote, to put it mildly. Yet just as God raised up the people of Israel from this unpromising beginning, so God will make of this little band of exiles a new people in that ancient land promised to Abraham and Sarah so long ago. With God, size doesn’t matter, but only faithfulness.
In verses 4-5 the prophet promises that God’s “deliverance draws near speedily.” Significantly, however, that salvation is described as “a law” going forth from God. The word for law here is “Torah,” a term that means so much more than our word “law.” Torah is “teaching,” a constellation of faithful disciplines and precepts, the study and practice of which leads to wisdom, understanding and communion with the God of Israel. See Psalm 119. It is through the faithful obedience of Israel to Torah in the land of promise that God’s salvation will be made known to the ends of the earth. Simply by being God’s people, Israel will forward God’s salvation.
I believe that the church in America is only beginning to discover (or re-discover?) the insight revealed in Second Isaiah and more specifically throughout the new Testament, namely, that the proper mission of the church is first and foremost being the church. We are moving away from a 1950s and 1960s vision of the church as a union of faithful congregations supporting mission and ministry done by professionals and specialized agencies. No one is looking anymore for a church that will give them spiritual resources to cope with the demands of 21st Century life. Churches still selling this useless snake oil are in decline-and deservedly so. The new model of church where I see most energy, creativity and enthusiasm for ministry is among intentional communities of faith that embody an alternative to life under late stage capitalism dictated by the schedules of public school activities, the demands of the work place/profession and that illusive nirvana, “financial security.”
For example, Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco, California seeks to respond to Christ’s call by living together family-style, sharing their homes, resources and friendship. Though not maintaining that their lifestyle is absolutely required for committed discipleship, the Sojourners find that such common living provides them with numerous daily opportunities for forgiveness, humility, service, gratitude, worship, prayer, and other practicalities of sainthood, thereby helping them to grow into “the full measure of the stature of Christ.” So too, Reba Place Fellowship began in 1957 as three people sharing life and possessions in one house just north of Chicago. Since then, it has grown into several communities. Today members of Reba live in an urban “village” in Evanston, and in its communal offshoot in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. Both branches have a mix of apartment buildings, single family houses, and commercial buildings sheltering a variety of cooperative ventures. Perhaps the most fascinating and exciting example of this model is Koinonia Farm. Established in 1942 by Clarence and Florence Jordan and Martin and Mabel England, Koininia is a Christian community located in Americus, Georgia. Sharing a life of prayer, work, study, service and fellowship, residents seek to embody peacemaking, sustainability, and radical sharing.
The above communities are few and far between, but they are growing and inspiring the development of other such communities. Hewn as they are from the rock of faithful patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets and apostles, I have no doubt that God will use them mightily to carry on the church’s mission into the future. As for the rest of us, “the kingdom of God will come without our prayers” or anything else we have to offer. So says our Catechism. But I pray that it may come also among us mainliners; that we will rediscover our radical roots in the cross and resurrection of Jesus; that we will find ourselves “in that number when the saints go marching in” rather than sitting on the curb watching the parade go by.
Though it begins as a psalm of pure praise, verses 3 and 7 reveal that the psalmist is giving thanks for deliverance from enemies. Some commentators claim that the psalmist’s declaration of praise “before the gods” dates this psalm somewhere in Israel’s pre-exilic history in which the reality of gods other than Yahweh was assumed, though their power and status was inferior to that of Israel’s God. But in the post exile work of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) , the prophet calls these foreign gods to account before Yahweh only to show that they are in fact not gods at all. Isaiah 41:21-24. The psalmist’s assertion that “All the kings of the earth shall praise thee, O Lord, for they have heard the words of thy mouth; and they shall sing of the ways of the Lord” echo the same theme found throughout Second Isaiah. See, e.g., Isaiah 49:7, 22; Isaiah 55:4-5. Consequently, I do not believe that any conclusions about dating can be drawn from this phrase.
