July 10, 2017
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Author: Scott Hoezee
In between Jesus’ telling of this famous parable and his own point-by-point explanation of the parable’s meaning and symbolism there comes an eight-verse section that the Lectionary would have us skip but that contains some of the most intriguing material in this part of Matthew 13. Mainly what Jesus says there is that the seemingly confusing nature of parables mirrors the confusion that the people already have. (Of course, Jesus also says that the disciples “get it,” they understand and have been given the secret of the kingdom. Still, I wonder how well those same disciples would have done had Jesus asked them to interpret the parable!! I have the funny feeling they might not have looked as with it as Jesus indicates they should be!)
In any event, Jesus says he tells parables because somehow doing his teaching this way matches the spiritual cluelessness of most of his listeners. As Tom Long once pointed out, Matthew presents a kinder and gentler Jesus in his reply to the disciples. Whereas Mark has Jesus saying “I tell parables in order to confuse them,” Matthew tweaks that Isaiah-esque language a bit to have Jesus say that “I tell parables because they are confused.”
Either way or both ways, however, Jesus is saying that if his words cause a lot of arched eyebrows and furrowed foreheads, it’s not strictly speaking his fault, as this landmark Parable of the Sower likewise claims. Because the word of the kingdom—that vital seed that Jesus came to sow into people’s hearts—may well be the most important word anyone will ever hear but the fact is that things have fallen into bad enough shape in this old world that the odds are definitely stacked against the success of the gospel seed.
Four soil types are identified but only one has a shot at yielding anything resembling a good crop. But then, this would be no news at all to actual farmers. You wonder what the people heard when Jesus first told this story. Maybe some of the actual farmers in the crowd chortled to themselves to hear the story. “This guy’s been in the woodshop too long,” some may have mused, “because he doesn’t have a clue as to what farming is all about.”
Today we might have the same reaction if we heard a story about a farmer who hooked up his planter to the back of his John Deere, started up the tractor, but then threw the PTO switch to activate the planter even before he was out of his driveway. There he is putt-putting down the country lane with corn seed scattering everywhere as he goes. It bounces on the road, some flies into the ditch. When he finally gets near his field, he first has to cut through a weedy and thorny patch with corn seed still flying out loosey-goosey from that planter that, by all rights, had been switched on way too early.
In truth, no farmer would be so careless, so profligate in the scattering of valuable seed. It would not even make sense to do this. It would be a waste, a spectacle of great prodigality that a frugal and economically minded farmer would never tolerate.
But Jesus says that God is just such a foolish farmer. He’s got (apparently) more than enough seed to go around and so throws it anywhere and everywhere, the odds of success notwithstanding. Maybe if the whole world were as God intended, maybe the seeds would find a higher success rate—maybe they’d even sprout 100% of the time as every heart would be fertile ground for the loving words of the Creator.
As it stands, however, people have built roads in their hearts, veritable highways that have gotten too packed down by the busyness of life, by the high-falootin’ claims of science, and by the cynicism and arrogance of the age. We’ve met these people and a few of them have been publishing best-selling books of late to sneer at the very idea of God, religion, faith. The seed of the gospel can just bounce off such a hard heart. Maybe a bird of the air will eat it. Maybe the seed will get smushed under the tires of whatever vehicle whizzes through that heart next. But it won’t grow. Not in this life anyway.
Others are not that bad off but they have nevertheless been made fiercely shallow by a get-rich-quick, instant gratification culture of indulgence and fads. They have been trained by the media to always be on the lookout for products touted as “New and Improved” and have come to believe that the next best thing to come along is always just around the corner and it will be theirs for the snagging. Sometimes the seed of the gospel shoots up like a fast-growing kudzu in people’s hearts but then withers just as quickly when the shallow, me-first craving for novelty once more takes over.
