THIRTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, your word feeds your people with life that is eternal. Direct our choices and preserve us in your truth, that, renouncing what is false and evil, we may live in you, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
I have never spent more than a few days on a farm and then only as a small child. But in recent years I have gotten to know a few farmers. My conversations with them have given me a glimpse or two into what farming is like. One thing I know is that, for farmers, death is not an abstraction. Turkeys are butchered. Hogs are slaughtered. The sight, sound and smell of death permeates life on the farm. Farmers come in from work with death on their clothing, death on their hands and death under their fingernails. They cannot escape being conscious all the time of what urban folk like me conveniently forget: that the pound of hamburger, the package of drumsticks, the strip steaks and the pork chops we buy at Shop Rite were once living, breathing animals that somebody had to kill. Even those of us who are vegetarians cut down, uproot and devour what was once alive. In order for us to live, something else has to die.
So maybe it should not surprise us overly much to hear Jesus telling his disciples that their lives depend on eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Eternal life is costly. Making it available to the likes of you and me required the death of God’s Son. Having it requires internalizing Jesus which, in turn, puts us in the path of martyrdom. Paul urged the disciples in Rome to present their bodies “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” Romans 12:1. For a people whose Lord’s body was nailed to a cross, these words could not have been understood metaphorically. Rome knew well how to disfigure, torture, violate and kill human bodies. The disciples knew that imitating their Lord might well lead them into the gaping jaws of that empire. Yet such is the cost (and the privilege) of living eternally in a culture of death.
To be a disciple of Jesus is to know that you have the blood of the Lord on our hands. It is to know that you must answer “yes” to the question propounded in the old spiritual: “Where you there when they crucified my Lord?” To believe in Jesus is to understand that he died because he entrusted himself to us-and we murdered him. Yet, as it turns out, Jesus was not just another victim of injustice. Rather, he is God’s way of exposing injustice and God’s means of overcoming that injustice with God’s more infinitely powerful capacity to forgive. In the cross, we are shown to be the true victims-victims of or our own distrustful, vindictive and violent ways. We are finally saved from the whirlpool of our hate by a love that outlasts it.
This is a hard word for all who would like to believe that there really is nothing wrong with us; that the answers lie in enacting the right legislation, electing the right candidates to office or funding the right programs. It is a hard word for all who imagine that a tepid “spirituality” promising tranquility, lower blood pressure and a happier existence is a suitable substitute for living among recovering sinners seeking freedom from the addictive bondage of selfishness. Jesus’ words are hard for rugged individuals who imagine that they can truly pull themselves up by their own boot straps to a life that is eternal. Today’s gospel is bad news for mega-church leaders who fill auditoriums by preaching a happy clappy religion and imagine that they are fulfilling Jesus’ commission to make disciples. But as Peter rightly recognized, these words of Jesus, hard as they are, are the words of eternal life.
The Book of Joshua tells the story of the Israelites’ entry into the Promised Land after forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Joshua, the successor to Moses, led the Israelites into Canaan where they conquered the Canaanites and redistributed the land among their own twelve tribes. The book ends with a covenant ceremony in which the people of Israel vow in the presence of Joshua and their God to forsake all other gods and “serve the Lord.” Vs. 18 That is where our reading for this Sunday fits in.
A cursory reading of the Book of Joshua could lead one to believe that Israel had, under Joshua’s leadership, thoroughly exterminated the Canaanite population from the Promised Land. A closer reading reveals, however, that the Canaanite influence remained after Israel’s entry into the land. Vs. 15. Though no longer a military threat, the Canaanite agricultural society and its underlying religion posed an even greater danger to Israel’s existence. As Israel began its transition from a tribal nomadic society to a settled farming community, a significant theological question arose: could this God who successfully led Israel out of Egypt, across the desert and into Canaan now also provide rain, protection from insect pests and other favorable conditions required for growing staple crops? Or should Israel turn to the various gods and goddesses of the Canaanites who specialize in agriculture? The choice was not as clear cut as might appear to us moderns. For ancient peoples, there was no distinguishing between the role of religion and practice when it came to planting, cultivating and harvesting. It was nearly impossible for Israel to absorb Canaanite farming methods apart from Canaanite religion. Participation in the cultic worship of the fertility goddess, Ashroth, was no less critical than fertilizing your field with manure.
We read in verse 1 that the people “took their stand before God.” The phrase recalls the seminal moment when Israel first stood before Sinai where she made her covenant with God. Exodus 19:17. The story thereby emphasizes that this covenant is not a “new” commandment, but the renewal of the covenant made before Moses at Sinai.
