July 30, 2018
The Proper 13B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 6:24-35 from the Lectionary Gospel; 2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:13a from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 51:1-12 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Ephesians 4:1-16 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 46 (Lord’s Day 18)
Author: Scott Hoezee
(Note: Since the Lectionary is having us pastors camp out in John 6 for five whole weeks, this week I offer something a bit different than the usual sermon starter: A sample sermon titled “Never Go Hungry” derived from the middle of John 6. I hope it sparks ideas for my fellow preachers!)
In the Simon and Garfunkel song Mrs. Robinson, we hear the line, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you. What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson? Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away.” Originally part of the soundtrack for the film The Graduate, the song became one of the 1960s’ best-known iconic ballads.
But in a 60 Minutes interview years back the songwriter Paul Simon mentioned that some time after the song was released, he received a letter from Joe DiMaggio in which DiMaggio expressed his befuddlement at what in the world that song could mean. DiMaggio wrote, “What do you mean ‘Where have I gone?’ I haven’t gone anywhere! I’m still around–I’m selling Mr. Coffee machines.” Then Mr. Simon smiled wryly at Mike Wallace and remarked, “Obviously Mr. DiMaggio is not accustomed to thinking of himself as a metaphor!”
But then, who is? Most, if not all, of us see ourselves as real people with literal, descriptive identities. For instance, I am a pastor, a husband, a father, a committee member, a volunteer, a son–these are all straightforward descriptions of who I am in relation to the people around me in life. Like most of you, I cannot readily conceive of myself as a symbol for something, as a kind of metaphor that represents something beyond myself.
Indeed, if someone came up to you at a party and said, “You are my shelter from the storms of life,” well, you’d be taken aback. Then again, if you met someone who constantly spouted self-referential metaphors, you’d have to wonder about him or her. We expect people to denote themselves by saying things like, “I am a plumber” or “I’m a stay-at-home Dad.” But our eyes would widen if someone said, “I am the oil that lubes my company’s machine” or “I am the antibody that shields my family from the virus of secularism.”
This is not a terribly typical mode of discourse. Yet Jesus, with some frequency according at least to the evangelist John, did refer to himself in a metaphorical mode. As we have seen here in John 6, Jesus often got into trouble when he uttered one of these “I Am” sayings. Over the course of church history these have become the much-loved subject of hymns, poems, and stained glass windows. We find these sayings rich in meaning. But it was not that way for the folks who first heard these words.
After Jesus said, “I am the light of the world who illumines all,” the Pharisees derided Jesus. They said that Jesus could not illumine anything or anyone and he surely was shedding no light on his own identity by saying such weird things. After he said “I am the good shepherd,” the crowds denounced Jesus as a lunatic, saying he was full of a demon and so was “raving mad.” And after the most lovely of all the sayings, “I am the resurrection and the life,” the case against Jesus was cinched and he was soon arrested.
Make your choice, C.S. Lewis once said: embrace Jesus as the God and Lord of your life or squirrel him away with the rest of history’s odd ducks. But please don’t bore the world with all this blather that although not divine, Jesus was a very fine ethical teacher who had a striking way with words. Naturally, these days a lot of people do want to say that Jesus was no more than a wandering Galilean cynic sage, a good man, a clever and insightful man but no more. He surely was no God and was definitely not thee one true God in our collective historical midst. But given what Jesus is reported to have said about himself, that generic way of rendering Jesus an interesting historical figure just doesn’t work.
If Jesus said these things without also being God, then he was not a good man: he was either a devious deceiver or a nut. But down along the ages Christians have believed that Jesus did say these things but that he was neither devious nor insane. Instead, these sayings teach us not just that Jesus is God, they also tell us more about who God is.
As many scholars have noted, the sheer number of times that Jesus so emphatically referred to himself as “I am” is itself very likely an echo of God’s personal name as he first disclosed it to Moses at the burning bush. “You tell Israel that I AM sent you.” As some of you may know, in the Greek language of the New Testament it is not necessary to use personal pronouns. In Greek the verbs are highly inflected–that is, each verb form has its own unique ending which all by itself indicates whether the subject of the verb is “I” or “you” or “we” or “she.”
So in much of the New Testament when you read in English a line like, “I am going over there,” in the original Greek you don’t actually find the word “I”, which in Greek is ego. The pronoun is implied by the verb form. But in the “I Am” sayings Jesus is very emphatic, each time including the ego as a way of saying, “I am” in a way fiercely reminiscent of the name “Yahweh,” the great I AM of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Creation, the God of the Exodus, the God who was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
As John 6 makes clear, not only is Jesus’ very likely identifying himself with the Yahweh of the Old Testament, you need to have a strong faith in the One Jesus calls “Father” if you are to see in these “I Am” sayings anything other than the ravings of a rather odd man. If God the Father is not working in your heart when you hear Jesus say these things, your reaction will be logical, sensible, and on the human level very straightforward: namely, you will reject Jesus for uttering words that are as ludicrous as they are disgusting. But that’s only on the human level. When the divine level is factored in, the “I Am” sayings begin to coalesce into a vision of such utter clarity as to be startling.
