Proper 7 (June 19-25)
Texts: Galatians 3:23-29;
Luke 8:26-39; Isa 65:1-9
YouTube version: https://youtu.be/Xhu-MinEcHg
THE TIME IS NOW TO GROW UP AS HUMAN BEINGS!
The Oneness of God which St. Paul lays before us today is stunning. Do we realize how much so? It’s like the Apostle Paul is lobbing a thought grenade into our midst. Ka-boom! I use the violent image ironically, precisely because we so desperately need to blow apart all — and I mean all — our violent images of God. Here’s the point for today: God needs us to grow up as a species by beginning to leave behind our violence. We will later see that St. Paul, by using the word “disciplinarian,” is implying we need to grow up.
This begins with our experience of God. One of the most important first steps in growing up as a species is to finally leave behind all our violent images of God. Keep in mind the radical Oneness in our Second Reading: God is the one creator and has created humankind to be one human family. Instead of our typical Us-vs-Them thinking, the Oneness begins to override any importance of our divisions. It’s as if, in Paul’s language, there’s no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. In short, there’s no longer Us and Them, there’s only Us. Until we finally begin living as if we are truly one family, we will continue to fail at growing up as a species, fail at being the creatures God created us to be — creatures created in the image of the loving, nonviolent God. We human beings will not become less violent until we discover in Jesus Christ that God is completely nonviolent.
The urgency for leaving behind our violent images of God is powerfully dramatized in the 2008 Masterpiece Theater TV-presentation God on Trial. It is a fictionalized account of what some survivors Nazi “death camp” at Auschwitz — most notably, Elie Wiesel — have indicated actually happened: while awaiting their deaths, some Jews held a mock trial of sorts, putting God on trial for abandoning the covenant God made with God’s “Chosen People.” This PBS drama provides a fictional account of what that might have been like.
A small jury hears testimony from various prisoners, some arguing that God has abandoned them but some defending the mystery of God’s actions. Just as the jury is about to deliver its verdict, a well-known rabbi, Rabbi Akiba, who to this point has remained steadfastly silent, suddenly speaks up. He begins with questions about the exodus from Egypt, and in dialog with the others he begins to recount the Old Testament history of their people, highlighting the violence that Adonai their God has perpetrated against others:
It was Pharaoh who defied God’s demand to let his people go. Was it Pharaoh who was punished? No, first it was all of Egypt’s firstborn children, and then it was all of Pharaoh’s soldiers, as he watched them drowned in the Red Sea. After wandering in the wilderness, the people of Israel finally came into the Promised Land. Was it an empty land with no one living there? No, there were seven nations already living there, and in Deut 7 we read that Adonai their God had commanded them to go into the land and slaughter them all — men, women, children, and livestock. Make no covenant with them. Show them no mercy.
Next, came Israel’s kings. When Saul went to war against the people of Amalek, what did the Lord God command? We read in 1 Samuel 15: “Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” But Saul saved some of the cattle and livestock of the Amalekites. Was God pleased by Saul’s prudence, his charity? No. We read, “Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king” (1 Samuel 15:23). And to please God, “Samuel hewed king Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal” (1 Samuel 15:33).
After Saul came David, who took Bathsheba as his wife by arranging to have her husband Uriah killed — against the wishes of God. Did God smite David or Bathsheba for this sin? We read, “Adonai struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became very ill” (2 Samuel 12:15). Who punishes a child? God does. Did that child find that God was just? Did the Amalekites think that Adonai was just? Did the mothers of Egypt think that Adonai was just?
At this point one of other prisoners exclaims, “But Adonai is our God.” To which Rabbi Akiba quickly and passionately responds, “Did God not make the Egyptians? Did he not make their rivers and their crops grow? If not Adonai, then who? Some other god? And what did he make them for? To punish them? To starve, to frighten, and to slaughter them? The people of Amalek, the people of Egypt, what was it like for them when Adonai turned against them? It was like this. . . . We are learning how it was for the Amalekites. They faced extinction at the hand of Adonai. They died for his purpose. They fell as we are falling. They were afraid as we are afraid. And what did they learn? They learned that Adonai, the Lord our God, our God, is not good. He is not good. He was not ever good. He was only on our side. God is not good! . . . He has simply been strong. He has simply been on our side.”
Rabbi Akiba concludes his testimony, “When we were brought here by train, a guard slapped my face. On their belt they had written, ‘Gott mitt uns.’ ‘God is with us.’ Now, who is to say that he is not? Perhaps he is. Is there any other explanation? What do we see here? His power, his majesty, his might, all these things, but turned against us. He is still God. But not our God. He has become our enemy. That’s what’s happened to the covenant. He has made a new covenant with someone else.”1
Do you see? As long as we are trapped in Us-vs-Them thinking, we are also trapped with gods who are either on our side or against us. We are enslaved to gods who command Us to do violence to Them. And we will never truly grow up into the species the true God created us — all of us — to be.
And this is even after Jesus came along and showed us what it means to finally grow up, namely, that we are to worship a God who is Love . . . period. We worship a God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit yet One God.2 And that One God calls us to be One, to begin to leave behind all our divisions. In our baptisms, we are adopted into God’s family so that our former divisions no longer hold sway — no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.
