Posts Tagged resurrection
Forgiveness, Forgiving, being forgiven; a poem by Harindranath Chattopadhyay and the Lessons for Sunday, September 17th
FIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O Lord God, merciful judge, you are the inexhaustible fountain of forgiveness. Replace our hearts of stone with hearts that love and adore you, that we may delight in doing your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The lessons for this Sunday all dwell on forgiveness and forbearance in some fashion. In our lesson from Genesis, Joseph forgives his brothers for selling him into slavery recognizing that, what they did to him out of malice, God used to bring about salvation. Our psalm echoes the familiar refrain found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, namely, that God is merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Paul urges us to treat with gentleness and respect those whose path of discipleship differs from our own. In our gospel, Jesus reminds Peter by way of a challenging parable that our readiness to forgive one another must match God’s willingness to forgive us.
We need to have a clear understanding, though, about what forgiveness is and what it is not. Forgiveness does not absolve one of responsibility. Precisely because God forgives us, we are now set free to make right what we have done wrong-so far as is humanly possible. Being forgiven for our sins makes us more, not less responsible for their consequences. Forgiveness is not premised on anyone’s request to be forgiven. As Jesus’ parable in this Sunday’s gospel demonstrates, forgiveness might not be appreciated. It might not result in a changed life for the one forgiven. Nonetheless, just as God sends the sun and the rain upon the righteous and the wicked and showers both with his love and forgiveness, so disciples of Jesus are to forgive without regard to its effects. Finally, forgiveness is not a grant of permission for abuse. I might forgive my abuser and forego any thoughts of retaliation. But I will not simply permit him/her to continue injuring me without resistance. Quite apart from the issue of forgiveness, I have a moral responsibility to myself, to my abuser and to the community to break the cycle of abuse.
What, then, does forgiveness mean? From God’s side, it is a determination not to let sin define God’s relationship to God’s creation and God’s creatures. God will continue to work with our world, broken and misdirected as it is, to bring about a new creation. Even our acts of evil, selfishness and destruction can become God’s instruments for good-as was the case in the story of Joseph and his brothers. God refuses to give up on our world, and that means we can’t give up on it either. To forgive is to recognize God’s holy image in all people, even when they have names like David Duke and Richard Spencer. To forgive is to continue worshiping, serving and praying with a church full of people that continue to let you down. To forgive is to take a deep breath when someone cuts you off on the interstate-because you don’t know what kind of hell they might be going through. To forgive is to find something true, something beautiful and something good in each day, because it is, after all, the day the Lord has made. Forgiveness is seeing with a clear and unsentimental eye the world as it is, while at the same time holding tight God’s promise of all that it will be.
Here’s a poem by Harindranath Chattopadhyay with a unique take on forgiveness. It gives us a tantalizing hint about how deeply hurtful we can be in our everyday lives and the breadth of forgiveness required to cover us.
Each moment things forgive you. All your hours
Are crowded with rich penitence unknown
Even to you. Shot birds and trampled flowers,
And worms that you have murdered with a stone
In idle sport-yea, and the well whose deep,
Translucent, green and solitary sleep
You stirred into harsh wrinkles with a stick.
Red mud that you have bound into brick,
Old wood that you have wrought into bark,
Flame in the street-lamp held to light the dark,
And fierce red rubies chiseled for a ring…
You are forgiven each hour by everything!
Source: Poetry Magazine May, 1931. Harindranath Chattopadhyay was an Indian English poet, dramatist, actor and musician. He founded and administered the Hyderabad College in India, which later became the Nizam’s College in Hyderabad. You can find out more about Harindranath Chattopadhyay and sample more of his poetry at the Scroll.in website.
“Genesis is a rich composite of many different oral traditions, written sources, and editorial hands…The authors incorporated everything from the myths of ancient Near Eastern high culture to the local legends of Palestinian Bedouins. We can identify scores of different literary genres deriving from as many sociological settings.” Mann, Thomas W., “All the Families of the Earth: The Theological Unity of Genesis,” Interpretation, Vol. 45, No. 4, October 1991, p. 350. For more specifics as to written sources, see the online article Documentary Hypothesis; for a discussion of literary genres found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures see Coats, George W., Genesis: With an Introduction to Narrative Literature, The Forms of the Old Testament Literature, Vol. I (c. 1983 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.). Yet as diverse as its literary and written components are, we must focus on “the theological integrity of biblical narratives in their present canonical shape, rather than as dismembered pieces…” Mann, supra, at 343.That is to say, as fascinating as the process of biblical formation may be, it is the finished product that commands our primary attention. Furthermore, “[I]t is obvious that the book of Genesis does not stand on its own but looks beyond its own content to unresolved issues.” Mann, Supra, at 350. Just as the first eleven chapters of Genesis set the stage for the call of Abram and the stories of his extended family, so the Book of Genesis itself sets the stage for the liberation of Israel from bondage in Egypt that will occupy the narrative in the Book of Exodus. The state of slavery under Egypt will find its liberating contrast in the life of freedom embodied in Torah.
This should give us some context for understanding Sunday’s lesson which brings us to the conclusion of the patriarchal saga. As you may recall, Joseph’s brothers sold him as a slave to a band of traders in a fit of jealousy. They then told their father that Joseph had been mauled to death by wild beasts. Joseph, through a series of misadventures finally winds up in the court of the Egyptian Pharaoh where he engineers a food rationing program that saved Egypt from starvation over the course of a seven year famine. Canaan, by contrast, is caught off guard and Joseph’s father, Jacob, and his brothers are facing starvation. Knowing that there is food to be had in Egypt, Jacob sends Joseph’s brothers there with money to buy food. To abbreviate the account, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers and assures them that they need not fear retaliation. Then he sends them back with instructions to bring their father with them to the land of Egypt where they can ride out the famine.
When sometime later father Jacob dies, a disturbing thought occurs to Joseph’s brothers. What if Joseph was not as forgiving as he let on? What if he refrained from taking revenge only out of respect for his father? Now that Jacob is dead, what is to stop Joseph from doing to his brothers what he had done to them-or worse. Wishing to be proactive, Joseph’s brothers seek an audience with Joseph in which they plead their father’s dying request that he, Joseph, forgive them for the evil they have done. Whether this final testament of Jacob was real or manufactured, Joseph understands well enough that it reflects what his father would have desired. More significantly, Joseph recognizes that there is something bigger at stake here than whatever quarrel he might have with his brothers. Though the brothers acted out of petty jealousy, God was acting at the same time for the purpose of salvation for the family and for many other people. Joseph understands that he is not “in the place of God” who clearly was determined to save the lives of his brothers and their families and has accomplished that very purpose through Joseph’s ordeal.
It would be easy to trivialize this story by summing it up with the maxim: “All things work together for good.” While that is true, it must be born in mind that the good toward which all things work is not necessarily one’s own good. There was nothing good about Joseph’s years of slavery, his separation from his father and the malice of his brothers against him. Joseph’s good fortune later in the game does not erase the scares of what he had to endure. Yet God was able through these harrowing events to further God’s saving purposes and accomplish the good intended.
We should not fail to recognize the ambiguity inherent in this apparent “good.” Though saved from starvation, Israel is brought into Egypt, the house of bondage, as a result of Joseph’s influence. Note well that Joseph had, for all intents and purposes, forsaken his family, culture and faith in his meteoric rise from prisoner to prince of Egypt. We read that after appointing him to his new office, Pharaoh gave Joseph a new name, an Egyptian name. The new clothing he received was an Egyptian brand. The woman he married was an Egyptian woman-and not the common suburban type either. She was the daughter of a priest of Egypt’s gods. Genesis 41:50. Joseph did what all good immigrants are expected to do. He assimilated. He learned to dress and speak like an Egyptian. He married into a prominent Egyptian family. He adopted the religion of Egypt and even accepted an Egyptian name. If there is anything left of his Hebrew roots, Joseph has had the good sense to keep it out of sight. Joseph had no intention of returning home. The name Joseph gives to his second son says it all: “God has made me forget my suffering and my father’s house.” Genesis 41:51.
Though Joseph was sitting in the cat bird’s seat, the covenant was in grave danger of disappearing into the cultural soup of Egypt. It was salvaged only because God brought Joseph’s family back to him. Joseph’s reconciliation with is brothers was therefore not just a family affair. It was a turning from idolatry to covenant faithfulness on the part of a man who nearly forgot who he was. All of this prefigures the struggle Israel will undergo when she returns to the Promised Land and will be compelled to find ways of living faithfully within the context of a very enticing Canaanite culture.
There is also a note of irony in the story. Joseph’s rationing program became an instrument whereby the Empire was able to purchase the very bodies of his subjects rendering them slaves. Genesis 47:13-22. Little did Joseph know how suddenly the institution of imperial slavery he constructed would be turned ruthlessly against his descendants!
I frequently encounter people within the church who hold a very negative view of the Hebrew Scriptures. At the extreme end are folks (most of whom have not read extensively in the Hebrew Bible) who reject these scriptures as archaic, barbaric and contrary to “the God of love” revealed in the New Testament. In the first place, this characterization is inaccurate. The greatest biblical bloodbath with the highest body count is found not in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament book of Revelation. Moreover, the God Jesus calls “Father” is none other than the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. The New Testament does not introduce to us “a kinder, gentler” God. Moreover, the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with expressions and testimony to God’s love and compassion. The psalm for this Sunday is a testimony to God’s mercy and capacity for forgiveness as clear and beautiful as any found in the New Testament. Unfortunately, verses 9-13 are not included in our reading. They point out that “[God] does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities.” “As far as the east is from the west, so far does [God] remove transgressions from us.” “As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him.” The psalmist is a man or woman who has experienced firsthand God’s tender loving mercy.
This psalm begins not with an address by the psalmist to God, or with a declaration from God to the psalmist. The psalm begins with the psalmist addressing himself/herself with a command to “bless the Lord.” If you read Psalm 103 in its entirety (which I encourage you to do), you will discover that the psalmist proceeds almost imperceptibly from his opening soliloquy to declaration of God’s eternal love contrasted with human mortality. The psalm concludes with the psalmist calling upon the very angels and the entire universe to join in his/her song of praise. This marvelous opening out of a soul to the praise and Glory of God is a wonderful paradigm for prayer. St. Augustine felt much the same way:
“Bless, is understood. Cry out with your voice, if there be a man to hear; hush your voice, when there is no man to hear you; there is never wanting one to hear all that is within you. Blessing therefore has already been uttered from our mouth, when we were chanting these very words. We sung as much as sufficed for the time, and were then silent: ought our hearts within us to be silent to the blessing of the Lord? Let the sound of our voices bless Him at intervals, alternately, let the voice of our hearts be perpetual. When you come to church to recite a hymn, your voice sounds forth the praises of God: you have sung as far as you could; you have left the church; let your soul sound the praises of God. You are engaged in your daily work: let your soul praise God. You are taking food; see what the Apostle says: Whether you eat or drink, do all to the glory of God. I Corinthians 10:31. I venture to say; when you sleep, let your soul praise the Lord. Let not thoughts of crime arouse you, let not the contrivances of thieving arouse you, let not arranged plans of corrupt dealing arouse you. Your innocence even when you are sleeping is the voice of your soul.” Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, Psalm 103, New Advent.
Last week Paul made the point that disciples of Jesus ought to have no debt beyond that of love toward one another. In this Sunday’s lesson he puts shoe leather on that concept. Friendships, marriages and intentional religious communities so frequently fail because they assume that, deep down under, we are really all the same. That is a lie. The deeper you go into the heart of a person, the more you discover how complex, unique and different s/he is from you. The more you get to know another person, the more obvious it becomes that there are some things about him/her that are beyond your understanding and that you will probably never comprehend. You cannot genuinely love another person as long as you insist on viewing him/her as just a variation of yourself. Love accepts the fact that there is a vast gulf between each of us. Love can do that because, as St. Paul reminds us, “love never ends.” I Corinthians 13:8. Because we have all eternity to grow in our knowledge and understanding of one another, there is no rush. We can afford to be patient.
“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak.” Vs. 1. According to one commentator, the “weak in faith” are those with “an inadequate grasp of the great principle of salvation by faith in Christ; the consequence of which will be an anxious desire to make this salvation more certain by the scrupulous fulfilment of formal rules.” Sandy, William and Headlam, Arthur C., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary, c. 1977 by T. & T. Clark, Ltd.) p. 384. I believe this to be an oversimplification. Paul seems principally to be addressing the “strong” here who likely characterize their scrupulous opponents as “weak.” It is unlikely that these scrupulous folks would so characterize themselves! For the sake of argument, Paul utilizes these patronizing terms, but only to stand them on their heads. Jewett, Robert, Romans-A Commentary, Hermeneia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, (c. 2007 by Fortress Press) p. 834. There is a degree of sarcasm here as Paul admonishes the seemingly “strong” to exercise control over their urge to disabuse the “weak” of their misconceptions and so find genuine inner strength to love the “weak” without having to make them over into their own likeness. So also Paul assures us that the “weak” one will stand strong in the day of judgment because “the master is able to make him stand.” Vs. 4. In short, Paul is undermining the phony distinction between those who fancy themselves “strong” and the ones they contemptuously view as “weak.” No one is strong enough stand on his/her own strength and no one is too weak to be upheld by the strength of the Lord.
It is difficult to ascertain precisely what calendar of holy days or dietary restrictions are involved here. While it is tempting to assume that this dispute is between gentile believers not steeped in Jewish tradition and Jewish believers still deeply attached to their religious practices, the assumption might well be misguided. Anders Nygren points out that the weak were probably not Jewish believers because there is no blanket commandment in the Torah against eating meat or drinking wine. Nygren, Anders, Commentary on Romans (c. 1949 by Fortress Press) p. 442. Vs. 2. Again, however, Paul might well be employing hyperbole in order to make his point. Just as there probably exists no person or group that “believes he may eat anything,” so also it would be unusual for a 1st Century resident of Rome to eat “only vegetables.” Vs. 2. “The rhetorical effect of placing these parameters so far beyond the likely, actual behavior of groups in Rome is to enable each group to smile and feel included in the subsequent argument.” Jewett, supra at 838. At the end of the day, Paul’s stance toward both groups, the so called “strong” and the so called “weak,” is unmistakably evenhanded. Both weak and strong are present in the Body of Christ by Jesus’ gracious invitation. In that sense, all are “weak.” Both weak and strong are enabled to stand before God on the day of judgment in the strength of their faith in Jesus. In that sense, all are “strong.”
We need not dwell overly much on framing the issues Paul is addressing in this lesson. They are almost certainly moot by now. Nonetheless, Paul’s instructions to the church are insightful and instructive. Without even recognizing it, churches frequently seek people “who fit in,” who “share our sense of mission,” who “are like us.” The departure of large numbers in my own Lutheran Church over their inability to live in community with gay, lesbian and transgendered persons testifies to the ongoing relevance of Paul’s argument here. As one who has remained in the church precisely because I support its inclusive posture, it is tempting to posture myself as one of the “strong” and excoriate those who left as the “weak.” But I believe that in so doing I would be falling into the same flawed outlook held by the disputing groups in the Roman church. This schism must be seen as our church’s failure to accept one another, be patient with one another and allow the Spirit to complete in her own good time the mind of Christ in all of us.
