“The Nature of God’s People”

This is the manuscript for a sermon I preached at Emmanuel Reformed Church in Springfield, SD on Memorial Sunday, May 28, 2017. 

This morning’s reading:

Exodus 18

It is not uncommon or even surprising that after not too long on this wilderness journey from freedom into freedom, we become weary. We have already seen mirrored in Israel’s exodus from Egypt how quickly we can become weary of the challenges we face from a world that opposes us; but this morning we see in Moses how we also become weary within ourselves, frustrated when this new-life journey begins to lose its original energy and urgency.

Moses is tired. He has been journeying with these people now for three months, and he has faced every challenge that they have: he fled from the Egyptians, hungered and thirsted in the wilderness, and fought against the Amalekites; he has been living on manna and quail only, just like all of God’s people. And Moses has handled the added stress of leading God’s people through these challenges, working to model for the people courageous faith and radical obedience to God while enduring their constant complaints. No wonder Moses is exhausted! We can see how God has been using all of these challenges and difficulties to draw Moses into deeper relationship with Himself for the sake of the God’s people, but we also see in these verses how weariness and frustration has driven Moses away from fellowship with God’s people.

Christ has made us a community of grace and truth to sustain, encourage, and challenge each other on our new-life journey.

As this episode opens, Moses finds comfort and encouragement in the company of his family. Moses finds his soul refreshed when his wife, sons, and father-in-law come to him in the wilderness. Jethro, his father-in-law, makes a clear effort to ask about Moses’ wellbeing, listens to Moses’ testimony of the powerful grace of God at work, and rejoices with Moses in all the great works that God has done for Moses and His people.

We have been given an incredible gift in the resurrection of Jesus Christ: we have been made to share in Christ’s righteousness, we are assured of eternal life to come, and we are brought into mystery of abundant life in the present. This is Easter’s good news for our whole lives!

But as we receive that righteousness and new life, and strive to persevere in it, we tend – like Moses – to focus solely on our relationship with Jesus, and think of our relationships with each other as optional, because those relationships with other Christians are often inconvenient and messy. The world wearies us, yes, but so do our conflicts with other Christians. And so we believe the lie that we should be able to walk this new-life journey alone, that it would be easier alone.

Like Moses, there may be moments when we are nearly overcome by our weariness, our isolation, and our frustration. But we need other Christians – those who are in Christ as we are in Christ – to support us and encourage us. Christ did not die and rise again to save individuals; Christ’s mission is the whole world, and He has always been at work to build a new community in the world for the sake of the world. So Christ has set us on the new-life journey together; it would be the worst kind of foolishness to attempt to live the fullness of new life that Christ has won for us in His death and resurrection, without the help and the support and care of the community that bears His name.

In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s people are “called out” of the world, and united to one another.

As that new people, we are defined both by our relationship with the world around us, and by our relationship with the God who calls us. Moses saw this so clearly, that he named his two sons as reminders of that identity:

Moses named his first son “Sojourner.” Like Moses, God’s people are sojourners in a foreign land. We are not at home here. Just as Israel was not at home in Egypt, or in the wilderness, we do not belong in the world as it is now. We must not side with the forces and factions of this world. We must not define ourselves by the world’s categories. The Greek word for “church” is EKKLESIA, which literally means, “called out ones.” In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have been “called out” of this world and its patterns.

As resurrection people, however, we are to be in this world as a seed of what the world will become. God created the world good, and created humankind in His own image, but sin has marred the world and all its creatures. People can still look at creation and see the fingerprints of its Creator, but only as “in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12), and only with the help of the Holy Spirit that is continuing the mission of God through us. Part of God’s unseen purpose for Israel in bringing them out of Egypt and through the wilderness is that the world would hear about this strange people, and the incredible things that God was doing for them, and come to believe that God was the God above all gods. The Church is the new creation of the Spirit, made to bear not just the name, but also the image of Christ in the world. We do not belong in this world, and yet we the Church are placed within the world as a sign of the resurrection that awaits all things, the newness of life that will come when Christ returns to finally and fully restore and reconcile all things to God our Father.

