Monday, April 03, 2017

No Comparison

No Comparison
Romans 5:12-19[1]
I think one of the worst things to happen to the Christian faith was when sin became the primary focus of attention. That might sound like a strange thing for a preacher to be saying on the first Sunday of Lent. Of course, I’m not trying to say that sin is unimportant. But whatever you make the starting point for your faith is going to have a significant effect on what you believe. You know what I’m talking about: you’ve been to other churches where people are constantly made to feel guilty. And as a result, God’s love comes across not as unconditional, but as something that depends on what we do. If we make the right choice, then the “good news” is that we’re in the clear. If not, well, the “news” is not so good.
One of the things I like about the way we approach the faith in our tradition is that we start with God’s grace. We see that in the sacrament of Baptism: it demonstrates that God’s love chooses us before we even have the capacity to make a choice for ourselves. We see it in the sacrament of Communion: God’s love continually strengthens us so that we can follow Christ. Obviously, we don’t ignore sin. We have a confession of sin at the beginning of every worship service. But we confess our sins with the confidence that we’re approaching a God of grace, whose love for us is unconditional and irrevocable. In my mind, that makes all the difference in the shape of our faith.
This might also seem like a strange introduction to a sermon about our lesson from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. In this passage, Paul reminds us that the “original sin” of our first parents had consequences for the whole human race.  Something about that just doesn’t seem right to our way of thinking.  How can one act have such widespread effects?  Part of the explanation is that one sin has a tendency to lead to another. And another. And another!  St. Paul looks at the whole sweep of human experience, so full of violence and greed and hatred and abuse and corruption and exploitation and injustice and oppression, and he says in effect that it all started with one sin. 
For most of us, the idea that the “original sin” of Adam and Eve could be held against us all seems to be unfair. How can God hold us all accountable for something we didn’t do?  The reason why we can’t claim that it’s unfair is that we all have our own history of sin.[2] None of us can claim never to have done anything that might contribute to the spread of sin’s effects on the whole human race.  In fact, each and every one of us, in some way or another, at some time or another, has done our part to extend the grasp of sin on the human race a little farther.  In a very real sense, what Paul is trying to do is move us to the Lenten discipline of confession—to acknowledge that our sin has far-reaching consequences. 
I think we also have a problem with St. Paul’s assertion that one sin brought death to the whole human race.  But what we have to understand is that Paul isn’t primarily talking about the physical limits of human mortality.  I think he’s talking about death as a spiritual condition.   He’s talking about those actions that affect the spirit, the heart, the mind, the very the soul of who we are as human beings.  Even still, we might not like the idea that one sin could lead to the death of a person’s very soul. But I think if you ask a victim of any kind of violence or addiction you will find that it can!  I think what the Apostle Paul wants us to consider is that every sin you and I commit has the potential to spread death and destruction much farther than we can imagine.  And there are some sins that have the potential to destroy the whole human race.  
But if we stop there, we run the risk of completely missing the point!  St. Paul’s point is not just to make us all keenly aware that each sin has far-reaching consequences. I think the main point of this passage is that however powerful the effect of our sin may be, there is no comparison with the powerful effect of what Jesus did for us on the cross. Paul insists that while one sin brought “death” to the whole human race, the one faithful act of Jesus Christ, humbling himself and becoming obedient to the point of death on a cross, brought God’s grace to the whole human race. And God’s grace is far more powerful than our sin. Through that one act, God’s generous grace was poured out on all humankind, healing the destructive effects of our sin, restoring the hearts and minds and souls that have been subjected to all kinds of death, and replacing it with the gift of life.[3]
Throughout this passage, St. Paul insists that there’s no comparison between the one sin of Adam and the one righteous act of Jesus, giving his life for us all. As he contrasts the two, he repeated says that the gift of grace and life through Jesus Christ “much more surely” outweighs the effects of our sin. I like the way The Message puts it: “There's no comparison between that death-dealing sin and this generous, life-giving gift” (Rom. 5:16). And so Paul concludes, “just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Rom. 5:18).[4]
I think the reason for all of this is that, while St. Paul certainly doesn’t minimize the problem of sin, God’s grace plays a far more important role in his understanding of the gospel. His faith is based on the conviction that God acts in each of our lives to bring us new life before we are even aware of what he’s doing. In fact, God is always working in each of our lives, constantly surrounding us with his love and mercy, drawing us to trust in him and so to find that his grace by far overcomes the consequences of our sins. When you think about it, how could our sin ever be more powerful than God’s love? As serious as our sin will always be, when you set it alongside God’s grace, there really is no comparison.

