Exchanging God's glory for foolishness
Sometimes God's word is so relevant that you have to step back, take a deep breath, and praise the awful (full of awe) power of God. My nose has been buried in news regarding what some have been calling the "summer of sex" in the United States: many of our Christian denominations have been, are, and will be spending this summer debating what Scripture says about human sexuality.
And while I will not get into the political issues on this site (see my blog if you have to know where I stand), it seems that the daily lectionary's reading for today is unbelievably applicable.
One of the challenges that faces us every time we open the Bible is that we can choose to accept it or reject it; we can choose to be ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, or we can choose to live it out in a real and relevant way. The issue facing Christians in the West -- indeed, in the old bastions of Christendom -- is whether or not the Bible is authoritative. Whether or not when we read something in the Bible we are bound to conform our conduct and belief to its strictures.
In this powerful passage, Paul boldly proclaims that he is "not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’" These words of truth have challenged Christians since their writing; and indeed, their power was confirmed when Martin Luther cited them as one of the most revelatory Scriptures he had ever read during the time of the Reformation.
For us today, Paul's affirmation of God's word is just as challenging. We live in a world where people promote and celebrate things that the Bible plainly and consistently calls sin. And God's word resounds with the truth that "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth." In turning the world -- and faith -- on its head, humans change what is sinful into virtue. But God's wrath is against those who would suppress the truth. It is in the very act of changing the truth into a lie that humans condemn themselves: "For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them."
No one has the excuse that we cannot know what is right. God's word clearly gives us standards by which to judge our conduct, and we can choose to conform our behavior to them. At the same time, even without the Scriptures, the natural law, as Aquinas called it, is impressed upon our souls such that we instinctively know what is good and what is evil. "Ever since the creation of the world [God's] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made."
So when God's word commands, it is our duty to obey. For to do otherwise would leave us "without excuse; for though [we would] kn[o]w God, [we would] not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but [we would] became futile in [our] thinking, and [our] senseless minds were darkened." We must firmly resist the temptation to take God's commands and massage them into suggestions, or even toss them out as out-moded or unneeded.
Such mental acrobatics are condemned. We would be like those of whom Paul wrote, "Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles."
In this dark age of moral relativism and shifting truth, people daily take the truth of God and transmute it into truth that seems comfortable and easy and "wise." Because of their willful disobedience, it may be true that what Paul wrote about the pagans of the first century could be applied to many people today: "God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator ...."
• Matthew 17:22-27
There are two stories in today's Gospel lesson, and both are short and to the point. In the first story, Jesus once again explains to his disciples that he will be taken, killed, and resurrected. The disciples don't understand, and their misunderstanding is a segue into the story of Christ paying the temple tax.
In both instances, Jesus refuses to allow himself to be placed into the disciples' box of what the Messiah's role was. He was not a military leader to oust the Romans and re-establish the temporal Jewish kingdom. He was not going to start the revolution by ignoring the temple taxation, regardless of whether or not it was fair.
No, Jesus cast himself as an equal-opportunity disappointment. And there is the lesson for us: each of us has expectations of Christ, things that we believe he must certainly do. And each of us fails, many times, to understand that Jesus truly is God, and that it is the work of his Father that he must do.
If I had been a disciple following Jesus around Galilee, I believe that I would have been just as dumb-founded and disappointed as Peter. I would have hoped that my teacher would stand up to the oppressors. But Christ, so that he "might not give offence," calls for a miraculous coin to pay the tax.
Truly, this Jesus that we worship is more than our conception of him. He is the way, the truth, and the life. He doesn't let us take the easy way out: he tells us and our earthly desires to take a hike, and instead focuses us on keeping others receptive to the Gospel. He shows us that it is not for the sake of being right that we have been given the Truth, for which each human is responsible. Instead, it is our duty as his ambassadors to speak the truth in love, and -- even in the midst of the worship of the creature -- point one another toward the Creator who came and walked among us.
O Almighty Father, we confess that we do not cherish your word of truth or hide its words in our hearts. We magnify your Son, Jesus Christ, who taught us that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the King of the Universe and not the prince of this world. We thank you that you continue to love us and speak to us through your Word, despite our failings, and despite our wish to build empires for ourselves in your name. Save us, O God, from taking the easy way out and changing your immortal Truth into a lie that sounds soothing, comfortable, and easy. Bring us to your everlasting Kingdom, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.