Moses names his second son “God’s-Help”. Like Moses, we must daily remember that God is our help. When this new-life journey through the world seems to turn to wandering, and the mission becomes too big to bear on our own, we remember that we have the Maker of heaven and earth on our side. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). Even when we bear immense burdens of grief or worry or conflict, God stands ready to help us. The power of Christ’s resurrection has been placed within each of us through the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. Where Israel had the presence of God among them in the cloud, we have that same power and presence within our very bodies! The assurance of this is graciously given to us in the waters of baptism! This incredible gift of Christ’s Holy Spirit comes to us and is made ours in the sacrament of baptism, where God enacts His promises to us, and seals them to us.

God alone is our help. But, like Moses, as we grow in our relationship with God, we come to discover that God’s help comes to us through the gracious words and actions of others. God has sown His Spirit within me, and within you, and within all who are in Christ Jesus; that “participation in the Spirit” (Philippians 2:1) unites all of us into Christ’s body; and that Spirit is bearing its fruit in us, and equipping us with gifts for the building up of the Church in our mission to the world. Just as we can see how God gives us His help through those who love us and care for us, we also must be ready to be God’s help to those who are hurting, weary, or anxious.

As God’s people, we all serve each other using our unique gifts, as living reminders of God’s grace to us, encouraging each other in resurrection unity.

Moses is comforted by his family, but Moses is drained and burdened by the people of Israel. As God’s chosen mediator to His people, Moses is called to bring God’s Word to God’s People, and to bring the cares and concerns of God’s people into God’s presence. But somewhere in the wilderness, Moses lost sight of that calling, and instead he has fallen into the habit of hearing and bearing Israel’s cares and concerns himself, all the while becoming more and more emotionally distant from and drained by the people God has called him to lead. Jethro sees clearly how this is not good for Moses or for Israel, how they will wear themselves out with this. He confronts Moses about leading alone, and challenges Moses to share that leadership with the people, according to their gifts, so that Moses and all the people could fulfill their unique callings together.

We who are in Christ are called to live this new life together, and Christ has taught us to live together in mutual encouragement and hard-won peace, in such a way that demonstrates the risen Christ to the world around us. Christ himself prayed this for us:

“I do not ask for [my friends] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in me, and I in You, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that You have sent me. The glory that You have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and You in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that You sent me and loved them even as You loved me.”

John 17:20-23

The unity of the Church in the world proclaims Christ to the world; but the opposite is just as true: the division of the Church hides Christ from the world. If Christ Himself prayed that we, His body on earth, would be one, how can we imagine that Christ is pleased when we hold ourselves away from each other, whatever the reason? Friends, we are strong in Christ together, because we each have been given gifts to build up, encourage, and support each other on this new-life journey. Do not give up or turn away or distance yourselves from each other, when God has specifically joined us together in Christ. And strive to work out your unique calling and gift for the life of the church, and use it to build up the body. God is at work in the world for His mission, and it is an incomprehensible mystery that God chooses to work for His mission through us, His people.

“The Armor of Light”

Lectio: Romans 13:8-14

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Meditatio: “The Armor of Light”

I have read Paul’s Letter to the Romans through 3 or 4 times, and I have never noticed this phrase before — which is surprising, because with my fantasy-fueled imagination, “the armor of light” conjures whole worlds and storylines and epics to mind. I probably missed it, because this passage is somewhat overshadowed by the first 7 verses of Romans 13, where Paul instructs the Roman Christians to submit to the political authorities. Fascinating what the Spirit holds up for us at certain moments in our lives.