[1] © 2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/5/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Paul K. Jewett, Romans, 376.  Ernst Käsemann, Romans, 148, cites the Jewish apocalypse 2 Baruch 54:19, “each of us has become our own Adam.”  Cf. also James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, 290, “Death continues to dominate humanity not solely because of one primeval act but because of humankind’s continued acts of sin.”
[3] Regarding the issue of whether Paul’s language of redemption applies universally to the whole human race, Dunn, Romans 1-8, 297, acknowledges the problem, but asks the question, “How, after all, can grace be ‘so much more’ in its effect if it is less universal than the effect of death?” Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1:333-35, where he speaks of the “alteration of the whole human situation” through Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Cf. similarly, Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “The Cosmic Power of Sin in Paul's Letter to the Romans” Interpretation 58 (July 2004): 240: “The gospel Paul proclaims is that God has not left us alone and powerless. In Jesus Christ, God has already broken Death and Sin and will finally crush Satan on our behalf. Confidence in that word is the beginning of peace and joy and the obedience of faith.” See also Jan Bonda, The One Purpose of God, 103-107; and Jewett, Romans, 370, 379-80.
[4] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 205, where he points to the divine righteousness as an event that takes place in the cross and resurrection of Jesus as “the universal gospel, which is oriented towards the new creation that fulfils all things, sets them right with God and so gives them status and being.” He continues, “Divine righteousness ‘happens’ here, and the gospel reveals it by proclaiming the event of the obedience of Jesus even to the death of the cross, by proclaiming the event of his surrender to this death, and by proclaiming his resurrection and his life as the coming of the divine righteousness to the unjust.”

Paying Attention

Paying Attention
2 Peter 1:16-21[1]
One of the benefits of living in the “information age” is that we have relatively quick and easy access to a lot of information. Many of us have at our fingertips the equivalent of an unimaginably large library with just about anything you might need. But at the same time, I think one of the great challenges of living in this age is that we have access to so much information. Without a proper framework for making sense of it all, it can just become overwhelming. Rather than putting forth the effort to sort out fact from farce, we accept as truth whatever seems convenient. Or what’s worse, we simply tune out.
Unfortunately, this also applies to our faith. With all the different voices claiming to represent Christ in our world, it can be confusing. Between television, radio, the internet, social media, books, and magazines, the fact is that those who speak for Christ do not speak with a consistent voice. To some extent, variety in the Christian message is to be expected. It comes from our different backgrounds and experiences and perspectives. That’s a healthy thing. But I’m afraid it goes beyond that. The collective voices of all those who speak for our faith disagree on matters that are fundamental, ranging from how we experience new life to what living out that life looks like to what our ultimate hope is. The resulting confusion can lead us to tune out rather than paying attention and trying to find a perspective that makes sense out of the teachings of Scripture.
The fact of the matter is that the Christian community has always had to deal with divergent voices that have made it challenging for people to know what to believe. Most of the apostolic writings in the New Testament bear witness to this. There was no mass communication technology in that day. The only methods the apostles had for dealing with this problem were to personally visit a church, to send a representative, or to write a letter. That’s why many of the New Testament letters were written in the first place: to clear up the confusion caused by rival preachers and teachers presenting views that called the apostolic faith into question.
