Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, gracious Lord, we thank you that your Holy Spirit renews the church in every age. Pour out your Holy Spirit on your faithful people. Keep them steadfast in your word, protect and comfort them in times of trial, defend them against all enemies of the gospel, and bestow on the church your saving peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“God is not afraid of change.” Pope Francis
True. You might even say that God is change. In his book, An Unsettling God, (c. 2009 Fortress Press), Walter Brueggemann points out that God’s relationship with his people is dialogical. It is an ongoing conversation into which God is forever injecting novelty. God is the enemy of all things dead and static. God is the wind churning up the waters at the dawn of time; the voice calling Abram to leave the comfortable and familiar to venture out into the unknown; the cry of Moses toppling imperial hierarchy so that the Hebrew slaves may be free; the words of the prophets shaking up the status quo; the power that breaks the silence of the tomb by raising Jesus from death. God is not opposed to change. God delights in it.
The church, by contrast, is often terrified of change. My last two continuing education seminars both dealt with the topic of change and how to lead congregations through it. I need all the wisdom I can get on that point. I find that a great many of our folks look to the church as the one constant in their lives, the one place that remains the same, the one immovable rock in the midst of constant turmoil. Many friends who have left the church recently over our denomination’s decision to welcome and bless the relationships of gay, lesbian and transgendered persons complain to me that “My church has left me behind.”
In one respect, my friends are right. The church has moved. That is not unusual, however. The Bible tells us that God is a moving target. The Word of God is not a collection of books containing timeless truths, but a living person calling us to follow him in ever new directions. Heresy consists not only in the embrace of new ideas contrary to the good news of Jesus Christ, but also in clinging too long to ideas that have proven to be wrong. So yes, the church has moved away from where it was. We have acknowledged that for centuries we were wrong about a great many matters related to human sexuality. We call such movement “repentance.” We must keep moving away from what we have been in order to become all that God would have us be.
In yet another respect, my defecting friends are mistaken. I need constantly to remind them that neither the Lutheran Church nor any other expression of Christ’s Body is “your” church. The church belongs to Jesus Christ. The reign of God is not a democracy. No matter how long you have been a member of the church, no matter how much you have given to it or worked for it or sacrificed for it, you still have no ownership rights in it. At the end of the day, the church belongs to God and serves as God’s messenger of reconciliation for the world. As everyone who follows this blog knows, I have my own share of frustrations with the church. Nevertheless, I know that the Spirit of God is at work forming exactly the kind of church God needs. That may or may not comport with the kind of church I want or expect.
Brueggemann’s notion of the “unsettling God” is threatening because churches (including churches of the Reformation!) are nothing if not settled. Congregations resist changes required to welcome people living in their communities. Denominational leaders insist on imposing cookie cutter constitutions that no longer work for many congregations in diverse settings. We have a tendency to imbue our hierarchical structures with ontological significance, making change all the more difficult to achieve. We attach undue importance to agencies, programs and task forces in which careers, ambitions and egos are heavily invested. The changes we need will be painful for all of us. That is why I think that, in our heart of hearts, we sometimes secretly wish that God would just shut up. We have a penchant for placing periods where God has only put comas. But God will not be silenced. As Pope Francis reminds us, God has more unsettling things to say to us. Reformation isn’t over yet.
For a brief but excellent summary of the Book of Jeremiah see the article by Terence E. Fretheim, Elva B. Lovell Professor of Old Testament at enterthebible.org.
Recall that Jeremiah prophesied immediately before and for some time after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E. The new covenant of which Jeremiah speaks does not differ formally from the old. The “law” or “Torah” which God promises to write upon the hearts of God’s people is the law delivered to Israel at Sinai. The problem is not with the law but with the people who failed to internalize it and therefore observed it only in the breech. For example, during the reign of Judah’s last king, Zedekiah, the Babylonian armies advanced and captured all but two of Judah’s fortified cities. Jeremiah 34:7. Hoping to placate God and induce the Lord to save Judah from conquest, Zedekiah persuaded the people to do away with a longstanding practice of enslaving their impoverished fellow Hebrews beyond the six year limit on servitude established under Torah (Exodus 21:2-6). See Jeremiah 34:6-10. Shortly thereafter, Hophra, Pharaoh of Egypt, marched north to attack the Babylonian forces in Palestine. Babylon was forced to raise the siege against Jerusalem and draw its troops down to repel the Egyptian forces. When it seemed as though the Babylonian threat had receded, Zedekiah revoked the decree freeing the slaves and reinstated the lawless practice of indefinite servitude. Jeremiah 34:11. Jeremiah warned Zedekiah that this blatant act of hypocrisy would not go unpunished, that the Babylonian army would return and that there would be no escape from destruction. Jeremiah 34:17-22.