Shechem, the site of this covenant ceremony, is located about forty miles north of Jerusalem. It later became the first capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Some commentators see in this location the author’s/editor’s hope that this city and other territories of the Northern Kingdom destroyed by Assyria in 722 B.C.E. might be recovered by the Southern Kingdom of Judah. This hope may, in part, have inspired Hezekiah’s failed revolt against Assyria in 701 B.C.E. The northern territories were, in fact, successfully (albeit briefly) recovered by King Josiah who reigned over Judah between 640 B.C.E.-609 B.C.E. It is also possible that this text reflects a post-exilic context given Joshua’s near certainty that Israel will fail to fulfill her vow to serve the Lord only. See Fox, Everett, The Early Prophets, The Schocken Bible: Volume II (c. 2014 by Everett Fox) p. 118.
“Beyond the River” (Vs. 14) is a reference to the Euphrates and could denote either Mesopotamia or Harran, both points along Abram’s journey to Canaan. Genesis 11:31-32; Genesis 12:1-6. The point here is that the demand to abandon worship of gods other than Israel’s God is grounded in the call to the patriarchs and matriarchs. It is evident that idol worship was as much a temptation for them as for Israel. They, too, needed to be reminded to abandon their false gods. See, e.g. Genesis 35:1-4.
If you read one verse further, you will discover that Joshua is well aware of the new danger facing Israel. He is skeptical of his fellow countrymen’s ability to meet the challenge of living as God’s covenant people in the land which God has given them. Vs. 19. He can see all too well how easily the lessons learned in the wilderness, where God fed Israel each day her daily bread, could be lost now that Israel had inherited a good land capable of sustaining her. He understood how persuasive would be the appeal of Canaanite religion to a people desperate to ensure a good harvest. In time, the saving acts of God, so fresh in the minds of Joshua’s generation, might seem “irrelevant” to the generations yet to come.
Memory seems to be a key factor here. Still fresh in Israel’s memory are the saving acts of God that liberated her from slavery in Egypt and God’s provision for all of her needs as she traveled through the wilderness. Vss. 16-17. Perhaps that explains why “Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua; and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work which the Lord did for Israel.” Joshua 24:31. But when memory fades, so does faithfulness. Something is lost when events pass out of living memory. It takes deliberate effort for subsequent generations to own and appropriate the lived experiences of the past. That is why Israel built into her planting, cultivating and harvesting celebrations recitals of God’s saving acts toward the patriarchs and matriarchs, toward their enslaved descendants and toward the wandering clans as they made their way to the Promised Land. It was critical that Israel’s heart be shaped by memories of God’s faithfulness to her if she was to resist the allure of Canaanite religion and culture.
Times of transition often wreak havoc upon one’s faith. Statistics demonstrate that, of those persons who leave the church, a significant number is made up of people who have moved from one community to another. Moving is a stressful and demanding process. So is the process of finding a new church home. Many reasons are given by people who have moved for neglecting worship. Lack of time and energy is one factor. Getting settled into a new home is a chore in itself. Finding a good pediatrician for the kids and getting them registered for school takes time. Changing your driver’s license, auto registration, voting registration and opening bank accounts all take their toll. Looking for a job in a new community is a full time job in itself. All of this is taxing on the psyche. For those who have made an effort to find a church, many are disappointed because the churches they visit seem less than friendly, or don’t have the programs they are looking for or “just aren’t the same as our old church.” Whatever the reasons, often the first thing people shed when they settle into a new community is their faith. So Joshua was justified in his concern that, with all the demands of settling the land of Canaan, worship of the faithful God Israel had come to know in the wilderness might fall to the bottom of the priority list.
In some respects, each new day is another entry into the Promised Land. One never knows what any given day will bring, but we believe that “it is the day the Lord has made.” Psalm 118:24. There are always the routine and anticipated aspects of the day. Sometimes it seems as though that is all there is. Yet even in the most ordinary humdrum day there usually is some element of the unexpected: the card from that friend you have not heard from in years; the call from your child’s teacher suggesting a conference; the guy in the smelly sweatshirt that approaches you asking for money as you are coming out of the grocery store. These circumstances often present us with the same choice Joshua presented to the children of Israel as they prepared to settle into Canaan: will you serve the Lord your God or some other “god”? If we are attentive, we can hear Joshua’s voice throughout our day asking us, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” Vs. 15.