This was the case for 2 Peter. In fact, much of the letter is devoted to refuting “false teachers” who contradicted the message of the apostles, who advocated a blatant disregard for the most basic ethical principles of the Bible, and who did all this in order to enrich themselves at the expense of their audience. As you can imagine, the response to this kind of flagrant deception was less than polite. In fact, 2 Peter is not unique in that. Most of the apostles saw those who were teaching with a different voice as a threat—primarily a threat to the well-being of those who were led astray by their “deceptive words” (2 Pet. 2:3).
In the case of 2 Peter, the primary problem had to do with the Christian hope. In the New Testament, that hope was focused on the return of Christ. Of course, throughout the history of the church, our faith in the return of Christ and the final fulfillment of God’s saving work has raised basic questions. What happens to believers when we die? Do we have to wait for the day when Jesus returns to be raised to new life? Are we looking forward to all of this taking place in heaven or on a new earth? It’s not hard to find conflicting views on these and many other aspects of our hope.
Apparently, 2 Peter was written long enough after Jesus’ resurrection that many were beginning to deny that there would be a “second coming” at all (2 Pet. 3:4). In response, the letter pointed to the transfiguration of Jesus as a foreshadowing of his return. Claiming to be a witness of the glory revealed at that time as well as the voice that attested Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved son, 2 Peter insists that “we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed” (2 Pet. 1:19). What those who were there saw and heard left them without doubt that Jesus would indeed return in the full majesty of his glory as Savior and Lord.[2]
Unfortunately, some have approached this passage as if it advocates that Scripture is to be accepted at face value. The truth is that kind of simple faith works for some people. But I find that unquestioning belief doesn’t go over too well with most of us. Scripture itself raises questions, some of which we cannot readily answer.[3] And any written document has to be interpreted—especially ancient writings that addressed a very different time or place. I think what all this means is that we’re going to have to put forth some effort if we’re going to “pay attention" to the apostolic message, "because it is like a lamp shining in a dark place until the Day dawns” (2 Pet. 1:19, TEV). I think that means more than a simple casual reading of select verses. It means serious and sustained study of the source of our faith.[4]
Cultivating faith has never been easy. There have always been those who raise objections they think clearly refute what we believe. There will always be a wide diversity of voices claiming to speak on behalf of Christ. It takes some intentional effort to sort through the tangle of sometimes conflicting messages out there. But it seems to me that our lesson for today points us in the right direction: the fundamental teachings of the Scriptures have always been our guide. That doesn’t mean we’re going to automatically find the answer to our questions simply by flipping through our Bible. We have to do more than that to be able to sort through the chaotic voices in our day. It takes systematic and serious study of the Bible. In order to find clarity, we have to do a better job of “paying attention” to Scripture.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/26/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Jerome H. Neyrey, “The Apologetic Use of the Transfiguration in 2 Peter 1:16-21,”  Catholic Biblical Quarterly 42 (1980): 509-514.
[3] Cf. Neyrey, “ Apologetic Use,” 517 (fn 50), where he points out that “the position of Peter as an intelligent interpreter of oracles and tradition stands in tension with other traditions that portray him as not understanding what he sees or hears” (e.g., in the Gospels).