How much and how often am I expected to forgive? That is Peter’s question and it is a reasonable one. We hear it all the time. How many times do I have to remind you to put down the seat! I can’t believe you forgot to pay the credit card bill again! Can you please stop doing that! You know how it annoys me. I don’t believe that Peter is speaking about actions that, in themselves, press the limits of forgiveness. He isn’t speaking of murder, robbery, arson or anything along those lines. Instead, he is speaking about the sorts of offenses people commit on a regular basis, often without even knowing it. Some people can’t help but offer you their advice, regardless whether you want or need it. Other people have odd mannerisms that can be extremely annoying. There are people who seem to have a natural gift for saying hurtful and insensitive things when you are most vulnerable. Often these people wind up in the church because we are probably the only community of people willing to put up with them. So am I supposed to be a bottomless reservoir of forgiveness?
Well, yes, says Jesus. Then he backs it up with the disturbing parable of the forgiven, but unforgiving servant. The parable is disturbing precisely because it suggests that forgiveness which does not inspire forgiveness in the one forgiven can be revoked. In other words, forgiveness is not unconditional. This isn’t the first time that Matthew’s gospel makes the point. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns his disciples “if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Matthew 6:14-15. Perhaps it is best to read this parable less as a threat, and more as a very pointed question directed to Peter: If God’s unlimited forgiveness of our sins does not evoke in us the same breadth of compassion and forgiveness toward our neighbor, what good is it? Have we really heard that gracious word of forgiveness from God? Are we fully aware of the degree to which we harm one another and so dishonor God’s image? If, in fact, we are fully aware of the depth of our sin and the corresponding depth of God’s full and free forgiveness, how can we fail to be as forgiving toward fellow human beings?
As commentator John Nolland points out, this parable is hyperbolic and thus exceeds the parameters of any commercial transaction that might have occurred between slave and master in First Century Palestine. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 by Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 760. We should take care, then, not to interpret the parable literally or overly allegorically. From the context it is clear that Jesus is reinforcing for Peter what he has earlier said, namely, that his forgiveness for his fellow disciples must be as limitless as God’s forgiveness for him.
SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Faithful God, most merciful judge, you care for your children with firmness and compassion. By your Spirit nurture us who live in your kingdom, that we may be rooted in the way of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is not god.” Isaiah 44:6.
From May 29th-31st 1934 the Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church met in Barmen, Germany to address false teachings propagated by the “German Christians” appointed by the Nazis to administer the protestant churches under the Reich. Organized in 1932, the German Christian movement was driven by nationalistic ideology permeated with Nazi anti-Semitism. The movement affirmed Article 24 of the 1920 Nazi Party Platform, which read:
“We demand the freedom of all religious confessions in the state, insofar as they do not jeopardize the state’s existence or conflict with the manners and moral sentiments of the Germanic race. The Party as such upholds the point of view of a positive Christianity without tying itself confessionally to any one confession. It combats the Jewish-materialistic spirit at home and abroad and is convinced that a permanent recovery of our people can only be achieved from within on the basis of the common good before individual good.”
The German Christians saw in this statement an affirmation of “Christian values” which they saw as being under attack by modernistic thought and scientific inquiry. Therefore, they supported the Nazis and advocated the racist principles embodied in the Nürnberg Laws of 1935.
In response to this attack on the sovereignty of Jesus over his church, the subordination of the church’s teaching to the political agenda and policies of the Reich and the idolatrous exaltation of the state’s reign over the reign of God, the Confessional Synod had this to say:
- Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
- We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.
- We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords–areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.
- We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.
I invite you to read the Barmen Confession in its entirety.
The Barmen Confession has been rightfully criticized for its failure to address specifically the Reich’s anti-Semitic violence and violence against religious dissenters, racial minorities and political dissidents. Our Jewish sisters and brothers point out that the confessional church, for the most part, took the shape of an internecine ecclesiastical protest rather than a frontal assault on the evils of the Nazi government. Notwithstanding their shortcomings, however, the courage expressed by Barmen’s signatories under the threat of Nazi reprisal stands in stark contrast to the appalling silence of the American Church and its leaders in the face of flagrant conflation of Christian symbols and rhetoric with the ugliest manifestations of American nationalism by white Christians and the overwhelming support of such white Christians for the racist, homophobic, misogynist and xenophobic policies of the Trump administration in accord therewith.
The nationalistic ideology of “American exceptionalism” enshrined in the very first sentence of the 2016 GOP platform states specifically: “We believe that American exceptionalism — the notion that our ideas and principles as a nation give us a unique place of moral leadership in the world — requires the United States to retake its natural position as leader of the free world. Tyranny and injustice thrive when America is weakened. The oppressed have no greater ally than a confident and determined United States, backed by the strongest military on the planet.” This dangerous notion that America, as the savior and rightful defender of the free world, justifiably wields its influence carrying a huge thermonuclear stick, meshes well with the rhetoric of religious organizations such as Christian Nationalist Alliance which asserts (among other things) that “These United States of America were founded by Christian men upon Christian tenets” and that “Islam is a heretical perversion of the Judeo-Christian doctrine and must be recognized and treated as a threat to America and Western Civilization as a whole.” Defense of “Christian civilization” has regularly been invoked to justify harassment of and attacks against Muslim Americans and to uphold an irrational and inhumane ban against refugees fleeing to our country to escape oppression and violence. Exceptionalism is wholly consistent with ideology promoted by Focus on the Family whose “Truth Project” teaches that “America is unique in the history of the world. On these shores a people holding to a biblical worldview have had an opportunity to set up a system of government designed to keep the state within its divinely ordained boundaries.” It provides the perfect conceptual framework supporting the claim of Rev. Franklin Graham that Donald Trump is in the Whitehouse “because God put him there.”
This toxic mix of nationalism and aberrant Christianity has created an environment favorable to the expression of racist, sexist and anti-Islamic sentiments and acts of hatred against people of color. It has mainstreamed white supremacy to the point where formerly fringe characters like white supremacist Richard Spencer are able to secure interviews on NPR and alt.right extremists like Steve Bannon have become fixtures in the Whitehouse. We should be concerned about this new American nationalism injected with the steroid of religious fervor. As observed by Blaise Pascal, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
Let me be clear in stating that there is certainly nothing wrong with acknowledging and celebrating the unique history and character of the United States. Nor is there anything wrong with recognizing and affirming the democratic, egalitarian ideals of freedom reflected in its constitution. The notion, however, that the United States is somehow superior to other nations, that the United States is divinely favored to dominate all other nations, that there is some fixed American culture that must be defended against “foreign” (non-western, non-white, non-Christian) influences or that the interests and ambitions of the United States and its citizens should be given “first” priority over all other peoples is entirely incompatible with the Biblical confession of Israel’s God, the God and Father of Jesus Christ who reigns over all the nations and who has given his people Israel as a light to all the nations and the church as a witness to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ for all the nations.
Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical, Testem benevolentiae nostrae, warned Roman Catholics over a century ago against “some who conceive and would have the Church in America to be different from what it is in the rest of the world.” Though spoken in a very different context, these words nevertheless serve as a salutary reminder that the life of the Church is to be ruled first and foremost by its Lord and not by the cultural and ideological currents of nations in which it resides as a pilgrim and a sojourner. The Jesus we confess was born to a homeless couple fleeing as refugees from genocide in their homeland of Judea across the border into Egypt. Jesus was a dark-skinned non-person living under the oppressive reign of the Roman Empire. He practiced unconditional hospitality, welcoming to his table beggar and soldier, priest and prostitute, Jew and Samaritan. Jesus taught us that the two greatest commandments that norm all others are the commands to love the one true God who chooses and liberates slaves and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. His life of sacrificial love ending in his crucifixion was vindicated by God who raised him from death. It is impossible, consistent with allegiance to Jesus and the reign of God he proclaims, for one to elevate one’s own nation, its culture and its ambitions above the well-being of one’s neighbors throughout the rest of the world.
The question, then, is: can we continue to remain silent while the name of our Lord Jesus Christ is employed to support a ban on refugees fleeing oppression to our shores, legitimize and normalize racist rhetoric, demonize gay, lesbian and transgendered persons, promote a godless ideology of American exceptionalism that puts devotion to the nation state over God’s expressed concern for the salvation of the whole world? Yes, I am aware that all of the mainline churches have issued statements condemning specific actions of the current administration such as the discriminatory ban against refugees, restrictive and family-hostile immigration policies and environmentally destructive regulations. But that only scratches the surface of our country’s sickness, a sickness that has infected the church to the depths of its soul. What we need is to name the demon of idolatry. What we need is for the American church to come together around a Barmen like confession naming and rejecting the false god of American nationalism and the America first agenda to which no one believing in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church can possibly subscribe. The American church needs to unite in affirming Jesus Christ as the “one Word of God…which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death” to the exclusion of all “other events and powers, figures and truths,” purporting to be “God’s revelation.”
Here is a poem by Rev. Martin Niemöller, a leader in the confessing church, who was imprisoned under the Nazis. His warning is one all American church leaders should take to heart.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
This Quotation from Martin Niemöller is on display in the Permanent Exhibition of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. You can find out more about Martin Niemöller by visiting the site for the Holocaust Encyclopedia.
Like last week’s reading, this lesson 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.
Our passage is part of a single pericope containing vss. 21-22 also. Vss. 9-20 constitute a prose interpolation mocking the worship of idols. I would recommend reading the piece in its entirety. Isaiah 44:6-8, 21-22. This is one of many “trial speeches” from Second Isaiah in which the God of Israel, as plaintiff, calls the so called gods of the nations to appear and give testimony before him. The people of Israel, as jury, must decide the case. God challenges these deities to demonstrate whether they have ever spoken a prophetic word that came to fruition. The implication is that, so far from responding to the challenge, these gods fail even to make an appearance. Thus, the Lord declares rhetorically, “Is there a God besides me?” Then, in response to silence from the absent gods, God replies, “There is no Rock; I know not any.” Vs. 8. Turning, then to the jury, God calls upon Israel to remember “these things.” “These things,” might refer to God’s saving history narrated in the Exodus story, Wilderness Wanderings or the Conquest of Canaan. More likely, however, the reference is to the courtroom proceedings in which God has decisively demonstrated that there is no other God, no other Rock than God’s self. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library, (c. SCM Press Ltd 1969) p. 142. Israel must now similarly testify that God alone is God and there is no rock beside God.
Westermann rightly points out that this is not an assertion of abstract monotheism, but a response to an urgent concern on the minds of the prophet’s audience. The holy city of Jerusalem had been conquered by Babylon. The temple of the Lord had been profaned and destroyed. Did this not demonstrate unequivocally that the gods of Babylon had bested the God of Israel? How could the people ever again trust the God who failed to protect them when they cried out to him in his sanctuary? Moreover, if the prophet Jeremiah was correct, if God had indeed brought the Babylonian army upon Jerusalem as judgment for her sin, did this not mean that God was finished with Israel? Whether God was unable or unwilling to defend Israel, it amounted to the same thing. There could be no expectation of salvation from this God. So it is that the prophet begins with an assertion of God’s power to save and ends with the assurance that God has “swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist.” Israel therefore can return confidently to her God with the assurance of forgiveness and salvation. Vs. 22.
These bold assertions are as stirring as they are pastorally problematic. In truth, I cannot assure that my cancer stricken friend will experience a remission or cure. What, then, must be said about this God whose will and power to save is unhindered by any other “god” or obstacle? It is worth noting that the situation for Israel was not much different than that of my friend. The prospects for a successful return to Jerusalem and restoration of the promised land were at least as bleak as prospects of recovery from terminal cancer. It is also worth noting that the actual return, as we have said, was not accomplished in the miraculous and glorious manner envisioned by Isaiah. That may only go to show that prophets often don’t know what they are talking about. Their words are fulfilled in ways that they could never have foreseen and take on meanings generations hence that would surprise them. So perhaps we ought not to be so timid in speaking these words in the face of seemingly hopeless circumstances. Ours is only the duty to speak the word. Fulfilment is in the hands of the One whose word we speak.
This is a psalm of lament, though interwoven with the psalmist’s complaints are confessions of God’s greatness, expressions of faith in God’s steadfast love and prayers for guidance and understanding. As always, I urge you to read Psalm 86 in its entirety. Apropos to our lesson from Isaiah, this is precisely the sort of prayer in which God’s limitless power and willingness to save are brought into circumstances of seeming godforsakenness. The psalmist pelts God relentlessly with his promises, his attributes of steadfastness and compassion in an effort to persuade God to act on his/her behalf. It is as if the psalmist were crying out, “How can you not help me?”
In vs. 11 the psalmist prays that God may teach him/her his ways and to walk in God’s truth. The psalmist recognizes that his/her troubles come, at least in part, as a result of failure to discern the way in which God would have him/her walk. So the psalmist prays, “unite my heart to fear thy name.” This might also be translated, “let my heart rejoice to fear thy name.” Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 180. In any case, the psalmist is praying for more than mere knowledge. S/he seeks transformative wisdom that will enable him/her to live faithfully and obediently.
The psalmist refers to himself/herself as God’s “servant,” “slave,” the son of “God’s handmaid.” Vs. 16. That the terms are masculine do not preclude feminine authorship or usage. Such terms are stereotypical poetic phrases found throughout Hebrew verse and utilized in prayer by all Israelites. Just as a slave has no rights of his/her own and must depend on his/her master for vindication and protection, so the psalmist must rely solely on God for his/her defense. Precisely because the psalmist is helpless before his/her adversaries, God is obliged to intervene on his/her behalf.
This is a fine example of lament: prayer that reaches up on the strength of God’s promises from what is to what ought to be. It is exactly the sort of prayer uttered by creation as it awaits liberation from death and decay. Paul will have much to say about this in the following lesson.
Paul begins by restating his argument from last week. Having been baptized into Jesus Christ, we live no longer “in the flesh” or for our own selfish ends. Instead, we live “in the spirit,” that is, as friends of Jesus. To be friends or siblings of Jesus is to be children of God and thus God’s heirs. Note the stark contrast to life in the flesh that is characterized by bondage to sin and slavery under the law. Such a life is characterized by the “master slave” relationship. Life in the Spirit, however, is characterized by familial relationships. Jesus as brother, God as Father, fellow believers as siblings. That we can address God as “Abba,” the word young children use to address their fathers, testifies to the presence of God’s Spirit within us. The change brought about for us by Jesus is therefore relational. We are no longer slaves who view God through the prism of law, but sons and daughters who view God through the prism of Jesus.
So far, so good. But then comes the disturbing word: We are “heirs of God and fellow heirs of Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified in him.” Vs. 17. Commenting on this verse, Karl Barth remarks that “The action of God is the Cross, the Passion: not the quantity of suffering, large or small, which must be borne with greater or with lesser fortitude and courage, as though the quantity of our pains and sufferings would in itself occasion our participation in the glory of God. Participation in suffering means to suffer with Christ, to encounter God, as Jeremiah and Job encountered Him; to see Him in the tempest, to apprehend Him as Light in the darkness, to love Him when we are aware only of the roughness of His hand.” Barth, Karl, The Epistle to the Romans, (c. 1933 Oxford University Press) p. 301. Or, as observed by John Howard Yoder, “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society.” Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, (c. 1972 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 129. Suffering, then, is the consequence of being fully human, as only Jesus was, in an inhuman and inhumane world.