Jesus begins with “I am the bread of life.” He begins with that most basic of human needs: sustenance, calories, food. Yet the bread Jesus talks about is clearly not that kind of food. Jesus, of course, has just finished the miracle of feeding 5,000 folks from five little mini-loaves of barley bread. It created quite a sensation and, as Jesus says in verse 26, that is why so many people are still following him around. We like people who can give us good food. Just look at the average fundraiser or auction even in churches: of all the things people put up for sale to raise money for the youth group or something, nothing quite brings in the bucks like the food items! (I once auctioned off a gourmet dinner to be cooked by me for 6 people and it went at the church auction for just shy of $1,000!)
Jesus just fed a great throng of folks in what at that time must have been the world’s biggest tailgater-like picnic. Naturally he attracted a lot of attention. “I know why you’re all here today,” Jesus says in verse 26. “It’s not the other miracles I did that has drawn you–you’re looking for another free lunch. But that’s nothing compared to the true bread of heaven that endures.” What follows on this is a fairly long and, as you no doubt noted earlier, an at-times rather confusing verbal tug-of-war as Jesus and the folks around him go back and forth about manna, true food, and eternal life.
It’s a bit confusing and repetitive but what becomes clear is that although the manna in the wilderness long ago was a wonderful miracle, it was only a shadow, quite literally just a foretaste or appetizer, of the larger plan of God. As great as the manna was, it was still just regular food. And so of course those who ate that manna were long dead. The 5,000 folks on the Galilean hillsides that day would die eventually, too, even if Jesus provided a picnic like that every week for years. So Jesus keeps talking about a food that will last, a sustenance that nourishes and strengthens for eternal life, and not just for this life.
But did you notice something else about the passage we just read? Even though Jesus keeps talking about himself as a kind of living bread which would sustain an eternal life, he keeps returning, refrain-like, to talk about raising people up on the last day. Clearly whatever else Jesus means by his talk of a bread that will last, he is not envisioning some wonder bread, some Ponce de Leon-like fountain of youth, that will keep you from physical death on this earth. Jesus’ thought here stretches toward the more distant, but very real, horizon of the New Creation.
But if you want to have that kind of a future life, you need to eat the food God gives. In this case the bread to chew and the drink to sip is Jesus’ own flesh and blood. You need to believe that Jesus is who is said he is: the one who was rained down from heaven by God the Father. Eventually in the church the way to confirm that you believe that core message of the gospel would become enshrined in the Lord’s Supper–the table of our Lord where bread and wine would become our way of connecting again and again with the Christ whom we believe is the very Son of God.
When you read John 6 through the lens of all those Lord’s Suppers you have in the past eaten, the scandal of what Jesus says is blunted. Because of that we almost guffaw at those overly literal people around Jesus that day in Capernaum who started gagging over the thought of some cannibal-like eating of Jesus’ actual flesh. How nice it is that we know what Jesus really had in mind! How nice that the vision which dances in our heads when we read John 6 involves perfectly cubed little chunks of white bread and wee shot glasses of Welch’s grape juice. It’s nicer to picture that instead of bloody pieces of Jesus’ forearm or beakers of dark purplish blood. And because we can think that way, John 6 is a safe passage for us to read. It neither grosses us out nor particularly scandalizes us.
What we miss by looking at these verses that way is what appears to be Jesus’ overt effort to cause a stir on that original day. As some of you may know, there is an interesting little facet to the Greek language used in this text—I know you don’t come to church to hear me talk about Greek but this time it’s important! You see, throughout most of this chapter Jesus used the typical Greek word for “to eat.” It was the word phagein which, had you been a Greek-speaking parent back then, was the word you would have used when you said to your child, “Jimmy, eat your carrots now!” But suddenly in verse 54 Jesus switches to the word trogein, a word which meant something like “to chew with your mouth open.” This is the word a parent would use if a child was smacking his food and chewing in a rather rude and impolite way: “Jimmy, don’t eat like a pig! Keep your mouth closed when you chew!”
Jesus seems intent on drawing out the startling scandal of what he is saying here. He doesn’t merely say, “Eat my flesh,” but goes further: “Chew on me, smack your lips over me, eat in a way that no one will miss what you are doing because they will be able to see what’s in your mouth!” In other words, Jesus seems determined here to do everything he can to prevent his hearers that day from envisioning a nice sacrament of bread and juice served on silver trays from a table with a nice linen covering. Jesus is steering us away from picturing people politely and discretely popping bread into their mouths the way we do each time we celebrate communion here in this sanctuary.
Of course, we all know of the moving, lyric beauty of the sacrament as it has come down to us. We understand the sacrifice of Jesus’ flesh and blood. So why on that day in John 6 didn’t Jesus explain this with a bit more precision and a bit less effort to shake people up with some disgusting word picture? Well, maybe because Jesus wanted to make vivid the absolutely radical nature of what he is talking about. Maybe it is not the people on that day who had the problem but maybe it is we who have made all of this too tame, too mundane, too easy-to-digest! We hear Jesus say, “I am the bread of life–eat me if you want to live,” and we respond, “That’s nice!” even as we then embroider that verse onto a counted-cross stitch picture to put on our kitchen wall!
