June 06, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
It’s such an interesting story, made the more curious by the Lectionary’s decision to extend the reading into the first 3 verses of Luke 8 where we encounter a brief list of the women who joined Jesus’ entourage of disciples and who even somehow bankrolled the ministry. Of course, that is just the capper to a story that features a “sinful” woman front and center to whom Jesus reaches out in intense Gospel love and whose sins Jesus forgives in an instant.
I guess it goes without saying that back in Jesus’ day and in the patriarchal culture of the time, attracting the support and company of lots of females probably only cinched the case against Jesus in many people’s minds. It’s nice to have followers but honestly, if Jesus were the Messiah—if Jesus were “going places” as we’d say today—then the people he’d be gathering around him would be movers and shakers, can-do folks of means who could get the job done and advance Jesus’ movement. But a rag-tag group of people that consisted of untutored fishermen, the odd tax collector, and above all, women did not fit that bill. Not by any stretch of the imagination.
Now, if Jesus could get more folks like Pharisee Simon to support his cause . . . well, that would be a different story. Get inside one of the more powerful religious groups of the day and you’d have a shot at accomplishing something. Maybe draw in the high priest, maybe the whole Sanhedrin. Today if you are running for the White House, you’ll solicit support from ordinary citizens like me (just donate $10 to a candidate sometime and watch what happens to your email account in coming months—candidates will definitely solicit your money). But when the candidate needs to cozy up to folks, have a high-level reception even in your own city, you as the small fry in the political world will never get invited and couldn’t get yourself in the door if you tried. Jesus needed to mingle not with the little people but with the higher-up types if he wanted to get something done.
This story, of course, turns all that on its head (as does the little coda in Luke 8:1-3). The kingdom of God and the Gospel it heralds will, it turns out, have the greatest appeal to and the mightiest impact on those who know they need grace and mercy the most, and as it true still yet today, the high and mighty of society are usually the last to feel that way. Surely Simon felt no need to anything in the way of forgiveness. He’d made his own way his whole life, thank you very much, on the Pharisee Plan and was, therefore, gratefully beholden to precisely no one.
Personally, I suspect Simon knew of Jesus’ reputation for attracting lowlifes before he issued this rather unusual dinner invitation. Call me cynical if you will but the whole thing feels like a set up to me. I am not sure why Jesus would get invited to the house of someone who was a part of the very religious establishment that was opposing Jesus. And I am really not sure why, upon arriving there, Jesus was treated so shabbily in a way no other guest would be treated. Were they already then trying to get a rise out of Jesus? Were they testing to see if this “holy” teacher they’d heard tell of would pitch a fit and make a scene on account of some social slight?
And while we’re in this cynical mode anyway, how in the world did a woman “with a past” slip into the house of a holy Pharisee who could no more afford to be seen in her company than any of his fellow Pharisees? Was she like those clever gate-crashers who somehow finagled their way to a White House dinner a few years ago? That seems unlikely. And seeing as everyone there, starting with Simon, knew of this woman and had her sized up in one short glance, it’s a cinch the doorman didn’t admit her to the party in complete ignorance of who it was he was letting in through the front door.
Looks to me like she was planted there to see how Jesus would react. Unsurprisingly Jesus reacts true to his gracious form and forgives the woman, welcomes her repentance and absorbs her lifetime of pain. Jesus is so full of the Gospel that it’s impossible for him to become unclean on account of coming into contact with the unclean—with Jesus it always went the other way as his holiness “infected” the other person, cleaning them up once and for all right then, right there.
And of course the bottom line is that she who has been forgiven much has much to feel grateful for and therefore is far more likely to be full of love than those who need little to no forgiveness in the first place.
The thing is . . . if how I have interpreted this story here as anything going for it in terms of the truth of the situation, then it turns out that Simon is a not-very-nice person who actually has at least as much crap in his soul as that hapless woman ever did.