Still other hearts—and we’ve met these people, too—are just plain busy and crowded. These hearts are neither calloused nor shallow. In fact, there is some real depth to them. Lots of stuff grows here. But in the end, it’s too much. The seed of the gospel comes in and sprouts just fine but faces stiff competition for light and warmth and nutrients. Because just over there the plants of commerce and business are growing. Concerns about the 401k fund, the Roth IRA, the kids’ college funds, and the growth of their stock market portfolio absorb a lot of nutrients from the soil of the heart (isn’t it interesting how financial firms in their advertising always use the horticultural images of growth?) And also in the garden of this heart are the plants of community involvement, of the PTA at school, of politics and social justice and ecological activism and . . . and it’s all good stuff (or a lot of it is) but it sure makes one busy. And so when the pastor calls looking to recruit some new elders and deacons for the church, well, what can one say? “Sorry, pastor, but I just don’t have time for everything.” (A funny reply seeing as, faith tells us, the Gospel IS everything . . .)
There is, of course, that fourth and final heart/soil and the seed of the gospel does splendidly well there, thanks be to God (literally). Because given the apparently long odds for gospel success, you have to assume that the hearts whose soil is deep, wide, and unencumbered with other things is a field cleared by the Holy Spirit himself. Only the power of Almighty God could overcome the obstacles thrown up by this world: the obstacles of cynicism and despair, of media hype and incessant novelty, of sheer busyness and greed.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear. She who has ears to hear, let her hear. The coming of the seed and its success—when that happens—is all grace. Maybe that’s why the farmer keeps lobbing seeds at even the unlikeliest of targets. It’s not that the farmer doesn’t understand the long odds. It’s just that when you’re talking about salvation by grace, it’s not finally about the odds but about the persistence of the Holy One who won’t stop.
Matthew 13 opens by telling us that on the day when Jesus told this set of parables, starting with the Sower, the crowds following Jesus and hanging on his every word had grown very large—so large that Jesus had to invent his own shoreline amphitheater to be heard. So maybe it’s no wonder that Jesus tumbled to tell this parable first. Looking out over that big crowd and scanning not only the shining faces turned his way but scanning also the hearts of those people with a kind of spiritual MRI, Jesus could see the hard hearts, the shallow hearts, the thorny hearts, the pure and unencumbered hearts. And so Jesus as much as said to that wild assemblage of hearts, “Have I got a story for you . . .”
In preaching on Mark’s version of the Parable of the Sower, Tom Long claimed that Jesus preached in these confusing parables in order to make people deeper thinkers about what the gospel is all about. Jesus did not want to have people grab the gospel too quickly because such a quick grab almost always resulted in bad faith or shallow faith that did not last long (a point made within the Parable of the Sower itself, of course). In that connection of wanting people to grow deeper, Long told this story:
The great preacher George Buttrick was once flying on an airplane. As he sat there, he had a legal pad out on which he was furiously scribbling some notes for his sermon the coming Sunday. The man next to Buttrick inquired, “Say, what are you working on there, sir.” “My sermon for Sunday–I’m a Christian preacher.” “Oh,” the other man replied. “Well, I don’t like to get caught up in the complexities of religion. I like to keep it simple. You know, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ The Golden Rule. That’s my religion!” “I see,” Rev. Buttrick replied, “and what do you do for a living?” “I’m an astronomer. I teach astrophysics at a university.” “Ah, yes, astronomy,” Buttrick shot back. “Well, I don’t like to get caught up in the complexities of science. ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.’ That’s my astronomy. Who could ever need more than that, eh?”
Author: Doug Bratt
Sometimes it’s precisely when we assume nothing can go wrong that things, in fact, do go quite wrong. Thankfully, then, God is graciously present in and to such things, always providentially bending them toward God’s good and loving purposes.
It certainly seems like nothing can go wrong as the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday unfolds. After all, old Abraham has finally found a good wife for his son. That son of God’s promise, Isaac, and his wife Rebekah have fallen in love and married.
Yet the child of the promise’s wife, like his mother, has not been able to have children for twenty years. So Isaac and Rebekah, as well as their parents and God’s promise, have no natural guarantees for the future. They have no way of providing themselves with children or the future they provide.
That means that Isaac and Rebekah, as well as Abraham’s whole family and God’s promise, will survive only if God intervenes. So once again, Abraham’s family must learn to embrace what Walter Brueggemann calls “precariousness.” It must depend entirely on God for its very survival.
It’s a reliance that few of us easily embrace. We, after all, naturally assume that if we just plan things carefully, things will turn out the way we want. We’ll have the good education, as well as marriage and children for whose college education we’ll save. We’ll retire at about age 65 after carefully preparing for it through things like contributions to various pension plans. And if we don’t, we’ll always have safety nets to catch us when we fall.
