Posts Tagged violence
THIRTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, we thank you for your Son, who chose the path of suffering for the sake of the world. Humble us by his example, point us to the path of obedience, and give us strength to follow your commands, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Your words were found, and I ate them,
and your words became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart;
for I am called by your name,
O Lord, God of hosts.
I did not sit in the company of merrymakers,
nor did I rejoice;
under the weight of your hand I sat alone,
for you had filled me with indignation.
Why is my pain unceasing,
my wound incurable,
refusing to be healed?
Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook,
like waters that fail.
Jeremiah has reached a crisis point. His love for God’s word and will for Israel have only brought into sharper focus how far Israel has strayed from God. This dissonance between what is and what ought to be torments the prophet to the point of despair. “Am I wasting my life pursuing a dream?” he wonders. “Is life under God’s covenant a hopelessly unattainable ideal? Is there any point in continuing to endure abuse from a people hostile to everything I say?” I cannot say that I have ever faced anything during my ministerial career remotely similar to the opposition Jeremiah encountered. Nonetheless, as everyone following this blog can attest, I struggle with my church’s structural, programmatic and theological impediments to fulfilling the mission of proclaiming Jesus and his kingdom. Much of what I see on the denominational and congregational level looks a lot more like self-preservation than self-sacrifice for the gospel. Like Saint Peter in our gospel lesson, we shun the cross and seek to save our institutional lives rather than putting everything on the line for Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims. That is, in my view, a large part of why the church’s testimony at the present time of crisis has been limited to measured social policy statements.
Of course, the shortcomings I see in the church are but a reflection of the faults I know have their origin in my own reluctance to embrace fully the way of the cross. Like the rich young man Jesus encountered, I am not eager to place in jeopardy the comfortable retirement that I hope awaits me. I have no inclination to “offer up my body as a living sacrifice” like Kayla Mueller who was kidnapped and killed while providing assistance to Syrian refugees. I know that, at least for the present, speaking out against the racist, sexist and bigoted policies of the Trump administration costs me nothing. Unlike Heather Heyer, I have not had to pay the ultimate price for confronting the demon of racist violence unleashed by the rhetoric of the 2016 campaign and the administration to which it gave birth. I have never had to endure the indignity of being beaten and left overnight in the stocks as did poor Jeremiah. I am therefore hardly in a position to utter the prayer on Jeremiah’s lips in this Sunday’s lesson.
Nonetheless, I experience, as did Jeremiah, that cognitive dissonance between the baptismal covenant under which Jesus invites us to live and the reality of life in the church as I know it. Perhaps that is, at the very least, a good place to start. The people of God should never allow themselves to lose their holy discomfort with the status quo governing the world, the inadequacy of their witness or the degree of their complicity with evil in their own lives. In my own Lutheran tradition we are fond of saying that we are, at the same time, “saints and sinners.” That is all well and good if it means we, like recovering alcoholics, are a community of people liberated from sin yet struggling to help each other hang onto sobriety in a world pulling us back into the self-destructive ways from which Jesus saves us. It is fine to recognize that we are subject to relapse and must stand ready and willing to forgive, help and support any one of us who “falls off the wagon.” But too often this saying is invoked to excuse a banal, secularized ideology of “self-acceptance.” Too often the saint/sinner identification is less a dynamic, faith-animating dialectic than it is a justification for a lifestyle barely satisfying the bar for white middle class respectability and good citizenship. There is a huge difference between sinners struggling to live into the identity of sainthood conferred upon us through baptism into Jesus Christ and sinners who view baptism as a stamp of approval on ethical relativism and spiritual mediocrity. Such piety (if you can call it that) produces Christians whose lives differ little from those of the prevailing culture except that, of course, they happen to be in church on Sunday instead of on the beach-at least one week out of the month anyway.
Of course, there is the opposite extreme that would dispense with the church altogether. Jeremiah seems to be teetering on the brink of doing just that-writing off the covenant people of Israel as beyond redemption. Having lived my life as an active member and/or leader in at least half a dozen congregations over my lifetime, I can sympathize with people who are “done” with “organized religion.” I understand people who are OK with Jesus but cannot stomach the church. I have experienced at least as much hurt, insult and outrage from the church as most of the folks I know who have left for that reason. So why do I stick with it? Well, for one thing, Jesus leaves me no other choice. “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” he says. The church is the Body of Christ. Discipleship is not an individual task. It requires community. There is no such thing as a lone ranger disciple of Jesus. If you want to hang with Jesus, you are stuck with the rest of the people who follow him. Be warned, they are an unsavory lot!
Second, I need the church-and so do you whether you are willing to admit it or not. At least you need it if you want the mind of Christ formed within you. I think a large part of the church’s problem is that it tends to preach itself rather than Christ. So much of our outreach proclaims the virtue of our churches-their wonderful programs, their fine preachers, their high quality worship, their great sense of community. But that has never been the reality and when we claim that it is, when we promise people a warm, wonderful, safe place where nobody ever gets hurt, we are committing spiritual consumer fraud. In fact, the church has always been a contentious body of disciples who miss the point of Jesus’ preaching, argue over which of them is the greatest and desert Jesus at his time of greatest need. If the New Testament epistles are any indication of what church life was like in the first century, then we cannot help but notice that fights over money, sex scandals, divisiveness, power struggles and worship wars are the norm rather than the exception. The church is not the place you go to escape the nastiness and evil of the world. It’s the place where you come to confront it. The church is home to a lot of people who are here because we are the only community that will put up with them. So if you want to join us, you will have to learn to put up with them too. And here is the thing: we need them, because they teach us what it means to love one another. They instruct us in the art of forgiveness. They help us to recognize Jesus in the least likely of places. We all need each other to be formed into the image of Christ. That is the reason the church exists: to form saints. That is not a process for the faint of heart. If you want to be welcomed, pampered and made to feel loved, then go to the Poconos for a Yoga weekend. But if you want to be sanctified, if you want to be shaped into the image of Christ, the church is the place to go.
Finally, I stick with the church because, every so often, we get it right. Every so often, we come together in a way that reflects God’s enduring love for the world. Sometimes it happens in a small way when the congregation or a group of people in it come together to support a family in crisis by cooking meals, providing baby sitting or transportation. Sometimes it happens in a big way when the church responds generously with financial assistance, volunteer participation and advocacy for victims of war, famine or natural disaster. Sometimes it happens when a pastor, a congregational leader or an individual believer stands up and speaks truth to power on behalf of a child being abused, a woman being sexually harassed in the work place or a victim of discrimination. Yes, the church is a fallible, corrupt and broken community with a lot of sins, failures and lost opportunities on its record. But every so often, we get Jesus and his kingdom just right. When we do, it’s beautiful and often just enough to keep me from walking out the door.
Here’s a poem by Becca J.R. Lachman picturing the church at its very best.
New Marriage, A Barnraising
What it all comes down to: unpaid
community labor gathered ’round the first
post and best beam. O impossible ark,
built to be grounded, raised by well-
beloved hands. Attendance mandatory
by risk of shunning. Even children have
tools to fetch and sharpen. Some rough hands
welcome only because they must be
offered bread and chicken after a day
of sweat and sun. Young men in rib-rafters
who once watched from hillsides, now
call out to women for water or a smile. What
grins up, squinting, is certainty they long for:
childhood, companionship, the sturdier step
on ground they know, even a body
not one’s own. Each person acts out the expected.
They assemble despite their previous plans. Walls
go up slow but sturdy, shooing debt. Shading
out loneliness. Secured for storage and ready
for life. A frame-work, in the end, they will not
own, these worn-out masses. And still they show up,
willing. Still they gather when the new couple moves
Or after a fire. Or after a flood. O urgent love,
come back and see this time next year what stands.
Source: Center for Mennonite Writing Journal (Vol. 1, November 15, 2009 c. Becca J.R. Lachman). Becca J.R. Lachman teaches and tutors at Ohio University. She was raised in Kidron, Ohio and now lives in Athens, Ohio, with her husband. Lachman is recent grad of the Bennington Writing Seminars and published her first collection of poems in 2012. Her work has appeared in several publications and in On Being’s blog for American Public Media. You can sample more of her poetry at the CMW website.
This passage is the second of six personal prayers of lament uttered by the prophet Jeremiah in the course of his ministry. The others are Jeremiah 11:18-12:6; Jeremiah 17:14-18; Jeremiah 18:18-23; Jeremiah 20:7-13; and Jeremiah 20:14-18. These prayers are similar to the psalms of lament and contain much of the rich phraseology and imagery commonly employed by Israel in her liturgical/devotional life. The prayer is divided into two sections. In the first, Jeremiah addresses God. Vss. 15-18. In the second, God responds to Jeremiah’s complaints. Vss. 19-21. Jeremiah’s prayer begins with a plea for vengeance against his enemies. Professor Thomas Raitt says of this prayer and Jeremiah’s personal laments generally:
“Jeremiah’s so-called ‘laments’ are, at worst, sub-Christian expressions of vengeance, self-righteousness and bitterness about the sacrifices involved in filling the prophetic vocation. At their best these [laments] show that being a messenger of God’s word is a difficult calling and that often the last thing people want to hear is the truth, even from God, about their specific time and situation (which is precisely why prophets are not without honor except in their own country).” Raitt, Thomas M., Jeremiah in the Lectionary, Interpretation, Vol.37, April 1983 (c. 1983 Union Theological Seminary in Virginia) p. 161.
Jeremiah’s prayer certainly does illustrate the challenges of the prophetic vocation, but is it really “sub-Christian?” I must confess that I have always had difficulty with prayers for vengeance in the Bible, of which this is only one. Forgiveness and reconciliation are so central for Christian theology and practice that there seems to be no room for expressions of vengeance. But my pious unease is probably related more to my status and privilege than to any legitimate theological objection. I have never been raped or sexually molested. My children have not been murdered either by crazed fanatics in the service of their sick understanding of God’s will or by any respected, hardworking, church going Pentagon employee sitting in a cubicle orchestrating a drone attack in which my loved ones turn out to be “collateral damage.” I have never been driven out of my home by violence and forced to flee across the border into a foreign nation that does not want me. In short, I have not experienced the depth of human cruelty and oppression that gives birth to these laments. It is not surprising, then, that they do not come naturally to my lips.
It is important to keep in focus the fact that the psalmists’ pleas for vengeance are directed toward God. In praying for vengeance, they are confessing implicitly that retribution is the sole prerogative of God. God alone knows the hearts of human beings, what are their motivations and the external circumstances that often determine their actions. Too often, our perceptions of justice are warped by the pain of our own injuries and our personal need for “pay back.” We tend to focus narrowly on the perpetrator of a crime. But are not the parents who abused and neglected him equally responsible? What about his teachers who noticed bruises in odd places but remained silent? What about the neighbors who heard through the apartment walls the noise of abuse and his cries of pain and simply turned up the TV set because, after all, it was not their business. We can further expand this web of responsibility to include an entire nation whose priorities favor tax cuts to programs designed to assist families and children at risk. When it comes to dishing out retribution, there is never an end point. That is why Paul admonishes us in today’s lesson from Romans to leave this issue in God’s hands where it belongs.
German pastor, theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer maintains that the biblical prayers for vengeance must remain within our use of the psalter. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Psalms, Prayer Book of the Bible, (c. 1974 Augsburg Publishing House). He goes on to point out, however, that our prayers against the “enemy” are to some degree addressed against ourselves as well. As sinners, we are our own worst enemies. When we pray for God to intervene and adjudicate between ourselves and our enemies, we can never fully understand what we are asking for. God sees our enmity in a different light and without the blind spots that come with the white hot rage of injury. The justice we get in answer to our prayers might not look anything like our expectations for a just outcome.
While forgiveness and reconciliation are at the core of the good news about Jesus, they are the end result of a process. If forgiveness is to have any meaning, the injuries inflicted by my enemy (and upon him/her as well) need to be fully acknowledged. Lament affords us the opportunity to lay out our wounds, our hurts and the resulting anger in the presence of God. If reconciliation is to be genuine, the mutually destructive relationship between my enemy and myself must be altered. Master and slave are not truly reconciled if, at the end of the process, they remain master and slave. New creation necessarily means the death of the old-which will not go down willingly. Forgiveness, healing and reconciliation take time, patience and, above all, grace.
Jeremiah is unsparing in his criticism of the Lord he feels has abandoned him. “Yet,” as one commentator points out, “there is a contradictory character to this prayer, for even when doubting God’s care, it is to God that Jeremiah turns. God called him to be a prophet, and God’s service had been Jeremiah’s “joy” and “delight” as well as his pain and anguish. The prayer reflects a man who even in his deepest doubts about God’s care still knows that he is absolutely dependent upon God. God will be his undoing if God has really abandoned him; but God is also his only hope and to him he must return.” Bracke, John M., Jeremiah 15:15-21, Interpretation, Vol.37, April 1983 (c. 1983 Union Theological Seminary in Virginia) p. 175. One of the marvelous capacities of our human constitution is the ability to entertain two mutually conflicting ideas, two very opposite emotions and hope in the pit of despair. Even the psalmist who cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” makes this complaint to the very God whose absence s/he now experiences!
If Jeremiah had been expecting the gentle comfort of one trained in Clinical Pastoral Education, he would have been sorely disappointed. I doubt he had such expectations and, in any event, comfort is not the medicine Jeremiah receives. It is not God who has abandoned Jeremiah, but Jeremiah who has abandoned his God. After all, Jeremiah has been chiding his people for their own unfaithfulness; for their failure to trust God in the face of the Babylonian threat; for seeking salvation from foreign alliances rather than putting their faith in the Lord. Is his own personal danger and suffering any worse than what he is calling his own people to risk and to endure? If God has proved a “deceitful brook” to Jeremiah, has not Jeremiah been preaching deceit to his people? God will continue to be with Jeremiah to deliver him. But Jeremiah cannot expect to escape the judgment he proclaims for his people. That goes with the territory of the prophetic vocation.
These are hard words for leaders of God’s people ministering in hard times. We all know that the church can be awfully hard on the people that serve her. I have been lied too, betrayed, criticized behind my back and hurt by people in the church. Fortunately, these experiences have been only small islands of unpleasantness in an otherwise deep and expansive ocean of love, support and partnership. For the most part, even people with whom I have had deep disagreements remained supportive, caring and faithful to the gospel. My worst day in parish ministry was a romp in the park compared to Jeremiah’s experiences. Jeremiah serves to remind us all that we are calling the world to take up the cross and follow Jesus. That means taking it up ourselves. We cannot get out of being crucified with Christ, but the operative word here is with. Jesus does not call us to anything through which he has not already made a path.