Paul goes on to say, however, that he considers “that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Vs. 18. This is not to be taken as an appeal to put up with the status quo today in hopes of seeing a brighter tomorrow. Paul insists that God’s future has broken into our present. In that respect, Commentator Anders Nygren’s reading of Paul is correct. The church lives simultaneously in two eons, the old age that is passing away and the new age whose birth pangs are even now being felt in the course of the old’s dissolution. See Nygren, Anders, Commentary on Romans, (c. 1949 Fortress Press). The joy of partaking even now in the new age dwarfs the suffering to be endured at the hands of the vanishing old order. The people of God who have been set free from sin and death to live “in the spirit” are the first fruits of what is in store for all creation. The whole creation, says Paul, “will be set free from its bondage to decay” and will “obtain the glorious liberty” now enjoyed by the children of God. Vs. 21.
Paul sums up the posture of the church in one word: “hope.” This hope is not to be construed as some groundless desire for favorable conditions in the future, i.e., “I hope the weather will be dry and sunny for the picnic next month.” The hope of which Paul speaks is grounded in the resurrection of Christ-an event that has already occurred and in which believers participate. Consequently, even our suffering is a reminder of the work of resurrection being completed in us. What the rest of the world fears as death throes believers welcome as birth pangs. Needless to say, this hope shines an entirely new light on aging bodies, dying churches, fading empires and diminishing expectations for wealth and prosperity. Things are not what they seem. If the sky is falling, it is to make way for a new heaven and a new earth.
The parable of the wheat and the weeds is coupled with its explanation quite sensibly omitting (for purposes of the lectionary) the intervening parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven. Taken by itself, the parable of vss. 24-30 might appear to refer to the problem of false disciples within the church. The prior parable of the sower and the different types of soil in last week’s lesson ended with the “good soil” producing a fruitful yield. Sunday’s lesson, which immediately follows, therefore appears to focus on what is planted in that good soil. Jesus’ explanation of that parable in vss. 36-43, however, suggests a much broader application. The field is not the church, but the world; the good seed is the “sons of the kingdom; and the weeds are “sons of the evil one.” Vs. 38. Historical critical analysis suggests that the explanation of the parable is a later interpretation of the early church imposed over the parable giving it a cosmic flavor it lacked on the lips of Jesus or an earlier disciple. As you know by now, I have no interest in the so called “historical Jesus” or in anybody’s fanciful reconstruction of the “Matthean community.” The only context we have for the parable is the gospel of Matthew in which we find it. That is the context upon which I rely for interpretation.
That said, it seems to me that whether we are speaking of persons within the church whose hearts are not fixed upon Jesus or persons in the world openly hostile to the kingdom of heaven, the principle is the same. It is not for disciples of Jesus to purify either the church or the world. Judgment, sanctification and the punishment of evil must be left in the hands of God who alone sees all ends and knows what is just. Disciples of Jesus must exercise mercy, compassion, patience and forgiveness against wrongdoing, whether it arises from within the church or from the world. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “The parable of the wheat and the tares, like all the parables, is an apocalyptic parable, but apocalyptic names the necessity of the church to be patient even with the devil. Just as Jesus was patient with Judas, so we must be patient with those who we think we must force the realization of the kingdom. Jesus’ parables tell us what the kingdom is like, which means that the kingdom has come. It is not, therefore, necessary for disciples of Jesus to use violence to rid the church or the world of enemies of the gospel. Rather, the church can wait, patiently confident that, as Augustine says, the church exists among the nations.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 133.
The church of the New Testament was understood to be a communion that transcended racial, national, social and cultural barriers. In Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28. That the church often fell short of this vision is evident from the pages of the New Testament itself. Nonetheless, for all of their quarrelsomeness and instability, Paul’s congregations appear to have reflected the diversity found within the Mediterranean population of the 1st Century. The same can hardly be said of American Protestantism in which the red state/blue state divide breaks down neatly along denominational lines. Too often our legislative gatherings turn out to be microcosms of the increasingly tiresome “culture wars” being fought in the larger society. Sadly, religion of the protestant sort has more frequently inflamed, polarized and oversimplified discussion of contentious issues than modeled a community of thoughtful reflection, truthful speech and patient listening. All of this tends to reflect impatience: impatience with a world that won’t conform to our chosen ideologies; impatience with a church that fails to live up to our romantic notions of what it should be; impatience with a God who works too damn slowly in rooting out evil. Jesus would have us meet evil with truthful speech, compassion, empathy and forgiveness. Retribution, assuming there is a need for it, can be left in God’s hands and to God’s good timing.
FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: You are great, O God, and greatly to be praised. You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Grant that we may believe in you, call upon you, know you, and serve you, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope.” Zechariah 9:12
Hope is powerful. It can inspire selfless acts of heroism. It can empower an oppressed people to endure centuries of persecution. Hope can sustain resistance to tyranny and ignite revolutionary change. Often the most slender and fragile hope for a better tomorrow is enough to see us through the darkest of days. It does seem to me that we are held prisoner by hope. Hope appears to be an indispensible element of human existence. It’s what keeps us going. It is as difficult to lose all hope as it is to will oneself to stop breathing. Even those who take their own lives are driven by the desperate hope of finally escaping an existence too painful to endure. And that, of course, brings us to the dark side of hope. Hope can be tragically misplaced.
In last week’s lesson from Jeremiah, the people of Judah were led by the false prophet Hananiah to place their hope in his prediction of Babylon’s imminent collapse. So, too, it seems was the king and his counselors who shaped their foreign policy on the basis of this lie and engineered a revolt against Babylonian domination. Jeremiah’s largely ignored warning that such folly would lead to catastrophic destruction for Judah came true with a vengeance. Babylon crushed the revolt. Judah lost her land, her temple and the royal line of David. Such are the consequences of misplaced hope.
One needs look no further than the field of medicine to find examples of misplaced hope. Of course, I am no enemy of medicine or medical progress. Some members of my family and many of my friends would likely have died in childhood if they had lived just a century ago. Thanks to modern medical advances, they are living full and active lives today. I am glad that medical science is pushing against the frontiers of human knowledge to find cures for various diseases, particularly those that strike during childhood. But medicine has limits that hope sometimes refuses to acknowledge. It is easy to forget that medicine is as much art as science, and that the human body is enormously complex. In spite of its impressive advances, medicine does not have close to all the answers for what ails us. When I was practicing law, a significant portion of my practice involved defending doctors, nurses and hospitals against malpractice claims. While medical malpractice does in fact occur with disturbing frequency, I can say that many such claims arise from unrealistic expectations of modern medicine and the caregivers who practice it. At the end of the day, doctors are only human. Medical knowledge is incomplete. Sometimes people are beyond medical help and cannot be “fixed.” Human beings are mortal-and that is perhaps the greatest sticking point of all. Medicine can’t save us from death; but obvious as this raw fact surely is, that doesn’t make it any easier to accept.
In a recent article of the Daily Express, Jon Austin reports on the work of Dr. Aubrey de Grey, a physician who has dedicated his work to the quest for eternal life. Dr. De Grey believes people who have already been born could live for ten centuries as beneficiaries of ongoing research into “repairing the effects of ageing.” He hopes ultimately to create preventative treatments enabling humans to re-repair themselves on a regular basis and so live as long as 1,000 years or possibly even forever. I hasten to add that Mr. Austin has made a name for himself covering all manner of conspiracy theories and alleged government cover-ups of UFO landings and sightings. So I am inclined to take this article with a very large grain of salt. Nonetheless, that it finds its way into public media at all suggests to me that it speaks to a longing we find hard to suppress. The notion that medical science might possibly lead us to that illusive fountain of youth makes us absolutely giddy.
Can genetic engineering extend our lives indefinitely? I rather doubt it. But not being a scientist myself, I can’t speak authoritatively on that question. What I can say with certainty is that the desire to extend one’s life indefinitely is a selfish, narcissistic, egotistical quest. It reflects a stubborn refusal to accept with gratitude the time one has been given on this planet and to graciously step aside and make room for the next generation. The utter selfishness of pursuing human immortality becomes clear when one considers that it would be entirely unsustainable unless we all decided to stop reproducing or restricted life extending treatments to an elite few. This perverse preoccupation also goes a long way toward explaining why our country’s health care system is grotesquely skewed toward providing life extending care for us oldsters while neglecting large sections of our population consisting of children and young families. The drive for immortality represents an arrogant promethean effort to put the brakes on history/evolution and elevate the status quo to a level of eternal significance. It is a refusal to let the universe progress beyond the eternal “me.”
The promise that “you shall not die, but become as God, knowing good and evil” is as old as human existence. We should not forget where it came from. Whether attainable or not, extending human life indefinitely is a false hope. Immortality can offer us only selfish misery and loneliness if it is an end in itself. St. Paul understood that well. That is why he insists that, in order to share in Christ’s eternal life, we must of necessity die. That is why Jesus tells us that only by losing our lives can we hope to gain them. Repentance is a kind of death that requires us to let go daily of past sins and false hopes. We are to practice repentance with such regularity that, when the day of death actually comes, it will be “just another day.” Rather than clinging tenaciously and futilely to life at all costs, we are invited to let our lives fall back into the hands of the One who gave them to us in the first place and who has the power to give them back to us once again, made new and reconciled.
Zechariah encourages Israel to “return to your stronghold.” That stronghold is the Lord, Israel’s covenant partner. God is where all genuine hope is finally anchored. It is within the covenant of baptism, within the community of saints under construction and within the disciplines of discipleship that we are formed through daily repentance and faith into genuinely human creatures capable of living joyfully, thankfully and obediently within the limits of our creaturely existence. Here’s a poem by Marge Piercy that speaks of a transformative life of repentance grounded in sober hope.
The hinge of the year
the great gates opening
and then slowly slowly
closing on us.
I always imagine those gates
hanging over the ocean
fiery over the stone grey
waters of evening.
We cast what we must
change about ourselves
onto the waters flowing
to the sea. The sins,
errors, bad habits, whatever
you call them, dissolve.
When I was little I cried
out I! I! I! I want, I want.
Older, I feel less important,
a worker bee in the hive
of history, miles of hard
labor to make my sweetness.
The gates are closing
The light is failing
I kneel before what I love
imploring that it may live.
So much breaks, wears
down, fails in us. We must
forgive our broken promises—
their sharp shards in our hands.
 Ne’ilah is a special Jewish prayer service that is held on Yom Kippur. It is the time when final prayers of repentance are recited at the closing of this most solemn of Jewish observances.
Source: The Crooked Inheritance, (c. 2006 by Marge Piercy, pub. by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group). Marge Piercy was born in 1936 in Detroit, Michigan. She attended the University of Michigan and received her MA from Northwestern University. During the 1960s, Piercy was an organizer in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). She was also heavily involved in opposition to the war in Vietnam. Piercy is a prolific writer having published seventeen books of poetry and several novels. You can learn more about Marge Piercy and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Zechariah is identified in the opening lines of the book bearing his name as son of Berechiah son of Iddo. Zechariah 1:1. His name means “The Lord is renowned.” He is identified, along with Haggai, as one of the prophets prophesying encouragement to the Jews newly returned from the Babylonian Exile. Ezra 5:1, Ezra 6:14. Such encouragement was sorely needed. Having left Babylon in high hopes of witnessing a miraculous recovery for their homeland, the people arrived to find only a ruined city and rubble where the temple of Solomon once stood. Conditions were daunting and soon the little settlement was reduced to subsistence living and concerned only with survival. This was hardly an ideal time to begin a stewardship campaign for a new sanctuary! Yet through his repeated proclamation of visions and oracles, Zechariah was able to assure Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah, and Joshua, the high priest, that together they could complete reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Zechariah’s preaching must have been persuasive, for the temple was indeed rebuilt and dedicated around 516 B.C.E.
Sunday’s reading is familiar to us. All four gospels cite or allude to verse 9 in connection with Jesus’ triumphal procession into Jerusalem riding on the back of a donkey. Matthew 21:5; Mark 11:1-10; Luke 19:28-38; and John 12:14-15. Note the contrast: Zion’s king, though triumphant and victorious, comes riding upon a donkey; but the “war horse,” “chariot” and “battle bow” are destined to be cut off. Vss. 9-10. This king will command “peace” to the nations. Vs. 10. His weapon, his “bow,” “arrow” and “sword” is the people of Israel. Zechariah 9:13 (omitted in the lectionary reading). Through the faithful witness of the covenant people, the king prevails over his foes. This is another of many instances in the Hebrew Scriptures where Israel’s God forsakes war as the means for saving and liberating his people. So, too, Jesus will forsake violence repeatedly in the gospels as the means for bringing about God’s reign.
“Blood of my covenant” is a conventional way of referring to the covenant relationship between Israel and her God. Vs. 11. That it was sealed with blood emphasizes the irrevocable nature of that relationship. “Prisoners of hope” is a difficult phrase and resort to the original Hebrew does not give us much further insight into its meaning. Vs. 12. Yet one might well describe both Israel and the church as “prisoners of hope.” Both communities were created by covenants established in the past, yet which also look to the future for their fulfilment. Hope is not a vague optimism that everything will finally work out in the end. It is shaped by promises of a new age, a new heaven and a new earth, resurrection and a new creation. It is fed by sacred narratives of God’s past acts of salvation and God’s steadfast faithfulness to us throughout history. We are in bondage to this hope that will not let us go.
This psalm is a hymn in acrostic form. Every verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostic poems usually do not develop ideas but consist rather of loosely connected statements. The technique aids in memorization, but also conveys the message that the whole of the topic is being addressed “from A-Z.” Other psalms in the acrostic family are Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; and Psalm 112.
As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 145 in its entirety. The verses making up our reading contain a refrain found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures: “The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Vs. 8. See, e.g, Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Jonah 4:2; and Psalm 103:8. This core confession belies the all too common belief on the part of ill-informed Christians that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is a “God of wrath,” whereas the New Testament God is a kindly, old, overindulgent grandfather. God does not need Jesus to be gracious or the cross in order to forgive. It is rather because God is gracious that his Word became flesh and because God is infinitely forgiving that God’s Incarnate Word embraces with love those who would nail him to the cross.
All creation testifies to God’s grace and mercy through praise. This “all” includes God’s faithful people Israel as well as the natural world and its non-human creatures. Vss. 10-12. The term “kingdom” might better be translated “reign.” The psalmist is not speaking of something in the distant future and certainly does not refer to a place located “beyond the blue.” God reigns now, whether that reign is recognized and acknowledged or not. In talking about the nature of God’s reign, it might be helpful to reflect back on the reading from Zechariah and the humble king riding not a war horse, but a donkey. God does not rule the world in the way of all the tribes, kingdoms and empires that have drenched the earth in blood to establish their respective reigns.
Standing on its own, this little snippet from Romans is a bit confusing. So let’s give it some context. Paul has been discussing the role of the law and its relationship to sin. Law is binding only upon the living. For example, a person is bound to another in marriage for “as long as they both shall live.” But if one spouse dies, there is no longer any marriage and thus no legal obligation of faithfulness for the surviving spouse. So also a person baptized into Christ’s death is liberated from the law which attaches only to the living. The new person raised in Christ’s resurrection is, as we have said, a servant of God over whom sin has no power and the law no jurisdiction. Romans 7:1-6. The gospel is not about reforming sinners. It is not about teaching an old dog new tricks. The old dog must be taken out back and shot. What is raised up constitutes an entirely new creature.