I like how Luke frames the last part of the story, calling attention to the fact that at some point Jesus—although still speaking TO Simon—turned away from him to look directly at the woman (v. 44). I imagine that was still his posture when at the end of the story he utters to heartbreakingly wonderful words “Your sins are forgiven.” What Simon could not and did not know at that moment was that his own dearest longing should have been to have Jesus turn his face back toward Simon in order to say the same thing. Of course, Simon would not welcome the words. He’d get hung up on the apparent blasphemy of Jesus’ taking on the prerogative of God the same as Simon’s other guests did.
So the scene ends with Jesus turned away from his duplicitous and self-righteous host beaming the very grace and compassion we all need toward her alone whilst the self-righteous prigs in the house clucked their tongues and wagged their heads over the tawdry scandal and heresy of it all. Small wonder that the very next few verses Luke took care to note that Jesus’ entourage was getting beefed up by some generous and loving women.
They were far better company than Simon and his friends could ever be on this earth.
That’s sad. It’s also a warning insofar as any of us even yet today feel like forgiveness is needed more for some folks than for we ourselves. We all need to pine for that loving look from Jesus. It’s never something somebody else needs more than I do.
Remembering that little fact generates a whole lot of joy, and among other things, the church should be a font of joy far more often than it sometimes actually is.
The Greek text of this story provides several key vocabulary words and also theological concepts that attend those words. First, as is true all through Luke, the idea of forgiveness is closely tied with the idea of “release” and “letting go” as stemming from the word for forgiveness which is aphesis. And in this story it’s hard to deny that among all the things that Jesus’ forgiveness of this woman means, one key meaning is that she is released from being stuck to the category of “sinner” into which the Pharisees and others had permanently pigeonholed her. Also, when Jesus says that this woman had “loved” much, he does use the loaded Greek word “agape”.
(If you want to view a powerful sermon on this story from Dr. Luke Powery, Dean of the Chapel at Duke Divinity School, click here.)
Some years back the Templeton Foundation funded a major nationwide study on people’s attitudes toward forgiveness. Co-sponsored by the University of Michigan and the National Institute for Mental Health, the study found that 75% of Americans are “very confident” that they have been forgiven by God for their past offenses. The lead researcher, Dr. Loren Toussaint, expressed great surprise at such high confidence, especially since many of these same people are not regular church attenders. Still, three-quarters of the people surveyed had few doubts about God’s penchant to let bygones be bygones.
The picture was less bright, however, when it came to interpersonal relations. Only about half of the people surveyed claimed that they were certain that they had forgiven others. Most people admitted that whereas God may be a galaxy-class forgiver, ordinary folks struggle. It’s difficult to forgive other people with whom you are angry. It’s even difficult to forgive yourself sometimes. But where forgiveness does take place, the study found a link between forgiveness and better health. The more prone a person is to grant forgiveness, the less likely he or she will suffer from any stress-related illnesses.
Apparently, forgiveness is important, it’s necessary, it’s even healthy. What’s more, we need it because sooner or later, we will encounter hurts inflicted by others. That seems to be no less true inside the church than it is beyond the church’s fellowship. Indeed, as many commentators have pointed out, whatever else the Lord Jesus Christ may have envisioned for his church, one thing is certain: Jesus was not so naive as to think that the church would be such a bright, sunny, happy place that forgiveness of sins would never be needed. Quite the opposite: Jesus was no utopian visionary who imagined that if only a few simple ground rules were followed, his future disciples would experience unending bliss. Forgiveness is where we live. The question is whether we know this, celebrate this, and so share Jesus’ own eagerness to pass it along to all others who, like the woman in Luke 7, spend their days literally crying for release.
1 Kings 21: 1-10, (11-14), 15-21a
Author: Doug Bratt
In the hymn This Is My Father’s World we profess, “Though the wrong is great and strong, God is the ruler yet.” Yet the “wrong” often seems almost too strong. It often has so many willing allies. All too many powerful people and institutions seem so eager to use their power for “wrong” purposes.
Set against the modern backdrop of the extent and power of what’s “wrong,” the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday is comforting. It reminds us that no matter how unjust and “wrong” powerful people and institutions may be, “God is,” as we sing, “the ruler yet.”