Some commentators view this psalm as the plea for God’s intervention on behalf of one involved in a legal dispute soon to be adjudicated. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary, (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 117. Such a circumstances might have given birth to the stereotypical phraseology in the psalm, but the prayer seems to have a broader application as it now stands. Though likely composed as an individual lament prior to the Babylonian Exile in 587 B.C.E., it has been edited to meet the worship needs of the whole worshiping community. Such is the case with many of the personal psalms.
It takes a lot of chutzpa to pray this psalm. Who among us could declare in the presence of God that we “have trusted in the Lord without wavering?” Vs. 1. How many of us would invite God “to prove” and “try us,” to “test [our] heart[s] and mind[s]”? Vs. 2. Yet it seems to me that if we read these two verses as intimately linked to the rest of this prayer for vindication against enemies, they constitute an invitation to humility. Indeed, if we are going to pray for vindication against our enemies, then we must also pray that God will try our own hearts and minds, put us to the proof and bring our motives to light. For in reality, there is no such thing as a one sided conflict. Good and evil are never cleanly divided along the lines of combat drawn between human warring factions. Yet, as I argued in my post for July 20th, we Americans have a strong tendency to view conflict in precisely this fashion. That is why our politics is so dysfunctional. After all, how can you compromise with a party whose agenda is the destruction of American society as we know it? There can be no negotiation or settlement with evil, but only eradication.
Too often, the same is true for interpersonal conflict. We tend to demonize those with whom we differ, attribute to them the worst of motives and dismiss any possibility that they could actually have a meritorious point of view. They owe us an apology and until we get it, hostilities continue. The psalmist entertains no such simple minded illusions. S/he prays not merely that God’s judgment will fall upon his/her adversaries, but that it will penetrate his/her heart of hearts as well. From the psalmist’s standpoint (as from our own!), it may very well seem that s/he has taken the high road, that s/he has avoided “the company of evildoers” (Vs. 5) and “washed [his/her] hands in innocence.” Vs. 6. But in reality, s/he knows that there are in his/her own heart motives that are unseen and assumptions about the enemy that blind him/her to the big picture resulting in vast potential for misinterpreting the meaning of words and the significance of actions. Though the psalmist cannot see it now, s/he knows that when disputes are submitted to God with an honest prayer for vindication, the one seeking such relief must be prepared to discover his/her own complicity in that dispute and be prepared to accept full responsibility. Perhaps that is why the psalmist also prays that God “sweep me not away with sinners.” Vs. 9 (not in our reading). For “if thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?” Psalm 130:3.
More, however, needs to be said. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once remarked that: “The notion that we can never suffer innocently so long as within us there still hides some kind of defect is a thoroughly unbiblical and demoralizing thought.” Godsey, John D., The Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (c. 1960 Westminster Press) p. 191. We can hardly fault a child in any way for injuries suffered at the hands of an abusive parent. Yet even in what appears to be a clear case of one-sided aggression, the aggressor is a complex individual whose motives, words and actions are the product of a lifetime of experiences that likely include victimization. As evil as his/her acts clearly are, the actor can never be written off as beyond redemption-at least not by us. Thus, while it is quite possible to suffer innocently, it does not follow that the full weight of guilt and retribution can be focused on the most visible perpetrator of the wrong.
As always, I encourage reading of Psalm 26 in its entirety.
The admonitions in verses 9-13 can sound almost pedestrian when they are read in isolation. Have genuine love. Hold to what is good. Show honor and zeal. Be hopeful, patient, prayerful and generous. Well, Duh!!! How else would a disciple of Jesus behave? It is critical therefore to read these admonitions in light of Paul’s earlier call for the Roman believers to present their bodies as sacrifices for God and to be transformed by the renewal of their minds through the gospel rather than conformed to the world around them. Romans 12:1-2. The “world” of which Paul speaks is the world of the Roman Empire, a hierarchical society in which everyone from the emperor to the galley slave had his or her fixed position. Honor was due from the lesser to the greater. As one commentator points out:
“J.E. Lendon has shown that a relatively small number of officials ruled the vast empire, using a combination of force, propaganda, and patronage that was held together by ‘the workings of honour and pride,’ which provided ‘the underpinnings of loyalty and gratitude for benefactors’ that made the empire functional. Although the threat of force and the desire for gain where always present, ‘the duty to “honour” or respect officials, whether local, imperial, or the emperor himself, is vastly more prominent in ancient writings than the duty to obey…’ The subject paid ‘honour’ to his rulers as individuals deserving of it in themselves, and, in turn, the rulers are seen to relate to their subjects by ‘honouring’ them. Subject and official were linked by a great network of honouring, and obedience was an aspect of that honouring…This background is essential for understanding the argument of Romans, which employs honor categories from beginning to end. Lendon observes: ‘Honour was a filter through which the whole world was viewed, a deep structure of the Graeco-Roman mind…Everything, every person, could be valued in terms of honour.’ At the peak of this pyramid of honor stood the emperor, who claimed to renounce honors while gathering them all to himself. Beneath him the intense competition for superiority in honor continued unabated on all levels of society.” Jewett, Robert, Romans-A Commentary, Harmenia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 2007 by Fortress Press) p. 49 citing Lendon, J.E., Empire of Honour: The Art of Government in the Roman World (c. 1997 by Oxford: Clarendon) pp. 289-292.
Paul turns this “pyramid of honor” on its head. Rather than compete with one another in the accumulation of honor, disciples of Jesus are challenged to “out do one another in showing honor.” Vs. 10. Within the church, the structures of honor and patronage holding the Roman Empire together dissolve. That explains why the church was accused (and rightly so) of “turning the world upside down.” Acts 17:6. It also demonstrates why Paul’s letter to Philemon is probably one of the most revolutionary documents ever written. Paul’s insistence that Philemon welcome back his runaway slave, Onesimus, as a brother struck at the very foundations of Roman society. While some of our aging commentators left over from the 1960s fault Paul for being less than fully socially conscious because he was not out demonstrating in the streets of Rome against slavery, I cannot help but note that the churches they represent are often just as segregated today as was Selma, Alabama in the 60s. It just goes to prove Mark Twain’s adage, “To be good is noble. To teach someone else to be good is more noble still-and a lot less trouble.” Paul’s opposition to slavery was written into his practice-not merely on a cardboard sign. His church struck at slavery by ending it within a counter-cultural community valuing all persons, regardless of their societal status, as equally members of the Body of Christ.
Verses 14-21 echo Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:38-48. At first blush, they might seem to conflict with the sentiments expressed by Jeremiah and the psalmist in our previous lessons. That is not the case, however. Like the psalmist and the prophet, Paul urges the Roman church to leave vengeance and retributive justice in the hands of God. It might well be that one’s enemy is deserving of punishment. But that is not the disciple’s concern. The disciple of Jesus is called upon to love the enemy, pray for the enemy and show kindness to the enemy whether deserving or not. By assuming God’s prerogative and seeking retribution, one is overcome by evil. Again and again we have learned that by fighting evil with evil’s own tools of violence and hateful rhetoric, we are conformed to the very image of that which we despise. Rather than be so conformed, Paul urges us to be transformed by the renewal of your minds. Romans 12:1-2.
At this point in Matthew’s gospel, the focus turns toward Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Each of the subsequent transitional sections will remind us of that destination. Matthew 16:21; Matthew 17:22; Matthew 19:1; Matthew 20:17). Here Jesus reveals to his disciples for the first time that this journey will lead to his rejection by the religious authorities and his suffering and death. Vs. 21. Peter once again personifies what must have been the response of all the disciples: “God forbid!” Vs. 22. (Ironic, isn’t it, that this “rock,” upon which Jesus said in last Sunday’s lesson that the church would be built, has so soon after become a rock of “stumbling” to Jesus!) We now learn that Peter’s bold confession of Jesus as both Israel’s Messiah and the Son of the living God, through accurate, is still unformed. He cannot reconcile the glorification of Jesus with the cross. He is not the only one. I have repeatedly been asked about verse 28 in which Jesus tells his disciples that they will not see death before they witness his coming in glory. “Pastor,” they ask me, “How can that be true? We have still not seen Jesus coming in glory.”
Of course, Jesus did come in glory. Our problem is that we don’t understand what glory is any more than we understand what power is. God is nowhere more thoroughly glorified than on the cross where the depth of God’s love for all creation is made known. God is nowhere more powerful than on the cross where even the crucifixion of his Son cannot entice God to turn against us in anger. God’s love is stronger than our sin. The cross, says St. Paul, is the wisdom of God and the power of God. I Corinthians 1:18-25. For Matthew, it is the coming of Jesus in glory. That is a bitter pill to swallow for those of us looking for a kick ass savior who will appear at the end of time to whoop the anti-christ and impose his reign in the manner of a Caesar on steroids. That is not going to happen. It is not going to happen because that is not the way God triumphs over evil. God overcomes evil in the same way Paul calls upon his churches to overcome evil: by loving our enemies, doing good to them and praying for them. That will probably take a long time. But God is in no hurry. Neither should we be.
The term “taking up the cross” has become a hackneyed phrase in our common parlance. Typically, it is a synonym for taking one’s own share of hardships that go with living. Suffering becomes a good in its own right, an end in itself, an opportunity to practice patience and self-denial. These are both fine virtues and to the extent one uses suffering to that end, all well and good. But this understanding has nothing to do with taking up the cross. As pointed out 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 [Jesus’] society.” Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, (c. 1972 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 129. The cross in Jesus’ day was not a metaphor or a symbol of anything else. It was the means by which Rome put down anyone confessing a lord other than Caesar. Following Jesus means risking execution.
Yet it is precisely in risking all for Jesus that true life is discovered. Until one is ready to die, there is no prospect for life. The church is called upon to risk all-to risk dying. That is a hard word to speak to a church that is obsessed with survival. Though we talk incessantly about “change” and the “need for change” and the benefits of “change,” the change we often promote is geared chiefly to preserve ourselves. That is understandable. It is easy enough to speak abstractly about the end of the established church in the post Constantinian era. That reality, however, means the loss of some very good social ministries built with the blood, sweat and tears of people whose careers have been defined by them. It means the loss of jobs and the end of career opportunities. On the congregational level it means the loss of century old sanctuaries with brass plates on every piece of furniture memorializing a loved one. It means the loss of cemeteries where generations of families have been laid to rest. It means the end of a multitude of voices singing those dear old hymns to the accompaniment of a majestic pipe organ. That is what the death of “church as we know it” will mean. By way of full disclosure, I have a daughter who is preparing for a career in parish ministry. So although I am close enough to retirement to have gotten my own share out of the Constantinian church, I am hardly a detached observer.
Matthew tells us, however, that we have nothing to fear from death once we recognize that “dying” is the place to which Jesus calls us. We hardly need Jesus to tell us that, no matter how frantically we try to preserve our lives, we are going to lose them in the end. It is the other side of the equation that spells the good news Jesus alone can bring, namely, that by losing one’s life, one gains it. There are, as I said in last week’s post, many new and lively manifestations of “church” in our midst. I do not suggest that any of these models can simply be copied. That, too, is a recipe for failure. But they testify to what is possible when we stop fretting about survival and focus instead on being faithful disciples of Jesus. If God is taking the church we have known and loved away from us, it is because God has something better to give us. Once our hands are free from vainly trying to hang on to what is being lost, we will be free to receive the new thing God is doing in our midst.
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 OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, your Son Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Give us grace to love one another, to following the way of his commandments, and to share his risen life with all the world, for he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was a victim of mob violence. Like his Lord, he died with a prayer on his lips for the forgiveness of his murderers. The story is terrifying on several levels. Mobs are scary. People swept up into mob hysteria are capable of unspeakable acts of cruelty they would probably never commit on their own. Mobs are not driven by any coherent ideology or particular religious sentiment. They are inspired by appeals to raw emotion, to the most primal fears we harbor. As irrational as it may seem, the mob always sees itself as the victim and its victim as the aggressor. It believes that it is acting in self-defense. The opponents of Stephen stirred up the people with the claim that Stephen was heard to “speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” They told the gathering crowd that he was threatening to “change the customs Moses delivered to us.” For a people under Roman domination, whose faith and customs were in fact threatened with extinction and treated with contempt by their occupiers, these were fighting words. Stephen was for this mob the face of everything they most feared; the representative of a future that terrified them. Of course, Stephen was not really an enemy of Israel’s faith as he tried to make plain in his defense. But don’t look for rationality in a lynch mob. All you will ever find is blind, white hot, irrational rage. As we all should know, anger is only fear that doesn’t know what to do with itself. Violence is anger that cannot find words to express itself.
It seems to me that mob psychology is strikingly similar to the movement frequently referred to as “populism.” In his recent book Dutch political scientist, Cas Mudde, defines populism as “a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, ‘the pure people,’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonte’ generale’ (will of the people).” Mudde, Cas, Populism: A Very Short Introduction (c. 2017 by Oxford University Press) p. 6. The only amendment I would make is to say that I don’t believe populism is an ideology of any sort, thin-centered or otherwise. I would define it more as a collective anxiety disorder. Most supporters of Donald Trump (the face of populism in the United States) I have spoken to recently don’t even try to defend his overtly racist remarks or justify his sexual predatory conduct or explain away his undisputed lies. They are not necessarily committed to or interested in his political agenda or policies. They are drawn instead to his outbursts of rage that give vent to their own pent up resentments. The Trump supporters I know well have a deep seated conviction that they are losing the America they love, and that it is the fault of an elite establishment bent on undermining their values, mocking their religion, robbing them of their livelihoods, destroying their communities and selling them out to foreign powers. They are convinced that conspiracies are being hatched every day behind the scenes by “America hating, God denying intellectuals.” Donald Trump is for them a monkey wrench hurled into a hostile and malevolent governmental machine that is ruining their lives. He is their escape from a dark and threatening future back into the safety of a bygone era when America was “great.”
Parenthetically, the half dozen or so supporters of Donald Trump I have spoken too in some depth are hardly a statistically significant swath of the the electorate. Moreover, I don’t pretend to understand all that is in their minds, let alone those of millions of other Trump supporters. I will also add that these folks are right in saying that there is something very wrong with our country. Despite recovery from the recession of 2007, too many sections of the country have been left behind to struggle with massive unemployment, decaying infastructure and broken institutions. To the extent that the Trump campaign has shown a light on these problems and brought them to national attention, it has done the nation a service. Nonetheless, I remain convinced that, while populism can illuminate deep seated problems with our government, economy and society, it offers nothing helpful in the way of solutions.