But we would never decorate our kitchens with the image of someone chewing on Jesus’ flesh with an open mouth! That’s disgusting! Indeed it is, but what ended up happening to Jesus’ precious flesh and blood was also disgusting. It was terrible. It was hell on earth in a way none of us can imagine. Jesus says we need to become part of all that. We need to stick with him through hell and high water, through the cross and into the tomb, if we are to eat the food and sip the drink which alone can keep us with Jesus right on through the resurrection from the dead.
We need to see this odd man who kept spouting self-referential metaphors and who ended up being killed for it. We need to see him clearly and, despite all appearances, we need to believe that he was none other than God’s bread of heaven. He didn’t look like it. The manna in the desert long ago had been more wondrous-looking than Jesus had been most days. But we must believe that he’s God’s man, that he is the one sent from heaven, and that by ingesting him by faith we are nourished with a life that won’t die even when the doctors pull out the last tube of our existence on this earth.
It’s a radical thing we are called to in the Christian faith. Jesus did everything he could in John 6 to make that clear to the people around him that long ago day. We need to see it with equal clarity, disgusting, startling scandal and all. Too often we fail to do that. It finally gets to the point in some of our lives where it is unbelief, and not faith, which takes us aback. We’re surprised not by what we see on the Lord’s Table each communion service but by our neighbor who finds the Christian faith to be merely an oddment, a curiosity, perhaps even a quirky collection of ancient superstition.
Sometimes we need to be shocked back to the funny thing we do and proclaim each time we eat the bread and drink the cup. In his book The Message in the Bottle Walker Percy suggested that sometimes a good way to see life in a new light is to imagine yourself an anthropologist from Mars. Try to see your life from an outsider’s perspective. Imagine some Martian arriving here on a communion Sunday and seeing most members of this congregation pop some little white cubes into their mouths precisely on cue (the “cue” being some words about “this is my body”). Most people don’t get to see communion from the vantage point of where the pastor stands, but you’d be amazed at the military-like precision with which people make that hand-to-mouth move at almost precisely the same second!
So suppose our Martian friend asked just what in the world this could mean, and suppose we told him that we were metaphorically ingesting the flesh of a man who was crucified two millennia ago but whose flesh and blood somehow, even all this time later, have the power to bring our flesh back to life one day at some distant, but unknown, future time. You get the feeling that were you to say that to our Martian anthropologist, his asking of questions would by no means be finished! And rightly so. For Jesus to claim that his flesh was real food and his blood real drink is properly arresting, maybe even a bit alarming. It ought never to be regarded as merely obvious, especially by those of us who have grown altogether too accustomed to this mystery.
I love the way John concludes this section: “He said these things in the synagogue in Capernaum.” There’s more going on in that line than a simple geographic report! There is tremendous irony there: Jesus said these quirky, yet finally cosmic, things about himself and he did it in some out-of-the-way little town in the backwaters of Galilee. Faith begins on that postage stamp of real estate and in that ordinary son of a carpenter whose body was no bigger than any other man in this room tonight. Faith begins small like that but then explodes outward as the shock waves of what Jesus said ripple on and on and on. If you can believe that Jesus is God’s Son, the one rained down from heaven by the Father, then the radical message of John 6 is the dearest truth: Jesus is the bread of life. Feast on his love and you will never go hungry. Never. Amen.
2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a
Author: Stan Mast
The world is full of people who seem to get away with murder, and theft, and adultery, and lying, and abuse, and rape. Oh, every once in a while someone gets caught and punished, like the Golden State Killer. But for everyone who gets caught, how many aren’t? It sure seems as though you can get away with murder in this world. But things are not always as they seem. Indeed, when you put on your glasses, life looks very different. That’s exactly what happens when we look at this whole business of getting away with murder through the spectacles of Scripture, especially this story of David and Bathsheba.
Everyone knows the story well, so your listeners won’t be surprised when you enumerate the sins of David. They range from the acedia (sloth) that kept him lolling on his roof instead of marching off to war, to coveting and lust and adultery and lying and murder and theft. Some scholars are able to discern violations of nearly the entire second table of the Ten Commandments in this sordid chapter of David’s life. There isn’t a bad enough name to call King David, who, earlier in the story, is called the “man after God’s own heart.”
Our text begins with what seems to be the conclusion of the matter. David gets away with it, all of it. After Uriah’s death and an appropriate time of mourning for Bathsheba, David has her brought to his house, where he marries her. She bears his love child, which, presumably, everyone thinks is Uriah’s. No one is the wiser. No one leaks confidential information. No one confronts the wicked king.
He gets away with it. Except for this one line that rumbles ominously. “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” That, by the way, is the first time God is mentioned in the entire chapter, which is telling. To commit this kind of sin, you have to omit God from your story, put God out of your mind and leave him out of your decisions.