As our text opens, Ahab is still Israel’s king who should be a model of faith and obedience. After all, God expected Israel’s leaders to be different from the surrounding nations’ kings who pursued their own wealth and power. God expected Israel’s kings to submit to God’s law because their reigns should be reflections of God’s own heavenly kingship.
However, Ahab is not a godly king. He doesn’t want what’s best for God’s people. What’s more, his wife Jezebel is an outspoken advocate for her god, Baal. Both together and separately they’ve also tried to make the life of God’s prophet Elijah both miserable and short. Ahab and Jezebel, then, are symbols of the greatness and strength of “the wrong.”
Yet even sinful people feel the need to relax. So Ahab and Jezebel took some time off from harassing Elijah to live in a winter palace in Jezreel. Apparently Ahab also fancied himself a kind of amateur gardener there. Perhaps he thought he could stretch the royal budget by growing a few potatoes and beans.
The king, however, didn’t think his own garden was big or good enough. So he looked enviously at the garden of his neighbor, Naboth. As a result, Ahab made his neighbor an offer he assumed he couldn’t refuse: either a trade for or outright purchase of his garden.
Naboth, however, had no interest in selling or trading his vineyard. Since he had apparently inherited it, he had no interest in getting rid of what had been in his family for years. Yet when Naboth says he inherited (3) his garden, he also means that God leased it to his ancestors when they entered the Promised Land. He essentially means that he inherited his land from Yahweh himself.
God gave the Israelites the land of promise that they were to always keep in their possession. So while God allowed the Israelites to rent out or temporarily sell their land, God wouldn’t let them permanently sell it. Naboth, then, was simply obeying God by refusing to permanently sell his garden to Ahab.
Ahab, however, is neither much of a biblical or legal scholar. So what does Israel’s mighty king do when his neighbor won’t give up his land? He goes home to pout and sullenly refuse to eat anything. The king acts like a child who slinks to the dinner table and then deliberately turns her chair away from the table so she won’t have to eat.
Yet even for Ahab, this seems like a disproportionate response to his disappointment. Why does the king get so upset about such an apparently small thing? Some scholars point out that it’s precisely this triviality that so bothers Ahab. After all, while’s he’s Israel’s mighty king, he can’t even persuade an ordinary local landowner to sell to or trade him the land he wants.
Ahab fully knows the power of neighboring kings. In fact, in the very next scene his wife will give him an elementary lesson in royal brutality. Most kings don’t ask. They simply take. Yet God limited the power of Israel’s kings like Ahab. God expected them to be human imitators of his royalty.
When Samuel anointed Saul he predicted Israel’s kings would exploit their people, just as foreign kings did. While God wanted Israel’s kings to serve the Israelites, God knew that all too often they would mostly serve themselves.
Yet apparently Ahab feels powerless to do anything about Naboth’s refusal except to mope like a pouting toddler. This leaves it up to his wife, Jezebel, to straighten things out. She has no qualms about brutally exercising royal power, much the way her own royal father probably did.
Jezebel shows who’s really in charge in Israel’s royal court. She ruthlessly acts in Ahab’s name to arrange a conspiracy that will put Naboth to death and seize his vineyard. If Naboth won’t give Ahab his property, she’ll take it from him.
She first manufactures a crisis that she gives Naboth some kind of major role in dealing with. Jezebel then manufactures trumped-up charges against Naboth for breaking the third commandment. If judges find Naboth guilty of the crime of cursing both God and Ahab, he’s liable to execution. So when they find him guilty of it, Jezreel’s citizens march him outside of the city, where they stone him to death.
Though the queen apparently didn’t pick up a stone, Jezebel was responsible for Naboth’s murder. This, however, doesn’t seem to trouble Jezebel at all. When the authorities report Naboth’s death to her, she triumphantly speaks to her likely still pouting husband. “You can have Naboth’s vineyard,” the queen tells Ahab. “Now you can plant a few extra cucumber and tomato plants. Your neighbor’s dead, just like he deserved for ‘dissing’ you that way.”