From a biblical perspective, there are two problems with populism. First, any movement grounded in fear is alien to the life of discipleship. “Perfect love,” says the Apostle John, “casts out all fear.” I John 4:18. Populism is driven by fear of the outsider, the elite, the foreigner, the unconventional. It locates the source of evil in some “other.” By contrast, disciples of Jesus understand that sin is universal. The line between good and evil does not follow the contours of nation, race, ideology, political affiliation or religious identity. It runs right through each human heart. As psychiatrist and philosopher M. Scott Peck points out, “it is in the solitary mind and soul of the individual that the battle between good and evil is waged and ultimately won or lost.” Thus, the war on evil does not entail extermination of evil people by good people, but instead consists in one’s own struggle with repentance, faith and regeneration. Disciples see their enemies not as threats to be feared and destroyed, but as neighbors and fellow sinners in need of the same redeeming love to which they themselves cling.
The second problem with populism is its backward focus. Salvation is not to be found in the past. Hope that is focused on a return to the Garden of Eden is doomed to frustration. That way is closed to us-forever. Even if by some wizardry it were possible to travel backwards in time, we would not find there any “golden age,” but only the sin and failure we know today. The era when America was somehow better, purer and greater than it is today is no more real than the Israelites’ exaggerated memories of the fleshpots back in Egypt. The Promised Land cannot be found by turning back. It lies exclusively in God’s future. The past is a dead end and those intent on restoring it are running a fool’s errand.
How does one preach in the age of populism? I guess the same as in any other age. The good news of Jesus Christ is always good news and about the only unique thing disciples of Jesus have to talk about. Nevertheless, each era presents its own set of temptations. We must at all costs avoid succumbing to fear. That is not an easy thing. There are some real dangers on the horizon. Military confrontation in Asia and the Middle East; loss of health care for the poorest and sickest among us, discrimination and violence against racial minorities, immigrants, sexual minorities and women. I am not suggesting for one moment that any of these threats are not real or should be taken lightly, ignored or left unchallenged. Nonetheless, responding out of fear and defensiveness with the same angry, caustic and inflated rhetoric inherent in populist culture only transforms us into a mirror image of what we claim to oppose. Disciples of Jesus should know that behind the anger and violence is a frightened person whose world is changing faster than s/he can cope with and in ways s/he finds hard to comprehend. Underneath the aggression is a plea for understanding and acceptance that invites the same compassion and forgiveness Saint Stephen expressed in his final moments.
Here’s a poem about the martyrdom of Saint Stephen by Daniel Berrigan.
That day stones fell
I stood and died
unknowable, a mound of dust for heaven
to make man of.
That day stones beat
like stone beasts for a forced entry
to eat my heart: I prayed awhile
then opened brief and tossed them meat.
They ate and died of it: unproofed against
my living phial, great love.
stones flew like hail of stones at first:
my dolorous flesh took their brute will
but stones transformed
to tongues, whispered at every wound:
That day stones flowered
to dark rose-field Christ walked and gathered.
Source: Selected & New Poems, (c. 1973 by Daniel Berrigan, pub. by Doubleday & Company, Inc.) p. 46. Daniel Berrigan was born May 9, 1921, in Virginia, Minnesota. He entered the Jesuit novitiate at St. Andrew-on-the-Hudson, New York in August 1939 and graduated in 1946. Thereafter, he entered the Jesuit’s Woodstock College in Baltimore graduating in 1952. He was ordained the same year and appointed professor of New Testament studies at Le Moyne College in Syracuse in 1957. Berrigan is remembered by most people for his anti-war activities during the Vietnam era. He spent two years in prison for destroying draft records, damaging nuclear war heads and leading other acts of civil disobedience. He also joined with other prominent religious figures like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to found Clergy and Laity Against the War in Vietnam. In February of 1968 he traveled to North Vietnam and returned with three American prisoners of war he convinced the North Vietnamese to release. Berrigan died on April 30, 2016 of natural causes at a Jesuit health care facility in the Bronx. He was 94 years old.
This account of the execution or, more accurately, the lynching of Stephen is the concluding episode to a much longer narrative reported in full at Acts 6:1-Acts 8:1. Stephen is one of seven individuals appointed to oversee the distribution of food to “widows” within the Jerusalem church community. As Professor Gerd Ludemann points out, “Many pious Jews settled in Jerusalem in the evening of their lives in order to be buried in the holy city. Therefore the care of their widows was a problem which came up frequently.” Ludemann, Gerd, Early Christianity According to the Traditions in Acts, (c. 1987 Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, pub. by Fortress Press) p. 74. Thus, the church’s practice of providing for its widows had Jewish antecedents. Oddly, however, Stephen seems occupied not with such mundane administrative work but rather with “doing great wonders and signs among the people” and disputing with representatives of the “synagogue of the freedman.” Acts 6:8-10. Stephen’s arguments enrage his opponents who bring him before the Jewish high council on charges of blasphemy. His lengthy defense recorded in Acts 7:1-53 so inflames the anger of those present at the hearing that they drag him outside of the city and stone him to death. Stephen dies with a prayer for their forgiveness on his lips. As a consequence of this event, a great persecution arises against the church in Jerusalem scattering the disciples throughout all of Judea and Samaria. Acts 8:2. But so far from silencing the church, the persecution results in the spread of the gospel and the continued growth of the church. “Those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.” Acts 8:4. This is the context of our reading.
Stoning was the punishment of choice for idolatry (Deuteronomy 17:2-7); human sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2-5);prophesying in the name of foreign gods (Deuteronomy 13:1-5);divination (Leviticus 20:27); blasphemy (Leviticus 24:15-16);Sabbath breaking (Numbers 15:32-36);adultery (Deuteronomy 22:22-24); and disobedience to parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). In 1st Century Judaism the sentence of stoning was rarely imposed and then only after strict legal procedural requirements were satisfied. The punishment could be administered only upon the testimony of two competent witnesses. Between twenty-three and seventy-one judges were required to adjudicate such a capital case, depending upon the offense. A simple majority was required to sustain a verdict. It does not appear that these procedures were observed in the case of Stephen whose death looks much more like the fruit of mob violence than a judicially ordered execution. Stoning, it should be noted, remains a legal form of judicial punishment in Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria (in one-third of the country’s states), Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. In actual practice, however, stoning is usually carried out by vigilantes or violent mobs.
This text gives us a look into the anatomy of violence. The whole incident begins with a dispute in which Stephen’s opponents find themselves frustrated in their attempts to persuade him that his arguments are wrongheaded. Unable to meet Stephen’s arguments, they resort to attacks on his character. They call him a blasphemer and bring him before the council. But Stephen continues to press his point until his enemies are so enraged that they actually plug their ears against his reasoning. Predictably, they finally resort to violence. Violence is the last desperate attempt of a frustrated debater to silence an opponent whose arguments he cannot meet. It is what happens when we run out of words.
By contrast, Stephen prays for the forgiveness of his executioners, mirroring Jesus’ prayer in Luke’s passion narrative. Luke 23:34. As the first Christian martyr whose death is recorded in the New Testament, Stephen’s witness has inspired and shaped faithful witness to Jesus in the face of persecution throughout the generations. It reinforces my long held conviction that non-violence is not a peripheral virtue, but a central tenant of the gospel witness. There are things worth dying for, but according to Jesus, nothing is worth killing for. In the face of violent persecution, the church’s duty is to die-as did its Lord.
This is a psalm of lament, one of the most common types found in the Psalter. As noted in last week’s post, the essential elements of its type are:
- Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-8.
- Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 9-18
- Expression of confidence, vss. 19-20
- Witness of praise to the community, vss. 21-24.
See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. If some elements are missing in this week’s reading, it is because the lectionary has truncated the psalm, probably in the interest of fitting the readings onto the commercially prescribed bulletin inserts. Moreover, the psalms are prayers formed in the furnace of human experience. As such, they do not always fit neatly into the scholarly categories of literary forms floating about like Platonic prototypes in the scholastic ether.
Verse 5 parallels both Stephen’s dying prayer in Acts 7:59 and that of Jesus in Luke 23:46. Ultimately, the psalms leave the execution of justice in the hands of God. While the psalmists can be quite explicit in their desire to see vengeance upon their enemies (See, e.g., Psalm 137), they nevertheless leave its implementation in the hands of the Lord where it rightly belongs. Pacifism is not a creation of the New Testament, but the human embodiment of the heart and mind belonging to the same God lifted up in the Hebrew Scriptures.
“Thou art my God; my times are in your hands.” Vs. 14. Verses like this are the source of both comfort and consternation. The verse seems to say that my life is in God’s hands. If I know God as merciful, compassionate and intimately involved with me, that should be comforting. It is comforting when times are good and I know who to thank for it. The problem is that I must then account for God’s management in times that are not so good, even terrible and tragic. Some deal with this by suggesting that God sends trials to strengthen and instruct us. There is a degree of plausibility in that approach. Who of us would deny that the most valuable lessons in life are learned through facing challenges, overcoming difficulties and working through problems? Even the most horrible circumstances can (though they don’t always) make us stronger, wiser and more mature. But do we really want to say that God sends sexual predators to molest children so that they can grow through the experience? Not me!
Some theologians deal with this problem by arguing that God does not micromanage creation. God sets up the universe with certain parameters, natural laws and creaturely limitations and then graciously gives us our freedom to live and make our own independent choices. We are, of course, responsible for the choices we make. Some of those choices lead to tragic results. Of course, God is not a detached watchmaker whose task ends when the watch is completed, set and wound up. God is not indifferent to all that takes place on this planet. In fact, God is deeply grieved by events such as genocide, natural disasters and epidemics. But God does not intervene or only intervenes to let us know that he feels our pain. That might make God less of a villain in the eyes of some, but I am not convinced that having a distant and grossly neglectful parent is much better than having an abusive one.
It seems to me that if we are to get out of this conundrum, we need to think differently about God’s power and God’s saving intervention. In some respects, God gave up being almighty as soon as God spoke the word, “Let there be.” Like a child conceived in love, the creation makes a claim upon its Creator. As soon as there is something or someone that is not God, God is not “omnipotent” in the sense that God is the only power there is (though it is proper to say that God is omnipotent in the sense that God is a potent force in every circumstance). Just as a child grows in complexity and variability, so also creation and its human inhabitants exercise growing potential-for good and evil. This presents God with a choice: 1) that of exercising coercive power to compel creation to comply with God’s desire for it; or 2) that of exercising persuasive power through continuous acts of faithfulness and expressions of love. What God wants is for his creatures to love him as he loves them and to trust him. That is the kingdom in which God would have us live. But God cannot get that result by coercing us. God will not reign over us as a Caesar on steroids. If God cannot implement his reign through love, God will not reign.
I believe this is what Paul has in mind when he insists that the “weakness” of God is in reality the power of God. See I Corinthians 1:18-31. God’s power is God’s refusal to be drawn into the cycle of violence to which coercive force always leads. Rightly understood, divine power is not the ability to “make the kingdom happen,” but the patience to continue loving, forgiving and inviting us into the kingdom in the face of all our hostility to it. The power of Jesus’ disciples is the conviction, borne of God’s own conviction and demonstration through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, that love outlasts violence. The weakness of God (which is in reality God’s strength) is the patience of Christ’s Body living under the peaceful reign of God in a violent world. Suffering, loss and even martyrdom are not the exceptions, but the rule for disciples of Jesus. To be in God’s hands is to take up the cross through which God reigns.
“Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk.” Vs. 2. This is a profoundly feminine image of God the mother, feeding and nurturing her children with “pure spiritual milk.” The disciple is as dependent upon Jesus as a newborn living on its mother’s milk. The image of the “living stone” follows immediately thereafter with an allusion (made quite specific further on) to Psalm 118:22. Like a stone rejected by builders which later turns out to be the cornerstone of the structure, so Jesus is the rejected Messiah who turns out to be the cornerstone of the new age. Attention then turns to the disciples who as “living stones” are built into a “spiritual house.” Vs. 5. This image then gives way to that of “a holy priesthood” offering “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Christ.” Vs. 5. Unpacking all of this is a daunting task.
The stone is a double image. For the faithful, it is a pillar of strength and, as our psalmist observed, “a rock of refuge.” Psalm 31:2. For unbelievers, however, the rock is a source of stumbling. Vs. 8 citing Isaiah 8:14-15. Even a rock that makes one stumble can be the occasion of salvation, however. If you are running head long down the path of self-destruction, tripping on a stone and landing flat on your face is the best thing that can happen to you.
Verses 9-10 apply to this Christian community in Asia Minor a laundry list of honorary titles for Israel taken from Exodus 19:6 and Isaiah 43:20-21. Yet this church, whose composition is significantly if not predominantly gentile, is reminded that she comes into the heritage of Israel by the gracious invitation extended to her through Jesus. “Once you were no people; but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.” Vs. 10. Of course, this message is even more urgent and essential for the 21st Century church that is all but exclusively gentile!
This reading is a frequent sermon text at funerals. Jesus’ assurance that there are many rooms in his Father’s house and that he goes there to prepare a place for his disciples is a powerful and comforting image for all who face the loss of a loved one. Those of us who cut our biblical teeth on the King James Version of the Bible will recall that the word for “room” (mone) is there translated “mansion.” The actual meaning of “mone” is far more modest and thus the RSV rendering of that word merely as “room.” This should not detract from the magnitude of the promise, however. Jesus is offering far more than real estate here. He is promising to make a place for us in the Father’s household. That has ramifications not only for the hereafter, but for the here and now. Eternal life begins now as the disciples begin to believe in Jesus’ promises and shape their lives according to that belief. As St. Augustine puts it, “[Jesus] prepares the dwelling places by preparing those who are to dwell in them.” Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of St. John, Tractate LXVIII, 1, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VII, (c. 1978 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) p. 322.