In what follows we learn that nobody, not even God’s favorite, gets away with it. And much to our amazement, we discover that David is still a man after God’s own heart, as God immediately forgives all of David’s sins. And much to our consternation, we learn that even when God forgives his favorite, there may be horrific consequences to forgiven sins. Which raises all kinds of questions about God. Those questions about God are what I would pursue in my sermon on this text, even though most commentators focus on either the sinfulness of David or Nathan’s prophetic confrontation with corrupt power. More on the God questions later.
For now, we need to dwell in the story for a while. It is an amazingly well told story. For example, the way the RCL divides up our text for today forms a perfect inclusio: David gets away with his sin (verses 26-27), God confronts his sinful King (27a- 12:12), and David confesses his sin (13a). For another example, notice the typical brevity of Hebrew narrative. Verses 26 and 27 cover 9 months of Bathsheba’s pregnancy, the 9 months of guilty silence to which David refers in Psalm 51, our Psalm reading for today.
And there is a plethora of juicy details that will preach. Verse 27b is an unusual insight into God’s role in our sin. As the story is told throughout II Samuel and as we live our own lives, God is out of sight and often out of mind (as I’ve just pointed out). We may believe God is up there somewhere, but we don’t know how God is involved in our decisions and we certainly don’t know what God is thinking. Here the narrator tells us a divine secret, revealed by the Holy Spirit. It is a cautionary note for all of us when we think God doesn’t know or care. “But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.” Given what follows, that is an understatement.
What follows is a classic example of the power of story in a sermon, even when that sermon is a direct word from God. If Nathan had simply confronted David with his sin, the prophet might well have lost his head. The story of the rich man and the poor man slipped around David’s defenses and left him vulnerable to the truth. It aroused in David the kind of compassion and outrage he should have felt when he did something even worse than the rich man in the story. Stories move the heart, the emotions, rather than just the head which is very good at evasion and deception and self-justification.
“David burned with anger against the man, and said to Nathan, ‘As surely as Yahweh lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and did not show pity.’” In those words, David condemned himself. Even more importantly, David spoke for God. When he wasn’t committing or justifying his own sin, David was able to feel exactly what God feels about our sin.
David could get very angry about the sin of another, and so can we. We can rage against injustice. We can decry the inhumanity of sin. We can call for punishment. Those are very human responses. Even more, they are very divine responses, rooted deeply in the fact that we have been made in God’s image. David’s response to the sin of the man in the story will help us as we deal with the God questions to which I referred earlier.
Nathan’s words to David in verse 7 land like a bomb shell in David’s conscience, and they are followed by the chatter of a machine gun. “You are the man!” You are just like that man in the story, only worse. The narrator makes that point by the machine gun repetition of the first person pronoun as God details all he had done for David: “I anointed you king… and I delivered you… and I gave you your master’s house… and wives… and I gave you the house of Israel and Judah…. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more.” God is highlighting the monstrosity of David’s sin (and ours) by reminding David of the magnitude of God’s grace. I gave you everything, and you took that little thing. Gift gave way to grab.
It is incomprehensible that we should respond to God’s gracious gifts in such a way. Thus, the first word of verse 9 is exactly the right word. “Why?” Why indeed? Why do we sin? It makes no sense at all. We should never try to make sense of our sin. Even when we think our sin is the natural thing to do, the normal way to act, the necessary response to the situation, the defensible reaction to a tough spot, and thus no big deal, it is simply foolish, stupid, irrational, and destructive beyond our imagination. Our sin is all that, says God, because at its root sin is “despising the word of the Lord (verse 9).” Indeed, it is despising the Lord himself (verse 10).
“Now therefore,” says God through Nathan, here are the consequences of your sin. The word “therefore” is important, because it links the punishment directly to the crime. The punishment comes directly from the sin; indeed, the sin shapes the punishment. That is always the case in Scripture. Sin always rebounds or recoils or reverberates into the life of the sinner in ways the sinner never anticipated, but should have. We always reap what we sow. Sin is its own reward. We think we get away with it, but it always follows us. It even follows into the lives of those we love, to the third and fourth generation. That isn’t the arbitrary punishment of a fickle tyrant God. It is simply the way things are in a just universe ruled by a perfectly righteous God. “The soul that sins will die.” Sin brings death. Sin is death.
So, even as David ruined a whole family with the sword, the sword will ruin David’s family. Even as David took another man’s wife, another man will take David’s wives. And even as David killed to cover his love child, that child will die. With that last detail, we have stepped outside our reading for today, but I had to go there because that last detail raises the great God question of this story. What kind of God would do something like that to David and, more to the point, to that little baby?
Before we deal with that question, we have to focus on David’s response to the prophetic word of the Lord. Unlike today’s leaders and, to be honest, unlike me, David doesn’t make excuses, cover up, blame others, protest that God isn’t being fair, or otherwise avoid the condemnation he deserves. He says simply, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Boom! And that’s that. Except it isn’t, thanks be to God!