“The armor of light.” Paul talks further about such armor in Ephesians 6 — more well-known to most Christians — and holds in his mind this surprising image of how we Christians are to live in a world that is hostile to our message, just as it was hostile to our Lord. We are to put on armor — of light, of God, of Jesus Christ.

cardboard armor 1

One of the dorm events at Northwestern College, the Cardboard-Duct Tape Battle

I have never worn (real) armor, nor, I thank God, felt that I really needed to. I have, however, put on pretend armor, and while I’m sure it’s like comparing an apple to the wax facsimile, I did feel that somehow the armor changed me. And that makes sense: costumes help make the character, and we make a change in wardrobe to help us mark a change in identity. I’ve had to buy some new clothes now that I’m going to be “Pastor Cody” instead of “Student Cody.” We don’t like admitting this, it seems, because we’ve seen too many movies that all told us “it’s what’s inside that counts.” And then we all got excitable when Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins says, “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” I think Paul understands that both are true, that we are a complex mix of our inner character and outer comportment.

Another year's Cardboard-Duct Tape Battle, featuring a gladiator-style Sword and Shield pairing.

Another year’s Cardboard-Duct Tape Battle, featuring a gladiator-style Sword and Shield pairing.

And armor, like any external accessory we attach to ourselves, teaches us how to wear it, and that has an impact on the way we behave while we wear it. You can see it in these funny college photos. There’s an aggression and intent that gets put on with the armor. It seems to me that this aggressive posture is what most preachers understand Paul to mean when he teaches us to “put on the armor of light.” It’s even more suggestive when we read Paul in context, where he pairs his instructions on God’s Armor with his instructions on how Christians engage social and political powers. The macho-preachers want us all to strap on our Jesus armor and either form our defensive line against the world’s onslaughts of temptation and backsliding, or take our religious war to Washington and take back our country. But when we read all of Romans 13, or all of Ephesians 6, and Paul is talking about the Christian posture toward power, but he is not giving instructions to seize power aggressively, or resist power defensively.

This is why I love lectio. Today’s lectionary reading of Romans begins with love. Reading and re-reading and meditating ties together two contradictory images: armor, and love. The armor of light is not a militant posture toward the world, with its powers and dangers. Nor is the armor of light a defensive posture against the world, with its threats and temptations. This is not what it means to be disciples of Christ. When we “put on the armor of light,” we are choosing to act in radical faith that the Lord of heaven and earth is, in fact, Lord, and is even now reigning, so that nothing on earth can shake us from his protection or his provision. When we “put on the armor of light,” we are choosing to act in radical hope that our Lord and Savior is not done working for our good, but is even now drawing all things together — yes, even terrorist attacks and political truancy and economic recessions and world wars, if we can believe it — toward the promised new heaven and new earth. And most of all, when we “put on the armor of light,” we are choosing to enact radical love toward God, and therefore, toward God’s good world, which is the summary of the commandments and “is the fulfilling of the law.”

This is how armor can be all light, when it reflects into the waning night the day that is near. We must reflect into our murky worlds the light of the day that we know to be near. This is our task, and our identity.

Oratio, from Ephesians 6

Lord, arm me with your love, that I may boldly welcome the world anew, and see it for its coming glory, waiting to be revealed.

Fasten the belt of truth-spoken-in-love around my waist, so that I may temper the words of my mouth with your love for those who hear them.

Put the breastplate of righteousness over my calloused heart, that I may be prepared to embrace those who are different from me.

Put shoes of love on my weary feet, that will make me willing to cross the threshold of my comfort zone, and make me ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.

Give me the shield of faith, not to protect me from others, but so that I may defend the powerless, and quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.

And put on my head the helmet of salvation, so that my ears may hear the cries of others in need and not hear the lies of the evil one, and that the vizor might direct my eyes away from “the works of darkness,” anything that might be “provision for the flesh,” and direct my eyes toward the day that is near.

And train me to hold the sword of the Spirit, which is your Word. Let me hold your Word with respect for its edge, and with discipline for its careful use.

Amen and amen.

Contemplatio

 

 

“The Word is Near You”

Lectio: Romans 10:5-15

 Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.”