Law, as we have said before, is given to defend us from ourselves. It serves as a protective hedge around covenant life, ensuring the proper worship of Israel’s God and the essential elements of human life, i.e., marriage, livelihood and sustenance. The law, however, must not be confused with the covenant itself. When the law is understood as a means of drawing near to God rather than as a gift designed to protect and nurture that nearness, it becomes just another occasion for sin. Using the law as a means for achieving right relationship with God is rather like trying to drive your car along a winding mountain road by keeping your eye fixed on the guard rail. In addition to losing sight of your destination, you practically ensure that you will eventually go off the road.
The law functions, then, to bring into focus the nature and depth of sin. On the one hand, the law paints a portrait of life as it ought to be in covenant with God. Yet it is precisely this portrait that illuminates my own life and the extent to which it fails to work itself out peaceably within that covenant relationship. To the extent that I see reflected in the law my own brokenness and despise it, I affirm the law’s judgment. So far, so good. The law works well as a diagnostic instrument, but it is not a cure for what ails me. When I try to use it as a cure, it only becomes increasingly clear that I am hopelessly in bondage to sin. Instead of a protective hedge, the law now becomes a ruthless master whose demands I can never satisfy. So too, my understanding of the God who gives the law becomes distorted.
“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.” Vs. 21. Paul speaks from experience here. It was, after all, his zeal for the law that led Paul to persecute the early church and so the messiah he now serves. Similarly, it was the religious leaders of Israel who were seeking to uphold the law and put an end to blasphemy that brought Jesus before Pontius Pilate seeking the death sentence. For his part, Pilate was simply doing his job and trying to keep the peace when he had Jesus crucified. Jesus was not killed by notorious sinners, but by decent, law abiding citizens who were only trying to do the right thing. Sin twists the law as it does everything else to serve its own destructive ends. That is why the folks who never tire of warning us that unless we enshrine “Christian values” in the laws of our land, society will disintegrate. Society might well disintegrate, but anyone who thinks that laws, however “Christian” they might be, can prevent such catastrophe has never listened to Saint Paul.
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Vs. 24. That is finally the proper question. It is not a matter of what one believes or what one does. It is a matter of who one trusts. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Vs. 25. When one trusts Jesus enough to share his death through baptism, one shares also in Jesus’ resurrection. Care must be taken to avoid the misunderstanding of “trusting Jesus” as simply another work of the law. Such trust or faith is not a precondition for salvation from sin’s bondage. Rather, the proclamation that Jesus is trustworthy works the miracle of trust in our hearts. Because sin is an absence of trust, its power is broken when the heart begins to trust God once again. When the power of sin is broken, law is superfluous.
In its usual paternalistic concern for the simple and unlearned, the lectionary has excised Jesus’ culturally offensive and intolerant language from our readings. Specifically, we have been spared Jesus’ harsh pronouncement of judgment upon the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum where he had performed miracles and works of power. Jesus even suggests that, had his works been performed in the proverbially wicked city of Sodom, that city would have repented and been spared. Matthew 11:20-24. As Professor Stanley Hauerwas points out, “Jesus’ pronouncement of judgment on the cities in which he performed deeds of power makes us, contemporary Christians, profoundly uncomfortable. We want a gospel of love that insures when everything is said and done that everyone and everything is going to be okay. But we are not okay. Like the cities of Israel, we have turned our existence as Christians into a status meant to protect us from recognizing the prophets who would point us to Jesus. Of course we do not like Jesus to pronounce judgment on the cities in which he performed deeds of power, because we do not want to recognize that we too are judged. But the gospel is judgment because otherwise it would not be good news. Only through judgment are we forced to discover forms of life that can free us from our enchantment with sin and death.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brozos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 116.
The text begins with Jesus citing a child’s proverb: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” Vs. 17. Like spoiled children who cannot be induced to play at any game, the people of the three towns in which Jesus ministered remain unresponsive to God’s reign. First, they reject the ministry of John the Baptist. That is not surprising. John is an unsettling character. He lives off the bounty of the wilderness and so is impervious to the ups and downs of the economy. He has no stake in the social order and whatever entitlements it may provide. John’s very existence is a challenge to the status quo. His mere presence literally shouts that things need not be as they are. God has no need for children of Abraham, the line of David or the temple in Jerusalem. Fruits, not roots, are what God treasures. Small wonder the public at large dismisses John as a madman.
If John was unsettling, Jesus is downright threatening. Consider the “mighty works” Jesus has already done. He begins his healing ministry by touching a leper. Matthew 8:1-4. Note well that this touch was given before the leper had been healed. That should have rendered Jesus ritually unclean, but instead it cleanses the leper. Next, Jesus heals the servant of a centurion, a hated representative of the Roman Empire. To add insult to injury, Jesus remarks that the centurion’s faith outshines that of all Israel! Matthew 8:5-13. Jesus has the audacity to declare forgiveness to a man stricken with paralysis-presumably by God as punishment for his sins. Matthew 9:1-8. Then, to top it off, Jesus is found eating in the company of notorious sinners. Matthew 9:10-13. It might have been acceptable for Jesus to feed sinners at a shelter of some kind. Nobody would have objected to Jesus preaching to sinners. But to sit down and share meals with sinners who have not repented and have shown no inclination to clean up their acts-that is a bridge too far. Jesus seems to think there is no difference between sinners and the righteous, the clean and the unclean, the legal and the illegal. All those fine social distinctions that define us, tell us who we are and where we stand come apart in his presence. No wonder the good people of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum dismiss Jesus as dunk bohemian.
Both Jesus and John are written off with cheap ad hominem attacks. The critics cannot argue with the witness of John or the works of Jesus. So they resort to attacks on their characters. John is crazy. Jesus is a drunk. Their followers have been brainwashed by the media. The lectionary is likewise uncomfortable with Jesus. Rather than openly discrediting him, however, it simply edits the offensiveness out of him. But as Hauerwas observes, the good news is not good news until we are made to recognize that the status quo to which we so desperately cling is bad news.
Jesus concludes with a prayer thanking his heavenly Father for concealing the reality of God’s reign from the “wise and understanding” and for revealing it “to babes.” Vs. 25. This is not an attack on wisdom or understanding as such. Rather, it is an assault upon the intellectual energy we expend resisting the kingdom. We all know from our own experience what so often happens when you promote change, however modest, to a group of people set in their ways. Usually, you get all the reasons for why it cannot be done except the true reason, namely, that they don’t want it done. Adults will tell you that poverty, starvation and war are inevitable and give you an endless supply of well thought out reasons for why trying to change any of that is futile. A child will simply ask why we don’t stop fighting and start taking care of one another. It is not that the child is smarter than the adult. Clearly, s/he is not as well educated or knowledgeable. Yet precisely because the child lacks the conceptual tools of adulthood that enable us so effectively to lie to ourselves and rationalize our sin, the child manages to arrive at the truth from which we flee. The child knows what we steadfastly deny. Things don’t have to be the way they are.
Children are too young and inexperienced to understand that the status quo ensures them and their parents a comfortable lifestyle and security that few in the rest of the world can dream about. Children have not yet come to understand that the world is a shrinking pie and we all need to protect our slice. Children have not yet learned the importance of being white or straight or wealthy or physically attractive. A child must be educated to appreciate these distinctions and learn the importance of ensuring that they remain in place. In short, the child must be taught the fine art of self-deception. S/he must learn that the way things are is the way they must be if we are to maintain our way of life. It is not helpful for people like John and Jesus to confuse these little ones by declaring that things do not have to be as they are.
Clearly, the good news of Jesus Christ is not about tweaking the status quo to make it more humane. The good news is the reign of God that makes all things new (and of necessity breaks apart the old.) It introduces a new reality that lies at the core of both the Hebrew and New Testament scriptures. As observed by Walter Brueggemann, “At the root of reality is a limitless generosity that intends an extravagant abundance. This claim is exposited in Israel’s creation texts, sapiential traditions, and hymnic exuberances. This insistence files in the face of the theory of scarcity on which the modern world is built. An ideology of scarcity produces competitiveness that issues in brutality, justifies policies of wars and aggression, authorizes an acute individualism, and provides endless anxiety about money, sexuality, physical fitness, beauty, work achievements, and finally mortality. It seems clear to me that, in the end, all of these anxieties are rooted in an ideology that resists the notion of limitless generosity and extravagant abundance.” Brueggemann, Walter, An Unsettling God, (c. 2009 Fortress Press) p. 171. I would add that the same limitless generosity and extravagant abundance lies at the heart of Jesus’ proclamation of God’s reign. God would give us the kingdom, but God must first pry the status quo away from us so that our hands will be free to receive it.
THE HOLY TRINITY
Almighty Creator and ever-living God: we worship your glory, eternal Three-in-One, and we praise your power, majestic One-in-Three. Keep us steadfast in this faith, defend us in all adversity, and bring us at last into your presence, where you live in endless joy and love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The God of the scriptures is anything but abstract. This God “breaths” over the primordial waters, “speaks” creation into existence, takes up clay and fashions the human form, breathing into it the breath of life. This God enters into a wrestling match with Jacob, places a hand over Moses and touches the mountains to make them smoke. While we ought not to take these descriptions in a strictly literal way, I am reluctant to interpret them purely figuratively either. The scriptural witness to God and God’s actions is not simply a primitive expression of faith in a deity that we sophisticated moderns know and understand far better today as a wholly “spiritual being.” The God of the Hebrew Scriptures has a body. The New Testament declares that this Body is revealed and glorified in his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. Paul declares that the church is Christ’s Body. Our creeds insist that God became incarnate-and remains so.
That is all very important and here is why. A distinctly unbiblical ideology clothed in Christian rhetoric has played a dominant role in undermining our environmental protection regulations in the United States and has recently been invoked as a justification for ending our country’s participation in the Paris Climate Accord. Though mainline churches, including the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have condemned President Trump’s withdrawal from the accord, many Christians identifying as “evangelical” appear staunchly opposed to environmental protection generally and the Accord in particular. The rationale for such a seemingly irresponsible stance is grounded in the teachings of evangelical leaders who are convinced that we are living in the end times. There are several iterations among the adherents of this doctrine of the way in which the end of the world supposedly will unfold. But nearly all of the scenarios have God handing the world over to the destructive whims of a satanic world dictator who will, in turn, wreak havoc on the earth before its final destruction. Some of these folks go so far as to say that environmental destruction is not only to be disregarded but actually welcomed as a sign of the coming Apocalypse. Spokespeople for these viewpoints include conservative pundit Erik Erikson who said recently that “[Jesus] calls us all to be good stewards of the planet, but doesn’t mean I have to care about global warming.” Also in the same camp is Matthew Hagee who insists that evidence of climate change are biblical signs of the end and “rather than try to clean up all of the air and solve all of the problems of the world by eliminating factories, we should start to tell people about Jesus Christ who is to return.” Add to this list the late Tim LaHaye of Left Behind fame, Hall Lindsay who has been sounding the rapture alarm since the early 70s, and, of course, the late Brother Harold Campion who famously predicted the end of the world in May of 2011. For these folks, the physical world doesn’t matter. So why sweat global warming?
I don’t intend to argue here that humanly induced climate change is real. If 97% of the world’s scientists can’t persuade you, I probably can’t either. What I will argue is that neglecting climate change, or any other pressing environmental issue, on grounds that God is about to hand the world over to the devil and his angels is religious rubbish. It’s as much junk theology as pseudo-scientific arguments against humanly caused climate change is “junk” science. “End times” theology, not climate change, is the real hoax. Though it parades as orthodox Christianity, it was in fact the product of a British movement in the 1820s known as “Dispensationalism.” I hasten to add that the Plymouth Brethren, thought to be the epicenter of this movement, did not purport to know or predict when the end would come or assert that they were able to discern its signs. Nor, to my knowledge, did they ever use their faith as an excuse to foul the air, land and water. These developments are more recent American phenomena that are entirely unbiblical, unorthodox and, yes, unscientific.
I don’t care to get embroiled here in disputes over the interpretation of biblical apocalyptic. For my take on apocalyptic literature generally and Revelation in particular, see my post of Sunday, April 10, 2016. Suffice to say that, for purposes of this post, the biblical God confessed in the creeds became flesh and remains physically engaged with the world and all its creatures. God is both aware of and grieves the fall of each sparrow. The wounds we inflict upon the earth, its creatures and one another are inflicted on the God who sent his only Son to redeem that earth. God loves the world and will not cede one blessed inch of it to the antichrist-not even temporarily. To desecrate the earth, then, is to desecrate God’s temple. Invoking the name of Christ to rationalize such desecration is blasphemy of the highest order.
It is encouraging to see that scientists are beginning to make intentional efforts to speak up in defense of their work and expose “junk” science that is too freely bandied about in what should be serious political discourse. One example is the recent “March for Science” held April 22nd of this year in more than five hundred cities throughout the world. Our nation and its leaders are sorely in need of some scientific education. A crash course in theology might also be helpful. Junk theology, like junk science, needs to be exposed and discarded.
Here is a poem by Carl Dennis that speaks the miracle of incarnation from a pagan/secular perspective that is hauntingly biblical.
Days of Heaven
That was a great compliment the Greeks paid to human life
When they imagined their gods living as humans do,
With the same pleasure in love and feasting,
Headstrong as we are, turbulent, quick to anger,
Slow to forgive. Just like us, only immortal.
And now that those gods have proven mortal too
And heaven and earth can’t be divided,
Every death means a divine occasion
Has been taken from us, a divine perspective,
Though the loss gets only a line or two in the news.
Hard to believe the headlines this morning
That a banker on Mt. Olympus has been pilfering,
That a builder has been guilty of shoddy construction
On a bridge that spans a river in heaven,
Cutting corners to squirrel away his fortune
For a better day, when the great day has already come.
For news that heartens we must turn to the classifieds.
Here in what’s left of heaven it’s right to advertise
For a soul mate. It’s right to look for a job
That lets us incarnate spirit more fully
And leave something behind that time is kinder to
Than the flesh of gods. Lucky there’s work.
Lucky the streets of heaven are in need of repair.
Paint is peeling from the dream-house trim.
Holy rainwater backs up in leaf-clogged gutters
Till the ceiling sags and tiles need regrouting.
And look at the list of practical items for sale—
Used snowblowers, croquet sets, chainlink fencing.
And what about a wooden canoe with two paddles.
Why don’t we make time for a turn before sundown?
Out on the broad lake a breeze will find us
That’s wafted around the planet to cool our divinity.
The clouds will hover above us in a giant halo
As we watch our brother, the sun, descend,
His gentle face turned toward us, his godly expression
Undarkened by accusation or disappointment
Or the thought of something he’s left undone.
Source: Ranking the Wishes. (c. 1997 by Carl Dennis, pub. by Penguin Group (USA). Carl Dennis was born in 1939. He teaches English and is a writer in residence at State University of New York-Buffalo. He has written numerous books of poetry and one book on poetic criticism. Dennis was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2001 and also the Ruth Lily Prize. You can find out more about Carl Dennis and read more of his poems at the Poetry Foundation Website.
This marvelous poetic portrayal of creation is a product of the Priestly author chiefly responsible for editing and contributing to the final form of the Pentateuch constituting the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. This editor(s)/author(s) composed during the Babylonian Exile from 587 B.C.E. to about 530 B.C.E. Throughout this period Israel lived as an ethnic minority that was hostile to her faith in the Lord of the Exodus. The people were surrounded by and immersed in the religious symbols, practices and mores of their captors, whose decisive victory over Israel called into question the validity of their faith. The temptation to become assimilated into Babylonian society was strong. Should Israel continue to worship a God that seemed to have been overcome by the deities of Babylon? If Israel’s God was God, how could this God allow his holy city and temple to be destroyed?