Yet while it seems as if Ahab and Jezebel have gotten away with an incredible injustice against a fellow Israelite, they actually haven’t. God sends Elijah back to Ahab for at least the third time in recent memory. After all, among other things, God’s prophets often served as Israel’s kings’ conscience. In this case, however, the relationship between Elijah and Ahab is more like what one biblical scholar calls guerrilla warfare. The prophet, after all, confronts the king suddenly, and then quickly leaves again.
Elijah warns Ahab that Jezebel and his punishment for Naboth’s murder will be severe. Yet amazingly, incredibly, miraculously, this somehow provokes Ahab to repent. For a time, at least, the king does all the necessary things to show that he’s genuinely sorry for his sins.
And while the Bible suggests Ahab’s repentance is temporary, God responds to it by delaying the destruction of Ahab’s reign anyway. Ahab’s dynasty will die, but not until his son Ahaziah ascends Israel’s throne.
Yet Ahab proves to be sinfully unwilling to delay God’s judgment permanently. So just as God has promised through Elijah, both he and Jezebel die horrible deaths, at the command of Jehu, whom the prophet anointed. In fact, Israel’s king has his soldiers throw Ahab’s mutilated corpse right where Naboth’s vineyard once stood.
The Israelites who first read this story are probably in exile at the time. This story helps answer the question of just why God sent them into exile. Among other sins, it was because Israel’s kings and queens betrayed God’s laws for royalty. Even Israel and Judah’s best kings, people like David, Solomon, Jehoshaphat and Jehu, were deeply flawed.
In a season of much political discussion, Ahab and Jezebel’s confrontation with Naboth has implications. Those who preach and teach this text may want to explore them with those to whom we preach and teach.
It reminds us that God is the one who lifts up rulers into their places. While Ahab may have assumed that he ascended to power in his father’s royal footsteps, we know that God actually put him in power. However, the Lord also just as quickly yanked the king down.
After all, sins against society’s most vulnerable members are sins against God. The Old Testament is full of stories of how seriously God takes the abuse of power like Ahab’s seizure of Naboth’s vineyard. So this text invites God’s people to pray for the leaders of the world.
Christians sometimes have good reason to criticize national leaders. But 1 Kings 21’s preachers and teacher may want to ask if hearers are as eager to pray for them and God’s leading of them as we are to criticize them. The temptation to rule and use power unjustly is, after all, very powerful. While they may not be tempted to abuse them, leaders are tempted to ignore the poor, weak and powerless. So Christians pray that God will give those in power a heart and compassion for society’s most vulnerable members.
However, this text also invites Christians to make themselves more aware of powerful peoples’ stands on the poor and other vulnerable people. Before they vote, Christians learn as much as they can about candidates’ attitudes and actions toward defenseless people.
What’s more, when leaders abuse their power, this text invites Christians to assume Elijah’s job of prophetically speaking out. It summons us to address God’s Word publicly and courageously to the various misdeeds of our society’s powerful people.
This may not make Christians popular with the allies of those in power. But, by God’s Spirit, prophetic work may bless those whose abuse of power we address. After all, leaders who neglect and abuse society’s vulnerable members aren’t just hurting those people. They’re also disobeying God. And our text has forcefully reminded us just what consequences that may have.
Former American president Lyndon Johnson’s life is a fertile field for those who want to proclaim biblical truths about the dangers of power. In his book, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent, Robert Caro writes, “The hunger that gnawed at LBJ most deeply was a hunger not for riches but for power in its most naked form; to bend others to his will.
At every stage of his life, this hunger was evident: what he always sought was not merely power but the acknowledgement by others – the face-to-face, subservient acknowledgment – that he possessed it. You had to ask. He insisted on it.”
In commenting on this, Neal Plantinga adds, LBJ “wanted to dominate other people. [Part of this came, no doubt, from the residual shame from crushing ignominies and defects of his childhood.]”
Author: Stan Mast
For the second week in a row, I’m going to write on the alternate reading from the Psalter, since I covered Psalm 32 just a few months ago as part of Lent. In a sense, Psalm 5 and Psalm 32 are about the same thing—egregious evil—though Psalm 32 focuses on the evil we commit ourselves, while Psalm 5 deals with the evil perpetrated against us.