Jesus makes the remarkable claim that his disciple’s know the way where he is going. Vs. 4. Understandably, Thomas objects that he and his fellow disciples do not know the way. Vs. 5. Jesus replies that he is the way. Vs. 6. What the disciples do not yet understand is that Jesus “going away” is not a separation from them, but the porthole to a deeper intimacy and more profound presence. The coming of the “advocate” or Holy Spirit will initiate the oneness between Jesus and his disciples for which he prays in John 17. “The answer given by Jesus [to Thomas] articulates the high Christology of the fourth evangelist. It is not the case that Jesus is ‘away’ from the Father, and must therefore find and tread the way to him; he is the way himself: it is not the case that there is a truth about the Father which Jesus must learn and then pass on; he is the truth himself: it is not the case that the Father has eternal life which he will give to the Son when the Son reaches his home, so the Son can then bestow life; he is the life himself. And no other approach to the Father can be made than the one which has been opened in the incarnation of the eternal Word.” Marsh, John, Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1968 by John Marsh, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 504.
In what I imagine must have been a tone of utter exasperation, Philip says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father and we shall be satisfied.” Vs. 8. Jesus replies that whoever has seen him has seen the Father. Vs. 9. This is a remarkable statement and one that should shatter every notion we have about who and what God is. Jesus, who will soon surrender without resistance to the temple police and die helplessly on the cross is all there is of God to see. There is nothing more, nothing hidden inside or concealed. What you see is what you get. Yet this Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Vs. 6.
It should be clear by now that in declaring himself the “way, the truth and the life,” Jesus is letting his disciples know 1) that his departure is in fact the prelude to his return in a fuller, more robust presence among his disciples than they have known throughout their days of following him on the way to the cross; 2) that the way to the Father is through fellowship with him soon to be had through the coming of the “advocate.” The message of Ascension is on the horizon here. Jesus’ ascending to the right hand of the Father is his coming to fill all creation with the fullness of God. The last supper is not Jesus’ going away party.
SUNDAY OF THE PASSION/PALM SUNDAY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Everlasting God, in your endless love for the human race you sent our Lord Jesus Christ to take on our nature and to suffer death on the cross. In your mercy enable us to share in his obedience to your will and in the glorious victory of his resurrection, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Shortly before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem to the joyous shouts of “Hosanna,” there had been another procession-that of Pontius Pilate with his army into that same city. Passover was known to be a volatile season in Jerusalem. After all, it was a feast celebrating God’s liberation of slaves from their imperial master. Rome was understandably uncomfortable with such narratives. Stories like these did not sit well with the emperor who considered himself solely entitled to designations like “Lord” and “King,” and whose raw military power maintained the social, economic and political stability dubbed “Pax Romana.” Keeping the peace in Palestine meant demonstrating to the Jewish population that there was just one king and one Lord. Pilate no doubt found it more than a little convenient that Jesus should arrive on the scene just in time to become an object lesson. A man hanging on a cross in full view of all pilgrims coming to the Passover feast would serve as a salutary reminder of who is really in charge. The inscription over the cross, “this is the King of the Jews,” would make it clear to everyone what happens to people who claim to be Lord and King.
As much as the Jewish people resented Roman domination, I suspect that Pilate’s military parade gave them a measure of relief as well. For all their brutality, had not the Romans maintained law and order? As onerous as their taxation system might be, is it any less onerous than living in fear of crime, lawlessness and revolution? To be sure, the occasional crucifixion of an innocent man is lamentable. But perhaps such imperial ruthless is the price we must all pay for peace and security. As Caiaphas so aptly observed in John’s gospel, “it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” John 11:50. Anything for national security.
I can recall the Armed Forces Day parades we had when I was a kid in my home town of Bremerton, Washington. Like Pilate’s parade, the endless columns of marching soldiers with freshly polished shoes and bayonets, the tanks rumbling down the street and warplanes flying overhead were all there to assure us at the height of the cold war that we were well protected. Our military was prepared for anything the Soviets might throw at us. We all clapped and cheered, though the festive mood was actually a little hollow. Deep down, we all knew that there would be no victors following a military confrontation with the Soviet Union. Living as we did at “ground zero,” next door to the largest navel facility on the west coast and only fifteen miles from a critical submarine base, we were well aware that no desk under which we might hide during drills nor any shelter in which we might take cover would protect us. We knew that national security was a national delusion, that the parade was a promotional opiate and that the security promised by force of arms was a fraud. A peace imposed by the threat of annihilation is no peace at all.
Professor of biblical studies, John Dominic Crossan suggests that Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem might have been a parody of Pilate’s earlier parade. Crossan, John Dominik & Reed, Jonathan L., Excavating Jesus, (c. 2001 by Crossan & Reed, pub. by HarperCollins) p. 262. In short, Jesus was lampooning Pilate in much the same way as Alec Baldwin has been spoofing President Trump on Saturday Night Live. That makes some sense. After all, nothing is more threatening to tyranny than humor. For good reason women protesting the activities of anti-immigrant “watch groups” in Finland dressed up as clowns. It is hard to project a fierce and intimidating persona when you are chasing a clown. Whatever the merits of Crossan’s suggested reading, there is no question that the Jesus parade of harlots, tax collectors and outcasts along with his honor guard of singing children constituted a stark contrast to Pilate’s procession of heavily armed troops into the city days before. It is likely that Jesus’ act of impudence in the face of Rome contributed to Pilate’s ultimate decision to crucify him. Such was Rome’s verdict in the Jesus affair.
Nevertheless, in the resurrection to which we look forward, God reverses Rome’s judgment. The “Peace of Rome” is unmasked for the fraud it really is and Jesus is revealed as the one who truly is Lord. The cross was the symbol of Rome’s power to kill. But Jesus made of it God’s instrument for breathing life into the world and a symbol of hope. The empire employed violence and threats to impose its peace. Jesus used divine power, but only to bring healing, forgiveness and life. Pilate can kill, but only God can raise the dead.
Two parades: one threatening death; the other promising life. The question you need to keep asking yourself is this: in whose parade am I marching? Am I secretly cheering the might of the principalities and powers that maintain law and order at the expense of justice, truth and freedom? Am I frightened by what might happen in their absence? Or am I marching with the one who upends the hierarchy of domination? Am I marching with the friend of those deported, discriminated against and vilified-all in the name of national security? Or am I cheering for the oppressive machinery that protects my position of privilege? Am I a disciple of the fearless clown who exposes and mocks the impotence and empty promises of raw power? Or am I a willing subject of the governor who wields it? It seems to me the importance of these questions intensifies with each passing day.
Here’s a poem by Mary Oliver about where the imperial parade invariably leads.
Of The Empire
We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
many. We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
commodity. And they will say that this structure
was held together politically, which it was, and
they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.
Source: Red Bird, Oliver, Mary (c. 2008 by Mary Oliver, pub. Beacon Press) p. 46. Mary Oliver was born in 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio. She was deeply influenced by poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her work received early critical attention with the 1983 publication of a collection of poems entitled American Primitive. She is a recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award. You can read more about Mary Oliver and sample some of her other poems at the Poetry Foundation Website.
This reading is taken from the second section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6thCentury B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity, created for them by Persia’s conquest of Babylon, to return home to Palestine. 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.
Sunday’s reading is a passage from the third of Isaiah’s four “servant songs.” The other three are found at Isaiah 42:1–9, Isaiah 49:1-6 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12. According to biblical commentator Claus Westermann, these songs represent a special strand within section two of Isaiah. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. SCM Press, Ltd. 1969) p. 92. Scholars hold differing views on the identity of the “servant” in these songs. Some view the servant as an individual, perhaps the prophet him/herself. Others maintain that the servant is the people of Israel whose covenant life in the restored Jerusalem will enlighten the nations. Christians from very early on have seen reflected in these verses the ministry of Jesus. It seems to me that all of these interpretations are valid in some measure. Clearly, the prophet himself/herself understood that s/he was announcing an act of God that would be revelatory for all peoples. So too Israel always had an awareness that her existence was in part a demonstration of God’s glory to the world though, like the church, she tended to forget that aspect of her calling at times. The church likewise confessed from the outset that Jesus’ lordship was defined in terms of the hopes and expectations set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures. Just as the faithful service of the prophet was a model for Israel’s servant role among the nations, so the church is a continuation of Jesus’ faithful ministry. In sum, these differing interpretations enrich rather than contradict one another.
Though tidings of a new beginning might at first blush sound like good news, it is likely that many of the exiles did not hear it that way. Life in cosmopolitan Babylon may not have seemed much like captivity to the second generation of Jews who had purchased land, begun businesses or secured important posts in the Babylonian government. Giving up the security of a settled existence for a dangerous trip back to a ruined land must have seemed like madness to them. No doubt they resented and perhaps feared this prophet whose preaching enticed members of the community away from their homes and families to embark on such a misguided adventure. Not surprisingly, the prophet met with resistance that included violence (smiting, spitting and pulling out the beard). Vs. 6. The prophet is undismayed by this abuse, confident that his commission is from the God of Israel. Vss. 7-9.
Westermann notes that “[t]he special characteristic of the prophetic office is the very fact that the prophet wakens his ear ‘morning by morning,’ and must continually allow it to be opened by God, in order to have ‘an answer to give to the weary.’” Ibid. p. 229. Perhaps this is what John the evangelist had in mind when he quotes Jesus as saying: “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.” John 7:16. The incarnation, then, fuses the prophet and the Word as one. Not surprisingly, then, the rejection of that Word by a sinful world, as occurred most definitively in the passion narrative, takes the form of lethal violence.
Westermann believes these passages from Isaiah to be “truly revolutionary in their importance” because they express the servant’s acceptance of his/her persecution as an affliction intended by God as the fulfillment of his/her prophetic mission. Ibid. p. 231. Though the psalmists and the prophets, most notably Jeremiah, struggle with seemingly unmerited persecution which they hope to see redressed through retribution of some kind, the servant seeks not retribution but vindication. Israel’s final salvation, not her just punishment, will demonstrate that the servant’s suffering is not evidence of God’s rejection, but of the prophet’s faithfulness.
I agree with Westermann’s reading of this text, though I am not convinced that it is quite as revolutionary as he supposes. While the prophets could be caustic in their prayers for retribution against their enemies and unsparing in their proclamations of judgment, they never lost sight of their solidarity with Israel. Even the socially ostracized Jeremiah could weep bitterly over the fate of his people-however justly deserved it might be. Jeremiah 9:1. Isaiah recognizes that he is “a man of unclean lips, and dwells in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah 6:5. As withering as Amos’ judgments against Israel were, he prayed fervently that the people might be spared the worst of God’s wrath. Amos 7:1-6. In sum, the prophets always understood God’s judgment as an instrument of healing and salvation. Similarly, they must have understood at some level that their persecutions were part and parcel of their callings.
These observations tie naturally into the passion narrative that will occupy center stage this coming Sunday. The persecuted and rejected prophetic word, now become flesh, is vindicated and triumphs not through an act of counter-violence, but through God’s patient determination to keep on speaking the gracious invitation to forgiveness, reconciliation and peace in the face of that rejection. God’s power is God’s patience.
This is a psalm of lament, one of the most common types found in the Psalter. As noted in last week’s post, the essential elements of its type are:
- Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-2.
- Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 3-4
- Expression of confidence, vss. 5-6
- Witness of praise to the community, vss. 7-8.
See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. If some elements are missing in this week’s reading, it is because the lectionary has truncated the psalm, probably in the interest of fitting the readings onto the commercially prescribed bulletin inserts. Moreover, the psalms are prayers formed in the furnace of human experience. As such, they do not always fit neatly into the scholarly categories of literary forms floating about like Platonic prototypes in the scholastic ether. In any event, it is puzzling to me that the lectionary did not begin the reading early enough at least to incorporate verse 5, “Into thy hand I commit my spirit.” Psalm 31:5. That would have been a good tie in to the passion narrative, albeit John’s rather than Matthew’s.
Verses 9-13 are particularly striking. The psalmist complains that he is surrounded by enemies, people who whisper behind his back and seek his destruction. We might wonder about the mental health of someone who makes such complaints. Folks who imagine that the world is conspiring against them generally overrate their importance and exaggerate the hostility of those around them. I was recently asked by a traveling companion who noticed my Ezee Pass, “Doesn’t it bother you that the government knows where you are going and when?” I don’t remember what my precise response was, but the truth is I would be flattered to learn that the government or anyone else deemed my little life important enough to merit observation.
That being said, we all tend to be a little paranoid when we are feeling sick, weak and vulnerable. The aged and infirm naturally fear well-meaning relatives and friends who take it upon themselves to make important decisions for them without their input. When rumors of layoffs begin to make their way through the workplace it is natural to look for indications in the way people talk to you and act around you suggesting that you might be on the “to go” list. When something deeply hurtful, deeply personal and deeply embarrassing occurs in your life, it is not unusual to begin wondering whether the person you are speaking with knows all about it and what he or she might be thinking. Whether real or imagined, human malice is an experienced reality and one that the psalmist rightly lays before the Lord.
In addition to the affronts of his enemies, the psalmist is clearly disappointed in the friends s/he feels have deserted him or her. Vs. 12. Again, this desertion may or may not actually be real or malicious. When we are hurting, human companionship alone seldom fulfils all of our needs. We are all aware that there are some people who feel neglected and slighted no matter how often you visit or call. As important as friendship is and as valuable as it can be in difficult times, it is no substitute for faith in God’s promises. Perhaps it is because we lean too heavily on our human relationships, looking to them for the healing only God can offer, that they fail us. Marriages, friendships and family simply collapse under the weight of our unrealistic expectations. Again, the psalmist quite properly turns his or her hope toward God, the one companion whose promises never fail. When that adjustment is made, a return to healthy human companionship is again possible.
There is near scholarly consensus that Paul is citing in this passage an ancient Christian hymn of Palestinian origins possibly alluding to the “servant” figure form Second Isaiah discussed under the heading of our first lesson. It fits perfectly Paul’s articulation of his theology of the cross in I Corinthians 1:18-4:20 and his discussion of the church as the Body of Christ in I Corinthians 12:1-14:40. As the “Body of Christ,” the church must have the “mind of Christ.” Vs. 5. So far from aspiring to godhood (the sin of Adam and Eve), Jesus willingly took the form of a servant, living joyfully, trustingly and obediently within the limits of his humanity. Vss. 6-9. The Greek word for “servant” (doulos) is literally translated “slave.” It is the word Jesus used when he told his disciples that the greatest among them must be the servant/slave of all. Mark 10:44.
In a sinful world, a life so lived draws hostility and hatred. Jesus’ death on the cross was therefore the expected outcome of his obedient life. It is in precisely this sense that Jesus’ death was necessary. To put it in the most cynical way, “that’s what happens to nice guys.” But such cynicism is silenced by God’s resurrection of Jesus from death. Vs. 9. The upside down kingdom for which Jesus lived and died is real. The powers that put him to death are transitory and doomed to pass away. It is to Jesus, not to Caesar or any other nation or flag that all the universe will one day kneel. Vss 10-11. Disciples are called to live in the certain knowledge of that reality now.