So what happened? How did we followers of Jesus get to be so far off with our ideas of God? I would suggest that a very important answer to this is that we have had an inadequate reading strategy when reading our Bibles — especially the Old Testament. If we read with only a literalistic strategy, then the God on Trial drama makes clear that we get a God who clearly commands things like genocide (Deut 7:1-2). This God is on the side of folks like the Nazis. Is that what we want? Of course not. That’s why this conversion to a new reading strategy is so urgent.
St. Paul gives us a very helpful image for a different kind of reading strategy. It’s one that sees God as allowing us to develop as a species, as human beings. Paul says that God has allowed us to experience god as a “disciplinarian” god, who gives us the law, until we are ready for the real thing in Jesus Christ. The word translated as disciplinarian — from which we get our English word pedagogue — is kind of a tutor and nanny rolled into one. It’s a person who helps raise a child through adolescence into adulthood. (A model of a pedagogue in the Greek world was the great philosopher Aristotle, who was pedagogue for Alexander the Great.) Well, the implication of Paul using that word here is that we have not yet grown up as a species! God needed to send the law as something to guide us in our adolescence until we can attain the full freedom of an adult, grown-up species who finally acts with the maturity that God planned for us. It is Jesus the Messiah who finally achieves full maturity as a human being, and now the goal is for us to follow in his footsteps.
Those of you who are parents (on this weekend we celebrate Father’s Day!): Think about your own relationship with children over the years. In their first eighteen years of life, they needed to know you sometimes as a disciplinarian who made safe boundaries for them — sometimes even punishing them in order to teach them how to safely navigate this sometimes dangerous, always challenging world. But when your children reached adulthood, your relationship changed dramatically. You have hoped they come to know you as the persons in this world who will always give them unconditional love and support. But you no longer play the role of disciplinarian; they will suffer the consequences of wrong actions on their own.
St. Paul is telling us that that’s how it is with God our Father. Jesus the Messiah, our brother, came at the time when we are ready to grow up as a species! We are ready to take the responsibility for own actions — especially the violent ones. As Jesus says, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” But when we are crucified with Christ and he begins to live in us, we find ourselves finally ready to begin leaving our violence behind — even as we are ready to leave behind our violent images of a God who plays sides between Us and Them.
To be sure, I have found that growing up requires a conversion of faith that leaves behind much of the faith passed on to me. That’s difficult! To say the least. But I’m convinced that we in the 21st Century need to finally complete the Reformation of the 16th Century.
And I think a key is to correctly translate a verse that comes a bit earlier in Galatians.3 We would have read it last week if Easter had been earlier this year. It’s a crucial Reformation verse about being “justified by faith in Christ.”4 The word “in” is not actually part of the original Greek. And the better translation of these words is that we are “justified by the faith of Christ.” In short, it’s not our faith that saves us! And certainly not in the sense of believing the right things about Jesus. No! What saves us is Jesus’s faithfulness to God in going to the Cross and being raised on Easter morning. Jesus was faithful to a loving and nonviolent God precisely by suffering our human violence, and by trusting that God might raise him to new life. Which God did!
And so Paul makes it clear with his next words: “I was crucified with Christ so that it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” In short, it’s not about our faith in Jesus Christ. What we most desperately need is the faith of Jesus Christ living in each of us. Jesus was the first human being, the true human being, who finally and fully grew up into what God created all of us to be, and so that will be the key to our finally growing up!
It’s been 2000 years since Christ came, though, and there’s signs all around us that we have not much begun to grow up yet. There’s seemingly more violence everywhere. And instead of Oneness, there seems to be more division everywhere. So, yes, it’s discouraging. And yet if we see this not just in terms of each person’s salvation and instead see it on the level of our whole species, there is some reason for hope. If Jesus was the turning point of humankind needing to enter into adulthood, we know from modern anthropology that our species took more than 100,000 years in its childhood! So 2000 years is a short time in that evolutionary timeframe of God’s. There’s still time for us to grow up.
Yet, time may be running out. We have also developed technologies with which we can more easily destroy ourselves . . . weapons of both mass murder and mass destruction. We have not taken care of our earth home, so now we are facing the many dangers of climate change. Could it be that the time is now — now! — for us to more fully turn the corner on growing up? Brothers and Sisters, don’t you see how urgent this is? We aren’t coming here to church for our own sakes as individuals alone, to do what we need to do to go to heaven. No! It’s about something so much bigger than that. We come here to church for the sake of the survival of our species! You and I are followers of this Jesus — God’s Son, our older brother — who came to show us how to grow up. We need to start doing whatever it takes to finally begin to more faithfully follow in his footsteps. In fact, the promise in the words of St. Paul is that, through the Holy Spirit, it doesn’t even have to be us who’s faithful to God’s image of loving caretakers. It can be Christ himself living in us so that it is his faithfulness helping us to change this world.
This summer for our three midweek worship services, we are learning prayer practices to invite our brother Jesus into our lives, to have Christ live in us. That in our baptisms, it’s not just a matter of being forgiven so we can go to heaven, but of dying with Christ to the old violent ways of being human and rising with Christ to the new way, the fully grown-up way, of being human. And, as Christ lives in us, we increasingly find that there is no longer Us and Them, there is only Us. There is only Us working together to heal our human family and our earth home. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, June 19, 2022
YouTube version: https://youtu.be/Xhu-MinEcHg
2. In 2022, this Sunday immediately followed Trinity Sunday.
3. I skipped most of this paragraph when delivering the sermon that day.
4. For more on the phrase “through faith in Jesus Christ,” see the exegetical notes for Romans 3:22 on the Reformation Day webpage.