This particular oracle in Sunday’s lesson is regarded by most scholars as coming from Jeremiah’s post 587 prophesies. Jerusalem was in ruins and a substantial part of the population had been deported to Babylon (modern day Iraq). There seemed to be no future for Judah. Yet here Jeremiah, the very prophet who refused to offer Judah’s leaders even a sliver of hope for deliverance from Babylon, now speaks to the sorry remnant of the people about a new beginning. Such words could not be heard by Judah before the destruction of Jerusalem because her leaders were too intent on preserving the old covenant that had been irretrievably broken. Judah was hoping that salvation would come in the form of a Babylonian defeat, that somehow the line of David would be preserved, that the Holy City and the temple of Solomon would be spared from destruction. But that would not have been salvation. For a nation that had so thoroughly strayed from her covenant with her God, salvation for her institutions would only have enabled her to stray further. A miraculous deliverance from Babylon would have saved Judah’s national independence, her architectural treasures and her royal lineage. But it would have damned her soul. Salvation lay not in preserving Judah and her institutions, but in the new heart God would form in his people after all these things had been taken away. Judah would never again be the glorious nation she was; but through the new covenant Jeremiah promises, Judah would become precisely the nation God needed.
Jeremiah has been dubbed the prophet of doom. Yet the more I read him, the more convinced I am that he has gotten a bum rap. Jeremiah does have good news for his people. The problem, though, is that the people are not ready to hear it. They cannot see the glorious future God is offering them because they are fixated on preserving the past. As far as they are concerned, there can be no future other than a return to the past. A future without the throne of David, the temple in Jerusalem and the land of Israel is no future at all. Loss of these three pillars of Judah’s identity constituted only the end. The people of Judah had neither the language nor the conceptual tools to imagine life beyond that end. Their minds could not process the vision of a radically new existence as God’s people under a radically new covenant.
I am convinced that our protestant churches in the United States suffer from the same malady that affected the people of Judah in Jeremiah’s time. God has moved beyond the past. Our church is still hopelessly stuck in it. I have encountered Jeremiah’s dilemma over and over again when trying to speak with church leaders about the promise of God’s future for the church in America. I always preface my remarks with what has become for me a mantra: “These are exciting days in which to be the church.” Yet I find that when I share that excitement, the response often ranges from sadness, to fear, to outright rage. The good news is heard as bad. Very often I find that when congregations say they want to grow, thrive and do new ministries, what they are really seeking is some way to rebuild the glories of the past. They want the pews filled again, a robust Sunday school and a church basement filled with teenagers playing twister. When I try to tell them that the church they are seeking is dead and never coming back-they are far too fearful/sad/angry to hear the good news, namely, that God has something better in mind. What is true of congregations individually is just as true of my denomination as a whole. Our leaders’ response to several years of decline and loss of support? A capital fund drive. If successful this effort, along with the assets collected from more and more closing congregations, will keep the denominational machinery going long after our congregations are nearly depopulated!
To be fair, this is not altogether about self-preservation. My congregation does some fine ministry in our community that would be missed should the church fold. So also, my denomination’s institutions do many important things for the whole of society. They feed the hungry; shelter the homeless; care for refugees; provide disaster relief; educate and advocate for justice and peace. The world will be decidedly poorer in the event my church’s corporate ministries cease to exist. Yet I must emphasize that one very important reason for their present peril is our failure to make our congregations communities capable of forming saints with hearts for the hungry, poor, oppressed and homeless. Instead of welcoming the stranger into our midst, we have created professional agencies to “address their needs.” We have cultivated a “check book charity” that allows congregations to buy off their “social consciences” without ever having to get their hands dirty. I think that John Tetzel would have approved the logic at work here. Indulgences financing social programs rather than building projects might be more palatable to our progressive tastes. But at the end of the day, the result is the same. Sanctification for sale. Genuine gospel mission cannot long maintain itself on such a flimsy foundation.