There is far more material in Matthew’s passion narrative than I can hope to consider in this post. Furthermore, I am not sure scrutinizing the text is at all helpful here. I do not believe I have ever attempted to preach on the passion itself. After hearing it read, silence seems to be the only natural and appropriate response. Instead of reading commentaries, I believe the best preparation for the Sunday of the Passion is to set aside a few hours and listen to J.S. Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion. That said, a few things about Matthew’s passion narrative are noteworthy. Of particular interest are those episodes unique to Matthew’s version of Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion.
Matthew alone tells us that Judas, after realizing that his betrayal of Jesus will end in Jesus’ crucifixion, regrets his treachery. Matthew alone tells us that Judas returned his ill-gotten silver and subsequently committed suicide. Matthew 27:3-10. Mark and John tell us nothing of Judas after his act of betrayal. Luke refers to Judas’ death only in an obscure passage from Acts. Acts 1:18-19. Wherever Matthew obtained this information, it fits nicely into the “fulfillment of prophesy” theme running through his gospel. Matthew has referred to Judas on several occasions as a “paradidous” or “one who hands over” or “betrayer” according to the RSV. See Matthew 10:4; Matthew 26:25; Matthew 26:46 and Matthew 26:48. Now Judas takes that name upon his own lips and so labels himself. “I have sinned in ‘betraying’ innocent blood.” Matthew 27:4.
The chief priests initially refuse to accept the money but obviously cannot return it to Judas once he is dead. Because the funds constitute “blood money,” they are unfit for the temple’s general treasury. Scholars debate the scriptural origin of this supposed prohibition. Some believe it to have been a rabbinic interpretation of Deuteronomy 23:18 forbidding payment of a vow by any Israelite from the wages of a prostitute. This seems a stretch to me. Judas was not seeking to pay any religious obligation when he returned the thirty pieces of silver, nor were the priests who received it. Moreover, the wages of a prostitute do not involve the shedding of blood. Finally, there is no actual rabbinic interpretation of this text that comes close to a specific prohibition against the receipt of blood monies. Others have focused on I Chronicles 22:8-9 in which the Lord forbids David from constructing the temple in Jerusalem because he has “shed much blood and…waged great wars.” While a rabbinic gloss on this text extending the prohibition against David’s construction of the temple to the deposit of blood money into the treasury is logical, it likewise lacks support in any known rabbinic literature.
Whatever may be the case with respect to laws governing deposits into the temple treasury, Matthew employs this episode to demonstrate once again that what happens to Jesus fulfills the scriptures. His citation to Jeremiah appears to be a conflation of three texts: Zechariah 11:12-13; Jeremiah 18:1-3; Jeremiah 32:6-13. Perhaps the more significant of these is the third. Jeremiah relates how God instructed him to purchase a field from his uncle at the height of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army. This was obviously a foolish short term investment, given that all the land would soon be under the control of Babylon and the people deported. But the prophet is not thinking short term. He looks to the day when the land will again be re-inhabited by his people and at peace. This seemingly senseless business transaction reflects the prophet’s faith in God’s promise to bring Israel back from exile and restore to her the land of promise. In reverse literary symmetry, the chief priests conduct what seems to them an imminently practical transaction that turns out to be the prophetic fulfillment of Jesus’ messianic destiny.
The other episode unique to Matthew’s passion narrative occurs in Matthew 27:51-52. Immediately following Jesus’ death on the cross, the curtain of the temple is torn in two from top to bottom. Vs. 51. In this much, Matthew is consistent with Mark (Mark 15:38) and Luke (Luke 23:45). But Matthew goes on to describe a great earthquake that opened up the tombs housing many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep, but were raised and entered Jerusalem following Jesus’ resurrection. Matthew 27:51-53. Eduard Schweizer believes that a textual corruption or inept editing is responsible for the testimony that the resurrected saints were not seen in Jerusalem until after Jesus’ resurrection. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975, John Knox Press) p. 516. He maintains that the narrative makes sense only if we understand the appearance of the saints to have taken place on the day of Jesus’ death.
I will admit that the text as it stands makes for an awkward sequence of events in the passion story. Moreover, if the appearance of the saints did take place after Jesus’ resurrection, it would fit more naturally into the resurrection account in Matthew 28. Still and all, I am not thoroughly convinced. Jewish belief in the resurrection (among those who did so believe) understood that resurrection to be a general one. All the dead would be raised and judged together. See Daniel 12:1-3. There was no understanding, so far as I know, of individuals being resurrected (as opposed to simply being raised like Lazarus in last week’s gospel). Consequently, Jesus’ resurrection could only be understood in Jewish thought as the first fruits of the general resurrection. That is clearly how Saint Paul understands the resurrection. (See I Corinthians 15). The appearance of the departed saints (“righteous ones” or “Zadiq” in Hebrew) at the time of Jesus’ rising therefore substantiates Jesus’ resurrection as the resurrection.
If you are hell bent on preaching the passion, these are two sections you might consider focusing on. Still, my advice remains: Don’t do it. The passion preaches itself. Let the story be told. Let the mysteries, the imponderables and the questions hang in the air. The Son of God has uttered his last words. What can we possibly add?
SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God of compassion, you invite us into your way of forgiveness and peace. Lead us to love our enemies, and transform our words and deeds to be like his through whom we pray, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Matthew 5:44.
I once did that very thing in my first congregation. It was in 1986 immediately following the United States’ bombing of Libya. I prayed for our nation and God’s guidance for its leaders; I prayed for the military personnel involved in the operation; then I prayed for Libyan soldiers and citizens killed or injured in the raid. It was, as you might expect, the last petition that drew the ire of certain members of my then congregation. They felt I was being disloyal to my country and disrespectful of American soldiers, particularly veterans. They expressed the view that it was my patriotic duty to support my country’s military, not undermine it (though I expressed no view pro or con with respect to the propriety of the bombing mission itself). “But what about Jesus’ command to pray for our enemies,” I asked. “Pray for them in the privacy of your own room if you must,” snapped one particularly agitated member. “But don’t betray my country in this church!” I was stunned at the time and totally unprepared for the hostile response I got to this prayer that seemed entirely in line with what Jesus commands.
Since that time, however, I have come to understand a basic truth about American Christianity-and the so-called “white evangelical” varieties in particular: Much of American Christianity is to a large extent liturgical window dressing for the religion of American nationalism. How else can you explain rejecting a very specific command of Jesus so as not to offend patriotic sensibilities? It seems as though a lot of what passes for Christianity these days is long on nationalism and short (short to the point of non-existent) on Jesus.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out, love for enemies is not optional for disciples of Jesus. Love for the enemy is, in fact, the only expression of love guaranteed to be genuine. Such love, Bonhoeffer tells us, is the very definition of love. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, The Cost of Discipleship, (c. 1959 SCM Press Ltd) p. 162.
“Christian love draws no distinction between one enemy and another, except that the more bitter our enemy’s hatred, the greater his need of love. Be his enmity political or religious, he has nothing to expect from a follower of Jesus but unqualified love. In such love there is no inner discord between private person and official capacity. In both we are disciples of Christ or we are not Christians at all. Am I asked how this love is to behave? Jesus gives the answer; bless, do good, and pray for your enemies without reserve and without respect of persons.” Ibid. p. 165.
It is important to delineate exactly what this love is as well as what it is not. Love is not uncritical devotion. It is not slavish submission to abuse. It is not “going along to get along.” Precisely because disciples of Jesus understand that they are objects of God’s undeserved love, because they understand that the enemy is no less precious in God’s sight, because they believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to regenerate every human life, disciples must confront their enemies with the truth about God and the truth about themselves. Love speaks truth to power; judgment to sin; and resistance to abuse. But the object of such truthful speech is never to overpower, defeat or shame the enemy. That would only deepen the canyon of animosity between us. Repentance, reconciliation and faith are the only legitimate objectives for speaking the hard words of reproof. The enemy (as far as we can ever know) is an indispensable piece of God’s new creation. Our efforts to build the kingdom of heaven without him are doomed to failure. We therefore have a direct stake in reconciliation to the enemy.
Finally, let us not be sentimental about love for our enemies or naïve about what it entails. My church’s ministry to and advocacy for refugees in the current climate of paranoia has met repeatedly with the objection, “but if we let these people in, some of them might be dangerous.” As anyone who follows me knows, I think the facts have demonstrated that the xenophobia generated by the present U.S. administration is factually vacuous. Nonetheless, even if the danger were real, so what? Jesus both preached and lived by example a love that embraces the enemy who nails you to the cross. He is not at all shy about telling his disciples they should gladly embrace the same. If your excuse for turning away refugees at your border is national security, well and good, but do not flatter yourself with the delusion that you are a disciple of Jesus. You are, at best, a distant admirer.
Here’s a poem about enemies by Wendell Berry
If you are not to become a monster,
you must care what they think.
If you care what they think,
how will you not hate them,
and so become a monster
of the opposite kind? From where then
is love to come—love for your enemy
that is the way of liberty?
From forgiveness. Forgiven, they go
free of you, and you of them;
they are to you as sunlight
on a green branch. You must not
think of them again, except
as monsters like yourself,
pitiable because unforgiving.
Source: Indivisible: Poems for Social Justice (c. 2013 by Wendell Berry, pub. by Norwood House Press). Wendell Berry is a poet, novelist, farmer and environmental activist. You can read more about him and his many works at the Poetry Foundation website.
Leviticus is probably the least popular book of the Bible for us Christian folk. For the millions of people who have tried unsuccessfully to read the Bible cover to cover, the Book of Leviticus is likely the point at which most of them threw in the towel. Like the second half of Exodus and the first ten chapters of Numbers, Leviticus consists of instructions for sacrificial worship, ritual cleansing from contact with unclean animals, lepers, menstruating women and corpses. It spells out in excruciating detail the animals which may and may not be eaten and sets forth numerous ethical injunctions. Many of these laws appear altogether senseless to modern readers. Why is eating lobster an abomination? What is immoral about wearing two different kinds of fabric? What could be objectionable in ordering a hamburger with a milkshake?
Some literary/historical background is warranted here: Modern Hebrew scriptural scholars are in general agreement that the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) constitute a compilation of four originally independent written sources. These sources were brought together over a five century period of time (950 to 500 B.C.E.) into what we now know as the “Pentateuch,” which translated means “Five Books.” The sources are known as the Jahwist source or simply “J,” the Elohist source or “E”, the Deuteronomist source or “D” and the Priestly source known as “P.” For a very thorough discussion of this theory of interpretation, see the online article Documentary Hypothesis. For our purposes, it will suffice to note that virtually all of the book of Leviticus comes to us from the P source, the latest contributor(s) to the Pentateuch and likely its final editor(s).
It is helpful also to know that P was compiled during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile beginning at 587 B.C.E. Though much of the material this source contains is very ancient, it was edited and arranged in such a way as to speak to the then present needs of the exiled Jews living in a foreign land. As a minority community, the exiles were naturally under pressure to conform and even meld into the pagan culture of Babylon. The books of Daniel and Esther reflect the difficulties faced by Jews attempting to make their living under foreign domination while remaining faithful to their God and their unique identity.
This week’s reading is part of the “Holiness Code” (Leviticus 17-26) which most scholars regard as a distinct unit consisting of an earlier text edited and imbedded within P. Many of its laws are expressed in brief, closely packed clusters. Its style and vocabulary distinguishes the code from the main body of Leviticus. The Priestly source’s frequent reminder that “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” must be understood in the exile context. V. 2. The term “holy” does not mean “morally pure” as we have become accustomed to understand that term. To be “holy” in the biblical sense is to “be set aside for a special purpose.” Consequently, the unique worship practices and ritual behaviors that were part of Israel’s daily life in Palestine took on a new urgency in the land of exile. These practices defined Israel over against the dominant culture and preserved her identity.
In the larger canonical narrative, the P source spells out the shape faithfulness must take for Israel in the land of Canaan to which Moses is leading her. Israel is not to become another imperial Egypt, oppressing her poor and enslaving the sojourners in her land. The people are instructed not to “reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after the harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the sojourner.” Vss. 9-10. The lectionary people have excluded vss. 3-8 which, in addition to reiterating the commandment to honor parents, gives explicit instructions on how to consume meat offered as a peace offering. This omission is unfortunate as these verses illustrate that Israel did not make distinctions between ethical and ritual requirements. Worship, economics, politics and social intercourse were intended to be all of one piece in Israel. As the prophets frequently point out, worship divorced from the imperative to love the neighbor is an abomination in God’s sight. See, e.g., Amos 5:21-24.
Though it does not make for exciting reading, I believe that the Priestly author(s) contribution to the Hebrew Scriptures has a peculiar relevance for the church today. But we should not be focusing on the particular demands of these rules and statutes, the rationale and meaning of which is lost to us in many instances. Instead, we should look to their function and how they created opportunities for the faith community in exile to define itself against the dominant culture and remind itself of its own unique identity. In my own Lutheran protestant tradition there is very little that distinguishes our daily lives from those of our neighbors. In a supposedly “Christian culture,” you would not expect any such difference. And given that our particular tradition was born into the heart of Christendom and grew out of the state church tradition, it is not surprising that most of us are OK with that. In a Christian nation, why would one expect there to be any difference between faithful discipleship and good citizenship? How could the two ever conflict?
Whether or not you agree with me that the notion of “Christendom” was misbegotten from the get go, you can hardly deny that the society that was Christendom is now all but dead. The towering church buildings still dominating the Americana landscape testify more to a bygone era of socio-political influence than to any present significance. Gone are the days when everyone (or a substantial majority) assumed that church going was an essential part of life. The upcoming generation needs to be convinced that worship in general and Christ in particular merit even a cursory look. You can be a decent person and a good citizen these days without belonging to any faith community. So why belong?
I must confess that when I drive through a Jewish neighborhood on a Friday night and witness families walking together to synagogue, I feel a bit envious. Here is a community whose life is shaped by the biblical narrative. This peculiar people will not be conformed to our cultural norms. Their Sabbath will not be invaded by soccer leagues, karate lessons and after school programs. This is clearly a “holy” people, a people dedicated to its God. Their faith is not just another piece of a well-rounded American life on a par with school, sports and patriotism. Their faith is their life and everything else must find its place in subjection to that faith. I could wish that disciples of Jesus were as diligent in observance of the Lord’s Day; that prayer, fasting and almsgiving were as deeply imbedded in our lives as Sabbath observance is for my Jewish neighbors. I believe that the church needs very much to hear the Priestly writers’ call “to be holy.”