The other Old Testament readings for this fourth Sunday after Pentecost are vivid examples of such evil. In I Kings 21 we have the bloody story of Ahab and Jezebel committing murder in order to steal the land of Naboth, while in II Samuel 11 we hear about David’s murder of Uriah in order to steal Bathsheba. It’s not just the wicked King and the witchy Queen who do genuinely evil things. It’s also the ostensibly good one, the one who usually walked very close to God, even through the darkest valley. In both cases, we hear a courageous prophet confronting a king of Israel who is guilty of egregious evil.
The superscription of Psalm 5 identifies it as a Psalm of David, the first of 30 some Psalms associated with that king. So, here in Psalm 5 we discover that the good king is himself the victim of such evil in the form of enemies whose lying tongues are cutting him to shreds. Here is David himself speaking words that might have been spoken by Uriah and Naboth.
This might not seem like a fruitful preaching text. I mean, who has enemies these days? Oh, wait. How about the immigrants from the Middle East who have escaped the terror of their home country only to find themselves spoken of in derogatory terms in the West? They are surrounded by enemies. Closer to home, does anybody know a fifth grader whose existence has been made miserable by a cabal of the cool kids who whisper about him during every recess? And what about the college coed who finds herself excluded from every social circle by a campaign of lies about her promiscuity (or today, her chastity)? Have we heard any vicious lies openly shouted during the Presidential contest?
Let’s get more personal. How many pastors have lost the trust of their church because a small squad of self-appointed “saints” launched a guerilla war on their reputation? If we think back over our lives and imagine our way into the lives of our congregants, we’ll discover that we’ve all been the victims of egregious evil in the form of lying enemies. That’s part of the journey of discipleship for everyone as we move through Ordinary Time.
So we know the anguish that leads to the lamentation and imprecation David utters in Psalm 5. Who hasn’t pleaded with God over and over? “Give ear to my words, consider my sighing, listen to my cry.” This is not polite prayer; this is anguished pleading. This is the first thing David does every morning. Some scholars think that David’s double mention of “morning” in verse 3 is a reference to the morning sacrifice. That may be, but it might also reflect how important prayer is for this victim of evil. Before he does anything else when he wakes up, he is on his knees praying his pain. That’s because, as Reardon puts it, “When the Christian rises, it is always to a battlefield.” We may not be aware of that, but David certainly was.
But it isn’t just anguish that fills David’s heart. There is also anticipation, because of who God is. As he begins his prayer of lamentation and imprecation, he reminds himself that he is praying to his covenant Lord (“O Yahweh”), who is the final arbiter of justice (“my King”), who hears David’s voice because there is a personal relationship between the two (“my God”). So even as he moans in anguish, he lays his requests before God and waits in expectation. Whatever the day may hold for him, David is certain of one thing as his day begins. There is a God who hears prayer, and that God is his God.
In verses 4-6 the Psalmist gives the reason for his confident anticipation. It’s not that he can see his enemies being defeated; indeed, in verses 9-10 they are very much in the picture yet. But God is even more in the picture. And David is confident that God will deal with them because of who God is. “You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil.”
If we have any question where David is going with this line of thought, he removes any doubt as he ramps up the rhetoric about God’s opposition to egregious evil: “with you the wicked cannot dwell. The arrogant cannot stand in your presence.” That doesn’t mean that the wicked freely choose to stay away from God, though they do. It means, rather, that God is hostile to those who do the kind of things Ahab and Jezebel (and, yes, David) do. In fact, “you hate those who do wrong…. Bloodthirsty and deceitful men you abhor.” And you do something about them. “You destroy those who tell lies….”
Whew! Those are hard words, words that will not be heard with favor by anyone who has been captured by “moralistic therapeutic deism” (to use Christian Smith’s description of many young adults. Even many Christians will be put off by that kind of language. What about the God of love who “forgives all our iniquity?” Reardon captures our contemporary ambivalence about David’s words. “Some modern Christians are tempted to see in such sentiments only a lamentable vestige of Old Testament negativity and judgmentalism, now appropriately surpassed by a New Testament emphasis on God’s mercy and compassion… the Old Testament God was a no-nonsense Divinity, the God of the New Testament is quite a bit more tolerant.”