Yet we profess that our lives are no less precarious than Isaac and Rebekah’s. Certainly we carefully use the gifts and talents God has given us to plan and provide for ourselves and those we love. However, we profess that every good thing we have is a gracious gift from God’s loving and caring hand.
Our text’s Isaac Abraham seems to recognize that. He appears to realize that if Rebekah and he are to have the future that is children, it will only be through God’s “yes” to his prayers. Any children they have will be, in John’s words, “born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”
And, in fact, God does smile on Isaac, Rebekah, their father Abraham and God’s promise. God says “yes!” to their prayers by graciously empowering Rebekah to become pregnant.
So now nothing can possibly go wrong, can it? Rebekah and Isaac will have a son through whom God can also keep God’s promise God made to Grandpa Abraham.
However, Rebekah’s pregnancy turns out, after all, not to be just a gift; it’s also, in Brueggemann’s words, “problematic.” Once Rebekah can begin to feel her unborn twins moving around, she senses they aren’t just tumbling around in her womb.
They’re also jostling, perhaps bruising or even crushing each other. In fact, I picture those unborn twins as elbowing and kneeing each other. But the Bible’s original language suggests that this is more than just roughhousing. It, after all, uses a word that it uses in other places to describe people smashing others’ skulls.
All of this makes Rebekah’s pregnancy so miserable that she basically wonders if there’s any point in going on living. So she turns to the God who graciously granted her those children.
Yet what God tells the expectant mom can hardly be reassuring.
“You haven’t seen nothin’ yet,” the Lord essentially tells God’s adopted daughter. “Your sons won’t turn out to be best friends, or even friends, as siblings sometimes are. They won’t even be close. They’ll, instead, be separated. In fact,” God adds, “your twin sons are so divided now that you should think of them as making up two nations already.”
Yet while they’ll live a life of conflict, God goes on to warn the twins’ mom, it won’t really be a fair fight. “The older [stronger brother],” God almost certainly shocks Rebekah by insisting, “will serve the younger [weaker brother].”
Now to us this may not sound particularly startling. After all, while birth order sometimes shapes our families, it doesn’t necessarily determine them. Almost all of us know younger siblings who in one way or another dominated older siblings.
However, in Isaac’s day, firstborn always meant first in line for nearly everything. The oldest son, says my colleague Jack Roeda, always got the biggest and best slice of the family pie. He got all of the privileges. Younger sons’ status, says Walter Brueggemann, ranked somewhere down there with widows, orphans and immigrants.
God, however, has a special place in God’s heart for underdogs. While the world keeps its eye on rich and powerful people and institutions, God especially watches out for the weak and powerless. So we shouldn’t be surprised that God has a special place in God’s heart for “the younger” Jacob. Esau the older, after all, will be given virtually everything by everyone, including his family. Jacob will have only what God gives him.
Yet we may find that troublesome at least in part because Jacob comes off nearly throughout his life as rich and powerful. Esau, by contrast, says Scott Hoezee, comes off more like Hoss from the old Bonanza TV show: good hearted and sweet, but also a little slow.
Yet our text provides a couple of subtle details that affirm Esau’s natural lofty status. While he seems so vulnerable to his clever little brother Jacob, he eventually becomes the father of the Edomites. Esau is, in other words, the ancestor of one of Israel’s biggest and most persistent enemies. So when Jacob’s Israelite descendants first hear this story, they think of Esau and his descendants as the more powerful nation.
What’s more, the twins grow up to become two very different people. Esau “became a skillful hunter, a man of the open countryside.” Now scholars argue about whether this is a compliment. Yet you can’t argue with the fact that their families depended on people like Esau to provide their food. In those days, if no one hunted, no one ate.
Jacob, on the other hand, “was a quiet man, staying among the tents.” Again, there are all sorts of arguments about just what the Hebrew word for “quiet” really means here. Yet again there’s no mistaking the fact that if everyone stayed among the tents with Jacob, few people would eat. In other words, it seems as if older, stronger Esau is the provider, while the younger, weaker Esau is the recipient.