The psalm for Sunday is the third and last section of Psalm 34, which we have been reading for the last two weeks. My comments on the content, style and form of this psalm are found in my post for Sunday, August 9, 2015 and my post for Sunday, August 16, 2015. I would only add as a point of interest that verse 20 is prominently cited in the Gospel of John.
“Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘None of his bones shall be broken.’ And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.’”
John 19:31-37. For further perspective on this psalm, you might want to read the commentary of Henry Langknecht, Professor of Homiletics at Trinity Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. This can be found at Workingpreacher.org.
In this remarkable passage Paul encourages us to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” Vs. 10. He then proceeds to turn everything we think we know about strength on its head. “For we are not contending against flesh and blood” says Paul. Vs. 12. But there are many forces in our culture telling us that our struggle is against flesh and blood. It is against liberals and socialists; against conservatives and right wingers; it is against illegal immigrants; it is against terrorists and criminals. The devil is constantly trying to convince us through a huge array of ideologies that the world can neatly be divided into good people and evil people. As long as you are on the side of good, it is acceptable to employ violence to achieve justice and defend “our” way of life whoever “we” may be. The devil would have us believe that “God is on our side” and that he, the devil, is on the side of our enemies. Of course, the devil does not take sides in human conflict. He has no stake in who controls the world or which nation triumphs over all others. As long as people are hating and killing each other, it matters not who “wins.” As far as the devil is concerned, wherever there is war he is the winner.
Saint Paul recognizes, however, that our real fight is “against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Vs. 12. In truth, the line between good and evil does not run along national, racial, religious or ethnic lines. The line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart and that is where we need to begin engaging it. We are urged to put on “the whole armor of God.” Vs. 11. Paul then uses a host of extremely militaristic images of armor and weaponry to describe the spiritual resources given to the church for its struggle against evil. Vss. 14-17. This remarkable contrast is designed to emphasize the gentle means by which God overcomes the powers of wickedness that know only violence and coercion. The only body armor the disciple of Jesus has is truth, righteousness and peace. The only shield a disciple has to withstand the violent forces of evil is faith in God’s promises. The only protection from a mortal head wound is the salvation wrought in Jesus Christ. This is the armor with which disciples of Jesus were called upon to meet the brutality of a hostile empire with armies, weapons and torture implements at its disposal. The only offensive weapons disciples of Jesus have are prayer and the Holy Spirit. Vs. 18.
So where are the principalities and powers, the hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places today? I suggest that many of them are found in the same places they were dwelling in the days of the New Testament church. They are found in the machinery of empire, the jealous sovereignty of nation states insisting that their own national interests trump global concerns for the wellbeing of all. When the “world rulers of this present age” insist that we must kill our neighbors in direct contradiction to Jesus’ call to love even our enemies and to resist not one who is evil, then we should be hearing the voice of Joshua from our Old Testament lesson crying out, “Choose this day who you will serve.” For too long, I believe, the church has sided with the principalities and powers in exchange for public support and respectability. For too long churches have confused the interests of the Kingdom of God with the interests of whichever nation they happen to reside in. The cry of “God and country” has too often muffled Joshua’s cry of either/or.
I also believe that the principalities and powers often worm their way into the life of the church. A church that values doing worship “right” over worshiping Jesus well has succumbed to the powers. A church that values maintaining its traditions over welcoming its community and allowing the Spirit to transform it has come under the influence of the principalities. A church that values survival over mission is a church that is run by the rulers of this present age. A church that values its reputation over faithful witness to the scandalous and controversial good news about Jesus Christ is a church that has lost its armor and has become fearful of taking a stand for its Lord.
Thanks be to God that in Jesus Christ we are well armed. The power of truthful speech unmasks the powers of evil urging us toward violence and hate. The good news of God’s reconciliation in Christ gives us all the ammunition we need to wage peace. Righteousness and integrity guard us from temptation, threats and intimidation. Faith, the conviction that God has already accomplished all things needful for the salvation of the world in Jesus Christ, gives us courage to endure the seeming failure of our own faithful efforts. We know that Christ promises to complete what we can only begin. Finally, through prayer and the work of God’s Spirit within us we exercise the very power that raised Jesus from death. No more potent weapon exists or is needed for the advance of God’s Kingdom.