But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.

The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Meditatio: “The Word is Near You”

Lectio Divina is very difficult, I find, when dealing with a familiar passage. All the words have become both freighted with over-interpretation and, at the same time, made hollow by familiarity. It takes a great deal of extra concentration and openness to the let the Spirit speak where so many have spoken already.

Nevertheless, the Spirit speaks, sometimes even through the voices of the preachers and teachers and readers and Christian witnesses who have spoken in the past. It is more and more important for me to honor those through whom the Spirit has spoken in the past, rather than disregard them or discredit them (because I’ve been to seminary, and know what this all really means). Such arrogance and, to quote C. S. Lewis, “chronological snobbery,” closes me to what the Spirit wishes to say.

Lectio, is, for me, one of the ways that “the Word is near.” The Spirit can lift up and use any one of my remembered Sunday School lessons, or sermon I’ve heard, or seminary lecture, or conversation, or the Spirit can put all of them aside and speak in a new word. The key is humility and openness.

Oratio

Holy Spirit, Companion and Comforter,

Thank you for using the remembered and written words of thousands of years of Your people to speak still today, in new and fresh ways.

Amen.

Contemplatio & Incarnatio

I can’t help it. I have to include these excerpts from Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans, because they are a challenge and a call to me to reflect more on my view of the Church, its task, and the its relationship to words and The Word. Read at your own risk.

The Church is the place of fruitful and hopeful repentance; it is nothing else. When the Church crashes up against this point, it is overwhelmed with disgust at its convulsive attempts, at one moment to “ascend into heaven,” at another to, “descend into the abyss;” it is appalled that it should have tried to be both “height” and “depth,” to occupy them, speak of them, point them out, and apportion them. There is a certain horror at all attempts to bring about the work of God, to effect the incarnation of divinity or the resurrection of humanity, by employing the dynamic, demonic power of the Church’s own word. The Church may refine its liturgy; popularize its technical language; broaden the basis of the education of its clergy; see that its administration is made more efficient; yield hurriedly to the demands of the laity, however doubtful they may be; encourage theological journalism; approximate more closely to the uncertainties of the “spirit of the age,” to romanticism, liberalism, nationalism, and socialism; may, in fact, “bring Christ into the picture”! But when He is brought into the picture, it is discovered that we cannot introduce Him thus, either by bringing Him down, or by bringing Him up. For Christ is not the exalted and transformed ideal man. He is the new man….

Once this were perceived, the Church — and in the term is included every conceivable little conventicle which passionately denies that it is a Church — would be the place where, contrasted with all other places, the proper, inexhaustible distance of “height” and “depth” would be apprehended, set forth, and maintained.

Then the Church would be able to express itself. The Church is not bound to be silent…For silence before God gives meaning both to our silence and to our most eloquent speech. Then the Church would be the place where men receive the message of joy and the positive Word of God. For it would be the place where — distinct from all moralizings and sentimentalities — the supreme negation of the Word of the Cross could be heard without the disturbance of other words….

A Church capable of retiring from all its sacred heights and depths, from all its extensive and intensive ecclesiastical possibilities; a Church determined to retrace its steps from every distant country, in order that it may move in the “nearness” of the lives of men and in the ambiguity of their existence, would thereby embrace its true task, and in its own misery and responsibility would encounter Him, who has ordered human affairs that in them He may be nigh at hand.

In thus describing the resignation of the Church and its severe concentration upon the matter in hand, we are not describing some new “reformation.” Rather, we are thinking once again of [the True Church], of the Church in the desert; we are thinking of miracle and faith, of the impossible possibility, which is beyond our observation, and which, therefore, we cannot think of in terms of some new movement of reform or of some new school of thought. We mean that which is everywhere and always present in every possible Church as soon as it in any way takes itself seriously.