On top of that, the twins’ dad Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau.” Esau, in other words, has the most powerful ally in the family: his aging dad. Relatively powerless Jacob is, by contrast, allied with the even less powerful Rebekah. For brothers who were divided already in their mother’s womb, their parents are divided in their affections.
Yet our text reveals that older, stronger Esau is vulnerable to his younger, weaker brother. After all, while Esau is born first, when Jacob is born, he emerges holding on for dear life to his big brother’s heel. It’s as if he doesn’t just wrestle with his big brother; he also, as it were, wants to catch up with or even pass him when they’re born.
So we’re not surprised that the name Isaac and Rebekah give their younger son means, “heal.” However, we’re also not surprised that Jacob’s name sounds a lot like the Hebrew verb “cheat.” Jacob will, after all, spend much of his life trying to cheat people.
However, the first person Jacob swindles is his big brother Esau. When Esau returns from a hunting trip, he’s both exhausted and famished. He desperately needs something to eat and drink. It just so happens that Jacob is in a place to meet his need: he’s cooking some stew.
The first time our text’s Esau says anything, he has no time for niceties. He literally says a crude, “Let me feed myself with some of that red stuff.” Since Esau thinks he’s starving to death, “the heal” sees his opening. Jacob replies to his big brother’s crude “Gimme some of that!” with his own brusque “First sell me your birthright.” The scholar Gordon Wenham suggests that demand suggests it’s a premeditated exploitation of his brother’s weakness.
As we’ve noted, Esau’s birthright is basically his bigger, better slice of the family pie. After all, when a dad’s estate was divvied up, the oldest got twice as much of his property as any other brother.
However, that glorious future means nothing to Esau compared to his desperate present. So when Jacob coldly makes him swear he’ll give him his slice of the pie, he despises his birthright enough to immediately surrender it. As a result, the little brother gives his big brother his bowl of stew in exchange for the biggest slice of his family’s pie.
Yet it’s not even a rich, meaty stew. Esau sells his precious rights of inheritance for what’s essentially a bowl of lentil soup. Perhaps it’s no wonder that he just quietly eats it, drinks, stands up and walks away.
After all, Esau has just impulsively and contemptuously traded something incredibly valuable for something that will just leave him hungry again in a few hours. It’s a trade he’ll both live to regret and resent his brother for enough to want to kill him.
When God’s grace comes to us, it’s always, as Scott Hoezee points out, in the midst of our brokenness. God works in the real and often messy places not just of our world, but also our lives. Yet God works God’s grace in a messy world and people through messy people. God works with you and me, just as we are, to do God’s work in our world.
Esau is a rather unattractive, impulsive character. But Jacob is little better. Yes, he’s probably smarter, as well as quicker on his feet and more perceptive than his big brother. But Jacob proves to be quite willing to use all of that in order to manipulate and swindle Esau.
God uses the younger, weaker, less powerful brother Jacob for God’s good purposes. But lowly and vulnerable people like him aren’t necessarily better people. They’re just the people God generally chooses to work out God’s plans and purposes.
Those whom we teach and to whom we preach too may feel morally or spiritually unqualified to serve God by loving their neighbors this week. Thank God, then, that there is, by God’s grace through the work of the Holy Spirit, no one, not even Jacob the cheater, who is unqualified to do God’s work.
In his marvelous book that remains a good investment for any biblical preacher or teacher, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (Harper & Row, 1979) Frederick Beuchner writes, “Luckily for Jacob, God doesn’t love people because of who they are, but because of who he is. It’s on the house is one way of saying it and it’s by grace is another, just as it was by grace that it was Jacob of all people who became not only the father of the twelve tribes of Israel but the many times great grandfather of Jesus of Nazareth, and just as it was by grace that Jesus of Nazareth was born into this world at all.”
Psalm 65: (1-8), 9-13
Author: Stan Mast
In my last church, we used Psalm 65:9-13 as the Old Testament reading for every Thanksgiving Day worship service. Its description of harvest bounty fit the time of year so well, and its ascription of praise to God for that bounty fit the theme of our national Day of Thanksgiving. But this harvest Psalm is also a great song for this Sunday in the middle of summer, as nature is growing so fast you can almost hear it move. As I read Psalm 65, I hear that famous song from the old musical “Porgy and Bess.” “Summer time and the living is easy.”