God replies through Nathan, “The Lord had taken away your sin. You are not going to die (as you said the man in the story deserved).” Forgiveness is given and received. David will not die for his own sin. That is Good News, the Gospel we all know and treasure.
But that’s not the end of the story, because, apparently, even forgiven sin has natural consequences. David will be spared death, but he has unleashed death into his family. They will be a family that wields the sword. Sin has generational power. We all know this truth from our own experience. We wish it weren’t true, but it is. We wonder why God doesn’t stop the recoil effect of sin. He could, and he sometimes, maybe often, does. But why doesn’t he always do that? Why does God allow us to suffer for our sins and, even, sometimes actually inflict that suffering on us? What kind of God visits this kind of punishment on those he loves?
The answer was given to Moses back in the wilderness in Exodus 34:6, 7. “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished….” That revelation of God’s covenantal faithfulness has been read and preached for centuries now. It is central to our relationship with God. It is at the heart of God’s revelation of himself in Jesus.
But we never seem to get it. So God keeps teaching us with stories like the one we’re reading today, stories so clear and graphic that we cannot misunderstand them, stories about sin and forgiveness and consequences. But because mere stories never quite convince us, God allows those consequences to happen in our own lives.
God loves us too much to let us live with our sin, even our forgiven sin. Thus, to save us from the deceitful power of sin, God allows the consequences to fall upon us. If he doesn’t, we will never learn and things will get worse and worse. Without consequences, life will be as it was in the days of the Judges when every person did what was right in their own eyes, because there was no king in the land. (Judges 21:25)
Well, there is a King in the land. And this King won’t have it, because he loves us too much to let sin go unchecked. The quintessential assurance of pardon used in every church says it perfectly. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (I John 1:9).” Yes, he forgives, but he also purifies. And sometimes purification requires more than water or alcohol. It requires fire, as I Peter 1:6 and 7 put it. “God loves us just the way we are,” goes the old saying. But, says our text and many others, he loves us too much to leave us this way. (Cf. Hebrews 12:7-11 for the definitive explanation of the way our loving Father disciplines his beloved children to make them holy.)
It is important to show how this story in II Samuel connects to Christ. I think I John 2:1-2 says it perfectly. David was an unrighteous king, but he was forgiven because of the Righteous King who gave his life for David (and for all who sin, but then repent as David did). “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sin but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Even in countries with fully democratic forms of government, there is still a fascination with royalty. How else do we account for the millions (billions?) who watched the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Megan Markle in England in May. And millions are fascinated with royal shenanigans. How else do we account for the popularity of the sexually explicit and graphically violent TV show, “Game of Thrones?” Our passage from II Samuel 11 and 12 reads like the script for that TV show, except that in our story, God matters.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Years ago a British psychologist who worked inside Britain’s penal system described the startlingly loopy ways by which criminals attempt to sneak out from under their own crimes. He opened his article by reminding readers that in his pseudo-suicide note years ago, O.J. Simpson had the audacity to write, “Sometimes I feel like a battered husband.” Whether or not O.J. killed his former wife, one fact that is nowhere in dispute is that while they were married, he beat the living daylights out of her on more than one occasion.
But, according to this British doctor, O.J.’s reversal of who was the battered one is typical. He recounts a time when a man who had just been sentenced to life in prison for murder emerged from the courtroom red-faced with rage. “That wasn’t justice, it was a kangaroo court,” he fumed. “They didn’t even call no medical evidence!” “Oh,” the psychologist replied, “what kind of evidence should they have mentioned?” “What she died of,” the man snapped. “And what did she die of?” “Hemorrhage.” “How did she get the hemorrhage?” the doctor asked. “They pulled the knife out,” was the murderer’s reply.
Denial becomes amnesia, amnesia transmutes into innocence. The art of self-deception is one we each know well, though few would care to admit that. In fact, the better you are at self-deception, the less you are aware of it. First we deceive ourselves and then we further deceive ourselves that we have not, after all, deceived ourselves. Mind and memory can play such fanciful tricks on us, resulting in sometimes silly consequences and sometimes dire ones.
Of course, sometimes self-deception involves only this or that specific incident from our past. However, the larger self-deception in which we are involved has to do with issues of who we are. Most people are loathe to admit that they are just generally bent toward the bad, inclined to do it wrong. So when the Christian tradition declares to any and all, “You are a sinner,” most people these days reply, “What did I do?” If sin exists at all, it is merely episodic, an occasional (and inexplicable) “lapse” from our better nature, which is at bottom “pretty good.”
How foreign is the notion articulated by theologian Emil Brunner. Brunner once noted that we can, in principle, avoid any particular sin. And we often do. Few if any people give in to every dark impulse. The average person, whether or not he is particularly religious, resists many temptations that come his way on the average day. He does not slip the Snickers bar into his coat instead of paying for it, does not exceed the speed limit, does not shove the person ahead of him in line for the subway, does not grab and grope at the co-worker whose sexy dress just flat out is turning him on that day.