[4] In this particular context, Neyrey, “Apologetic Use,” 518-19, makes a persuasive argument that the “prophecy” that is at issue is the transfiguration as a foreshadowing of the return of Christ. He says, “The parousia-prophecy has already been defended as regards its source (i.e., God, vv. 17-18) and its authenticity (έπόπται, v. 16); vv. 20-21 add the author’s apology for his interpretation (see 3:1-2, 9-13,15-16). In this framework, the author senses that his opponents consider this interpretation of eschatological materials idiosyncratic and self-serving; hence it is incumbent upon him to continue to defend his own credentials for leaving an accurate remembrance of these matters.” Contrast R. J. Bauckham, 2 Peter, Jude, 224. While he recognizes that Neyrey’s view is held by the majority of NT scholars, he argues that the “prophetic word” refers to passages from the prophets of the Hebrew Bible which the NT authors used along with their eyewitness experience to confirm the promise of the return of Christ. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Enemies No More

Enemies No More
Matthew 5:38-48[1]
We as a people seem to have a “terrible love of violence.”[2] Many of us have grown up watching TV programs and movies that are essentially based on the premise that there are “good guys” and “bad guys” in the world. And the natural instinct is that we want the “good guys” to win—even if it means using violence. We have been taught to believe in what one scholar has called the “Myth of Redemptive Violence.”[3] We’ve seen the story played out hundreds of times: the “bad guys” threaten innocent people; the “good guys” confront them; the “good guys” overcome the “bad guys” through some kind of violence; and the innocent people can live their lives in peace as a result.
This idea is something that is so ingrained in us that we believe it with the fervor of religious faith: when our safety is threatened, it takes some kind of violence to restore it. Whether that violence may take the form of war, or execution, or the excessive use of force, we believe it is the only way to ensure our safety. And yet the truth that has been repeated to our deaf ears throughout the ages is that violence can never overcome violence.[4] It’s like a virus: when we use violence of any kind it only breeds more violence. If we want to know the source of the violence in our society, I think we have to look at the hostility in our own hearts.
Our lesson from the Sermon on the Mount for today is the central text that has inspired a completely different way of being and living with our fellow human beings. Instead of dividing up our world into “us” and “them,” Jesus challenges us to approach the differences between us from the perspective of a basic recognition that we all are children of God. When we look at it from that perspective, there are no more “friends” and “enemies,” but only brothers and sisters in the one human family.
This section of the Sermon on the Mount continues Jesus’ call to those who would follow him to embrace the values reflected in God’s ways and purposes. In our lesson for today, he continues to teach us that obedience comes from the heart. It might seem initially that Jesus contradicts the teaching that said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But actually, he’s following the same pattern as before. We can see this when we realize that “an eye for an eye” did not require retribution, it actually limited the extent of vengeance that was considered appropriate. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” meant that you were not allowed to execute someone for taking an eye. If you did take revenge, its extent was to be limited by the extent of the injury.
The way in which Jesus goes to the heart of this matter is to teach those who would follow him not to take revenge at all. He says it this way, “Do not resist an evildoer” (Matt. 5:39). That might seem confusing on the surface of things. How can we not “resist an evildoer”? If we see someone committing a crime, or endangering a life, surely we have a responsibility to prevent it. But that’s not the kind of “resistance” Jesus was talking about. As the examples he uses make clear, he was talking about not retaliating against those who insult or humiliate or attack us personally. We’re not to take revenge against those who treat us wrongfully.
Many have debated whether Jesus’ surprising instructions here are actually practical enough to follow in real life. I would say it’s simple enough to “turn the other cheek”—in principle at least. But how can we give in to an unjust lawsuit or outright abuse by authorities? I think the answer lies in that Jesus was, to some extent, speaking ironically. The strategies he proposes are meant to shame and even ridicule the one who is in the wrong. This can be seen with the lawsuit over garments. What we may not realize is that to literally do what Jesus recommends would leave a man standing naked in court. But the point was that such an action would shame the person who failed to recognize the dignity of a brother by taking advantage of him in the first place.