Our reading for today (verses 9-13) sounds like little more than a lovely nature poem, but it is much more. That’s the problem with cutting it off from the first part of the Psalm. If we read it in the context of verses 1-8, we’ll discover that it is not so much about the goodness of nature, as about the goodness of God. Particularly, the point of Psalm 65 is that our God hears and answers prayer. In Psalm 65, that is the essence of God’s goodness. “O you who hear prayer, to you all men will come (verse 2)…. You answer us with awesome deeds of righteousness, O God our Savior, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas (verse 5)…. ” We enjoy the goodness of God’s creation in green summer and at golden harvest because God hears our prayers.
This is an important corrective to a purely hedonistic enjoyment of “the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer” and the relentlessly secular focus on the richness of life in our North American celebrations of Thanksgiving Day. James Luther Mays says it very well. “This Psalm directs attention first of all to God, away from any preoccupation with secular good fortune. It insists that thanksgiving is a theological work whose subject is God, not ourselves. It is an antidote to self-satisfaction and self-congratulation.”
The emphasis on God’s answers to our prayers may give us a clue about the Sitz im Leben of the Psalm’s composition. Some scholars think it was written and used at the beginning of the growing season, while others believe it was always a harvest Psalm used at the annual fall festival celebrating the ingathering of the crops.
But Robert Davidson looks at the various movements in the entire Psalm and suggests that it was written in a situation like the one described in I Kings 8:33-36. The people’s sin against God had led to a crisis. Their sin was punished by a drought. The people needed forgiveness more than anything else. The people look to God for such pardon, and for rain. In Psalm 65 the long awaited rains have come and the people gather in the temple to praise God for his awesome deeds.
After a time when life was all bad for God’s people, now “it’s all good.” Verse 4 talks about “the good things of your house,” but then the Psalm praises God for more good things than the Temple. It begins with praising God for the fact that “it’s all good” between us and God. After a time “when we were overwhelmed by sins, you forgave our transgressions.”
The word “forgave” there is a Hebrew word that means to make atonement by covering sin with blood. The Hebrews offered bloody sacrifices of atonement, but, as Hebrews 10:4 says, the blood of bulls and goats could never gain the forgiveness of sins. Those sacrifices were the human side of atonement, the Old Testament way of expressing repentance and faith. The divine side was to cover those sins with the blood of Christ, says Hebrews 9:11-14.
As a result of such atonement, God’s sinful and once separated people now have access to God. “Blessed are those you choose and bring near to live in your courts. We are filled with the good things of your house.” By God’s grace, through the atonement God provides, we can now enjoy all the blessings that come with being in the very presence of God. Forgiveness enables us to enjoy full communion with God. “It’s all good.”
Second, “it’s all good” between us and the nations. At least I think that is the point of verses 5-8. David uses the language of chaos and creation to describe what God has done in making peace between Israel and the nations. The God who formed the mountains by his power and stilled the roaring seas with his strength has stilled “the turmoil of the nations (verse 7).” Think of how Psalm 46 talks about the quaking of the mountains and surging of the seas in the context of God’s work among the nations.
By his awesome deeds of righteousness, God our Savior has not only reconciled us to himself, but has also reconciled hostile peoples to each other. So, God is called “the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the seas….” Those “living far away fear your wonders,” those signs of your power (think of the Ten Plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and the conquest of Canaan).
And even as reconciliation with God brings happiness to God’s people, the reconciliation of the warring human race brings joy to all humanity; “where morning dawns and evening fades you call forth songs of joy.” By God’s awesome deeds among the nations, “it’s all good.”
Third, “it’s all good” between us and nature. Though human sin led to thorns and thistles and the sweat of our brows, God’s gracious goodness has brought overflowing bounty to his creation. As you preach on verses 9-13 be sure to note how overwhelmingly David attributes the goodness of “mother earth” to God. It’s not a separately existing ecosystem; it is all a gift of God. He cares for the land and waters it. The rain that has come is his gift, flowing from “the streams of God.” The forces of nature are not independent. They are God’s way of bringing life to the world. “You crown the year with your bounty.”
Life is so good, in fact, that creation itself, the desert and the meadows, the hills and the valleys, and everything in them “shout for joy and sing.” By God’s blessings upon his creation, “it’s all good.”