The retirement of the Church upon its inner lines is not a maneuver which we can plan, set in motion, and accomplish. The retirement of the Church is the strategic significance of its already existing maneuvers — a significance which already exists and which occurs without any preparatory circulation of orders, without any practical consideration whatever, and without any increase of establishment. What we mean is the new orientation of all possible human activity, the step from hope to tribulation and from tribulation to hope, the eternal advance, which accompanies or does not accompany, which assists or hinders, all human progress. Set over against all human possibilities, it is the “Wholly Other;” and because it is this it is the possibility that is always and everywhere open — the possibility for the living, Unknown God to be what He is.

Now, this open possibility means that behind and above and in [the False/Visible Church] — however degenerate and priest-ridden it may be — is [the True/Invisible Church]. When we say that “the Word is nigh thee,” we are simply speaking again of the righteousness of God, ever awaiting our serious consideration, ever waiting for us to hear it and proclaim it, ever ready to display its efficacy in causing us oppression and in setting us free. Yet, because it is the Word of Christ, it is beyond our hearing and beyond our speaking; for, to hear it and proclaim it — we must wait…Far too transcendant, far too important, far too full of significance, is the Word of God by which the Church is constituted! We cannot endure it — even though it be heard by human ears and proclaimed by human lips!…

The Word is nigh unto us….

But here we must not forget to reckon with impossibility. For impossibility is, as such, nigh at hand, ready at our elbow, possible. Impossibility presses upon us, breaks over us, is indeed already present. Impossibility is more possible than everything we hold to be possible. The light shineth in the darkness.

Why a Catechism?

In my experience, the confessions are largely neglected in contemporary Reformed churches, not for their content, but for their tone. I was raised in a fairly conservative Reformed church that continued to use the Heidelberg Catechism (a contemporary curriculum format) in its Christian education programs for high school students. It’s hard for me to look back critically on the experience, because my dad was one of the teachers, but it seems to me that the Catechism was only moderately well-received by my peers, and I haven’t really thought to the reasons until now.

I wonder if the Catechism is too prescriptive, too limiting in its questions’ scope. I do think that the Heidelberg’s structure — important questions followed by thorough answers — is one of its greatest strengths for this generation of new Christians, who aren’t satisfied with pat answers or platitudes. But maybe the Catechism isn’t answering our questions: What is the Lord’s will for homosexuals? How are we to participate in the political arena as Christians? How do we enter into meaningful dialogue with Muslims, or people of other faith traditions?

Or maybe we simply don’t understand what the right questions are anymore. As Billings writes,

“There is widespread biblical illiteracy both in and outside of the church, and while many Christians know a set of particular Scripture verses, it’s not at all clear to them how the verses fit together; it’s more like a potpourri than an integrated story of how God has become known in Christ. This situation is aggravated by a culture which encourages a cafeteria spirituality where you get to pick and choose what’s most appealing.”

I would add, to our churches’ biblical illiteracy and “cafeteria spirituality”, the culture’s pervasive ignorance and undervaluing of history, a kind of “arrogance of youth,” which haughtily assumes what is new is also improved and therefore best, and therefore what is old must be outmoded and useless. This field of related presumptions is rampant in American culture at large, not just within young people; it’s what feeds our update-crazed consumerism.

Introduce a Reformation-era document — drafted in an anonymous committee and not by a famous personality, without a drop of controversy or scandal — into our hypermodern milieu, and it can quickly get lost. The Catechism accounts for the entire biblical narrative, and teaches us how to read our Bibles more carefully. It encourages and sustains Christian practices like the sacraments and prayer that are funded by and founded on a particular tradition’s reading of Scripture, and it reflects the teaching of the historical Church. In offering these good gifts to the contemporary church, the Heidelberg Catechism teaches us what questions we should be asking, what is really important. We have tried the hyper-individualized, consumer-centered approach to reading the Bible. Praise God that his renewal is not just a technological update of the old systems, but is a new thing, and that an inconspicuous, historical document can be a surprising agent in that new thing.