For my observations on Psalm 119 generally, see my post for February 12th. Just as last week’s reading consisting of the first section of this psalm began with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “aleph,” so each line of these eight verses making up the fifth section of the psalm begin with the fifth Hebrew letter, “He.”
This particular section of the psalm reminds us that God’s Torah is not something that can be learned by rote, such as the atomic chart or an algebraic equation. Torah must be “taught” by God. It goes hand in hand with prayer, study and ever faithful efforts to live into it. Just as Torah shapes the faithful believer’s life and conduct, so the believer’s life experience deepens his/her understanding of the Torah. So the psalmist implores God, “Give me understanding, that I may keep thy law and observe it with my whole heart.” Vs. 34. Torah obedience does not come naturally. Thus, the psalmist prays that God will “incline my heart to thy testimonies…” vs. 36. For the psalmist, Torah is not a collection of rules and statutes. Its provisions are the handles that prayer grasps in engaging God. Thus, the psalmist “long[s] for thy precepts…” for they lead to a vision of God’s righteousness that gives the psalmist life.” Vs. 40. Again, the Torah is not an end in itself. It points the faithful to the heart of Israel’s God where true righteousness and wisdom are found.
Paul has been contrasting the “mind of Christ” that binds the church together as one Body to the divisiveness of the Corinthian congregation that threatens to tear it apart. Now Paul uses the image of a building to emphasize how the apostolic ministry, and his own ministry in particular, is for the purpose of building up. The church is God’s building. Though Paul’s evangelization laid the foundation and the work of Cephas and Apollos built upon that foundation, the foundation itself is Christ Jesus.
Once again, I marvel at the gall of the “lexicutioners” whose exegetical meat cleavers exercise no restraint. Verses 12-15 are critical to understanding Paul’s argument. For having pointed out how the apostles have each worked in concert to erect the building which is God’s church, Paul notes that the project is still under construction. The Corinthian disciples are also called to the task of this ministry of building up the church. Clearly, their divisiveness illustrates that they are failing in this important calling. Hence, Paul warns the members of the Corinthian congregation to exercise care in their building ministry. For their work will be tested on the last day when the church is delivered to Christ. What does not build up the church will be destroyed. Yet it is significant that Paul adds that the builder himself will be saved. The wrath of God is directed not against the negligent builder, but at his shoddy work.
That being said, it is easier to understand Paul’s warning that “you are God’s Temple.” Vs. 16. Creating divisions within the church amounts to destroying God’s temple. As the church is the means through which Christ’s salvation is present, destroying the church is self-destruction as well. Vs. 17. You can see where Paul is going with all of this. How absurd it is for the building so carefully constructed by the work of the apostles to assert its loyalty to these same apostles as a pretext for its own self demolition! If the members of the Corinthian church truly wish to honor the apostles, they should build upon the foundation the apostles have laid rather than destabilize it.
The dictum “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” is cited at Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; and Deuteronomy 19:21. Though some commentators on this text argue that this principle was intended to limit retaliation to a proportionate punishment, there is nothing to support this view in the context of Hebrew Scripture. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 256. The concern was that the guilty party bear the consequence of sin such that justice is maintained within the community. See, e.g., Leviticus 24:13-23 (discussion of punishment/compensation commensurate with injury in the context of punishment for blasphemy). Such texts are addressed to the community and its leadership structures, not to the victim or the victim’s family. Nevertheless, over the course of time they came to be used in support of personal claims for compensation. In 1st Century Palestine monetary damages had largely replaced retributive vengeance, though some rabbinical authorities questioned the propriety of this. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 John Knox Press) p. 129.
Jesus renders these disputes moot, however, in forbidding retaliation of any sort. Lest there be any doubt about the absolute nature of this command, Jesus goes on to say that “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him your left.” Vs. 39. In his fine book, Walter Wink argues that a blow to the right cheek would come as a back handed slap. Turning the left cheek would make another blow awkward and perhaps ineffective for a right handed opponent. Thus, Jesus is not really speaking of non-resistance to evil, but rather of non-violent resistance. Wink, Walter, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium, (c. 1988 Augsburg Fortress) p. 101-102. As much as I respect Professor Wink, I think he is trying too hard to read Gandhi into the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus does not see non-violence as a strategy to achieve a larger goal or to “make a statement.” He is simply calling upon his disciples to respond to hatred and violence the way he will soon confront it himself-by loving his enemies and leaving defense of his life and retributive justice in the hands of his heavenly Father. I also do not place much significance on the fact that a blow to the face with one’s fist (if that is all Jesus is talking about) is less serious than the permanent damage contemplated by the Hebrew Scriptural sayings. In the first place, Jesus doesn’t tell us that he is referring merely to a slap in the face with the back hand. Moreover, I have visited enough ERs to know that a blow to the face with one’s fist can do some serious damage to eyes and teeth. Jesus would have us know that refusing to resist evil can result in our getting pretty banged up, perhaps even nailed to a cross. But whether it is effective, ineffective or counter-productive, non-violence is always the way of Jesus and his disciples. Violence is never an arrow in their quiver. Indeed, Jesus’ teachings about lawsuits, forced conscription and response to beggars demonstrate that coercive force of all kinds is off limits. This is not to say that non-violence is incapable of bringing about substantial social and political changes for the better. The lives of people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King demonstrate that it sometimes does. Nevertheless, disciples of Jesus do not practice peace for the sake of beneficial change. They practice peace because that is the way of Jesus, period.
In verse 43 Matthew cites Leviticus 19:18 which states in part, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” While the verse does not sanction hatred against enemies, it is clear that the term “neighbor” applies to “the sons of your own people” which would exclude gentiles as well as these “cut off” from among the people of Israel. Jesus clearly means to extend the command to love one’s neighbor to the enemy. To be clear, the enemy is not simply an unpleasant relative or a bothersome neighbor. The enemy is the one who violently attacks you and takes your property. To be sure, there were plenty of figures in antiquity who urged kindness toward enemies as a stratagem for neutralizing their malevolent intent. But Jesus does not command his disciples to love their enemies for any strategic reason. They are to love because they are, like their Master, children of their heavenly Father who loves all people, good and bad, wildly, freely and indiscriminately. This intense love that cannot be blunted by hatred and rejection is the perfection of God that soon will be manifest in the destiny of Jesus. Perfect love exercised in an imperfect world takes the shape of the cross. It winds up dead, but it doesn’t stay that way.
In sum, The Sermon on the Mount makes no rational sense apart from Jesus Christ. It does not fit into any ethical system; it does not support any coherent platform for social change; it does not fit within the confines of any ideological framework. Without Jesus, the Sermon is nothing more than a smorgasbord of disjointed sayings from which one may pick and choose, providing whatever context will give it the desired meaning. Interpreted through the “weakness” and “foolishness” of the cross, however, it illuminates the new life to which Jesus invites us. See I Corinthians 1:20-25.
Perhaps John Howard Yoder says it best of all: “This conception of participation in the character of God’s struggle with a rebellious world, which early Quakerism referred to as ‘the war of the lamb,’ has the peculiar disadvantage-or advantage, depending upon one’s point of view-of being meaningful only if Christ be he who Christians claim him to be, the Master. Almost every other kind of ethical approach espoused by Christians, pacifist or otherwise, will continue to make sense to the non-Christian as well. Whether Jesus be the Christ or not, whether Jesus Christ be Lord or not, whether this kind of religious language be meaningful or not, most types of ethical approach will keep on functioning just the same. For their true foundation is in some reading of the human situation or some ethical insight which is claimed to be generally accessible to men of good will. The same is not true for this vision of “completing in our bodies that which was lacking in the suffering of Christ.” If Jesus was not who historic Christianity confesses he was, the revelation in man of the character of God himself, then this one argument for pacifism collapses. Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus (c. 1994, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 244.
THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Lord God, your lovingkindness always goes before us and follows after us. Summon us into your light, and direct our steps in the ways of goodness that come through the cross of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The lessons for this Sunday all employ the metaphor of “light” against darkness in some way. Isaiah announces the light of God’s new day coming first to those sitting in the darkest of circumstances. Matthew the Evangelist employs this same passage to announce the opening of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. The psalmist addresses the Lord as “my light and my salvation.” This psalmist knows whereof s/he speaks. S/he is confronted by enemies who would inflict violence. S/he seeks refuge and safety from God because s/he feels threatened, vulnerable and at risk. I know that, since November 8, 2016, people of color, undocumented persons, young women working in male dominated professional environments, gay, lesbian and transgendered people are all feeling a lot less safe and a great deal more vulnerable than they were the Monday before.
I am writing these lines on January 16th, our national holiday honoring the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. whose life was dedicated and ultimately sacrificed in the struggle of African Americans and all people of color to win the justice, equality and protection from discrimination that ought to be every American’s birthright. This same week we will inaugurate as president of the United States a man who only last week spoke contemptuously of Representative John Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights movement that cost King his life. Lewis himself was severely beaten by Alabama State troopers as he marched, along with several other persons, on the way to a peaceful demonstration in Montgomery. Yet the president elect referred to Mr. Lewis as a man of “all talk” and no action. This is the same man whose housing facilities faced three lawsuits under the federal fair housing act for discriminatory conduct against African Americans. This is the same man who told us during his campaign that he did not believe an American born judge of Mexican ancestry is capable of presiding fairly over the case of a white man like him (though he has never questioned the competence of white judges who regularly preside over cases involving people of color). This is the man who famously bragged about groping women-then threatened with the power of the presidency those who identified themselves as his victims. Spin these facts however you will, they remain facts-and troubling facts at that.
I know that I am entering into dangerous territory here. Lutherans like me have always maintained that people of good will can disagree sharply over political philosophy, public policy and the merits of legislation governing our common life as a nation. The balance between state and federal power, the role of the judiciary, the scope of American foreign policy, the proper role of the military, the degree of government regulation of our economy-all of these issues have been debated from the founding of the republic. Where one stands on any of these questions is not a measure of one’s faith. I understand that many Christian people who voted for Mr. Trump deplore his racist and misogynist statements and opinions. They voted for him because they agree with his proposals for dealing with the pressing problems our country is facing or because they find him less offensive than his rival. I get that. But my question to all of my Christian friends who voted for Donald Trump is this: now that you have elected him to implement the measures you support, are you ready to stand against his bigotry and hateful speech? Are you ready to stand with the people he has ridiculed, insulted and marginalized?
Discipleship is radical obedience to Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims. The kingdom of heaven is not an abstract notion or the promise of a better existence in the distant future. It occupies space in the here and now. Its sharp contours spelled out in Jesus’ life and teaching rub up against the regimes of principalities and powers that claim sovereignty over our lives. If the failure of Lutheranism under the Third Reich and the failure of the white protestant church during the civil rights movement teach us anything, it is that there are moments in history when the church cannot faithfully remain politically neutral. The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. from 1963 are as timely and relevant for the American Church today as they were when he wrote them during his imprisonment in Birmingham, Alabama:
“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Counselor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice, who prefers negative peace which is the absence of tension to justice; who consistently says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but cannot agree with your methods of direct action,’ who paternalistically believes that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who advises the Negro to ‘wait for a more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 1963 (c. Estate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.).
It is up to voters, the legislature and the judiciary to determine what sort of nation the United States will be in the coming decades. For the church, there is no decision to be made. “Where I am,” says Jesus, “there my servant will be also.” Jesus, we know, stands with the outcast, the judged, the oppressed and the neglected. We stand there with Jesus or side with his enemies. There is no middle ground. I hope and pray that we will not again fail Jesus and our neighbors in the facing of this hour. I hope that we will find the courage to speak up for those whose voices are being suppressed. I hope that those of us who know only the world of white, male privilege can yet learn to sing the laments of our oppressed neighbors and, more importantly, stand with them against the darkness of systemic injustice.
Here’s a poem by Maya Angelou about the song I believe God would teach the church to sing.
A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
Source: The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou ( c. 1995 by Virago Press). Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was a multi-talented American poet, author, singer, dancer and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. She is perhaps best known for her well known autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969. The book earned her the National Book Award. Angelou was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton in 2000 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2010. You can read more about Maya Angelou and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
This reading comes to us from the prophet Isaiah who lived and prophesied to Judah and Jerusalem at the end of the 8th Century B.C.E. During this period the Northern Kingdom of Israel was annexed by the powerful Assyrian Empire bringing Assyrian tyranny to Judah’s very doorstep. The Kingdom of Judah, ruled by descendants of David, lived uneasily in the shadow of this super power as a tributary. Crushing tribute and political oppression tempted Judah on a number of occasions to rebel against Assyria in league with other local tributaries. The prophet warned Judah’s rulers against such reckless policies and counseled them instead to wait for Israel’s God to lift the yolk of oppression.
Today’s text will no doubt sound familiar as we routinely encounter it in Advent. If you were to read down to verse 6 you would hear the line so dear to us and to George Frederick Handel: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given…” This Sunday, however, the emphasis is on the opening prose in verse 1. To understand it properly, we need to go back to Isaiah 7-8. Isaiah has failed in his efforts to dissuade Judah’s King Ahaz from allying himself to Assyria in order to gain protection from local enemies. Ahaz will not be still and place his faith in the Lord. He is bound and determined to place his trust in Assyria-which will lead to hardships much worse. In despair, Isaiah calls his disciples to witness his written testimonial to God’s coming judgment upon the nation. As for the decision of King Ahaz, the prophet declares: “Surely for this word which they speak there is no dawn.” Isaiah 8:20. “They will pass through the land greatly distressed and hungry; and when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will curse their king and their God, and turn their faces upward; and they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be thrust into thick darkness.” Isaiah 8:21-22.
Now our lesson for Sunday begins with a very different word, a message of hope so far at variance with the preceding verses that many scholars consider this to be an utterance much later in the career of the prophet or perhaps the word of another prophet altogether. Mauchline, John, Isaiah 1-39, Torch Bible Commentaries (c. SCM Press Ltd. 1962) p. 111. However that might be, the canonical arrangement of the oracles conveys a message entirely consistent with Isaiah’s call for Ahaz to place his trust solely in God’s promises. The people who have lived in the darkness of judgment will indeed see light again. The yolk of their oppression will be broken, the burdens removed from their shoulders and prosperity returned to their land. But this will not be the fruit of military maneuvers or foreign alliances. “The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will do this.” Isaiah 9:7.