So what are we to do with David’s sharp-edged prayer? We could use it to vindicate our own vengeance. David seems to go that direction with his prayer in verse 10, where he asks to God to deal with the wicked according to their own sins. (That’s an important note, by the way. David asks for proportionate punishment for the wicked. “Let their intrigues be their downfall.” Let them reap what they sow.)
But let’s not miss the fact that David is trusting God to do this work of vengeance. Rather than trying to even the score himself, David in effect prays, “Vengeance is yours, O Lord.” He is entrusting the cause of justice to God, who is perfectly just. That is a far better way to handle towering evil than most of us could invent. It’s not yet the path of unilateral forgiveness voiced by the Son of God on the cross; “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” But remember that this Psalm is the cry of a mere mortal rising from the depths of anguish. Such lament and imprecation have a place, even if only a momentary one, in the life of faith. It is not wrong to cry for justice when one is the victim of gross injustice.
And consider that Reardon says. “When the Psalmist prays for the destruction of the wicked, this is not his personal sentiment, so to speak. It is not the prayer of private vindictiveness but of foundational justice. It is the plea that God vindicate his own moral order. Inveterate sinning against the light—unrepented evil—does exist in human hearts, and God hates it. Jesus on the cross had not one word to say to the blasphemous, unrepentant thief.” We may want to go beyond that in our sermons, as I will suggest in my concluding words. But Psalm 5 is one of many texts (including New Testament passages) that remind us of the justice of God. As Reardon says (one more time), “The loving mercy of God must never be thought of or described in ways suggesting that Christianity is less morally serious than Judaism.”
David does not end his prayer with a plea for just treatment of the wicked. Both in the section chosen by the Lectionary (verses 7-8) and at the end of the Psalm (verses 11-12), he ends with a plea that God will deal mercifully with himself. Knowing that he is capable of great evil himself, David prays that God will deal with him according to his “great mercy.” (verse 7) The Hebrew there is chesed, that famous covenant word referring to God’s faithfulness and lovingkindness and tender mercy toward his beloved but sinful children.
The heart of David’s prayer is that he will be able to get to the safety of God’s earthly house. There he will bow in reverence toward God’s holy, heavenly temple. Grant me sanctuary, O Lord, in your presence, especially in this time when I find myself in the presence of these lying enemies. And as I journey toward you through their lying ways, help me to walk a straight path.
Is David acknowledging that his enemies tempt him to stray? Is he admitting, in those immortal words of Pogo from the old comic strip, “We have met the enemy and he is us?” Or is he simply saying, “Help me to walk in your righteous ways, so that my enemies will have no actual ground for the lies they are spreading about me?” Perhaps he meant all of the above. Heaven knows that all of us have a hard time walking the “straight and narrow” as we try to follow Jesus, especially when we are the victims of snarling evil. When we are being attacked by evil, it is very difficult not to stagger and stray off the paths of righteousness. So we need to pray for ourselves, as well as about the enemy.
David concludes his prayer with one more shot at the wicked and a wider plea for all of God’s people. His intercession for “all who take refuge in you” is as tender as his imprecation against those who “have rebelled against you” is tough. But is that the best we can do with Psalm 5? I think not. Though we must be careful not to pit David against Paul or, worse, Jesus, we can point to the New Testament readings for this fourth Sunday after Pentecost. While there is a time and place for lament and imprecation in the Christian journey, we should end with the kind of grace shown by Jesus and preached by Paul.
In Luke 7:36-8:3, we see Jesus accepting the loving attention of a notorious sinner. Her humble approach to Jesus was a sign of her devotion to the Savior. Jesus declares that she has been forgiven much and, thus, she loves much. In Galatians 2:15-21 Paul exposes the heart of the Gospel. It is not doing good that will gain us God’s favor; it is trusting Christ. Of course, coming to Christ involves dying to oneself and living by faith in Christ. But becoming good and keeping the law is not a pre-condition to coming to Christ. Even God’s enemies can be reconciled to God through Jesus (Romans 5:6-11).