As discussed last week, the Babylonian Enûma Eliš saga relates how the earth was created out of a civil war between the gods and how humans were created from the divine blood shed in that conflict for the purpose of serving the victorious gods. The gods were ruled by the chief of these divine victors, Marduk, who in turn presided over a strict hierarchy. The Babylonian empire mirrored this heavenly hierarchy on earth with the emperor standing at the top of the social order. Under him were his officers, army and patrons. At the bottom of the pyramid were slaves-barely human and at the mercy of their owners whim. The empire was the gods will done on earth as in heaven according to the Babylonian creed.
Our reading from the first chapter of Genesis constitutes an alternative creation narrative reflecting a very different understanding of divinity, the cosmos and the social order. The story describes creation as the sovereign act of one God whose merciful and compassionate care ensures stability and sustenance for all creatures. There is no hint of conflict or struggle in the act of creation. Everything is brought into existence by the sovereign word of God that declares everything made to be “good.” Human beings do not spring up unintended from the blood of conflict, but are specially created in God’s image. They have not been made to serve as a race of slaves, but to be fruitful, multiply and rule over the good world God has made.
The command to “fill the earth and subdue it” has spawned some unfortunate misunderstanding about human responsibility in the realm of creation. I am not convinced that this verse, much less the Biblical witness as a whole, can be saddled with the responsibility for global warming. I believe rather that ideologies spun out of the Enlightenment extoling the power of reason and desacralizing the natural world are chiefly responsible for that and other ecological woes. Nonetheless, this verse has often been lifted out of its context and employed to give religious sanction for ruthless exploitation of the earth and its resources. One popular commentator recently remarked, “God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, ‘earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours.’” Colter, Ann, If Democrats had any Brains They’d be Republicans, (c. 2007 by Crown Forum) p. 104.
In all fairness to Ms. Colter, the Hebrew text actually does support her literal interpretation. The Hebrew verb for “subdue” is “CABAS” meaning “to tread down, beat or make a path or to subdue.” In at least one instance, the Bible uses this word to connote rape. Esther 7:8. The word can also mean to “enslave.” Jeremiah 34:11. For the most part, however, it is used to describe the conquest of Canaan and its inhabitants by Israel. Numbers 32:22; Joshua 18:1; I Chronicles 22:18. This is important because the land of Canaan was given to Israel in trust. Very specific provisions were made for care of the land, including a year of rest from cultivation each seven years. Exodus 23:10-11. Israel’s reign over the land of Canaan was to mirror God’s gentle and gracious reign over creation. This in marked contrast to the Babylonian empire’s brutal domination of the Near East reflecting the violence and brutality of the gods it worshiped.
Thus, I believe that the poet of Genesis 1 was using the term “CABAS” to undermine the imperial model of world domination in much the same way Paul employed images of weaponry to undermine the militaristic reign of Rome. Just as Paul points out that the weapons of the church are the good news of the gospel, prayer, faith and peacemaking (Ephesians 6:14-18), so the poet makes clear that God overcomes and rules the world by God’s exercise of patient, faithful and everlasting compassion. That is how God subdues us and that is the means by which God’s people subdue the world. Thus, if I were to forego preaching about the Trinity this Sunday, I might consider talking about the mythological framework behind the national and corporate empires of the Twenty First Century. Imperial power is as tyrannical today as it was in Sixth Century and even more destructive to the earth and its ecology. Is the assertion of personal property rights, national self-interest and territorial sovereignty consistent with the claim that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”? Psalm 24:1.
In addressing Trinity Sunday, it is worth observing that the term “Trinity” is nowhere found in the scriptures. That is not to say, however, that the doctrine lacks scriptural support or that it is inappropriate to speak of the Triune God in understanding this text. I do not share the strict historical critical assumption that the meaning of a biblical text is arrived at through stripping away all residue of the church’s interpretation and applying objectively the tools of text criticism, source criticism, redaction analysis, form criticism, literary criticism and whatever else I left out. This is not to say that these individual components of the method are not useful in some measure to critique and correct our interpretations. They are clearly important, but they are not the key to preaching the text. I believe that at the end of the day, the Bible is the church’s book and it cannot be read faithfully (by Christians anyway) apart from the Church’s confession that Jesus is Lord. So be warned that I confess unashamedly to reading and preaching the scriptures through the lens of the church’s Trinitarian faith. Historical critical tools are sometimes helpful to that end, but they don’t get to drive the bus.
At the very beginning of the Hebrew Scriptures we are told something very important: that God speaks. It is only because God speaks that it is possible for us to speak of God at all. God initiates a conversation within God’s Triune self through which all things are spoken into existence. As creation progresses, God’s speech spills over to address the creation. The earth is commanded to bring forth vegetation, the lights of the firmament are commanded to give light to the earth, the waters are commanded to bring forth swarms of living creatures, the earth is commanded to bring forth living creatures. Creation can respond with praise, prayer and thanksgiving because and only because God gives it a word to which it can respond. Then in verse 26 for the first time we overhear the Trinitarian deliberation and dialogue concerning our own creation. We learn that we are uniquely created in the image of our Creator.
Much ink has been spilt pondering what it means for us to be made in God’s image. I am not convinced that the poet in Genesis gives us much in the way of an answer to the inquiry. That is not surprising given that poetry is always more suggestive than definitive. We may infer, as I have already said, that humanity’s reign over the earth is to reflect God’s gracious reign over all creation. Yet the shape of both reigns must await further development as the scriptural narrative progresses. The call of Abraham from the wastes of Babel, the sojourning of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the liberation of Israel from bondage will dramatize both God’s judgment on dehumanizing ways of existence and God’s promise of an alternative way of being human. The shape of human existence in obedience to God is spelled out in God’s covenants wherein God’s faithfulness is demonstrated and the promise of true humanity is held out. Israel is ever in the process of becoming human precisely so that by its light the world may finally learn the proper way of being the world.
The image of God is finally realized in Jesus, the “Word made flesh.” More than any of the other gospels, John’s narrative illustrates both the divinity of humanity and the humanity of God. We can say that humans are created in God’s image precisely because, as St. Augustine reminds us, we “are capable of Him, and can be partaker of Him; which so great a good is only made possible by [humanity’s] being His image.” Augustine of Hippo, On the Trinity, Book 14, Chapter 8:11 (c. 2012 by Fig-books.com) p. 372. In the 17th Chapter of John, Jesus prays for his disciples, “Holy Father, keep them in my name which thou has given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” John 17:11. It is through this perfect oneness in love that the world will know the love of the Father for the Son reflected in the disciples’ love for one another. John 17:23. Moreover, this love will spill out into the world for which Jesus died to all those who believe through the disciples’ witness. John 17:20. Jesus has sheep that are not yet of his flock and who must also be embraced by the Father’s love. John 10:16. In short, Jesus is the only one ever to be truly human and our becoming fully human depends on our unity with him. God is never more truly God’s self than when God becomes flesh and dwells among us. In this way, the final yearning of God expressed in the Book of Revelation is satisfied. “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people.” Revelation 21:3.
This psalm is one that biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann classifies a song of orientation. As such, it expresses “a confident, serene settlement of faith issues.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Publishing House (c. 1984) p. 25. It is further classified by the majority of Old Testament scholars as a “creation” psalm glorifying God for making and sustaining an orderly and reliable world in which season follows upon season, harvest upon harvest and the cycles of birth, maturation, old age and death are blessed with the gracious presence of the Lord.
The psalm points specifically to the place of human beings in the created order. Though the psalmist does not focus on human frailty and mortality, s/he is clearly aware of it when asking “what are human beings and their descendants that you care for them?” vs. 4. In comparison with God’s other works, the sun, the moon and the stars which are for all practical purposes immortal, human beings with their moribund existence and their short, fragile lives hardly seem to register. Yet the psalmist recognizes that God is uniquely concerned with human beings, that they are little lower than the angels in his estimation and that they have been appointed to rule over the earth and its creatures.
As noted in my remarks on the Genesis reading, it is important to understand that “dominion” over the earth given human beings is to be exercised as an extension of God’s reign over creation. Thus, the words of last week’s psalm should be ringing in our ears: “All of [the creatures of the earth] look to you to give them their food in due season. You give it to them; they gather it; you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.” Psalm 104:27-29. Dominion is not given to human beings for exploitation of the earth and its resources. Human beings rule as stewards who must give account for the care they have exercised in managing God’s good earth. As pointed out in my opening remarks, ecology is very much a biblical value!
Stylistically, the psalm is carefully crafted to reflect in its composition the same good order manifest throughout God’s creation. It begins and ends with the same refrain: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!” The psalm begins with people, even infants, glorifying God for the majesty of the heavens. Then the psalm turns to God’s glorification of human beings, small though they may be, in making them rulers over the earth and sea.
The only reason for lifting up these final words of farewell from Paul’s Second Letter the church at Corinth appears to be that they contain one of only two full Trinitarian invocations in the New Testament. The other such invocation is found at the end of our gospel lesson from Matthew. The Trinitarian order is significant. The Grace of Christ inspires the love of God which is actualized through the Spirit producing fellowship in the church. A better translation than “fellowship” as set forth in the old RSV might be “participation in” or “communion of,” as the NRSV has it.
There is plenty to talk about in this story of the Great Commission. The commission occurs at Jesus’ first resurrection appearance to the disciples as a whole. According to Matthew, only the women who came to the tomb saw Jesus on Easter Sunday. Jesus sent them back with instructions to the disciples to meet him in Galilee. Matthew 28:10. The disciples follow these instructions and encounter the resurrected Christ who announces that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him and that on his authority they are to make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the Triune name. The gospel ends with the assurance that Jesus will be with his disciples until the end of the age.
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus. Perhaps this is another way of saying, as did Luke, that Jesus is henceforth the right hand of God at work in the world. It certainly does not suggest that Jesus is simply delegating a task that he is unable or unwilling to do himself. Jesus’ continuing presence with his disciples is reaffirmed. The dialogical relationship between immanence and transcendence is at work here.
It is hard to overstate the importance of Jesus’ instruction to “make disciples” of all nations-not church members or converts. “Of all nations” does not mean that nations themselves are to be converted or drawn into the cultural orbit of Christendom. Rather, it means that disciples are to be made and churches planted “within” all nations that the gospel may be preached to the ends of the earth. One dreadful mistake we mainliners have made over the centuries is marketing to consumers instead of seeking, as the U.S. Marines would say, “a few good people.” Consumers, of course, consume. They are a demanding crowd that invariably requires more attention, more programs and more benefits than the small but committed core of disciples can meet. Consequently, they leave again disappointed that their needs have not been met. Thus, even when mass marketing is successful, it fails. Matthew’s gospel challenges the church to focus not on membership rolls, but on making disciples. Better one new disciple than twenty new members! At least that has been my own experience.
I am sure that the lectionary’s motivation for including this text was the Trinitarian baptismal formula at verse 19. I don’t know what more there is to say about this other than that it appears the church was using this Trinitarian formula from at least the 80s-90s where scholarly consensus places the writing of Matthew’s gospel. For my thoughts on the rather baseless claim that this formula was a later addition to the gospel, see my post of Sunday, April 30, 2017.
DAY OF PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, on this day you open the hearts of your faithful people by sending into us your Holy Spirit. Direct us by the light of that Spirit, that we may have a right judgment in all things and rejoice at all times in your peace, through Jesus Christ, your Son and our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” I Corinthians 12:12. The problem with observing Pentecost by focusing solely on the Holy Spirit’s outpouring is that we wind up “disembodying” the Spirit. The Spirit is, after all, the Spirit of a flesh and blood person, namely, Jesus. We learn from John’s Gospel that the Spirit’s job is to “take” what belongs to Jesus and impart it to us. John 16:14. The Spirit that proceeds from the Father “bears witness” to the Son. John 15:26. Jesus prays that the same Trinitarian love that binds the Father and the Son may also dwell in and hold together his church. John 17:26. According to Saint Paul, the Spirit is the animating power of the church which is, in turn, Christ’s Body. Spiritual power is manifested in the care each member of the church has for all other members in concrete acts of sharing resources, looking after weaker members and seeking harmony for the whole community. Paul’s “spirituality” is strictly a bodily affair. He is, with apologies to Madonna, “a material guy.”
Back when I was still practicing law, every civil case began with a case management conference at which all attorneys involved would meet with the judge assigned to manage the case. Working with the attorneys, the judge would set scheduling deadlines for completion of all work required to prepare the case for trial. Because my firm practiced in just about every county in New Jersey, I spent a lot of time early on in my career criss-crossing the state in order to attend these meetings. But as time went on and telephone conferencing became more user friendly and widely accepted, case management conferences were increasingly conducted over the phone. This made sense. Holding a brief phone conference is far more efficient and cost effective than requiring two or more attorneys to drive across the state for a face to face meeting that might take place as much as an hour later than anticipated and last all of twenty minutes.
But time and efficiency are not the only measures of value. Time spent in the car gave me a chance to think about my case apart from the distractions of the office and so identify particular issues I needed to present to the court. Time spent sitting in the courtroom waiting for our turn gave us attorneys an opportunity to become acquainted with one another. It gave me an opportunity to learn that the person who would soon be my adversary in court was, like me, doing the obligatory “college tour” with her daughter or working on getting his mother into assisted living. We had an opportunity to connect faces to names and identify some personal common ground. This interpersonal groundwork often proved invaluable when the time came for us to have the difficult discussions about settlement and/or trial. Trust me, it makes a world of difference when you deal with an attorney you know beyond the confines of litigation. Moreover, this brief twenty minutes of face time with the judge gave me an opportunity to learn his or her priorities and those rules and procedures he or she felt were particularly important. Such knowledge can spare an attorney a good deal of pain further on down the line! There clearly is something to be said for the older, less efficient and more time consuming way of practicing law.
Understand that I am not an opponent of communications technology. Nor do I blame social media for destroying civility, polarizing society and subverting morals. There are plenty of reasons for all those ills having nothing to do with the internet, but that’s another subject altogether. The internet is a great tool for making critical information available to all. Facebook makes it easier for friends and family to share news, swap pictures and keep in touch. But this technology has its limits and I think we get ourselves into trouble when we fail to recognize them. However much information I might find about you on the internet, I can’t really get to know you by scrutinizing your on line profile. Such profiles can never amount to more than a ghostly, disembodied shade of the real, complex, storied individual you are. Facebook can strengthen existing friendships, but it cannot make friends for me. Having deep, nuanced and productive discussions on line is nearly impossible and frequently results in an exchange of snarky bumper sticker slogans. I have always suspected that a lot of the anger and ugliness we see expressed online is generated by frustration from failed efforts to find in cyberspace companionship that can only be built within communities of real flesh and blood people.
Church life is inescapably embodied. Our worship is inseparably bound up with the senses of hearing, touch and taste. It depends on words spoken to a congregation of specific people in their concrete bodily circumstances. A sermon that can be preached anywhere probably doesn’t speak to anyone. Worship involves congregational singing by ordinary people. Some voices are strong and melodious, others old and cracked, some off key but all blended into a single song of praise. Worship calls for receiving the stuff of bread and wine from a human hand. It mandates handshakes, eye contact and joint effort. It forces us to see one another, not as we would prefer to be seen, but as we are. It is within embodied communities that the hard work of sanctification is done. Church is the place where the virtues of patience, compassion, honesty and loyalty are learned. It is where we learn to forgive as we have been forgiven. It is within communities of real people with all their faults, crankiness and warts that the mind of Christ is formed. Virtual church is a theological impossibility.