As Jeremiah saw it, the kingdom of David was beyond redemption. The faithlessness of the people could not be addressed by changing or reforming Judah’s existing institutions. Change must come at the very deepest level: within the heart. Salvation is still possible for Judah, but it lies on the far side of judgment. The good news has to be heard as bad news before it can be received as good. So, too, I often wonder whether Jesus’ promise that whoever loses life for the sake of the gospel will find it sounds like unmitigated bad news because we can’t quite get over the “loss” piece. We lack the capacity to imagine church without our individual congregations and their sanctuaries, seminaries, professional clergy and the recognition we have known in society at large. It is for that reason I continue to hold up Church of the Sojourners, Reba Place Fellowship and Koinonia Farm as alternatives to what we have come to understand as church. I don’t suggest that these communities can be emulated by all our congregations or that they provide us with any sort of blueprint for tomorrow’s church. They do, however, challenge our assumptions about what it means to be church in the 21st Century and what is required to be faithful disciples of Jesus and, perhaps just as importantly, what is not. Like Jesus’ parables, these communities stimulate our imaginations and give us concrete images with which to envision God’s future.
The promise “I will be their God and they shall be my people” encapsulates at the deepest level God’s final (eschatological) intent for humanity. Vs. 33. The same refrain echoes throughout the book of the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 11:20; Ezekiel 14:11; Ezekiel 36:28) and appears again in the concluding chapters of Revelation. Revelation 21:1-4. Under this new covenant, it will no longer be necessary to instruct people in Torah because Torah, the very shape of obedience to God, will be wholly internalized. If you ask me what such a community looks like, I cite once again the powerful example of the Amish community following the Nickel Mine tragedy. In extending forgiveness to the murderer of their children and offering support to his family, the Amish demonstrated to a sick, violent and gun wielding culture what the kingdom of Christ looks like. This response speaks louder than all the preachy-screechy moralistic social statements ever issued by all the rest of us more mainline, official and established churches. Here, for a brief instant, it was possible to see at work hearts upon which God’s words have been inscribed.
This psalm is associated with the protestant Reformation generally and Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God” in particular. Structurally, the hymn is made up of three sections punctuated twice by the refrain: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge/fortress.” Vss 7 & 11. Each section is followed with the term “selah.” This word is found throughout the Psalms and also in the book of Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3:3; Habakkuk 3:9; Habakkuk 3:13). It is most likely an instruction to musicians or worship leaders for use in liturgical performances. The exact meaning has been debated among rabbinic scholars since the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek around 270 B.C.E. This suggests that whatever function the term served had ceased even then.
In the first section the psalmist declares confidence in God’s protection in the midst of an unstable world. Earthquakes, storms and floods were terrifying events often attributed to angry deities. The psalmist does not speculate on causation here, but confidently asserts that the God of Jacob can be trusted to provide security and protection even in the midst of these frightening natural phenomena.
The psalmist turns his/her attention in the second section to the city of Jerusalem which, though not mentioned by name, can hardly be any other than the “city of God,” “the holy habitation of the Most High.” Vs. 4. The “river” that makes glad the city of God might be the Gihon Spring, the main source of water for ancient Jerusalem. It was this water source that made human settlement there possible. The Gihon was used not only for drinking water, but also for irrigation of gardens in the adjacent Kidron Valley which, in turn, was a source of food for the city. Of course, the prophet Ezekiel relates a vision in which a miraculous river flows out of the restored temple in Jerusalem to give life to desert areas in Palestine. Ezekiel 47:1-14. Similarly, John of Patmos describes “a river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” Revelation 22: 1-2. God’s presence in the midst of the city recalls the promise of Jeremiah that “I will be their God and they will be my people.” Jeremiah 31:33.