As Jesus’disciples followed him on that winding road to the cross, they knew they needed to pray. So, they asked, “Lord, teach us to pray.” The prayer he taught them ends with a petition that covers evil and enemies of all sorts. “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” In my Reformed confessional tradition, the Heidelberg Catechism gives this broad interpretation of that sixth petition. “By ourselves we are too weak to hold our own even for a moment. And our sworn enemies—the devil, the world, and our own flesh— never stop attacking us. And so, Lord, uphold us and make us strong with the strength of your Holy Spirit, so that we may not go down to defeat in this spiritual struggle, but may firmly resist until we finally win the complete victory.” Any sermon on Psalm 5 should end with something like that.
Author: Scott Hoezee
“I have been crucified with Christ so that it is no longer I who live but Christ in me.”
What a soaring declaration. It’s one of the most famous lines in the New Testament. In fact, it’s so well known that it’s one of those verses that became context-less somewhere along the line. It’s a counted-cross-stitch wall hanging, a Christian greeting card epigraph, words etched into stained glass under a picture of Christ hanging on the cross.
Ah, but that line did have a context, and in this case it’s not just the context of a letter to Galatia that I am referring to. Within that epistle there is a sub-context. It’s a personal narrative with Paul reporting in the first person what he said when he met with the Apostles in Jerusalem some while back (and a good many years after he had become a Christian Apostle himself, as Paul recounted in an earlier Lectionary passage from Galatians 1). And that context is an argument, a donnybrook, an all-out theological fist fight between Paul and, in this context, especially the Apostle Peter.
Paul had just spent years working among the Gentiles in places like Corinth and Galatia and all over the then known world. He’d been declaring the message Jesus himself gave him: salvation is for everyone—Jew or Greek—without precondition. It’s all grace. It was all taken care of by Jesus in his death and resurrection. Paul had put his neck on the line again and again in preaching this message. So he was sure that the folks who had been Apostles long before he had become one were on the same page. They had received the same Spirit of Christ as he had, after all. So they were surely all singing the same song in the same key, right?
Well, perhaps not. Because Paul found out that some among his fellow Apostles were still willing to insist on Jewish ceremonies—circumcision chief among them—as a precondition to becoming a Christian (or as a way to make sure you were REALLY saved even after you had become a Christian). By this time the Apostle Peter had reason to know this was wrong. He’d had that rooftop vision in Joppa, had witnessed the Spirit’s outpouring on Cornelius and family, and had himself told the Apostles that he did not wait for those folks to become Jews first before he baptized them as Christians. It’s all grace, it’s all the Spirit’s working, it’s all God’s work so that all human ceremonies and works are at an end. Peter knew this.
Except now Paul himself witnessed that Peter—he who had had such feet of clay during Jesus’ earthly ministry—could still waffle and wobble depending on the company he was keeping at any given moment. When some fierce and radical pro-circumcision people were within earshot, Peter might just mumble that yes, perhaps, maybe, it is possible after all that . . . maybe this is necessary. Or at least it couldn’t hurt to go ahead with it (actually it might hurt but . . .).
Paul was livid. He confronted them to their faces, and in Galatians 2 Paul tells the Galatians this story as part of his explanation for why he was so mad at them for caving in to the same thing sometime after Paul had departed Galatia. Thus the “I have been crucified with Christ . . .” line is a quote of what Paul preached—a bit purple-faced no doubt—in front of the other Apostles, including Peter who may have heard that now-famous line while cowering in a corner as he blushed and trembled at being called out for something he knew full well was the truth.
What an extraordinary image! The first man who ever heard Galatians 2:20 was having his ears pinned back by those words at the time. And if it’s true that Peter blushed in holy embarrassment at times while Paul spoke, it may also be true that he turned red in a bit of anger at having been called out by this guy who had not even been around Jesus physically the way Peter, James, John, and the others had been. If only this Paul person were not so correct . . . why, Peter might even have to say something!