Perhaps one of the most distinctive and counter-cultural features of the church in our modern age is its insistence on our need to be bodily present to one another. One cannot become a disciple of Jesus through taking an online course. Nor can we grow into the Body of Christ by staying connected on social media. We are the “ekklessia,” the “gathered,” the “called together.” Getting together at a particular place and time is a big deal. It matters where you are on Sunday morning. We are stronger when you are fully and bodily present to us. Your voice is needed. Your encouragement is important. Your witness is critical. You “matter” in both the existential and physiological sense.
Here’s a poem by Deborah Landau on the importance of bodily presence.
Got to Start Somewhere
I had the idea of sitting still
while others rushed by.
I had the thought of a shop
that still sells records.
A letter in the mailbox.
The way that book felt in my hands.
I was always elsewhere.
How is it to have a body today,
to walk in this city, to run?
I wanted to eat an apple so precisely
the tree would make another
exactly like it, then lie
in the gadgetless grass.
I kept texting the precipice,
which kept not answering,
my phone auto-making
I had the idea. Put down the phone.
Earth, leaves, storm, water, vine.
The gorgeous art of breathing.
I had the idea — the hope
of friending you without electricity.
Of what could be made among the lampposts
with only our voices and hands.
Source: Poetry Magazine, (c. 2015 by Deborah Landau). Landau is Director of the Creative Writing Program at New York University, where she also teaches. She studied at Stanford University, Columbia University, and Brown University, where she was a Jacob K. Javits Fellow and earned a PhD in English and American Literature. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2016. You can find out more about Deborah Landau and sample additional poems authored by her at the Poetry Foundation website.
The Book of Acts continues Luke’s story begun in his gospel. Recall that, in the Transfiguration, Luke describes Jesus’ coming suffering, death and resurrection in Jerusalem as his “departure.” Luke 9:31. This word is derived from the term for “Exodus” employed in the Greek Old Testament known as the Septuagint. Luke means to tell us that Jesus is soon to bring about a saving event on a par with Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. Throughout his telling of the story, Luke has sought to demonstrate a history of salvation in the ministry of Jesus and its continuation through the church. This history is told against the backdrop of the Roman Empire that has been lurking in the background from the beginning, takes an interest in Jesus during his ministry in Galilee and moves to crush him as he makes his very determined last trip to Jerusalem. Luke is showing us that history is made not in the capital of Rome, but in the backwaters of the Empire where a homeless couple gives birth to an infant in a barn. The word of God comes not to the Temple in Jerusalem, but to a ragged prophet in the wilderness of Judea. God’s glory is revealed not within the Holy of Holies, but outside the city on a hill overlooking a garbage dump where the vilest of criminals are executed. By way of the resurrection, God makes clear that Caesar is not Lord. Jesus is.
The second chapter of Acts takes us to the next episode of Luke’s salvation history, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. Pentecost, known as the “Feast of Tabernacles” or “Feast of Booths” was intended as a reminiscence of the fragile dwellings in which the Israelites lived during their 40 years of travel through the desert after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. According to the prophet Zechariah, this feast of booths will become a universal festival in the last days during which all the nations will make pilgrimages annually to Jerusalem in celebration. Zechariah 14:16-19. The gathering of many Diaspora Jews in Jerusalem and their receptiveness to the disciples’ preaching indicates that the long awaited messianic age has arrived.
Some scholars have pointed out that later rabbinic teachers understood Pentecost not merely as a harvest festival or reminiscence of the wilderness wanderings, but a commemoration of God’s appearance to Israel upon Sinai and the giving of the law through Moses. Gaster, Theodore H., Festivals of the Jewish Year, (c. New York: Morrow, 1952) cited by Juel, Donald, Luke Acts-The Promise of History, (John Knox Press, c 1983) p. 58. Thus, if Jesus’ ministry culminating in Jerusalem was God’s new Exodus, Pentecost corresponds to God’s descent to Israel on Mount Sinai. The mighty wind and flame reported in Luke bring to mind the Sinai appearance accompanied by fire and storm. Exodus 19:16-25. The speaking of the disciples in multiple languages corresponds to rabbinic legends claiming that the law given to Moses was miraculously translated into every language under heaven. See Juel, supra citing Lake, Kirsopp, “The Gift of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost,” Beginnings of Christianity, 5:114-16.
Pentecost was understood by some Jewish writers as a commemoration of the renewal of God’s covenant with the earth made through Noah. See Jubilees 6:17-18. Such awareness on Luke’s part is entirely consistent with the universal appeal of his gospel. It is also tempting to read the Pentecost story as the undoing of the confusion of tongues imposed by God as a judgment upon the nations at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. I don’t believe that it is necessary to select any of these interpretations of the Pentecost event over all of the others. Luke is not building a ridged typology tying the Church’s story to that of Israel. Rather, he is alluding to episodes in the Hebrew Scriptures that illuminate the new thing God is doing through Jesus. Pentecost can therefore be seen as a new revelation from God poured out upon the disciples and spilling over into the languages of all nations. It can be understood as a revocation of God’s judgment of confusion upon a rebellious people bent on storming the gate of heaven. It is a new event in which God “storms” into the life of the world. Or Pentecost can be seen as an allusion to the coming of the messianic age through the ingathering of God’s people. Whichever emphasis one might wish to give this story, Luke means for us to recognize in it the mission of the church that will take the disciples to “the ends of the earth.”
One final note: the folks gathered here are all “devout Jews.” Though they come from Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean world and speak the languages of the localities in which they reside, they are nonetheless people of Israel. Inclusion of the Gentiles, though hinted at throughout Luke’s gospel, is not yet on the church’s agenda. Nevertheless, the mission to the Gentiles can be seen in embryonic form among these diverse Jews through the languages and cultures they have internalized.
This psalm is a remarkable hymn to God, the Creator. Its focus on God’s sovereignty over the earth, sea and sky reflects a date after the Babylonian Exile where Israel was exposed to and tempted by the creation myths from the religion of her Chaldean captors. The Babylonian Enûma Eliš saga relates how the earth was created out of a civil war between the gods and how humans were created from the divine blood shed in that conflict for the purpose of serving the victorious gods. By contrast, this psalm describes creation as a sovereign act of the one God whose merciful and compassionate care ensures stability and sustenance for all creatures. There is no hint of conflict or struggle in the act of creation. Wind and flame are God’s “ministers” (the same word used for “angels”). Vs 4. The feared sea monster, Leviathan, understood in near eastern mythology to be a fearsome and threatening divine agent, is not a rival god or even God’s enemy in the biblical view of things. It is merely another of God’s creatures in which God takes delight. Vss. 25-26. Everything that lives depends upon God’s Spirit, without which there is no existence. That Spirit is capable not only of giving life, but also restoring it. vs. 30.
This psalm has theological affinities with the creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:3, also composed during the period of Israel’s exile in Babylon. Here, too, everything is brought into existence by the sovereign word of God that declares everything made to be “good.” Human beings are created not from the blood of conflict, but from the dust of the earth and in God’s image. They have not been made to serve as a race of slaves, but to be fruitful, multiply and rule over the good world God has made. The sun, moon and stars are not magical entities whose movements and alignments control the fate of people and nations. Rather, they are luminaries created to provide light for the benefit of God’s creatures. This is not a world of haunted horrors in which humans are at best slaves and at worst collateral damage in an ongoing struggle between gods and demons. It is a good world ruled by a generous and compassionate Creator.
While Babylonian religion has long since faded into the dead zone of history, I still believe that in this so called “post-modern” era we are confronted with a secularized paganism. Babylonian religion portrayed a world ruled by warring gods, each having its own sphere of influence and all of which needed to be placated by human beings living at their mercy. So also I believe for us contemporaries, the world seems a soulless place at the mercy of corporate economic interests, nationalist military conflicts and societal expectations for conformity exercising tyrannical power over us. Humans are viewed as “cheap labor,” “voting blocks,” “collateral damage,” “demographic groups,” and categorized by other dehumanizing labels. The earth is viewed as a ball of resources to be used up freely and without limitation by anyone having the power to control and exploit them. Unlike the Babylonian and post-modern visions, the Bible does not view the world either as a haunted house inhabited by warring demons or as the battleground for competing national, commercial and tribal interests. This psalm testifies to the beauty, goodness and holiness of the earth as God’s beloved creation.
The church at Corinth was a congregation only the Apostle Paul could love. It had every conceivable problem a church could have. It had divisive factions; power struggles; sex scandals; doctrinal disputes; arguments over worship practices; and, of course, money issues. Yet remarkably, Paul can say to this messed up, dysfunctional congregation, “Now you are the Body of Christ.” I Corinthians 12:27. He does not say, “You should be the Body of Christ!” or “You could be the Body of Christ if you would just get your act together!” No, Paul is emphatic that the church at Corinth is the Body of Christ even now, with all its warts and blemishes. This is no metaphor. Paul means for the church to understand that it is Jesus’ resurrected Body. Nothing Paul says makes any sense until you get that.
In this Sunday’s lesson the issue is spiritual gifts. Understand that Paul is not using the term “spiritual” in the wishy washy new age sense that we so often hear it today-i.e., “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” (Whatever that means.) When Paul speaks of the spiritual, he is speaking explicitly about the Spirit of Jesus. That Spirit can be experienced only through the intimate knowing of Jesus. Jesus is known through communion with his Body, the church. Thus, it is impossible to speak of obedience to Jesus apart from communion with his Body. The church is the Body of Jesus precisely because it is animated by the Spirit of Jesus. Therefore, every ethical decision, every doctrinal teaching, every matter of church administration, every aspect of worship boils down to what does or does not build up the unity and health of Christ’s Body.
The reading begins with the assertion that “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Vs. 3. We need to be mindful of the political implications of this claim. The mantra of the Roman world was “Caesar is Lord.” Because there is room for only one divine emperor, asserting that anyone other than Caesar is Lord constitutes de facto treason. At best, you earn ridicule from the pagan community for making such a claim. In the worst case scenario, the confession of Jesus as Lord might be treated as a criminal offense. The assertion was equally problematic within the Jewish community. According to Deuteronomy 21:22-23, a person put to death by hanging on a tree is cursed. Consequently, confessing a crucified criminal as Israel’s Messiah could be regarded as blasphemy. In sum, making the confession “Jesus is Lord” could result in ostracism from your religious community, mockery from your pagan neighbors and possibly conviction of a capital crime. Quite understandably, then, Paul insists that making this bold confession and living by it requires the support of God’s Spirit.
In the first part of verse 3 (not included in our reading) Paul states that no one can say “Jesus be cursed” by the Spirit of God. I Corinthians 12:3. This might seem obvious. One would not expect such an exclamation from within the church community. Given the hostile environment in which the church found itself, however, it is not inconceivable that a weak member of the church might be tempted to curse the name of Jesus in order to conceal his or her affiliation from family, religious or civil authorities. Some commentators suggest that Paul is referring to the Roman practice of requiring suspected Christians to revile the name of Christ in order to clear themselves of any accusation. Fitzmyer, Joseph A., First Corinthians, The Anchor Bible Commentary, Vol. 32, (c. 2008 by Yale University) p. 456. This approach to the church was evidently taken in Asia Minor as evidenced by correspondence from Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan in 110 C.E. Though this conclusion is plausible and tempting, I rather doubt that Paul had anything so specific in mind. The church was still a tiny sect within and indistinguishable from Judaism in the mid First Century when Paul was active. It is therefore unlikely that the Roman authorities in Corinth during this period would have recognized it or singled it out for any such specialized policy of enforcement.
So now we come down to the specific issue at hand: “spiritual gifts” given to individual members of the Body of Christ for the building up of that Body. There is no hierarchy in the church for Paul. The issue is never “who is in charge.” Jesus is the Head of the church. He alone is in charge. The rest of us are all members of the body. A little finger might not seem to be particularly important-until you try using a keyboard without it or it gets slammed in the car door. Suddenly, the least important part of the body is commanding center stage! So also in the Body of Christ, the prominence of any person’s gift at any particular time depends upon what is happening. When determining the short term management of a large monetary gift to the church, someone with administrative skill in managing funds is critical. Such persons know how to transfer property quickly, efficiently and without loss to a place where it can appreciate in value as the church decides how to use it. But, when it comes to long range management of these funds, different gifts are required. The mission of the church is not to maximize income on its investments, but to use its resources to build up the Body of Christ and witness to the reign of God. To make faithful use of the church’s resources to these ends, the gift of prophetic vision is required. The gift of discernment is necessary also to evaluate such visions and find within them the call and command of Jesus. When all members of the church work together using their unique gifts to build up the Body of Christ, the gifts complement each other.
Unfortunately, such harmony was not the prevailing mood at Corinth. Certain individuals were convinced that their gifts conferred upon them greater status and authority. They were using their gifts and abilities to advance their own interests instead of building up the church. So Paul begins in these verses an extended discussion about the proper use of the gifts the Holy Spirit gives to each member of the Body of Christ. In the first place, all members of the Body are gifted and their gifts are necessary to the proper functioning of that Body. Vs. 4. So the church must constantly ask itself whether it is recognizing the gifts among its members. Second, it matters not which gift a person has, but how the gift is used. Paul makes clear that all gifts must be used for the common good of the whole church. Vs. 7. In the example of the monetary gift, a short term manager who loses sight of the big picture and is concerned only with maximizing returns on investment rather than growing the ministry of the church is no longer serving the Body. So also the visionary with great plans for the church’s resources, but who is unwilling to submit his or her vision to the ministry of discernment within the Body is no longer building up the Body. Third, there is no hierarchy of gifts. Hierarchy is antithetical to the well-being of the church. Sadly, it seems today that we lack the imagination, creativity and vision to function without hierarchy. But don’t get me started on that.
John’s Pentecost story is out of step with that of Luke (or the other way around if you prefer). John has Jesus breathing the life giving Spirit into his disciples on the morning of his resurrection. More than any other witness, John identifies the Holy Spirit with the presence of the resurrected Christ in his church. Of course, Saint Paul makes the same identification in referring consistently to the Church as Christ’s Body. Similarly, the Book of Acts makes clear that the mission of the church is in many respects the continuation of Jesus’ ministry of healing, feeding the hungry and preaching good news to the poor. So I believe that the New Testament witness is consistent in anchoring the outpouring of the Spirit with the continued presence of Jesus in the church. Hence, I side with the Western church on the matter of the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed, namely, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. For the perspective of the Eastern Church which rejects this clause such that the Creed affirms the procession of the Spirit from the Father only, check out this link.
Luke and John are entirely on the same page in their identification of the Spirit with the commissioning of the disciples. In the very same breath (pun intended) that Jesus says “receive the Holy Spirit,” he then says “as the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” Vss. 22-23. So also in Luke’s understanding. The Spirit is given so that the disciples can become Jesus’ “witnesses” to “the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8. In John’s account, Jesus goes on to tell his disciples that “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Vs. 23. Exactly what does this mean? According to Luther’s Small Catechism, this verse refers to the “Office of the Keys” through which the church, through its public ministry, absolves penitent sinners and withholds this benefit from the unrepentant. Luther’s Small Catechism, Part V. But is that really what John had in mind here? In my view, the context makes that interpretation extremely doubtful. The focus is not upon the internal workings of the community of disciples but upon the disciples’ mission to the world. Undoubtedly, the two are related in this gospel. It is through the disciples’ love for one another that they will be identified as followers of Jesus. John 13:35. But the principal emphasis is on the disciples’ witness to the world, not to their relationship with one another. So what can it mean to “retain” sins?