What a lovely Psalm! To use Brueggemann’s categories, it is a simple Psalm of Orientation. All is well. Joy flows freely. Faith is easy. It’s all good. Or, if Davidson is right about the provenance of the Psalm, it is a Psalm of Re-Orientation. After a very bad time, it’s all good now. God has heard our prayers uttered in distress, and now life is all good. We can preach Psalm 65 to a happy people as a simple call to praise.
The problem with Psalm 65 is that life is not all good. As I write this, the world if filled with people whose sin has separated from God. They don’t know forgiveness. They don’t enjoy the blessings of God’s presence. They don’t have a clue who the Christ is. And the nations are not in harmony. From the Middle East to the Far East and from Russia to America, the nations are in turmoil. My own nation is in constant turmoil internally. And nature has run amok, as the seemingly intractable Western drought was replaced by rain and flooding of almost biblical proportions. The earth shakes and the winds blow. As the weather changes dramatically, crops are in jeopardy. In my own little life I need both hands to count the dear friends whose lives have been devastated by nature gone rogue. It’s not all good, not by a long shot.
So how do we preach Psalm 65 in the real world? Perhaps we can read it eschatologically. Maybe this is a picture of the goodness that is coming in the new heaven and the new earth. Note the future tense in verses 1 (“to you our vows will be fulfilled”) and 2 (“to you all men will come”). The opening words of verse 1 may point in this future direction, though they are notoriously hard to interpret. The NIV translates it, “Praise awaits you, O God, in Zion,” which could be read as a future reference. That praise is waiting for the fulfillment of the vision painted in the following words. It lies silent, waiting to be uttered when “it’s all good.” But another translation says that “praise is fitting, is due” because of what God has done for us.
These little hints suggest that we could preach Psalm 65 as yet another example of the “already but not yet” of God’s kingdom. We are reconciled to God through Christ, but God’s work is not done because many have not yet heard of Christ. God has begun the work of reconciling the nations to each other, having broken down the dividing wall of hostility that divided Jew and Gentile. But God’s work is not done, because the peacemakers are outnumbered by the warriors. God does bless his creation with bounty, but there is much work to be done in the spheres of agriculture and medicine and conservation before all will experience the goodness of life. God has done awesome deeds, but we are still waiting for the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells (II Peter 3:13).
We can sing this song of praise today, because God does hear prayer. It’s not all good yet, but “you answer us with awesome deeds of righteousness, O God our Savior, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest sea.” Whatever else Psalm 65 is, it is a Psalm of hope, because God hears and answers our prayers. “If this is not true, then the whole biblical tradition collapses like a pack of cards, and most of the Psalms [and our prayers] are an exercise in self-delusion.” (Robert Davidson) The Psalm assures us that our hope is sure. “O you who hear prayer, to you all will come.”
My grandson was frantic. He was sleeping over at our house, but he couldn’t fall asleep. It was nearing midnight, and he was afraid he would lie awake all night. Many of us know that problem. My wife said, “Let’s pray about it.” And he said, “It doesn’t work. I’ve tried that, and it doesn’t work.” It’s not just 10 year olds battling insomnia; it’s 80 year olds fighting cancer and 40 year olds living with marital problem and teenagers dealing with sexual temptation. It’s all of us at one time or another. We pray and pray, and it doesn’t work. A sermon on Psalm 65 would address that existential problem head on.
Romans 8: 1-11
Author: Scott Hoezee
When a passage is as landmark a one as Romans 8, it is no surprise to see it pop up in the Revised Common Lectionary more than once. About half of this Ordinary Time lection was covered during Lent not long ago. In that sermon reflection I focused on what it means to live “in Christ” and you can click here to read that.
For this particular Sunday, I will focus on a different aspect of Romans 8. Because what is striking about these verses—particularly following the agony expressed in Romans 7 where our human inability to save ourselves through moral living is highlighted in excruciating detail—is how sharply Paul now turns the corner as we head into this new chapter. These verses ring out with exultations about how there is now no condemnation, how there is in the place of such grim condemnation now wide vistas of freedom and joy. There’s a whole lot of jubilation happening here!