Last week it was the crowd and Jesus’ critics who mumbled and complained because Jesus said in very graphic terms that he was the bread of life and that having life meant eating his flesh and drinking his blood. This week it is Jesus’ own disciples who are doing the complaining. Many of them, after hearing these words from Jesus, no longer followed him. vs. 66. But I have to ask, were they ever really following him to begin with? These disciples may have cheered as Jesus cleansed the Temple and rid it of corruption and commercialism. They were thrilled to receive their fill of bread in the wilderness. If this is what Jesus is doing, what’s not to like? Now, however, Jesus offers them more. He offers them his very self. But these disciples do not want anything more. They do not want Jesus. They want all the good things they think Jesus can give them. They want to be disciples of Jesus, but on their own terms. To internalize Jesus, to be sustained by him alone and to be transformed by Jesus is more than what they bargained for. They wanted Jesus to transform their unhappy circumstances, but they had no intention of letting him change them. These disciples were prepared to be admirers of Jesus, supporters of Jesus and even followers of Jesus-up to a point. But when Jesus makes it clear to them that salvation lies precisely in going beyond that point, they want nothing further to do with him.
Let’s be clear. It is not that Jesus is demanding a higher morality, a higher level of devotion or a higher level of spiritual awareness from his disciples. Jesus has already said that the only work God requires is that we trust in him. Trusting Jesus means believing Jesus when he tells us that what he has to give us is what we truly need. Jesus offers to abide in us. Abiding in Jesus means being absorbed into Jesus, transformed into the likeness of Jesus and drawn into the mission of Jesus. We don’t accomplish that on our own. Jesus offers it to us as a gift. But therein is the rub: too often we just don’t want this gift. We don’t want to internalize Jesus. We want Jesus at a distance. We want him to be there as a shoulder to cry on, a gentle presence to give us peace, a savior who is there in times of trouble, but decent enough to stay out of our way when times are good. We want a Jesus who will defend our homes and protect our soldiers, but not the Jesus who prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies and then calls upon us to invite those enemies to the feast. We want a Jesus who will change our unpleasant circumstances, but not a Jesus who wants to change our hearts and minds. As the Gospel of John has already indicated: “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” John 3:19.
Jesus lost some disciples that day and he seems not to have been too worried about it. There are some kinds of followers Jesus does not need. Among them are those who are tagging along only for what they can get out of discipleship. There is a great deal of concern expressed these days about the decline in church membership among protestant denominations such my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Some folks are blaming the national church for its stances on controversial subjects. Others blame the synods for their lack of leadership. Many blame pastors for failing to speak effectively to the younger generations. We pastors, for our part, point the finger at our congregations for their lack of commitment and support. That is all counterproductive. Fixing blame for the sinking of the Titanic would not have kept it from going down and certainly will not bring it back up from the bottom of the sea. Moreover, I am beginning to wonder whether anyone is to blame or whether anything blameworthy is being done. Maybe the membership of the church is shrinking because its capacity for true discipleship is growing. Maybe we are driving people out of the church precisely because more of us are internalizing Jesus. When a church takes seriously its duty to show hospitality to the stranger regardless of the stranger’s legal status; when the church opens its doors to people who dirty its carpets, disrupt the flow of its worship and tarnish its reputation, very often long time members respond as did many of Jesus disciples in our Gospel lesson: “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” Vs. vs. 60.
These days I am hearing an ever more urgent call for some strategy, some new change of direction, some marketing ploy that will “turn the church around.” If by that we mean turning away from sin and turning toward Jesus and the new life he offers, then I am all for it. But if “turning the church around,” means only that we grow our membership by whatever means available and increase our income so that we can preserve our denominational institutions, I am not sure I want in on that. Maybe Jesus does not need a church that owns real estate in every town. Maybe Jesus does not need a guild of professional clergy represented in every congregation. Maybe Jesus does not need bishops who travel the world to address heads of state and numerous programs addressing every conceivable human need. Maybe all Jesus needs is a little band of sheep that hear his call and follow him. Perhaps a poor, small, broken church living faithfully at the margins with no social influence or political power is a more faithful witness to the resurrected Christ than a large, thriving corporate church. It may be that we are not dying, but only getting pruned. (See John 15:1-2). I don’t pretend to know God’s grand plan for the church in the twenty-first century. I do not even know what God’s plans are for the ELCA of which I am a part. I am convinced, however, that we need to be open to the possibility that our view of what our church needs might be vastly different from what God is doing with us. We may fear that we are getting too small, but from God’s perspective we may still be too big.
In sum, following Jesus is no sure way to success, institutional or otherwise. But then again, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Vs. 68. That alone is why we follow Jesus. Jesus knows what matters eternally and tells us in no uncertain terms that we matter eternally to him. Jesus loves us too much to let us waste our lives pursuing bread that cannot feed us, chasing success in projects that don’t matter and satisfaction in pleasures that do not last.