Zebulun and Naphtali were two of the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel located in Galilee. The “way of the sea” refers to the highway from Damascus to the sea. It was likely the route for the Assyrian invasion of the Northern Kingdom in 733 B.C.E. The peoples of this territory who first experienced the brunt of Assyrian aggression will also be first to witness the liberation of all Israel from Assyria. The prophet foresees the day when the people of the divided Kingdoms of Israel and Judah along with their territories will be reunited under a messianic king. The yolk of Assyria will be thrown off. “The day of Midian” refers to the victory of Gideon over the Midianites recounted in Judges 6-7. The tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali were significantly involved in this battle. Judges 6:35.
In order to understand this reading, it is important that we be aware of the prior words of judgment against Judah. Yet it is more important still to recognize that judgment is not the last word. In spite of Ahaz’ faithless refusal to trust in God’s promises and his resort to a shortsighted and disastrous policy for his people, God will nevertheless bring to fruition the peace and prosperity promised to Israel. God’s people cannot make a bigger mess of things than God is capable of cleaning up. That’s gospel.
The scholarly consensus seems to be that this psalm actually consists of two psalms, the first being a prayer of trust not unlike Psalm 23 including verses 1-6. The second is a lament consisting of verses 7-14. However that might be, I still believe the psalm fits together nicely as a unit. It is precisely because the psalmist has such great confidence in God’s willingness and power to give protection that s/he feels free to cry out for that very protection in times of danger. Though, as previously noted, the commentators characterize verses 7-14 as a lament, it concludes with an affirmation of confidence in God’s anticipated salvation and an admonition to “be strong, and let your heart take courage; yea, wait for the Lord.” Vs. 14. As usual, I am at a loss to understand the surgery performed on the psalm by the lectionary. Accordingly, I will deal with Psalm 27 in its entirety.
This psalm is focused on dangers posed by enemies. By enemies the psalmist does not mean people who are merely disagreeable or less than friendly. These are people who “breathe out violence.” Vs. 4. I suspect that most of you out there, like me, probably don’t have enemies like that. So what place does a psalm like this have in our lectionary? I suggest that one reason for praying these psalms is so that we can hear and join in the prayers of the whole Body of Christ which, of course, extends beyond our own congregation. The Coptic Christians in Egypt whose churches have been burned and looted know well enough what it is like to have enemies. So do the Christians of Iraq, two thirds of whom have fled their homeland fearing terrorist violence. The churches in Syria have been targeted for violence by both sides of the bloody civil war there. For millions of Christians around the world, the danger posed by enemies is real and often life threatening.
In a recent article published in the Christian Century Martin Tel, director of music at Princeton Theological Seminary, makes a strong case for congregational singing of the entire Psalter-the good, the bad and the ugly: “All the things of which the Psalter speaks, which individuals can never fully comprehend and call their own, live only in the whole Christ. That is why the prayer of the Psalms belongs in the community in a special way. Even if a verse or a psalm is not my own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the community; and it is quite certainly the prayer of the truly human Jesus Christ and his body on earth.” Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer cited in “Necessary Songs, The Christian Century, January 8, 2014 at p. 23. Our prayers are too often limited by the scope of our own experiences and frequently directed toward our own personal concerns and the concerns of those around us. The Psalter forces us to enter into the experiences and join the prayers of believers throughout the Body of Christ.
The last verse of the psalm is very telling. The psalmist encourages his hearers to “wait for the Lord.” The odd thing about the psalms is that, although they are prayers addressed to God, they often contain admonitions from God in the psalmists’ mouths. Sometimes the psalmists seem to be conscious of an audience listening in on their prayers. God hardly needs to be reminded to “wait on the Lord.” It is important to understand that biblical prayer is a dialogical process. The psalmists’ outpouring of prayer to God is only one side. God responds to the psalmists. Sometimes these responses are oracles delivered by a prophet or priest that have become imbedded in the psalm. See, e.g., Psalm 60:6-12. Often these prayers are sung as praises by the psalmist in corporate worship where they give encouragement to the assembly. See Psalm 27:6. For Israel, prayer was never an entirely personal matter. The confidence of this psalmist is drawn as much from God’s faithfulness to Israel throughout history as from his or her own experience. So also, the psalmists’ personal struggles become a public arena for God to demonstrate his compassion and salvation to Israel.
We began last week a journey into Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that will take us through Epiphany. Sunday’s reading reveals that this is a church divided by several warring factions, each fiercely loyal to its chosen church leaders. Some are fans of Peter. Others favor Apollos and some are partisans of Paul. Some scholars maintain that these divisions reflect strife among the apostles of the early church. That might be so, but I think it more likely that these factions were citing their favorite Apostles much the same way partisans fire proof texts at each other from the Bible to further their own agendas. The teachings of the various Apostles are used as ammunition in the same way biblical texts are so often wretched out of context and made to support some unrelated ideology. In any event, Paul refuses to arbitrate these disputes. He offers not a straw even to his own supporters in the congregation. Instead, he points all of them to Christ Jesus. At the end of the day, we are not disciples of Paul or Peter or Luther or any other human figure. We are all fellow disciples of Jesus. One Body animated by the same Spirit-whether we like it or not.
“Cephas,” as we learned in last Sunday’s gospel lesson, is the Greek translation of “Peter.” Apollos was a Jewish disciple from Alexandria. His understanding of the good news about Jesus was evidently deficient in some respect. The Book of Acts tells us only that he “knew only the baptism of John.” Acts 18:25. In Ephesus he met Paul’s associates, Priscilla and Aquila who took him under their wing and instructed him further. Acts 18:24-28.
We will need to wait until next week to find out more about the “folly” and “weakness” of the cross Paul mentions at the end of the reading. Stay tuned!
As we have seen, Matthew is keen to interpret the life and ministry of Jesus through the lens of the Hebrew Scriptures. Here he quotes our reading from Isaiah in which the prophet foretells the dawn of salvation under the messianic king beginning in Galilee. Not surprisingly, this is where Jesus’ ministry begins with the calling of his first disciples followed by a tour of preaching, healing and casting out demons. The long awaited day has dawned at last! No doubt Matthew’s Jewish audience was well aware that the verses cited by Matthew are a lead in for Isaiah’s announcement of the messianic king. Isaiah 9:6-7.
Jesus’ message is, on the surface, exactly the same as John’s: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Vs. 17 cf. Matthew 3:2. Yet unlike John whose baptism was anticipatory, Jesus’ ministry is accompanied by the healing power of God. What John foretold has now arrived. We can see in Jesus’ healing work echoes of Isaiah 35:5-6. Matthew means for us to understand that the advent of Jesus marks the beginning of a new era just as John marks the end of the old. He will elaborate further on this in Matthew 11:1-19.
The call of the disciples is related in a manner so brief that one could almost read over it. That would be a mistake. It is of profound significance that Jesus begins his ministry with the call of his first followers. Already the church is on the scene in embryotic form and its existence is presumed throughout the gospel narrative. It is important to keep that fact in mind, particularly as we enter into the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. They make no sense whatsoever unless we understand from the get go that they are intended to govern the living community of disciples who follow Jesus. They are not general ethical principles applicable to any individual or community. The Sermon is to be the shape of this newly birthed community which, in turn, is the shape of the kingdom of heaven drawing nigh.
The brevity of this account has always intrigued me. There is no indication that Jesus has ever met these four disciples before. Yet when he calls, they follow him without hesitation leaving all behind. I have heard more than a few preachers suggest that the four fishermen must have known Jesus beforehand, heard his preaching and been impressed with his message. That is why they jumped at the chance to follow him. But that isn’t how Matthew tells the story and I am always suspicious of attempts to read more into the text in order to make it easier to understand and digest. As Matthew tells it, there is something so interesting, so compelling and winsome about Jesus that you just can’t refuse his call. What was it? Or more to the point, what is it about Jesus that draws people and how does his church reflect it?
As much as I love every church I have ever belonged to, I am not sure we reflect that bold, exciting, interesting and controversial person that is Jesus. To children, we too often portray Jesus as a schoolmarm on steroids preaching morals and good behavior. To adults we portray him as, at worst, a stern moral judge. At best, we portray him as a sorrowful, soft eyed parent who, though forgiving, is nevertheless perpetually disappointed in our shortcomings. The church comes across as yet another civic organization making demands on our overloaded schedules and over extended finances. Is it any wonder nobody is interested?
Yes, I know. There is more to these churches than meets the eye. They are faith communities in which the Spirit is at work doing marvelous things. But for some reason, we are not getting that message across. We succumb to the consumer culture marketing church membership-a product nobody is looking for anymore. There is nothing you can get at church that somebody else can’t provide-except Jesus. So it looks as though we are going to have to speak less of our programs and activities and more about Jesus. That’s the only way people are going to be drawn into the net of God’s kingdom and caught up in the joy and excitement of discipleship.
BAPTISM OF OUR LORD
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God our Father, at the baptism of Jesus you proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit. Make all who are baptized into Christ faithful to their calling to be your daughters and sons, and empower us all with your Spirit, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The gospels all grapple with one single issue: the identity of Jesus. In his own words, Jesus asks “Who do you say that I am?” What the gospels give us is less a definitive answer than the parameters within and the springboard from which the church must struggle until the end of time with the same question. The Creeds of the church likewise do not end the inquiry, but rather mark decisive turning points along the way in our journey toward that time when, as Paul puts it, “we will know as we are known.”
Certain formulations of the church’s past understandings about Jesus were decisively rejected at Nicaea and Chalcedon while other formulations were recognized as faithful and true. These landmark confessions guard against our slipping back into inaccurate, incomplete and misleading formulations of the faith, but they do not finally answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, under the norming authority of Scripture and in accord with the ecumenical Creeds, the church in every age must continue to articulate its teaching and shape its practices toward a deeper faith in Jesus and an ever more faithful witness to his saving work among us.
There has never been an age in the life of the church when the importance of Jesus’ identity was more critical than our own. This is so because the identity of Jesus in the United States has been hijacked by a contingent of largely white and largely male adherents to a deviant and truncated iteration of Christianity aligned with the ugliest manifestations of nationalism, racism, patriarchy and homophobia. It is maddening to hear the media regularly employing terms like “Christian” and “Evangelical” when referring solely to this narrow demographic. Rest assured (I find myself repeating to so many people whose perceptions of the church have been shaped by this vocal minority), the vile hate speech spewing from the likes of Franklin Graham, Mike Huckabee and James Dobson does not represent the preaching and teaching of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to which I belong. We confess Jesus, the Son of the God who chose two nationless nomads to found a nation of blessing; the God who chose as his people a band of landless slaves over the powerful empires sparing for control of the earth. This God says of Jesus, “this is my beloved Son. With him I am pleased.” We follow this Jesus who didn’t have a single encouraging word for people who amass wealth nor a judgmental word to speak against the poor; who rejected family values over kingdom values; who associated himself throughout his ministry with people branded “sinners” by the “moral;” who was killed because he proclaimed the coming reign of God in which the wealthy and powerful will be toppled from their thrones and their wealth redistributed. Jesus staked his life on the coming reign of God and lost it in the process. He loved the world that much-all of it.
Now I hasten to add that we Lutherans have not been stellar examples of the Christ we proclaim. We are one of the whitest churches ever to thrive in the midst of this diverse culture growing on American soil. We have been shamefully slow to name the sins of racism and sexism among us. We have stumbled awkwardly and slowly toward recognizing and welcoming our LGBT members and the gifts they bring to our life and ministry. We are materialistic, institutionally entangled with systemic injustice, infatuated with worldly power and sadly lacking in spiritual vibrancy. Yet for all of our failures, we are at least failing in the right things. We are failed disciples of Jesus, but our failures at least testify to what we are striving to become. The worst football team in the league might be playing poorly and losing every game, but at least it is playing the game. Incompetent and inept as the players might be, they know what good football is supposed to look like and they are trying to get there. Their failures testify to what they know they should be and the game they are trying to play well.
I can’t say how successful these so-called “evangelicals” are in their game because I don’t know what game they are playing. All I can say is that it looks nothing like discipleship. Trash talking the poor, glorifying wealth, preaching hate against perceived “sinners,” advocating fear and distrust of people who are different and dealing with enemies by means of brute military force sounds nothing like the Jesus we meet in the New Testament and it certainly doesn’t sound like “good news” (the root meaning of “evangelical”). Whatever this game of theirs might be, it isn’t discipleship and it’s high time the rest of us under the “Christian” umbrella called them on it. Jesus is not the poster boy for white privilege, late stage capitalistic wealth accumulation, nationalism, bullying, sexism and discrimination. He is the friend of sinners, outcasts and what our culture regards as “the least” among us. He is the Son of our God who came to save, not condemn the world. What we say about Jesus is important. In fact, it is the most important issue we have to talk about and struggle with.Here is a poem in which Marcus Wicker struggles with the identity of Jesus.
Conjecture on the Stained Glass Image of White Christ at Ebenezer Baptist Church
For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
—1 Corinthians 12:13
If in his image made am I, then make me a miracle.
Make my shrine a copper faucet leaking everlasting Evian to the masses.
Make this empty water glass a goblet of long-legged French wine.
Make mine a Prince-purple body bag designed by Crown Royal
for tax collectors to spill over & tithe into just before I rise.
If in his image made am I, then make my vessel a pearl Coupe de Ville.
Make mine the body of a 28-year-old black woman
in a blue patterned maxi dress cruising through Hell on Earth, TX
again alive. If in his image made are we, then why
the endless string of effigies?
Why so many mortal blasphemes?
Why crucify me in HD across a scrolling news ticker, tied
to a clothesline of broken necks long as Time?
Is this thing on? Jesus on the ground. Jesus in the margins.
Of hurricane & sea. Jesus of busted levees in chocolate cities.
Jesus of the Middle East (Africa) & crows flying backwards.
Of blood, on the leaves, inside diamond mines, in under-
developed mineral-rich countries. If in your image made are we,
the proliferation of your tie-dyed hippie doppelgänger
makes you easier to daily see. & in this image didn’t we make
the godhead, slightly stony, high enough to surf a cloud?
& didn’t we leave you there, where, surely, paradise or
justice must be meted out? Couldn’t we see where water takes
the form of whatever most holds it upright? If then this
is what it’s come down to. My faith, in rifle shells.