The psalmist boldly declares that, though s/he walks “in the midst of trouble, thou dost preserve my life.” Vs. 7. Taken alone, this verse might be understood to mean that God will shield the psalmist from all adversity giving him or her a charmed life. But God promises nothing of the kind and the psalmist is well aware of that. The psalmist knows that his/her life is wholly God’s possession. As such, it finds fulfillment in God’s purposes, not the hopes, dreams and expectations of the psalmist. Hence, the declaration of faith in the final verse: “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.” Vs. 8. This prayer that God will establish God’s purpose for one’s life is the very soul of humility. Far too much of life is spent trying to prove to ourselves and to everybody else that we count for something. It is unbearable to think that we might be only a pawn on the chessboard of life, the understudy for a minor character in an off, off Broadway play who never makes it to the stage. Unbearable, that is, until you finally realize that “though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly.” Vs. 6. God does not measure accomplishments (which often turn out to be less impressive than we imagine them to be), but faithfulness. When we are finally able to recognize that our marriages, our children, our careers and everything else is God’s project to be employed solely for God’s purposes, life becomes fun again. We are no longer under pressure to “make it come out right.” We don’t need to fret about whether we are accomplishing anything “significant” or “important.” Instead, it is possible to enjoy and take a measure of satisfaction in doing what is given us well, resting in the knowledge that however insignificant, unimportant or unsuccessful our tasks may seem, they are precisely what God needs for God’s own purposes.
Verses 3-8 deserve special attention because they distill in concrete practice what Paul has been speaking about for the last eleven chapters. Because all are under the sway of sin and all are liberated by God’s gracious act of mercy in Jesus Christ, no one is in any position to boast over against any other fellow disciple. In light of this reality, “sober judgment” leads to but one conclusion: we are no longer individuals with conflicting rights to be carefully balanced and adjudicated to maintain justice and peace within our community. We are members of one body belonging to Jesus and existing to serve him as head. Accordingly, whatever our gifts may be, they are precisely what the Body needs and are to be exercised in his service.
This vision of community is seldom reflected in our churches which, both on the congregational and denominational levels, operate under corporate, hierarchical models. I follow (at a distance) a Facebook page for Lutheran clergy and have discovered that issues of “power” and “who is in charge” come up with depressing regularity. Resort to the congregational constitution seems to be the default strategy for resolving conflict. I am so weary of congregations complaining that their rights have been violated and denominational leaders complaining that their authority is not sufficiently respected. I can hear the exasperated and unheeded voice of St. Paul in the distance: “Do not be conformed to the world…” vs. 2.
“Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Vs. 2. One reason we fear terrorists so much is that we know they have no fear of death. How do you fight an enemy that is not afraid to die? A man willing to sacrifice his body by strapping on a bomb and blowing himself up to take out the enemy is not likely to be detoured by the death penalty! That, too, is why the Roman Empire was so fearful of the church. Disciples of Jesus didn’t cower when threatened with death. They could not be intimidated by torture. They turned the cross, Rome’s chief symbol of terror, into a sign of victory! The more forcefully Rome employed its imperial might against the church, the more obvious its impotence became. The shock and awe strategy failed spectacularly as the blood of the martyrs became the seed of the church. If only Christians had the faith of terrorists! If only disciples of Jesus were as ready to sacrifice their lives in the service of the poor, in reconciliation of enemies and in practicing radical hospitality to the homeless as terrorists are ready to die in battle!
The focus on Jesus’ Messianic identity, which began at Matthew 13:54 where Jesus is rejected in his home country, comes to its climax in our lesson for Sunday where Peter makes his confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Vs. 16. Jesus asks his disciples who they believe “the Son of man” to be. The disciples’ response indicates that they must understand Jesus to be speaking of himself in the use of this term. They note that some think Jesus is a resurrected John the Baptist. Herod has already expressed this belief. Matthew 14:2. They also point out that others believe Jesus to be Elijah, whose possible return was left open by his assumption into the heavens. II Kings 2:9-12. By the time of the prophet Malachi, the return of the prophet Elijah was a standard expectation. Malachi 4:5-6. Jeremiah is mentioned, principally as a representative of the latter prophets believed to have returned under Jesus’ identity. Perhaps this is because Jeremiah, more than any other Hebrew prophet, experienced consistent persecution and rejection. In any event, these persons all serve in a negative manner to specify for the reader who Jesus is not.
