THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Psalm 89:1–4, 15–18
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.