Paul clearly states that after baptism, we as believers are re-located in a whole different realm and spiritual “place.” The Spirit is in charge in this new land we inhabit and not the flesh, not death, not anything remotely gloomy. Long gone are our struggles with a sin we are powerless to overcome. Banished from our hearts and minds is the fear that comes from wondering if you are doing enough to please God, to curry his saving favor.
All in all, you would think that if we Christians took all this seriously and leaned into this Spirit-filled new realm of freedom and joy we’d be a pleasant lot of folks, the kinds of people others (even those outside the church) would love to hang out with, see, be around.
So why are all of us Christians sometimes—and altogether too many believers a lot of the time—often seen as prudes, as moralistic finger-waggers, as scolding folks who condemn and picket and shout out angry judgments in the public square? Why have some people outside the church long since concluded that if they needed help or wanted reassurance, a church is the last place to which they would turn in an hour of need?
What’s more, ecclesiastically speaking, I am a first or second cousin to a couple of denominational traditions that are so tightly wrapped in fear and a loathing of anything other than straight-laced, buttoned-up piety that they doubt their own salvation half the time (and are exceptionally sure they know exactly what will happen to anyone who deviates from their narrow prescriptions for orthodoxy and behavior so much as a millimeter). Indeed, I know of some believers who are so convinced that they cannot be sure they would not be eating and drinking judgment unto themselves that they refuse to partake of the Lord’s Supper—sin is so deeply entrenched, you can never be certain you are holy enough to take the sacrament. Fear of making a mistake means you’re better off playing it safe and just skip the sacrament altogether.
There is just a whole lot of fear in these folks. I won’t name names but I know of two church communions in this vein. As a friend of mine grimly joked a while back, what is the difference between the very strict Denomination X and the hyper, super-duper strict Denomination Y? Well, the folks in X are sure all of us outside their tradition are going to hell whereas the folks in Y believe that AND that they will be going to hell with us.
It goes without saying that when you can only condemn even what might be the virtues of the Fruit of the Spirit in your own life, the various vices of the wider world garner ever and only the fiercest critique and condemnation. If there is still quite possibly plenty of condemnation for those who hope they are in Christ Jesus, there is no grace and no wideness in God’s mercy for the unregenerate out there in the rest of society.
But do we Christians seem to be breathing the Spirit of Romans 8 when we assess ourselves so grimly much less scowl at the wider world that so needs to know about the love of Jesus? Indeed, if WE don’t believe in what Paul says about our status in Romans 8, how can we expect anyone else to think they’d have a chance to experience the freedom, confidence, and joy Paul talks about even if they did think about becoming a believer, getting baptized, etc.?
Now, let’s just admit that if it’s possible to be too serious about what our sinfulness may mean, it is also possible (and historically has happened) that you can swing too far the other way. Indeed, Paul dealt with a version of this equal but opposite extreme two chapters earlier when in Romans 6 he counteracted the thinking of those who took all this freedom and grace and turned it into an excuse to sin more. So let’s not take all this glorious talk about freedom and joy and confidence and use it to downplay the idea that there should be clear distinctions between believers and unbelievers, the church and the world. There should be. There must be.
But the question persists: what animates our lives as Christians? What lights up our hearts and minds every day as we live “in Christ”? What kind of vision do we want the rest of the world to catch when they glimpse into the lives we lead, the way we celebrate together as believers in the fellowship of the church?
Paul is pretty clear on how all this should go and we should be too. And maybe if we were, Christians would be less about condemning (themselves and others) and more about celebrating a great freedom and a profound release from fear. Yes, let’s take sin and evil seriously and point out what makes for life and what leads to death in this still-broken, keenly hurting world of ours. But let’s do it from a position of joy and confidence, not from a well of lingering fear and grim suspicions about how God will deal with even his own alleged followers much less others.
It isn’t a Christian movie and it is not about a character who seems to have much religion of any kind. Still, there is something so striking about the end of the movie American Beauty when the lead character—his voice coming from beyond the grave as it turned out—expresses a kind of gratitude for life that almost makes his heart burst like a balloon with too much air in it. Seems to me that sums up what Christians who know the love of Christ Jesus their Lord should feel at all times. Here is a piece that talks about this film.
I think it gives us much to ponder.