I believe that John is emphasizing the importance of the commission that Jesus has just given to his disciples. It is through them that the life giving Word of forgiveness is to be made known to the world. It is “in” them that the Spirit now resides. If the disciples of Jesus do not make known God’s forgiveness of sin, the world will remain in the grip of sin. Those sins will be retained. But if the Word is spoken, it will be accompanied by the Spirit of God that inspires faith and breaks the bondage of sin. I believe that is what commentator Raymond Brown is saying in the following quote:
“In summary, we doubt that there is sufficient evidence to confirm the power of forgiving and holding of sin, granted in John 20:23 to a specific exercise of power in the Christian community, whether that be admission to Baptism or forgiveness in Penance. These are but partial manifestations of a much larger power, namely, the power to isolate, repel, and negate evil and sin, a power given to Jesus in his mission by the Father and given in turn by Jesus through the Spirit to those whom he commissions. It is an effective, not merely declaratory, power against sin, a power that touches new and old followers of Christ, a power that challenges those who refuse to believe. John does not tell us how or by whom this power was exercised in the community for whom he wrote, but the very fact that he mentions it shows that it was exercised.” Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John, XIII-XXI, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 29a, (Doubleday, c. 1970) p. 1044.
Seventh Sunday of Easter
Prayer of the Day: O God of glory, your Son Jesus Christ suffered for us and ascended to your right hand. Unite us with Christ and each other in suffering and in joy, that all the world may be drawn into your bountiful presence, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
My oldest daughter was always fascinated with clocks and the measurement of time. When she was just a toddler, I used to point to the clock and tell her, “Now when this big hand gets to the six, it’s time for stories and bed.” She would look intensely at the clock as though trying to make sense of it, as though she somehow knew that if only she could figure this contraption out and understand how it worked, she could negotiate a much better deal for herself. Long before she started kindergarten, this precocious child mastered the art of telling time and figuring out where she was relative to nap time, lunch, bed time and all those other significant markers punctuating a child’s day. She would frequently ask me the time of day. If we were away from the house and I was without my watch, I would have to tell her that I didn’t know what time it was. “So what time do you think it is?” she persisted. I gave her my best approximation, which I knew she would later check against the clock and hold me to account. Today she is a professor of classical languages and literature-and nothing if not punctual.
The same obsession with timing seems to be at work among the disciples in our first lesson. They want desperately to know what time it is in God’s chronology and how long until the “kingdom is restored to Israel.” That same yearning has dogged the church throughout its history. Time and time again we have seen the rise and fall of prophets and preachers claiming to have figured out the divine clock by scrutinizing the books of Daniel and Revelation. People who claim, with varying degrees of specificity, to know where we stand in relationship to the end times always seem to have a ready following. I expect that is because knowing or thinking one knows the future gives one a sense of security, an imagined measure of control.
Jesus does not give us that kind of assurance. Consequently, the church has had to learn to muddle through the darkness of history without knowing what lies ahead, how much further the road stretches or when we can expect to get to the end of it. That isn’t an easy way to live for people like us, who start planning for retirement as soon as we graduate college and order the days of our lives with digital calendars. While there is certainly nothing wrong with foresight and planning, we all know deep down that it is based on assumptions about a future that might not unfold as expected or of which we might not be a part. It is hard hearing Jesus tell us that it is not for us to know the “whens” or the “hows” of God’s coming to establish his reign.
More instructive than anything Jesus tells us about the future is the disciples’ response to the angels’ message: “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” I still don’t have the foggiest idea exactly what that means nor, I suspect, did the disciples. But we are told that the disciples returned to their lodging place in Jerusalem and “devoted themselves to prayer.” The lectionary wisely ends this pre-Pentecost lesson precisely there. Of course, we know what comes next. We recall the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Peter’s bold sermon to the people of Jerusalem, the creation of a diverse assembly drawn together by good news spoken in every tongue under heaven and the birth of a community founded on the principles of distributive justice and equality.
But we do well not to rush the narrative. It is appropriate, I think, to join the disciples in a posture of prayer. The week before Pentecost should find us in a stance of openness to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, openness to God’s future and openness to opportunities for ministry that might be right in front of us. Now is a time of readiness for change, a time for cultivating the courage to let go of our hopes, fears and expectations of the future. Now is a good time to begin imagining how the miracle of Pentecost might be occurring in our time, fracturing border walls, spilling over cultural, political, religious and economic divides to form a new people of every nation, tribe and tongue.
The Bible does not give us the content of the disciple’s prayers as they met together in that upper room in Jerusalem. But I think that our prayers during this final week of Easter should perhaps be shaped by Jesus’ prayer in our gospel lesson: “Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou has given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”
Here’s a poem by Denise Levertov about the power of imagination that is perhaps what animates prayer and translates it into action.
A voice from the dark called out,
‘The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.’
But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses . . .
A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.
Source: Breathing the Water, (c. 1987 by Denise Levertov). Denise Levertov (1923–1997) never received a formal education. Nevertheless, she created a highly regarded body of poetry that earned her recognition as one of America’s most respected poets. Her father, Paul Philip Levertov, was a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and subsequently moved to England where he became an Anglican minister. Levertov grew up in a household surrounded by books and people talking about them in many languages. During World War II, Levertov pursued nurse’s training and spent three years as a civilian nurse at several hospitals in London. Levertov came to the United States in 1948, after marrying American writer Mitchell Goodman. During the 1960s Levertov became a staunch critic of the Vietnam war, a topic addressed in many of her poems of that era. Levertov died of lymphoma at the age of seventy-four. You can read more about Denise Levertov and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
N.B. To those of you who might be celebrating Ascension this coming Sunday, I refer you to my post of Sunday, June 1, 2014 discussing the appointed texts.
The disciples’ question to Jesus indicates that, after years of following him, forty days of which occur after his resurrection from death, they are still operating with a limited understanding of the kingdom he proclaimed. “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel,” they ask. Vs. 6. It is difficult to know exactly what was in the disciples’ minds or that of the early church in framing the question. But one thing is clear: this expectation is backward looking. “Restore,” suggests that Israel once had the kingdom and somehow lost it. It implies that Jesus is expected to bring back some “golden age” in the past when circumstances were supposedly better. “Make Israel great again.” But we should know from having read Luke’s gospel (which we have been doing throughout this church year) that the kingdom lies in God’s future and will surpass all that has been. We are talking new creation here, not a return of the good old days.
Additionally, we know that the coming kingdom will include not only Israel, but will reach out to embrace the non-Jewish world as well. We get an inkling of this in Jesus’ promise/command that his disciples “shall be witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” Vs. 8. Indeed, this verse spells out the whole trajectory of the Book of Acts which begins with Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2), spills into Samaria through the ministry of Philip (Acts 8:4-13) and, with Paul’s conversion, spreads throughout the Mediterranean world. The disciples have much to learn about the mission to which they are being called.
Quite naturally, the disciples are found staring into the sky following Jesus’ departure. Where else would you look? So intent are they in their vain efforts to keep Jesus in view that they are unaware of the two angels standing at their sides. Don’t search the heavens for Jesus. He will return in the same way as he went into heaven. I can’t say that I am sure exactly what this means, but I suspect that it is a veiled reference to Pentecost. The Greek word “ouronos,” meaning “heaven” or the “heavens” is often a circumlocution for God. Just as Jesus was taken up into the heavens (vs.11), so also on Pentecost the Spirit comes as a mighty wind from the heavens. Acts 2:2. Thus, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit can be seen as a return of Jesus to be present in an ever more intimate, powerful and omnipresent way with his disciples. Empowered by this Spirit, the church continues Jesus’ ministry of teaching the people, caring for the poor and doing works of healing.
I have spoken at some length in my introductory remarks about the disciples’ returning to Jerusalem to wait and pray. I will only add that their devotion to prayer seems like a good prescription for a church that is fast losing its social standing in society, its membership base and its financial security. We can respond to all of this in fear and wrack our brains about how to reverse it. Or we can look beyond mere “restoration” and try to discern where God is taking us next.
Commentators reflecting on this psalm agree on one thing: no other psalm presents so many translation and interpretation challenges. Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 82; Weiser, Artur, The Psalms: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd) p. 481. The Hebrew text is filled with words that have either been corrupted in transmission or are unique to the Hebrew Scriptures. The style changes abruptly throughout and there are many awkward shifts in thought. All of this has led some scholars to conclude that Psalm 68 is a random collection of poetic fragments rather than a single prayer or song. Others suggest that it might be a catalogue of the first lines of about thirty different psalms. Still others believe that the psalm consists of a series of short liturgical responses for use at a ceremony that is unknown to us. Rogerson & McKay, supra, at 82-83. In any event, the mention of participation by tribes associated with the northern kingdom in a hymn exalting Mt. Zion suggests that some fragments at least date back to the time of the united monarchy under David and Solomon.
Verse 1 echoes the call to arms spoken by Moses whenever the Israelites broke camp for another leg of their journey through the wilderness to the land of Canaan: “Arise, O Lord, and let thy enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee.” Numbers 10:35. This psalm or part of it might have been composed for a celebration in Jerusalem of Israel’s journey through the wilderness. Vss. 7-10 lend credence to this view. Righteous behavior, not cultic purity is what makes one pure in God’s sight and worthy of Israel’s heritage. Vs. 3.
“Lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds.” Vs. 4. This fragment has interesting parallels with Canaanite poetry which exalts Baal as “storm rider.” Ibid. at 85. Israel frequently appropriated the literary templates of its cultural neighbors for use in her worship of Yahweh. If that is the case here, it further testifies to the early composition of this Psalm and its fragments. Yet unlike the gods of the Canaanites, whose worship served as an ideological justification for the reigning monarch, Israel’s God is the “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows.” Vs. 5. This God is not preoccupied with shoring up any imperial house, but in “giving the desolate a home to dwell in” and leading “out the prisoners to prosperity.” Vs. 6.
Verses 7-10 recount Israel’s encounter with God at Sinai and the conquest and settlement of Canaan. The psalm might also be recognizing God’s deliverance from some drought such as occurred under Ahab in I Kings 17:1-7. See vs. 9. Once again, God is portrayed not as the patron of the great and powerful, but the help of the needy. Vs. 10.
The lectionary lurches ahead to vss. 32-35 consisting of a concluding canticle of praise. Again God is portrayed as the one who “rides on the heavens,” in much the same way as Baal was portrayed in Canaanite mythology. It is worth noting, however, that such a borrowing served the purpose of emphasizing that it is the Lord, Yahweh, not Baal or any other fertility god, who brings rain upon the earth. That point was made very graphically by Elijah in his contest with the prophets of Baal. I kings 18.
Once again, the lectionary has excised a piece of the text for reasons I cannot comprehend. The reading begins at Chapter 4:12 in which Peter tells his audience, the church in Asia Minor, not to be surprised at “the fiery ordeal” that is overtaking them. Although Peter does not tell us exactly what this ordeal is, we can infer from the context that he is speaking of persecution from the surrounding culture. Disciples of Jesus should not be surprised to find themselves persecuted. After all, didn’t Jesus warn his disciples that they would be required to take up the cross? Didn’t he tell them that “where I am, there will my servant be also”? Yet I have to say that this text sounds almost foreign to me because I have never experienced anything like persecution for being a Christian. In the town where I grew up, it would have been considered odd, perhaps even suspicious if you were not a Christian of some flavor. All my childhood friends went to church somewhere or, if they didn’t, they lied and said they did. Being unreligious was somehow un-American.
Things have changed, of course. We all accept-or should-that a person can be a good citizen, honest business person and an upstanding member of the community without being religious. The stores don’t close on Sunday, but soccer practice goes on. I also must say that over my thirty-five years of ministry, I have seen erosion in the deference traditionally given to clergy in the past. I have to say parenthetically that I am glad about that. I always felt uncomfortable when someone paid for my coffee or offered me their place in line because I was wearing a clerical collar. I understand that it was their way of showing reverence and respect for something bigger than me. Still, I am just as glad to pay for my own coffee. So even with the decline of the church’s cultural influence, we experience nothing close to persecution.
Then again, perhaps we don’t experience persecution because, even in this age of decline, the church fits too comfortably into the Americana landscape. Perhaps it is because we have confused middle class, ever white and ever polite respectability for faithful discipleship that we never find ourselves in any sort of trouble. Maybe if we began attempting to live out the radical, countercultural and subversive discipleship practiced in the book of Acts, we might find ourselves in real danger of persecution. Just a thought.
What we have in this lesson is the introductory portion of Jesus’ final prayer with his disciples wrapping up the “farewell discourses” and leading into John’s passion narrative. Here Jesus weaves together into a single poetic fabric the Christological claims he has been making for himself throughout the gospel. The hour has come for Jesus to be glorified. That glorification will take place in a way no one could have foreseen. Jesus will be glorified by his death for his disciples and for the world. In that death, the sinfulness of the world will be laid bare in its cruel rejection of the best God has to give. At the same time, however, the depth of God’s love will be revealed in God’s stubborn persistence in love even in the face of his Son’s crucifixion. God’s power is demonstrated in just this: that God does not do what we would do if our own child were killed, namely, retaliate. God will raise up his crucified and resurrected Son and give him back to the world that rejected him. God will not be dragged into the vortex of retribution in which the rest of the world is caught up.
Today’s reading seems to address the objection raised by the good Judas in chapter 15, namely, if Jesus really is the Savior of the world, why is he revealing himself only to a select few? John 15: 22. Jesus makes clear that his final prayer is not merely for the twelve, but for all who will come to believe through their preaching and love for one another. Jesus says essentially that he is praying that the love between Father and Son that has existed from eternity might bind the disciples together just as it unites the Trinity. Such love manifest among the disciples and poured out upon the world glorifies God. The reality of God living in the midst of God’s people under the gentle reign of the Lamb proclaimed in the Book of Revelation is fulfilled in some measure in the church.
“This is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou has sent.” Vs. 3. Eternal life is not to be equated with “life after death” or “life beyond the grave” though it surely extends there. Eternal life is the relational quality of life for the disciple who “knows” the only true God through the Son God has sent into the world. A disciple experiences eternal life as s/he pours out his/her life in the service of all that is eternal. It is a life characterized by love for God, love among the disciples and love for the world God made. In a sinful world, that love takes the shape of the cross. Yet, as Peter pointed out in our previous reading, the resulting suffering can be borne with joy precisely because the disciple knows that his/her faithfulness to Jesus aligns him/her with what outlasts suffering and death.
Jesus’ statement to the effect that he is not praying for the world (vs. 9) might be taken to mean that he does not care for the world. Of course, we know that is not the case as it is precisely because God loved the world that he sent his Son. John 3:16. Jesus prays for his disciples because it will be through their love for him and for one another that the world will come to know that love and be saved through it. So the stage is set for the final section of John’s gospel, the passion narrative or the “book of glory.”
FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God our shepherd, you know your sheep by name and lead us to safety through the valleys of death. Guide us by your voice, that we may walk in certainty and security to the joyous feast prepared in your house, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”
That phrase has taken on more urgency for me over the last decade during which both Sesle and I have lost our parents and now stand with no further familial buffer against the encroaching shadow. The loss of our grandson, Parker, was a cruel reminder that, in reality, there is no buffer. Death leaps over generational lines with the agility of a tiger to snatch lives fresh from the womb, lives that have yet to offer their tender buds to the world. Daily news clips from Syria and northern Iraq bring us graphic images of whole populations that understand with clarity we can never hope to achieve how “even in the midst of life we are in death.” The Bible doesn’t offer any escape from all this. Death is our only exit. No one gets off this planet alive. But the Bible, and the 23rd Psalm in particular, assures us that we need not pass through that door alone. “Thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”
I am not much interested in whether and to what extent the psalmist believed in a resurrection of the dead or any kind of human existence beyond the grave. It was apparently enough for this psalmist to be confident that whatever the end might hold, s/he could count on facing it in the company and protection of the Lord, his/her shepherd. That was enough. Moreover, it must still suffice even in the light of Jesus’ resurrection. For the truth is, none of us know exactly what resurrection is or what new creation looks like. When the Biblical authors speak of it, they must resort to lurid apocalyptic images, parables, limited analogies that, taken too far, always break down. Jesus tells us that those accounted worthy of the resurrection to eternal life are “like angels in heaven.” But what does that mean? Paul tells us that our resurrection life will be as different from our current existence as a flowering plant is different from the seed that gave it birth. So how can we hope to form any reliable image of “the life everlasting” we confess in the creeds?
I find myself confronted with two opposite and unsatisfactory resolutions to this tension. On the one hand, I find a tendency to say more than what we actually know about resurrected life. “Grand dad is looking down at us.” “Happy Birthday Mom on your second year in heaven.” “Good to know that Jeremy is watching over his younger siblings.” I don’t suppose there is any real harm in such sentiments. They can, however, reflect a naïve and inaccurate view of the resurrection’s magnitude and effect. Nothing will be gained if I am resurrected as the same selfish, insecure, bigoted and vindictive cuss I have always been before. If we bring into eternity our old selves with all the wounds, wrongs and bitterness that put us at each other’s throats for all of history, it won’t be anything like “heaven.” If I am going to live faithfully, obediently and joyfully together with all people in a new creation, I need to become a fundamentally new person. I will have to be different-so much so that my new self might not even be recognizable as the old. What, then, does that mean? Who am I without my memories of the events, both proud and shameful, that made me who I am? Will there be enough continuity between who we are and who we will be that we can recognize each other in the new creation? Does that even matter?
At the other end of the extreme I have known plenty of thoughtful and faithful believers who are ready to dispense with any concrete notion of resurrection from death. For them, repentance and faith are death and resurrection enough. The kingdom of God lived out in love under the sign of the cross is as much heaven as they need. It is enough for them to know that they die into God. Borg, Marcus J., Speaking Christian, (c. 2011 by Marcus Borg, pub. by HarperCollins) p. 201. I have some sympathy with this approach. After all, eternal life is not solely or even primarily a distant future reality, particularly as it is described in the Gospel of John. Indeed, what makes life eternal is not its duration, but its quality. Life that is conformed to eternal Trinitarian love is itself qualitatively eternal. For people like myself, who have lived full lives filled with the love of a good marriage, the satisfaction of productive and meaningful work, the joy of seeing my children grow up into faithful adults contributing much to the health of creation, this life might conceivably be enough. But what about Parker, who did not ever have the opportunity to learn to walk, talk, fall in love, get his heart broken and grow into a man? What about the millions upon millions whose lives from childhood on are consumed merely with day to day survival? It seems to me that the Triune God, the God who is love from eternity, could hardly bear to leave these unfinished, unreconciled, unfulfilled lives in the grave. I cannot imagine a new creation in which these “least,” these forgotten by everyone but God, are not taken up and woven into its fabric.
At the end of the day, it seems to me we must continue to confess the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come-even though we don’t quite know what we are talking about. It is enough to know that the God who called again from death the great Shepherd of the sheep and who brought us all this way will not abandon us at the end, but instead will continue to give us life. It is enough to know that the God who at the dawn of time scooped up a hand full of dust and breathed into it God’s life giving Spirit will again scoop up the dust we must all become and make of us new creatures. “And so we shall always be with the Lord.” I Thessalonians 4:17. That isn’t nearly all I would like to know. But it’s enough for me to live confidently in the valley of the shadow of death.
Here’s a poem expressing hope for memory that is deep enough and compassion strong enough to hold for eternity all that is true, beautiful and good.
Stories in the Trash
This here quilt’s all I still got of Grandma’s.
Watched her make it when I was a kid.
I’d come tearing through the house,
Always on the way to somewhere else,
And there she’d be sitting on the floor,
Surrounded by old coats, cast off clothes,
Bed sheets, coverlets and table cloths.
It all finally came together in this quilt.
Course, that’s a long time ago.
Quilt’s dirty, worn and not fit for much.
But I expect I’ll hold onto it just the same.
Seems somehow sacrilegious,
Just throwing it into the dumpster.
I’ll leave that job to the kids.
They’ll waste no time in tossing it.
To them it’s just a rag with no story.
I’m not an especially religious man.
Don’t know much about God.
As for the Bible, just a verse or two.
Don’t know or much care if any of it’s true.
I sort of hope, though, there’s Someone
Who remembers the stories in things,
Someone who doesn’t forget
What all the old stuff in the garbage means.
Like Acts 4:32-35 and Acts 5:12-16 this passage gives us what some would call an “idyllic picture” of the early church. See Flanagan, Neal M., O.S.M. The Acts of the Apostles, New Testament Reading Guide (c. 1964 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc.) p. 31. Indeed, there is a tendency among mainline commentators to dismiss this description of the church’s communal existence as Lukan embellishment intended to inspire rather than reflect historical reality. The Anabaptist tradition, however, has taken these texts quite seriously. Hutterite, Amish, Amana and Bruderhof communities have, each in their own way, put into practice the vision of communal life set forth in the Book of Acts. These countercultural movements are often criticized in mainline circles for their clannishness, lack of engagement with the outside world and parochialism. Yet one cannot help but observe that these mainline criticisms of the Anabaptists sound suspiciously similar to criticisms Jesus warned his disciples to expect from the world-precisely because they do not belong to the world. John 15:19. There is nothing more repugnant and threatening to any society than a community within it that does not share its values, priorities and loyalties. Witness Roman imperial culture’s discomfort with the early church and Christendom’s fear of and hostility toward the Jews. Maybe we mainliners are uncomfortable with the communal Anabaptist groups because they remind us just how thoroughly indistinguishable we are from the rest of society at large. We are fond of touting as a virtue the fact that one “doesn’t wear his/her religion on his/her sleeve,” which is another way of saying that you would never guess that s/he was a Christian if you didn’t ask. Does anyone besides me see a problem with that?
A pastor participating in an online discussion I look in on occasionally recently commented on the perennial conflict between children’s sports events and Sunday morning worship. This pastor suggested that, rather than sitting in a church building and insisting that people come to us, we need to bring church to where the people are. Her specific suggestion was that the church hold a brief worship service on the soccer field prior to the game for all who desire to worship, but do not want to pull their children out of the game. I have no doubt this suggestion was made in the spirit of the great commission with the best of intentions. Nevertheless, I have to wonder whether making discipleship easier, less costly and more convenient is a faithful path for us to be following. Do we gain anything by continually downsizing the call of discipleship to fit within the ever shrinking gaps in our increasingly busy schedules? The early church called upon its members to give up their lives for the sake of Jesus’ name. Now we cannot bring ourselves to ask them to forfeit a soccer game! If we don’t believe seeking Jesus in the breaking of the bread is worth a soccer game, is it at all surprising that we cannot convince anyone else that church is at all worthwhile?
It is worth noting that, as outsiders viewed the community in the second chapter of Acts, “Awe came upon everyone…” and “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Vs 43 and vs. 47. I believe that there are many people out there looking for an alternative to the shallow existence our culture of death offers us. The problem is, they simply are not seeing that alternative in the church. We have become so preoccupied with marketing the gospel at fire sale prices to folks who don’t care that we have obscured its lure from the eyes of those who do. Perhaps it is time for us mainliners to take a second look at our lesson from Acts.
This psalm came up last in the lectionary on Sunday, March 26th. I refer you to my post of that date for my general comments. Specific to its meaning for this “Good Shepherd” Sunday, I note that sheep are not pets and they are not given the protection of the shepherd because they are cute and cuddly. Inevitably, the shepherd will call upon them to give up their lives-just as he puts his life in jeopardy for their sake. The church cannot read this psalm without recognizing the prospect of martyrdom on the horizon. There is no room for sentimentality when preaching on this psalm or any depiction of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
Our familiarity with this psalm can blind us to its discordant images, namely, the shepherd who cares for the sheep and the host who practices hospitality to strangers. In this regard, Professor Bernard W. Anderson has observed: “This problem begins to resolve itself when we project ourselves imaginatively out of our industrial milieu into the pastoral way of life which still prevails in some parts of the world today. The shepherd can be portrayed from two standpoints. He is the protector of the sheep as they wander in search of grazing land. Yet he is also the protector of the traveler who finds hospitality in his tent from the dangers and enemies of the desert. Even today the visitor to certain parts of the Middle East can see the scene that lies at the basis of this psalm: the black camel’s hair tent where the traveler receives Bedouin hospitality, and the surrounding pastureland where the sheep graze under the protection of the shepherd. In Psalm 23, Yahweh is portrayed as the Shepherd in both aspects of the shepherd’s life: as the Leader of the flock, and as the hospitable Host.” Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 208.
St. Augustine’s truly delightful treatment of this psalm as a paradigm of discipleship wherein Christ accompanies the believer from baptism into eternal life is well worth reading.
The lectionary folks, in their paternalistic wisdom, have excised verse 18 from the text so that the congregation hearing this reading would never guess that the admonition to suffer patiently is given to slaves of abusive masters. Granted, this is a problematic text. I wouldn’t blame the architects of the lectionary for leaving it out altogether. But ripping it from its context and making it appear to say something quite other than what it says is, not to put too fine a point on it, a lie.
I plan to stay away from this lesson. If I were going to preach on it, however, I would lay my emphasis on verse 19: “For one is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly.” Mindful, that is to say, of the God of the Exodus. In this context, submission must be taken merely is non-retaliatory. The slave is not called upon to accept slavery. God does not approve slavery, much less abuse of slaves. Yet the struggle for liberation lies in faithful witness to a reign of God not yet complete. Such witness invariably involves suffering. The flip side of recognizing the humanity of the slave is the slave’s recognition of the humanity of the master. In the reign of God, the last are first and the first last. Still, even one who finishes last still finishes. Liberation, not retaliation is the goal.
Finally, it is important to understand that slavery in antiquity, though a lamentable condition, was far different from the slavery that existed in the United States in the nineteenth century. Slavery in the first century Roman Empire was not race based. Racial and ethnic groups were not singled out as inferior or “natural slaves” as was the case for African Americans. If you were a slave in the Roman Empire, it was likely because your parents sold you to satisfy a debt or you were on the losing side of some military conflict. Though few and far between, there were opportunities for slaves to win their freedom and achieve high office in the Roman bureaucracy as the philosopher, Seneca attests. Seneca the Younger, Letter 47. It is impossible to imagine anything like that ever happening in the pre-Civil War south. Thus, there can be no meaningful comparison between slavery in antiquity and that which existed in the southern states prior to the Civil War.
In the prior chapter, Jesus gave sight to a man born blind which, in turn, brought on a confrontation. The blind man was finally excommunicated from the synagogue for his dogged insistence that Jesus was responsible for his newfound sight. In the end, the man healed of his blindness worshipped Jesus. This sets the stage for Sunday’s lesson in which the question is posed: Who is the true Shepherd and what is the true community to which the Shepherd grants/denies admission? Clearly, the religious leadership claims to wield such authority and did so with respect to the man born blind. Now these so-called shepherds and the flock they claim as their own are contrasted with the Good Shepherd who also lays claim to the flock.
Jesus employs the image of a sheepfold where several flocks of sheep are lodged for the night. In the morning, the true shepherd can enter and call out his sheep who will follow him as they recognize his voice. Marsh, John, Saint John, Pelican New Testament Commentaries, (c. 1968 John Marsh, pub. Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 395. Jesus is therefore setting out his claim to be the true shepherd of the people of God. Unlike the coercive power exercised by the religious authorities to keep the sheep in line, Jesus draws his sheep by the sound of his voice which is immediately recognized as genuine. He has no need to employ threats to drive them on. His sheep acknowledge him as their Shepherd and follow him willingly. This image of the shepherd has deep scriptural roots. It is applied throughout the Old Testament both to Israel’s kings and her God. See, e.g. Jeremiah 23:1-8; Ezekiel 34; Psalm 23; Psalm 80.
It is passing strange, then, that Jesus should switch from this familiar and powerful shepherd metaphor to that of the “door of the sheep” in the interest of clarity. For my money, the shepherd image is much easier to comprehend than that of the door. Vss. 1-6. Yet Jesus goes on to distinguish himself from the thieves and robbers who came before him by calling himself a “door.” If the door retains its meaning from vs 2, i.e., the recognized entrance through whom only authorized persons can pass, then this reference to “thieves” and “robbers” could be taken as a) a reference to the leaders of the synagogue that reject the Jesus movement; or b) a warning for the disciples to beware of anyone coming into the church by another name such as false teachers. Brown, Raymond, The Gospel According to John I-X11, The Anchor Bible, (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 388. It should also be noted that messianic pretenders prior to Jesus had been characterized both by the Romans and the leaders of the post 70 A.D. Jewish community as “robbers” or “brigands.” Ibid. p. 387. That characterization does not seem to fit the context here, however.
The meaning of the term “door” seems to have changed from verse 2 in verses 7-10. In the latter verses the door is not the entrance through which the shepherd comes to call the sheep, but the door through which the sheep go to find pasture. The door, then, serves a double purpose. It is protective of the flock in that it screens out the thieves and robbers who would harm the sheep. It is also the opening out into good pasture through which the sheep may pass. For what it is worth, one commentator observes that in some Middle Eastern grazing areas it is the custom for the shepherd to sleep in front of the sheep door, his body serving as a barrier to any sheep that might otherwise wander out. Bishop, E.F., “The Door of the Sheep-John 10:7-9,” 71 Expository Times (1959-60) pp. 307-09. That would give concrete expression to Jesus’ saying that the Good Shepherd “lays down his life for the sheep.” Vs. 11 (not included in the reading). But whether that practice existed in the first century or whether this is what Jesus actually meant is anyone’s guess.
Professor Raymond Brown suggests that the change of metaphors comes about as a result of Jesus’ change of emphasis. Verses 1-3a concern the way the Good Shepherd (as opposed to impostors) approaches the sheep. Consequently, the emphasis is on the gate. Verses 3b-5 concern the relationship between the Good Shepherd and the sheep and so focus on the shepherd. Brown, op cit. 395. I think that for preaching I will focus either on the “door” or on the “shepherd.” Mixing these two metaphors seems to have confused the dickens out of Jesus’ original hearers. If Jesus couldn’t make this work, there is a good chance it will prove rough sledding for me as well.