All of this leads up to what Jesus has to say about the great commandment, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We find many ways to limit the concept of our “neighbor” to those who are like us. But Jesus makes it clear that truly following this commandment means loving those who are different. It even means loving those whom we may consider our “enemies.” The most important reason for this is that it’s the way God treats people.[5] We’re to love others in the same way as our heavenly Father, without making distinctions between “us” and “them,” or “friends” and “enemies.”[6]
One consequence of our belief in violence as a means of ensuring our safety is that we tend to see the world in terms of “good guys” and “bad guys,” “friends” and “enemies.” Unfortunately, when we do that we fail to recognize that approaching our world in that way leaves us not with more safety, but with less. I think one of the easiest ways to reveal the error in that mindset is by asking “Whom would Jesus consider an ‘enemy’?” As Jesus pointed out, God pours out the blessings of his love on all people equally. As people who seek to follow Jesus, we can do no less. At the heart of his challenging teaching is the call to “see that every human face is the face of a neighbor.”[7] When we really take that challenge to heart, we can only respond to others as friends, with love. When we follow Jesus, we can be “enemies” no more.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/19/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] I adapted this phrase from James Hillman’s A Terrible Love of War.
[3] Cf. Walter Wink, The Powers that Be, 42-43, where he describes the “Myth of Redemptive Violence” as “the dominant religion in our society today”! Cf. ibid., 39, where he describes the “domination system” it is intended to support: “unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all.”
[4] Cf. Wink, Powers that Be, 134: “violence can never stop violence” because its very success only breeds more violence. See further, Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? , 67: “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." Cf. also Dhammapada 5: “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.”
[5] Cf. Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 562, where they say, “To obey Jesus words ... is, therefore, to love utterly: no more can be asked.”  They further observe (p. 563) that “The motivation for being ‘perfect’ in love is grounded in the Father’s ‘perfect’ love, in his giving without measure.”  See further ibid., 560, where they suggest that what actually lies behind the “be perfect” of Mt. 5:48 is the command to “be holy” in Lev. 19:2.
[6] Cf. Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, On Human Dignity: Political Theology and Ethics, 128, where he quotes the 1981 Declaration of Peace by the Society of Protestant Theology: “There are no conflicts of our life, neither personal nor political, which are not embraced by God’s will for peace with human beings and his whole creation. There are no enemies, neither personal nor political, for whom God’s will for peace does not apply.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, Ethics of Hope, 202: “We are not the enemies of our enemies; we are ‘the children of our Father in heaven’, ... . If we do not react to enmity with enmity, we creatively make it possible for our enemies to turn away from their enmity and to enter into the life we share.”
[7] Cf. Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, 41: “compassion … breaks through the boundaries between languages and countries, rich and poor, educated and illiterate. This compassion pulls people away from the fearful clique and into the large world where they can see that every human face is the face of a neighbor.”

At the Core

At the Core
Matthew 5:21-30[1]
Anyone who has had extensive dealings with children knows that rewards and punishments have only a limited effect. Especially if the rewards and the punishments have no logical connection to the behavior that is being encouraged or discouraged. Rewards set you up for a continuing cycle of trying to “buy” cooperation from a child. And punishments only work if they are connected to something that our children actually value. Even then, many children know the right buttons to push to “get out” of punishment. These “extrinsic” motivations—so called because they relate to something separate from our children’s own attitudes—rarely succeed.
Truly shaping a child’s character takes far more wisdom and effort. It takes “intrinsic motivation” to actually shape a young life—meaning values and attitudes that they embrace for themselves. Teaching our children that their actions have consequences is more important than arbitrary punishment. And it’s just a fact of life that children learn what they see. That’s why “do as I say, not as I do” never works. Children will learn from what they see us doing. They will make the choices that shape their character based on the way we choose to treat them every day. Either from respect for our integrity or from a desire to go a different way when that is lacking, children choose their path in life based on the values they embrace at the core of who they are.
I think Jesus’ approach to how we respond to what God expects of us is similar to this pattern of shaping character in children. There is always a tendency in religion to make obedience to God’s ways a matter of rewards and punishments. We do “the right thing” so that we will get to enjoy eternal rewards in heaven, not because it’s the right thing. And we avoid what is “wrong” in order to avoid eternal punishment, not out of a desire to do no harm. As is the case with children, this approach to the Christian life rarely produces people who actually follow Jesus’ example.