In principle the sinner can, and often does, avoid any particular sin, Brunner noted. But what we cannot do is avoid every sin. We cannot not be sinners. We cannot claim that we have never done it wrong. We cannot promise that we will never do another wrong thing, speak another cross word, or think another angry thought in the future. Even if the alcoholic promises never to take another drink or the adulterer vows never again to wake up in the wrong bed–and even if they keep those promises–what they cannot promise is that in addition to staying sober or chaste they will also remain just overall sinless.
Christians are often accused of being rather neurotic when it comes to sin. We leap from one wrong deed to the catastrophic conclusion that we are just generally depraved. Like the poet of Psalm 51 we claim that we’ve been sinful from the moment sperm met egg in our conception. And much of our world sees that and cries out, “Good grief! Aren’t you taking this guilt trip just a little bit far!?” We prefer to trace the reason for any given sin not clear back to some defect with which we were born but to more immediate surroundings.
One of the world’s first autobiographies was Saint Augustine’s Confessions. A hallmark of that work is Augustine’s willingness to confess his own sins and the perversity of heart which inclined him to commit them in the first place. Today the genre of spiritual autobiography is once again very popular, but with a difference: today people are more interested in confessing the sins of others. The way a certain author turned out was Mom and Dad’s fault, or because of a non-affectionate spouse, or because the company never really gave him his due and so squashed his sense of self-worth. But if your problems can get traced back to someone else, then not only have you rather nicely shifted the blame but you have also suggested a solution: you simply have to get some therapy to make peace with father, to re-build the self-esteem a careless lover stole from you, to feel better about yourself by garnering the goodies which you never got from your boss.
It is in this sense that Psalm 51 can serve as a bracing tonic. Here is a showcase display window of the elements that go into a well-rounded doctrine of sin. Two elements take center stage: one is the fact that it is the psalmist himself who is the problem, and the other is the notion that not only is God our judge, he’s right when he renders a harsh verdict. We properly stand before God, and God properly stands over against the shape of our lives.
The psalmist is unstinting in saying, “I am the one in need of repair! It’s my heart that needs fixing. No, it needs replacing.” So the psalmist begs for a new creation, for a radical re-wiring on the inside. There is in Psalm 51 virtually no hint of outward circumstances that contributed to this sin. The psalmist claims that he has been sinful since conception but he does not blame his mother or father for that, it’s just the way things are. Nor does he say that since he came into the world already bent, he’s just a victim of nature.
Instead he says that because he came into the world already corrupt, that is all the more reason to beg for new creation. Because he is willing to fess up in this psalm he feels the sting of God’s judgment, the crushing of his bones. He really feels bad. In fact, he’s downright miserable. He is very much, to borrow a contemporary phrase, “down on himself.” It is unrelenting.
Nevertheless, Psalm 51 is not finally bleak. Therein lies the mystery of faith. In the alchemy of grace words that are darker than dark lead to a brightness that cannot be quelled. The psalm begins drenched with grace. The first verse could be translated literally as, “Grace me in your grace, O God!” In the original Hebrew the first line is just three words, two of which drip with divine mercy. (A really literal rendering would be something like, “Grace, God, Grace!”) The last of those three words is a term I can never get enough of: the Hebrew word chesed. It’s the Old Testament’s favorite way of characterizing God. It is a word so redolent of good stuff, so fragrant of fresh starts, so freighted with joy, that no one has ever come up with an adequate translation. “Unfailing love,” “lovingkindness,” “abiding mercy” are a few of the attempts.
But what chesed is finally all about is the ineffable desire God has to forgive. Grace is the oxygen of heaven–there’s always more of it than there is of sin. Psalm 51 banks on this hyper-abundant grace, but not cheaply. God is not some ineffectual figure who is too much of a wimp to generate any anger. The fierce rightness of God’s judgment, the utter dread with which the psalmist faces the possibility of being cast out of the light, make it clear that God’s penchant for grace is not being invoked in a manipulative way.
But that is because a genuine awareness of God’s grace emerges only from a knowledge of sin’s seriousness. Here is a central wonder of the faith: the more soberly serious we are about sin and the reality of God’s judgment, the more joyfully exuberant we are about the shining splendor of grace and the way it drenches our lives with monsoons of forgiveness. We stand constantly under Jesus’ cross as the most stunning reminder of just how fierce God’s judgment on sin is. And yet we find joy emerging from the darkness, even because of the darkness!
We forget this at times, however. Those around us in society who dislike morose talk of sin and who think that being called a sinner is merely a neurotic affront are not the only ones who would just as soon skip topics related to sin and death and judgment. When it comes right down to it, we Christians are not wild about this, either.
In her book Traveling Mercies author Anne Lamott is unstinting in detailing her sins past and present, and they are the very sins that often make us the most uncomfortable: drugs, booze, bad language, and sex. She blames no one other than herself but gives unabashed thanks to Jesus for accepting and forgiving her the way she was and is, which, as she says, is mostly a mess. And there is little sense in making excuses about it or shifting blame.