But Paul was right. More than a little. If there had been ANY other way to salvation—particularly any other way that we human beings could have taken care of on our own to begin with—then God’s own Son would not have had to die so horribly, so publicly, so gruesomely and accursedly. There is, logically speaking, only one reason that the Son of God did die that way and that was because it was the only way. It’s all grace or it’s all in vain as far as Christ’s sacrifice goes. Paul saw no middle ground here, could not conceive of a compromise that could be brooked, could not abide so much as a hint of anyone’s working their own way to heaven.
It’s still a struggle today, of course. Oh, not concerning circumcision or keeping kosher or any other noticeably religious ritual or rite. But we have more subtle forms of adding on to the work of Christ to make sure we are in good with God. Mostly it’s our public morality. Ask the average church goer what differentiates her from her unbelieving neighbor and the answer won’t be “Nothing at all save for the grace of God in Christ.” No, it will more likely be “Well, I live better than those folks. I get up and go to church Sunday mornings while they sleep in and watch ‘Meet the Press.’ I don’t party on the weekends like they do and get all drunk and loud. I’m just a better person, God’s kind of person, you know?”
The cross remains an offense even to Christians because its message really is exactly what Paul said it is: none of that morality does you ONE SINGLE OUNCE of saving good! Forget it. Bracket it. Realize you are as lost as your worst neighbor were it not for God’s prior grace poured out from the cross.
Something about that image of the Apostle Peter cowering in a corner, alternating between embarrassment and anger, captures this nicely if we can remember the context for Paul’s famous words in verse 20. Because from time to time we are all Peter, we are all full of ourselves, we are all willing to grant more credit to the human side of things than we should if we really want the cross of Jesus to shine with the luster of grace it deserves. We deny it, of course. But hearing Paul’s soaring—and also searing—words in Galatians 2 in context pins also our ears back and should cause us once again to let go of our foolish confidence in our deeds and just let Christ be all in all (and all in all also always!).
According to John’s gospel Jesus’ last cry from the cross was, “It is finished!” As Richard Lischer has written, you can understand the English word “finished” in different ways. One way is in the sense of completion. When a baker has “finished” making an apple pie, it’s ready to eat. In England, however, the British use the word slightly differently. If you are out for dinner and someone asks for some more kidney pie, the server may say, “Sorry, luv, but the kidney pie is finished.” She doesn’t mean it’s baked and ready to eat but that it’s all gone. The pie is not completed but depleted.
The Greek word Jesus used to declare his saving work “finished” on the cross means that it is completed, whole, ready to go. Yet sometimes we act as though Jesus really did not wrap it all up. He took the work as far as he could go before getting whacked but then he was finished–now it’s our turn to provide the last few missing pieces. But we’re wrong.
Sometimes in a film we see a scene in which a son who has long been estranged from his father is told his father has died. And sometimes this ne’er-do-well son will ask, “Did Papa mention me before he died? Did he say my name?” As Lischer notes, contained in such questions is the desperate hope that the words of a dead man might retroactively re-make the past.
Jesus knew that every last one of us has that wish deep down. We want the past to be better than it was. So we keep running, hoping to hit on a winning formula that will make things better by healing the past. We keep trying to extend life to give ourselves more time. An article in the New York Times Magazine once suggested that breakthroughs in genetics and medicine might let people in the near-future live vibrant lives until they are 150. Maybe such a prospect sounds good to all those old folks who look back on the regrets of their past and conclude, “There just wasn’t enough time. If only I had a little more time, I could fix this or that, reconcile with him or her.”
But it’s not finally a matter of time. There could never be enough of that. We need something more and something else to fix what’s broken. We need Jesus. We need his cross. We need to join him on that cross and just get dead so that God can raise us up again. We don’t get stuck at any transition point but we move right on to the final destination. We look to Jesus’ death and maybe we also ask, “Did Jesus mention me? Did he say my name?” Yes, he did. And he said you could stop running. “It is finished.”