In Glock 22 magazine sleeves. Isn’t it also then how, why,
in a bucket shot full of holes, I’ve been made to believe?
Source, Poetry (December 2016) Marcus Wicker was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1984. He is the poetry editor of Southern Indiana Review and serves as director of the New Harmony Writers Workshop. Wicker is currently an assistant professor of English at University of Southern Indiana. You can find out more about Marcus Wicker and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Verses 1-4 constitute the first of four “servant songs” found in the second of three major sections of Isaiah. See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. The other three servant songs are found at Isaiah 49:1-6; Isaiah 50:4-11 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12. According to biblical commentator Claus Westermann, these songs represent a special strand within section two of Isaiah. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. SCM Press, Ltd. 1969) p. 92. This section (Isaiah 40-55), you may recall, is attributed to an unnamed prophet who lived among the Babylonian exiles during the 6th Century. 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. The servant and the servant people are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6.
Scholars hold differing views on the identity of the “servant” in these songs. Some view the servant as an individual, perhaps the prophet him/herself. Others maintain that the servant is the people of Israel whose covenant life in the restored Jerusalem will enlighten the nations. Christians from very early on have seen reflected in these verses the ministry of Jesus. It seems to me that all of these interpretations are valid in some measure. Clearly, the prophet himself/herself understood that s/he was announcing an act of God that would be revelatory for all peoples. So too Israel always had an awareness that her existence was in part a demonstration of God’s glory to the world though, like the church, she tended to forget that aspect of her calling at times. The church likewise confessed from the outset that Jesus’ lordship was defined in terms of the hopes and expectations set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures. Just as the faithful service of the prophet was a model for Israel’s servant role among the nations, so the church is a continuation of Jesus’ faithful ministry. In sum, these differing interpretations enrich rather than contradict one another.
There is an interesting contrast here between the conquering Cyrus (referred to as God’s “anointed” or “messiah.” Isaiah 45:1) before whom God “breaks in pieces the doors of bronze” and the servant who will not break a “bruised reed” or extinguish a “dimly burning wick.” Vs. 3. To be sure, God turns Cyrus (and all nations) to God’s own redemptive purposes. But they have no knowledge or understanding of these purposes. As far as they know, they are simply pursuing their own national interests. In the end, it is not the might of Cyrus, but the quiet and faithful servant who will “bring forth justice.” The servant will accomplish this through his humble ministry of healing and compassion. It bears repeating that the witness of non-violence and redemption through peacemaking do not begin with Jesus. While the Hebrew Scriptures reflect the cruelty and violence of the cultures in which they were composed, these harsh realities serve merely as a backdrop for the peaceful reign of God to which they testify.
The messiah will not be “discouraged.” Vs. 4. The task of “establishing justice in the earth” though forgiveness, reconciliation and peacemaking requires much patience. That is a quality sorely lacking in human nature generally. We want justice now. We want peace in our time. Oddly, it is often our impatient longing for peace and justice that leads us down the false path of violence. In the face of tyranny, injustice and oppression, violence promises a swift solution. Kill the enemy. Overthrow the “axis of evil.” Fight fire with fire. In reality, however, the victory obtained by violence only sows the seeds of future violence. Yesterday’s “freedom fighters” armed to undermine Soviet power are today’s terrorists against whom we are told we must also fight. Efforts to destroy these new enemies are building up resentment in an upcoming generation of Afghan and Pakistani youths. We are merely sowing for our children a new crop of enemies that may well prove more threatening still. The “short cut” to peace and justice violence promises leads finally into a vortex of hate, breeding more and more violence and destruction.
As long as peace and justice remain abstract nouns, concepts or ideals to be achieved, they will remain forever beyond our reach. Jesus does not promise a way to peace and justice. He calls us to live justly and peacefully. It is through communities that embody the heart of God revealed in Jesus that God’s justice and peace are offered to the world. That is a hard word for impatient people who become discouraged when they cannot see measurable results from their life’s work. Disciples of Jesus know, however, that there are no shortcuts to the kingdom of God. The cross is the only way. It is a hard, slow and painful way. But it is the one sure way. That is what makes it such an incredibly joyful way.
Many commentators suggest that this psalm is an Israelite poet’s adaptation of an ancient Phoenician hymn praising Baal-Hadad, the Canaanite storm god. Other commentators have maintained that the psalm is a liturgical recital of God’s appearance to Israel on Mt. Sinai. Both views might be correct. Israel frequently borrowed liturgical and literary material from its neighbors in shaping its own worship traditions. Thus, a hymn originally praising the storm god in the wake of a particularly fierce weather event might have served as a template for this psalm memorializing God’s stormy appearance on Sinai. Nothing wrong with that. After all, Luther was said to compose hymns from drinking songs.
The psalmist unashamedly attributes to Israel’s God the awe inspiring and often destructive effects of a storm. That is a little unnerving for us moderns who are squeamish about attributing anything to God that isn’t “nice.” Indeed, this psalm is particularly embarrassing in the shadow of tragic, large scale weather events. Did God send this week’s blizzards and brutal cold over the country or just allow it to occur? Does it make any difference either way? Is it more comforting to believe that God just fell asleep at the wheel and allowed a tornado to happen rather than to believe that God deliberately sent one? Has the universe gotten so far out of God’s hands that God is no longer able to prevent hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis?
I don’t pretend to have neat answers to all these questions. But perhaps part of our problem is our homocentric view of things. Indeed, I would go further and suggest that the problem may be with our “me” centered approach to faith. It seems to me that a lot of our prayers are exceedingly self-centered. We pray for good weather on our vacations-even in times when our farms are desperate for rain. We pray for an economic recovery without any thought to the economic, ecological and social havoc our economy wreaks upon the world. Even our prayers for others often have a strong streak of selfishness in them. As the father of a child with a chronic medical condition, a day does not go by that I don’t pray for her healing. Yet lately I have been wondering about my motives. Am I looking for a special miracle? By what right do I get to push to the head of the line of parents with sick children to receive such special treatment? Thanks to the benefits of medical treatment afforded by our insurance plan, my daughter is able to live a relatively normal and healthy life despite her condition. So shouldn’t any miracle go to a child without these benefits? I find that too often my prayers do not venture beyond my own needs, concerns and the small circle of people in my small world.
Perhaps this psalm gives us some perspective. The psalmist does not begin his or her prayer with a request that God stop the storm or steer it in some other direction. The psalm begins with praise, awe and reverence for God. As Jesus taught his disciples, that is where all prayer needs to begin. Recall that in both of the creation stories from Genesis, the world was created first. In the first chapter of Genesis, the earth and all its creatures were created and declared good. Then human beings were created to rule over and care for the earth. Likewise in the second chapter of Genesis: the earth was created and God planted a garden in the earth. Then God created human beings to tend and care for the garden. The message is clear. It’s not all about us. The world was not designed to be a twenty-first century playground that is so well padded and equipped with safety features that no kid could ever possibly get hurt-or have any fun either. No, the world is far more like the way playgrounds used to be-places where you can really play. It pains me to no end that my grandchildren will probably never know the ecstasy of rocketing half way to the sky on a real swing set. Nor will they ever experience the dizzying high you could get from one of those merry-go-rounds that we used to crank up to warp speed. Our public parks have been cleansed of all such unacceptable risks. The attorneys and insurance underwriters who have taken over our lives have determined that fun is just too dangerous for kids.
But don’t get me started on that. We were talking about the psalm and the fact that we are not the center of God’s universe. As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, God is not a tame lion. God is not “safe” and neither is the world God made. There is no room in the Bible or in real life for a wimpy, weak kneed religion that longs for a “nice” god. You can get hurt on this planet and tragically so. But for all that, the earth is a good place to be. It’s a place where you can have real fun. Beauty the likes of which you see in the ocean, in the storm and on the top of Sinai necessarily has an element of terror. The psalmist doesn’t hide in the storm shelter and plead with God not to be so scary. The psalmist praises God for this awesome display of power and rejoices in the beauty, wonder and terror of creation. This is the glorious world God made and the stage on which God acts. The psalmist doesn’t complain about its dangers. S/he prays instead that Israel will find the courage to live boldly and faithfully in this grand universe. Anybody who whines about bad weather and wishes that God had made a safer planet has never been on a real swing!
Acceptance of gentiles into the church was a contentious issue. Peter’s vision related in Acts 10:1-16 reflects the inner struggle of the deeply Jewish church with the positive response of gentiles to the good news about Jesus. Most Jews, like Peter, harbored serious reservations about receiving these outsiders into the church. How could these outsiders possibly have an informed and sincere faith in the Jewish messiah when they knew next to nothing about the Jewish scriptures and practices? What would be the consequences of an influx of these new comers? What conditions, if any, should be placed upon admission of a gentile believer? Must he be circumcised? Should he be required to learn the Hebrew Scriptures? Peter was on solid scriptural grounds with his scruples about eating ritually unclean food and sharing meal fellowship with non-Jews. Jewish believers under the Greek tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes chose to endure torture and to die horrible deaths rather than eat food deemed unclean as demanded. I Maccabees 1:62-64. How could Peter go into the home of a Roman, an oppressor of Israel to eat his unclean food at his unclean table? Would this not dishonor the memory of the brave martyrs under Antiochus?
Peter’s declaration “that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him…is acceptable to him” came only after much difficult soul searching. Peter had to give up his long held interpretation of the scriptures and religious practices that had been part of his life since infancy. That did not come easily. I suspect it was not until Peter witnessed the Holy Spirit breathing life giving faith into the Roman Cornelius and his family that he became fully convinced that these folks should be baptized. He simply decided that any interpretation of the scriptures that stands between Jesus and a believing heart cannot possibly be right no matter how clear, convincing and well established it may be.
This story of Peter and Cornelius, along with my having met many gay and lesbian people of faith over the years, is what ultimately convinced me that the church must be fully inclusive and welcoming to these folks. When all is said and done; when all the scriptural arguments have been made; there remains the fact that the Holy Spirit has moved a person to faith in Jesus. I find myself asking, as did Peter, “Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Acts 10:47.
The relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist has always been a subject of dispute among New Testament scholars. About all they can seem to agree upon is the fact that Jesus was baptized by John. Knowing as little as we do about John the Baptist and what his ministry represented, that isn’t much to go on. How did John understand his own role? The New Testament portrays him as Jesus’ forerunner, but did he see himself that way? It seems obvious to me that John saw himself as the forerunner of somebody. The gospels all agree on this point and, unless one rejects the gospel narratives as reliable information about John (some biblical scholars have), then it seems that John understood his baptism as a preparation for the coming of the Messiah. The Gospel of Matthew very explicitly identifies John’s ministry with the return of Elijah foretold in Malachi 4:5. see Matthew 17:9-13. Knowing what we do about the fate of John, this revelation can only alert us to the reception the Messiah will finally receive at the hands of Rome and the religious leadership in Jerusalem.
The larger question is: Why would Jesus seek out and submit to a baptism of repentance? Mark and Luke see no need to deal with this obvious question. The Gospel of John does not specifically state the Jesus was baptized by John, only that John bears witness to Jesus. Matthew, by contrast, puts into the mouth of John himself the question we must all be asking. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” vs. 14. Jesus’ response is that his receipt of John’s baptism is necessary to “fulfill all righteousness.” But does that explain why Jesus would need a baptism of repentance? I suppose that depends on how you understand the word “repent.” Literally, the Greek word means to turn around or go in a new direction. In the New Testament context, the term means turning toward God and God’s will. For sinful human beings, that necessarily means turning away from sin. But for Jesus, the sinless Son of God, it means simply to turn toward God. That is not to say that Jesus ever was turned away from God, but merely that Jesus’ turning toward God is much the same as his being “eternally begotten of the Father.” As the obedient Son, Jesus is always turning toward God. Only as the Word becomes incarnate and becomes flesh (to borrow John’s language) does this turning appear as a discrete act rather than an intrinsic and essential aspect of his being. So understood, Jesus’ baptism into the body of people prepared by John for the coming of the Messiah is but another step in his messianic mission of drawing that body into the Kingdom of Heaven.
“This fulfilling takes place in the adoption of baptism: in that the Messianic judge of the worlds and the Messianic baptizer himself becomes a candidate for baptism, humbles himself and enters the ranks of sinners. By this means he fulfils ‘all righteousness.’” Barth, Gerhard, “Matthew’s Understanding of the Law,” printed in Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew, The New Testament Library (c. SCM Press Ltd 1963) p. 138. It is important to recognize that for both John and Jesus, righteousness has nothing to do with adherence to an objective moral code and everything to do with being rightly related to God and to neighbor. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew-A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 154. That is not to say, of course, that the law has no importance for Matthew. To the contrary, Matthew more than any of the other gospel writers emphasizes Jesus as the fulfilment of the law, no part of which can be set aside as long as heaven and earth endure. Matthew 5:17-18. Yet for this very reason righteousness must grow not out of slavish obedience to the letter of the law, but out of faithfulness to Jesus. The latter righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the law as demonstrated by the Sermon on the Mount.
This gospel lesson is rich with references and allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures. The declaration of the divine voice is almost a direct quote from Psalm 2:
I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, ‘You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
9 You shall break them with a rod of iron,
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’
Psalm 2:7-9. Matthew’s allusion to this psalm reflects his conviction that Jesus is indeed Israel’s king. Yet this declaration must be juxtaposed to the so called “king of the Jews” we have already met, namely, Herod. The coronation of Jesus at his baptism signals a new kind of king that exercises a very different sort of power and calls us into a kingdom radically different from any nation or kingdom the world has ever known.
More distant scriptural echoes are heard in the creation out of the watery chaos in Genesis 1:1-2; the liberation of Israel from slavery into freedom by passage through the Red Sea. Exodus 14:1-15:2. Matthew means to let us know that, although Jesus is by every measure the king that was David, the teacher that was Moses and the prophet that was Elijah, he is much more. The presence of the Holy Spirit brooding over the waters of the Jordan into which Jesus enters and emerges testifies that God is doing something altogether new here. In the words of Stan Hauerwas, “Jesus is unleashed into the world. His mission will not be easy, for the kingdom inaugurated by his life and death is not one that can be recognized on the world’s terms. He is the beloved Son who must undergo the terror produced by our presumption that we are our own creators. He submits to John’s baptism just as he will submit to the crucifixion so that we might know how God would rule the world. His journey begins. Matthew would have us follow.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brozos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 49.