As a relatively small nation existing in a violent and dangerous geopolitical neighborhood, Israel was no stranger to “raging” nations and unstable kingdoms. Vs. 6. But the psalmist will not be rattled by these dangers. S/he knows that the Holy City is under the protection of the Holy One of Israel. It is not the nations or their rulers who determine the course of history. The God of Jacob is the one whose voice “melts” the earth. So Isaiah would try in vain to convince King Ahaz to be still and wait for God’s salvation from his enemies rather than allying himself with the empire of Assyria-which would be his nation’s undoing. Isaiah 7:1-8:8.
In the third section, the focus is upon the violent geopolitical scene. The God of Israel is no friend of war. To the contrary, “he makes wars to cease to the end of the earth.” Vs. 9. Moreover, he destroys the weapons of war. He does not call upon Israel to deal violently with the nations of the earth. The psalmist assures us that God can handle that job without us. God says instead, “Be still and know that I am God.” Vs. 10. When confronted with violent enemies (as Israel frequently was), the people are called upon to put their trust in the God of Jacob who is the one and only reliable refuge. In a culture indoctrinated with the belief that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” the contrary witness of this ancient psalm is critical.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is the only one in which he makes a sustained theological argument from start to finish. For that reason alone, it is impossible to interpret any single passage in isolation from the whole work. 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.
With all of this in mind, let’s turn to our lesson for Sunday. Paul points out that “the law” speaks to those under the law so that every mouth will be stopped and the whole world held accountable to God. Vs. 19. Here it is essential to distinguish between “Torah” and “law” as Paul uses it. Torah was always understood and accepted by Israel as a gift. The commandments, even those governing the smallest details of dietary and hygienic practice, were not intended to be oppressive and controlling. They were designed to make every aspect of living, however humble and mundane, a reminder of the covenant through which Israel was privileged to be joined with her God. As such, observance of Torah was a joy, not a burden.
Nevertheless, when observance of Torah is misconstrued and understood not as a gift, but rather a means or method of pleasing God or winning God’s favor, it becomes a burden. The focus is no longer on God’s grace in giving the Torah, but upon my success in keeping it. When that happens, the gift of Torah becomes the curse of “law.” Law always accuses. Think about it: no matter how well you do on the exam, isn’t it usually the case that you come away feeling that you could have done just a little better? Try as we do to be good parents, I have never met one that didn’t feel he or she failed his or her children in some respect. How can you ever be sure that you have done enough? The fear of people in Luther’s day was that God would not be satisfied with their repentance, their confession of sin and their efforts to amend their lives. In a secular culture such as ours, we might not fear eternal damnation quite so much. But we find ourselves enslaved nonetheless to our fears of social rejection and anxiety over failure to meet societal standards of beauty and success. That is why we have young girls starving themselves to death because they cannot measure up to what teen magazines tell them is beautiful. It is also why men become depressed, violent and prone to addiction during prolonged periods of unemployment-a real man earns his own living and pays his own way. We may be a good deal less religious than we were in Luther’s day, but we are no less in bondage to “law.”
Verse 21 contains one of the most critical “buts” in the Bible. “But now,” Paul says, “the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…” So just as all are judged guilty under the law, so all are justified by God through Jesus Christ as a gift. Henceforth, being right with God is no longer a goal to be achieved through obedience to rules of one kind or another. It is a gift promised by God. Our obedience is no longer an onerous effort to win God’s favor but a thankful response to the favor God freely gives us. That is as true for Jews as it is for Gentiles as Paul will go on to point out in Romans 4. Abraham, after all, was called and responded in faith while he was still essentially a gentile, being uncircumcised and without the Law of Moses. Jews are therefore children of promise who owe their status as God’s people to God’s free election. They did not earn their covenant status through obedience to the law and therefore have no grounds to exclude the gentiles from God’s call to them through Jesus into that same covenant relationship. Importantly, Paul makes the converse argument in Romans 9-11, namely, that gentiles are in no position to judge or exclude the Jews from covenant grace, not even those who do not believe in Jesus. Their status as covenant people does not rest on their obedience or disobedience, but on God’s irrevocable call.
