It occurred to me this week that I’ve been hitting the Lutheran perspective pretty hard of late in my preaching – not that I’m apologizing for that, mind you. In fact, I’m going to start, again today, with a quote from Martin Luther’s writings, from the Introduction to the Letters of James and Jude where he writes:
“Whatever does not teach Christ is not yet apostolic, even though St. Peter or St. Paul does the teaching. Again, whatever preaches Christ would be apostolic, even if Judas, Annas, Pilate, and Herod were doing it.”
(Luther, Martin: Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan (Hrsg.) ; Oswald, Hilton C. (Hrsg.) ; Lehmann, Helmut T. (Hrsg.): Luther’s Works, Vol. 35 : Word and Sacrament I.
Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1999, c1960 (Luther’s Works 35), S. 35:396)
Now, I’m a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and as such I’ve promised in my ordination vows to, with God’s help, “Preach and teach in accordance with the holy scriptures and the creeds and confessions” of the church. In other words, to preach and teach the apostolic faith – the faith that has been passed down to us from the apostles, through the Holy Scriptures and through the Spirit’s continuing work in and through God’s people, the Church. But what does that mean? Does it mean that every word of every book in the Bible holds equal weight? Does it mean that if a Godly character does, or says, or writes something in Scripture, that we’re automatically obliged to agree with what they say?
Hear, again, these words from Luther:
“Whatever does not teach Christ is not yet apostolic, even though St. Peter or St. Paul does the teaching.”
It’s not automatic, is it?
“Again, whatever preaches Christ would be apostolic, even if Judas, Annas, Pilate, and Herod were doing it.”
So that even a scoundrel (and I’d be hard-pressed to find any bigger scoundrels in Scripture than Juda, Annas, Pilate and Herod) can proclaim the truth, if what they’re doing or saying proclaims Christ in some way. So, in this light, let me say this: I’ve got some real issues with our reading from the Prophet Jeremiah today.
To be fair, he’s living in a very difficult time and under a huge amount of stress. God’s people have not been living as God had called them to live, and they’re about to be delivered into exile in Babylon, and false prophets and other enemies are plotting to kill Jeremiah, but even still, when Jeremiah turns, in verse 20, to calling on God to pour out retribution on his enemies, I’ve got to say, he’s crossed a line that I’m not comfortable crossing.
The world today is in a mess in many ways because of people who form their worldview around this sort of mentality, thinking: I’m good, and so God’s on my side, which must mean that those who oppose me are bad, and if they’re opposed to me and God’s on my side, well then, they must be opposed to God, and as God’s enemies, they deserve to have God wipe them out!
I mean, this is basically the thinking that causes adherents to what’s commonly called “Radical Islam” – which, really, has nothing to do with the Islamic faith when it comes down to it, any more than white supremacy and cross burning and the like has anything to do with Christianity or proclaiming the crucified Christ as the light of the world – but it’s this kind of thinking that leads to violence, and killing, and warring madness in the name of God. And this cannot be our way as followers of Christ. It just can’t be!
Christ Jesus is the one who took every form of retribution upon himself on the cross, and who became sin for us so that, in what we call the blessed exchange, we would become the very righteousness of God. And that leaves no room for us to seek retribution, and certainly not to call on God to destroy anyone, no matter how much of an enemy they are or how much harm they plan to do to us. Simply put, the cross of Christ leaves no room for us to seek retribution against our enemies. It just doesn’t! Instead, we ought to pray to God to form us as a community into the image of communal ethics pictured in the letter of James. We ought to pray that our works would be done with gentleness born of wisdom, Godly wisdom that is pure, and peaceable, and gentle, and willing to yield, and full of mercy and good works, so that, when conflicts and disputes do come up, as they do in every human relationship and in every human community from time to time, rather than seeking retribution against those with whom we’re in conflict, we put the other – the needs of the other, the best interest of the other, the advancement of the other – above and before our own best interests, needs and advancement.
This is the way of Christ, and the model of living that marks the lives of a community that is submitted to God, resisting the devil, and drawing near to the God who first, finally, fully and forever has drawn near to us by his incarnation, his saving death, and his resurrection…
And this leads us to today’s Gospel reading, where, for the second time in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus predicts his impending passion, death and resurrection. And, as is always the case in the Gospels, after Jesus predicts his impending passion, the disciples respond most inappropriately.
- The first time, as we read last week, Peter pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him, only Jesus responds: “Get behind me Satan.”
- The third time, James and John come to him and ask for seats of honor on his left and right in paradise.
- And here, as they walk along the way, they all start to argue about who is the greatest among them, and Jesus responds, once they’re all together in the house, by taking a little child up in his arms and teaching that welcoming one such child is equivalent to welcoming him and the one who sent him.
But it’s important to understand what Jesus is saying with this child.
The Rev. Dr. Gordon Lathrop, commenting on this text, writes this:
“It is important that we do not sentimentalize the image of the child in ways marked by modern consciousness. The child, in ancient society, was among the expendable and marginal and powerless ones, and the child, here, stands as a symbol for all such people: ‘these little ones.’”
(Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday: The New Testament and the Reform of Christian Worship, Fortress Press, 2012, pg. 89)
So this is no sentimentalized action. Children in that day, if they were unwanted, or if they were unclaimed orphans and such, would commonly be exposed to the elements until they died. We, thanks be to God, live in a very different world where children are treasured. But Jesus is using the child, not as an image of something to be cherished and treasured, but as the prime example of powerlessness, which really ought to cause us to think about our own image of such. Who, or what sort of person, would we expect Jesus to point to in our day and age? Who, or what sort of person, would Jesus lift in his arms if he were standing in our midst today?
- Perhaps a person struggling with drug or alcohol addiction?
- Or a welfare recipient, whose choices about discretionary spending we don’t understand, or maybe we outright disagree with and are offended by?
- Or a Muslim boy who is arrested for making a clock and bringing it to school to show his engeneering teacher?
- Or a dead three-year-old who washes up on the shore after his family tries to escape a war-torn homeland?
- Or any of the other millions of Syrian refugees, for that matter, fleeing for their lives with little to no help or hope, and little in the way of positive prospects?…
In the end, it has to come back to the apostolic faith. It has to come back to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It has to come back to preaching Christ, crucified and risen. It has to come back to the God who so loves the whole world that he sends his only begotten Son, not to condemn, but to save the whole world. It has to come back to how we, as the Body of Christ, live, and love, and serve, and welcome all of the world’s little ones in his name, recognizing in the faces of all of the world’s least and last ones, none other than the face of God.