And so in our lesson from Matthew’s Gospel for today, Jesus calls on those who would follow him to go beyond the “letter of the law,” beyond a merely external show of obedience. He calls on us to embrace the values reflected in God’s ways and purposes at the core of who we are. Jesus knows that it’s too easy to put on an outward religious show so that others will think of us as “godly” and “Christian.” What God expects and what Jesus demands of those who would follow him goes far beyond any merely external action. Jesus goes straight to the heart of the matter, which is the character of our fundamental attitudes and opinions toward others.[2] He knew the value we place on others (or lack thereof) would always reveal itself in the way we treat them.
So he begins with the true “starting place” for any Jewish person of his time seeking to obey God: the Ten Commandments. It’s not enough at the end of the day to keep the commandment, “You shall not kill.” We can go our whole lives without ever taking a human life, and still not come close to the kind of relationship God intends for us to have with fellow members of our human family. All of us have ways that we can “hate” certain people. We may not think of it that harshly, but when we essentially disregard the value of another human being for any reason whatsoever, we have missed the point of the commandment to value and honor and respect human life—all human life.
The same thing applies to the commandment “You shall not commit adultery.” Beyond what we would traditionally define as “adultery,” there are all kinds of ways to betray the covenant of marriage. Jesus knew that infidelity doesn’t have anything to do with parts of your body you can simply “cut off.”[3] It comes from an attitude that sees others as objects to be used. The only answer is love that springs from a heartfelt commitment to honor and cherish another person. But when that is lacking, it’s easy to justify minor “indiscretions” and “little white lies.” What is so easily dismissed as “minor” usually has a major impact on the one betrayed.
If you’re thinking as a result of this that Jesus makes obedience to God more difficult than the Ten Commandments, you’re right. Part of the reason for that is when we measure our relationship to God solely by our actions it can be too easy to find loopholes. We can come up with all kinds of “what if’s” and “how about’s” to excuse our actual disobedience to God. When our hearts are not really devoted to God and his ways, we put our efforts into covering up our true character, all the while maintaining the disguise of faith.
Jesus makes it clear that this is not the path he intended to lay out for his disciples. Following Jesus means not only that we don’t take human life; it means we conduct our relationships in such a way as to honor the value of every human being. Following Jesus means that we not only avoid breaking our marriage vows; it means we truly love and honor and cherish our spouses from the heart. Following Jesus means actually practicing purity of heart and the intention to make peace. We who would follow Jesus are called to embrace these values not for any reward but simply because they are right and good.[4] We are called to live in such a way as to actually obey God, and that means embracing the commitment to treat other people with genuine love at the core of our very being.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/12/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Matthew 1-7, 508-9, where they insist that these verses do not “offer us Jesus’ interpretation of the law,” because although “the Torah supplies him with a point of departure,” his demands surpass the Torah. “Obedience to rules, even to the Torah, does not automatically produce the spirit that Jesus requires of those who would follow him. Or to put it another way: purely legal norms, … , can never convey how life is to be lived by those who are genuinely poor in spirit, pure in heart, and full of mercy.”
[3] Cf. Glen H. Stassen, “The Fourteen Triads of The Sermon On The Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12),” Journal of Biblical Literature 122/2 (2003): 275, “Of course, literally getting rid of the right eye or right hand would not prevent what causes the sin.” Cf. also Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 524, where they point out that the imperative to tear out your eye or cut off your hand “is not to be taken literally. … Jesus and the NT writers knew well enough that amputation would scarcely curb the passions since the problem is not with the body itself but, as Paul put it, with ‘sin that dwells in me’ (Rom 7.17, 20 …).”
[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 2.2:696: “these examples are intended to make clear that the grace of Jesus Christ, the grace of the kingdom which has dawned, claims the whole man absolutely.” Cf. also Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, “life in strict accord with legal observances is not enough. God demands a radical obedience that cannot be casuistically formulated.”