Unlike the response given by Peter in Mark, Matthew has Peter confessing Jesus not merely as Israel’s long awaited Messiah, but as the Son of the living God. Vs. 16. This statement is not the fruit of Peter’s own deductive reasoning. It comes to him by revelation. Vs. 17. Peter’s confession answers the question of Jesus’ fellow countrymen in Matthew 13:54 (“Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works?”).
The Greek word “Christos” is used for the Hebrew term “Meshioch” transliterated “Messiah.” It means “anointed one,” frequently referring to a king, though it was also used to designate the patriarchs, a prophet or a priest. (See Psalm 105:15; I Kings 19:16; Psalm 133:2). By the 1st Century, the term was commonly used to denote a successor of King David who was expected to restore the fortunes of Israel, though this was by no means the exclusive expression of messianic hope. Thus, while Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah is correct, the nature of Jesus’ messiahship will not become clear until after his suffering, death and resurrection.
“Son of God” is a term used for Israel’s kings as evidenced by the enthronement hymn, Psalm 2. “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” Psalm 2:7. As will become evident in Matthew’s Transfiguration account, the term means much more than this as applied to Jesus. Matthew 17:1-8. Here, too, Matthew will unpack the full meaning of this title in the action to come.
Many trees have been felled and much ink spilt over the interpretation of verses 18-21. Just as the Roman church has insisted that Jesus’ declaration: “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” establishes the primacy of Peter and the doctrine of apostolic succession, so protestants have for the most part maintained that the “rock” upon which the church is built is Peter’s confession of Jesus, not Peter himself. The passage does not fully support either position. It is clear from the word play at work “Petros” (Peter) and “petra” (rock) that Jesus is referring to Peter himself as in some way foundational for the church. Yet Matthew, like Mark, employs Peter as the spokesperson for the rest of the disciples. So, just as his remarks to Jesus represent the questions of the twelve, Jesus’ response must also be seen as directed to all of them. The church, then, is founded upon the witness of the Apostles; however, the case for the primacy of Peter among them is wanting in my opinion. This passage is silent about matters of apostolic succession. That is not to say a biblical case cannot be made in its favor, but only that one who would make it must look elsewhere in the scriptures for support. I think that commentator John Nolland sums it up best:
“The attempt to draw form Mt. 16:18 conclusions as to whether Peter has successors is doomed to failure. It is to press the imagery too hard to assign an exclusive foundational role to Peter. Peter has the privilege of being named in this role, but others participated with him in all that he did and was. In addition, in every new situation there will be those who play a foundational role for Jesus’ building of his church. But sharing the role produces too many partners and successors. On the other hand, the apostles are clearly called upon to play an unrepeatable role, and Peter clearly has some kind of primacy among them. Here there is a genuine claim to exclusivity, but not one that allows any specific place for a successor. But this is not to say that this tradition about Peter should not have inspired the church to focus on its fidelity to the foundations of the faith in terms of a Peter figure from generation to generation.”Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 670.
Matthew is the only gospel that uses the term “ekklasia,” the Greek word our English Bibles translate as “church.” The word means “gathered group” or “assembly.” Matthew’s understanding of the church is fleshed out in the Sermon on the Mount as well as Matthew 23:1-12. Thus, whatever leadership role is given to the twelve in this passage must be exercised in a way consistent with this vision. One of Jesus’ chief criticisms of the religious leaders in his day is set forth in Matthew 23:13: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men…” The keys to the kingdom are given to Peter precisely so that the kingdom may be opened to all people. Thus, however one might interpret the power to “bind” and “lose” given to Peter in verse 19, it cannot be understood as license to blockade the kingdom. Even when the church finds it necessary to excommunicate and treat a former member as a “gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17), one must keep in mind the manner in which Jesus consistently reached out to gentiles and tax collectors. To excommunicate a member is therefore to assume enhanced responsibility and concern for that member.