Our reading is part of a much larger exchange beginning at John 7:1 where Jesus declines his brothers’ invitation to accompany them to the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem, but later comes on his own slipping into Jerusalem unnoticed. John 7:1-13. In the midst of the feast, Jesus goes up to the Temple and begins teaching the people. At first, the people do not seem to recognize Jesus. They can see that he is a common person of the type usually untrained in the finer points of Torah. But there is no question that Jesus is, in fact, learned in the law and they marvel at his teaching. When it becomes clear that this strange man is none other than Jesus of Nazareth, the chief priests send officers to arrest him. But instead of bringing Jesus in and booking him, they return amazed and overawed by what they have heard. Exasperated, the chief priests ask the officers why they have not arrested Jesus as ordered. They can only reply, “No one ever spoke like this man!” John 7:46. The chief priests then vilify the officers and the crowds, cursing them for their ignorance of the law. But Nicodemus, a member of the council, cautions the chief priests against pre-judging Jesus’ case before hearing him-only to be rebuffed. (We meet Nicodemus early on in John’s gospel at chapter 3 when he comes to see Jesus under cover of darkness. John 3:1-21. We will meet Nicodemus again following Jesus’ crucifixion as he comes with Joseph of Arimathea to bury the body of Jesus. John 19:38-42).
The narrative is interrupted by the story of the woman caught in adultery, a story that probably was not originally part of John’s gospel. John 8:1-11. Then Jesus’ discourse begun at the last day of the feast picks up where it left off in John 7:37 ff. Though the opposition continues, Jesus is gaining some support. We read that as he spoke, many believed in him. John 8:30. But success is short lived. Our reading picks up just where Jesus turns his focus upon these new believing supporters and tells them, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Vss. 31-33. Clearly, this remark rubbed them the wrong way. “Just what do you mean by that? We are Abraham’s descendants and we have never been in bondage to anyone. How can you promise to set us free?” Vs. 33. Clearly, Jesus’ newfound supporters are experiencing a “senior moment.” Have they really forgotten the four hundred years their ancestors spent as slaves in Egypt? Have the forgotten the Babylonian Exile? Israel has in fact known bondage under the whip of foreign masters and beneath the tyranny of many of her own leaders. But the greatest tyrant is not Egypt or Babylonia or Rome. The greatest bondage is slavery to sin.
John speaks of sin almost exclusively in connection with each person’s response to Jesus. It is not that people are sinless before they encounter Jesus. Rather, their encounter with Jesus reveals their sin and confronts them with the choice of remaining in sin or being set free from sin. It is precisely because Jesus’ opponents both see and claim to understand him that their guilt is established. John 9:39-41. To know and be set free by the truth is to know Jesus. This knowledge does not consist of propositions about Jesus. To know the truth about Jesus is to know Jesus-just as you know a loved one. That sort of knowledge requires the cultivation of a relationship that grows over time and, as all of us who experience friendship know, is never fully complete. We are always learning more about the people we love and think we know so well. How much more so with Jesus, whose life is the eternal life of the Father?
I believe much of the membership loss among American mainline protestant churches may be a direct result of our misunderstanding of what it means to know and to teach the truth. We have modeled our Christian education programs along the lines of public schools. Sunday school involved teaching kids stories and rudimentary doctrines about Jesus. That, however, is not how Jesus taught his disciples. Rather than inviting them to come to his seminars, Jesus called people to become fishers for people. He taught them by involving them in his ministry, sharing his meals with them and taking them with him on the road. By contrast, we confirm kids in the spring time (when graduation commencements occur) and very often figure that we have done our job. These kids have been taught the truth and when they are old enough, we can include them in the church’s ministry. Trouble is, when that time finally comes, they are already long gone. And why not? They got whatever truth they needed to get in the system. The rest is just a refresher course and who needs one of those every single week?
In sum, we have not done a very good job of teaching people who have come through our congregations that discipleship, not membership is the end point; that growing intimacy with Jesus, not just a boat load of facts about him is what constitutes true discipleship. Perhaps the next reformation can address this shortcoming.