We’re born bent, Psalm 51 tells us. We’ve got a problem that goes well beyond this or that isolated instance of sinful behavior. We need to face these dark facts. We need to tremble at the prospect of being cast out of God’s holy light. And if you think that sounds like a dark, morose way to live, if that all sounds like a “bummer” and a “downer” and just flat out no fun at all, that’s because you are forgetting the alchemy, the magic of grace.
You’re forgetting that this kind of honesty, this kind of straightforward acknowledgment of the way things are, leads to nothing short of a new creation through Jesus–the same Jesus who brought resurrection by facing death and hell for us. The rhythm of confession and forgiveness is the heartbeat of our lives. But so is an ever-deepening joy in grace–one which will put us on track to fullness of life with God in the New Creation.
Such a vision, such a hope for the world remade by God’s grace, is possible because that grace of God abides forever. It’s what allows us to take the risk of honesty and confession. It is what lets a few shafts of light from the New Creation pierce the darkness of our hearts already now. Attempting to skirt our own sin, ducking this way and that to avoid the truth about ourselves is a never-ending process that brings no peace.
“Let me hear joy” the psalmist cries out in verse 8. In the end he does hear this joy. Through the mystery and riddle of grace, that joy somehow emerges out of a reflection on death and sin and judgment. From that joy comes something else: the peace of God that surpasses all understanding; the peace of God that leads the way home.
Theologian Miroslav Volf once pondered the shape and nature of life with God in what we often call “heaven.” Volf speculated that even in our renewed state, the memory of what was bad in this world may still be there. Perhaps our conscious awareness of the good will require our being able to contrast good with evil. In other words, we will know what evil is, but we will never choose to do it because, as Volf writes, the love of God will so continually flood into our hearts that we will never have time or desire for anything else.
Our explorations of God’s New Creation, our sheer, unalloyed delight in one another, will provide a rich kaleidoscope of multi-layered and ever-changing patterns of joy. This will be a life so interesting, so filled with abiding curiosity to see what is around the next corner of God’s universe, that the thought of spoiling this will not occur to us.
Author: Doug Bratt
E Pluribus Unum (“out of many, one”) is one of the United States’ oldest mottoes. It originally referred to the diverse American colonies’ desire to unite into one nation. Throughout American history people have also seen it as the motto for the incorporation of diverse people into American society.
However, Ephesians 4 implies that E Pluribus Unum might be one of the Christian church’s mottoes. After all, it reminds its readers that a wide variety of people with diverse gifts and interests make up Christ’s worldwide Church.
Yet diversity makes unity an elusive quality. We live in a balkanized society that forms special interest groups to advance our own specific causes. Both those who proclaim and those who hear Ephesians 4 also tend to spend our time with people who share our interests and perspectives. Little even seems to unite even most Christians. We have not only diverse interests and perspectives, but also varied talents and gifts.
Yet in Ephesians 4 Paul insists that God expects disparate Christians to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (3). God’s adopted sons and daughters do this by, among other ways, acting, thinking and talking much like Jesus Christ. After all, we enhance Christian unity by being what Paul calls “completely humble and gentle,” and as well as “patient, bearing with one another in love” (2).
Yet how do those exhortations differ from, for instance, a pep talk a principal might give on the first day of school this month? Verse 1’s word “then,” better translated as “therefore,” signals the basic difference. It connects those moral qualities Paul praises with what he has written in the passage before it.
So as Joel Kok (The Lectionary Commentary, The Second Readings: Eerdmans, 2001, 326), to whom I owe a lot for this Starter notes, Paul’s moral imperatives grammatically flow from his indicatives about God’s work. To put it more simply, his description of how Christians ought to live grows out of his description of what God is doing in the church and in Jesus Christ.
God is working, writes Paul writes Ephesians 1:10, to “bring all things together . . . under . . . Christ.” Christ came, in fact, according to Ephesians 2:16, to reconcile both Jews and Gentiles “to God through the cross.” In other words, while Christians are naturally alienated not just from God but also each other, God, by the Holy Spirit, is working hard to make us one.
However, the apostle also expects God’s children to make a deliberate effort to contribute to that unity. Enhancing Christian unity requires what Kok calls counter-cultural, Christ-like attitudes and actions. In a world that increasingly seems to embrace arrogance, violence and short-temperedness, God through Paul calls Christians to embrace humility, gentleness and patience.
Yet, as Kok also points out, Paul’s words may sound almost graceless to those whom God saves by God’s grace that we receive with our faith. His call in verse 1 to “lead a life worthy of” our calling may sound like a call to somehow earn God’s great grace.
That’s why we need to remember grace’s transforming power. God, after all, doesn’t just graciously accept and save sinners. God also regenerates us, that is, God’s Spirit makes us more and more like Jesus Christ. So when Paul challenges God’s adopted sons and daughters to live in a way that’s worthy of God’s saving call, he’s simply describing the most appropriate response to God’s amazing grace.
God’s beloved children respond to God’s grace by no longer following a path of faithless disobedience. Instead we “walk” in a way that honors God, in humility, gentleness and loving patience. Christians walk in ways that work for peace among all people. You and I make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Kok insists that we can’t really overstate how important keeping this unity is to Paul. The apostle expects God’s people to do everything in our power to enhance the church’s unity as well as make it more visible. However, since at least some of us could walk to a Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Baptist church in our neighborhoods alone, his plea may sound rather naive.
That’s, as Kok goes on to note, why for Paul the “unity of the Spirit” is based primarily in the triune God’s unity. There can be “one body” only because there is “one Spirit.” There can be one Church only because one Spirit, one Lord and one Father are three persons who together are one God.
That is to say, Christian unity isn’t found in the fact that all Christians believe the exact same thing or worship in the exact same way. No, our unity is found in the triune God whom Christians worship through Jesus Christ. God’s people can be diverse in our beliefs and practices, yet make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit because the God whom we worship is one.
So those who worship this triune God can recognize our differences, even as we long for the day when they will disappear in the dazzling light of God’s glorious presence. We can also work to express our unity by working in missions and ministries with Christians from diverse faith traditions.
In fact, Christians can also look for ways to work with Christians whose gifts differ from theirs. After all, “there are different kinds of gifts,” as Paul writes in I Corinthians 12, “but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.”
So there is much diversity within the Church of Jesus Christ. Christians come from different backgrounds with different personalities and interests. God also gives God’s children a very wide variety of gifts and talents to work as preachers and teachers, musicians and artists.
Yet it’s one God who, by God’s Spirit, gives us all those diverse abilities. So those very gifts that sometimes seem to divide us actually unite us because they’re all gifts of the one Spirit.
When Christ returned to heaven, he shared gifts with his people on earth. Through his Spirit, he gifted some to be “apostles” (11). While there are no apostles in the strictest biblical sense of the word anymore, we may say that some have apostolic ministries. God has gifted some of God’s people to do apostolic things like lead and plant churches, as well as do missionary work both at home and abroad.
Paul goes on to say that God gifted other people to be “prophets” who speak for God to God’s people. In the strictest sense there are no more prophets than there are apostles anymore. None of us, after all, can claim to be divinely inspired the way, for instance, God inspired Old Testament prophets.
But we believe that God still uses people to speak God’s truths. The Lord still gives some the gift of not only understanding Scripture, but also communicating it well. Others God gives a unique ability to understand and speak to the times in which we live.
Still others, Paul writes, God gifts to be “evangelists.” Of course, God calls all of us to share the gospel with those who haven’t yet received his grace with their faith. To some, however, God seems to give special gifts for relating to unbelievers and addressing God’s Word to their circumstances. These we might call modern evangelists.
Finally, Paul describes the gifts God gives to “pastors and teachers.” Here he seems to be thinking of people who care for God’s people by teaching them the Word, as well as encouraging them in their love for God and each other. He may, in fact, be pointing ahead to the work done by those who read this Starter.
God doesn’t want God’s people to be “ignorant” about those incredibly diverse spiritual gifts God has graciously given us. God has given us those gifts, after all, for very specific purposes. Paul says that Christ gave us all our spiritual gifts in order to prepare Christ’s church for service. He also challenges and me to use our spiritual gifts to help God’s people become spiritually “mature.”
Yet those who proclaim Ephesians 4 might focus their reflections on Paul’s claim that God gives us spiritual gifts in order to more and more unify God’s church. He points out that God gives us diverse spiritual gifts to, among other things, build God’s church toward deeper and deeper unity in our knowledge of God in Christ.
After all, in verse 12 the apostle insists that God gives God’s children our diverse gifts in order to “build up the body of Christ.” And in verse 13 he calls us to use the talents God lends us to lead people toward “unity in the faith and knowledge of the Son of God.”
By knowing and using those gifts, we more clearly demonstrate that unity. However, as God’s adopted sons and daughters use the spiritual gifts God gives us, the Spirit will also build a stronger sense of that unity.
One of the quickest ways to feel a part of any community is to participate in its ministries. As Christians both learn and use the gifts Christ has given us, as we participate with others in our various ministries, we increasingly recognize the true place God has given to not only us, but also our brothers and sisters in the faith.
Some things hinder our ability to use the gifts God has given us. Most of God’s people are busy people. Some of God’s adopted children are also plain worn out from using our gifts for many years. That’s why those who proclaim Ephesians 4 might encourage all of our hearers to both know and use our spiritual gifts. That way even God’s busiest and most tired people can continue to serve God in some way with our talents.
In his book The Life of Johnson, James Boswell quotes Johnson: “Providence has wisely ordered that the more numerous men are, the more difficult it is for them to agree in anything, and so they are governed. There is no doubt, that if the poor should reason, ‘We’ll be the poor no longer, we’ll make the rich take their turn,’ they could easily do it, were it not that they can’t agree. So the common soldiers, though so much more numerous than their officers, are governed by them for the same reason.”