Saturday Night Theologian
29 March 2009

Jeremiah 31:31-34

A prisoner sits in his cell, contemplating his life behind bars. He has been there for years, and he has no prospect of getting out. He's serving a life sentence. Now imagine two different scenarios. In the first, the warden gets a note from the prosecutor saying that the prisoner is innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. The warden informs the prisoner of the content of the note, but he doesn't release him. The prisoner knows that the government no longer considers him guilty, but he also knows that nothing has changed. He will still spend the rest of his life in prison. In the second scenario, the warden receives a writ from the governors office mandating the prisoner's immediate release, pursuant to a pardon. The warden informs the prisoner and releases him. In both scenarios the prisoner was eligible for release, but he got out of prison only in the second. The first piece of paper was informative: it said the prisoner hadn't committed the crime, but it didn't change his life. The second piece of paper was transformative: it not only vacated the charges against the prisoner, it also mandated his release. The new covenant that Jeremiah talks about is a transformative document. Because it is inscribed on people's hearts rather than on paper or stone, it has the potential to truly transform our lives, but only if we let it. Too many Christians over the years have viewed the new covenant as a set of doctrines to which they must assent rather than a set of behaviors which they are called to emulate. Doctrines can be important, but they are by nature something that is external to the person who believes them. Transformed lives, on the other hand, reflect doctrine, but even more they reflect commitment to God, based on our understanding of the life and work of Jesus Christ. It's high time for Christians to start seeing Christianity as a call to radical transformation, not merely a call to a particular set of beliefs.

Psalm 51:1-12 (first published 6 April 2003)

"Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight," the psalmist proclaims. If only that were true! What the psalmist is actually saying is that every sin is an affront to God, and we cannot come into God's presence without first acknowledging our sin. The problem that many Christians today have is that they seem to take the psalmist literally. They willingly confess their sins to God, at least in public worship, but they are blissfully unaware of the effect that their sin has on other people. Sin damages relationships, both between the worshiper and God and between the worshiper and others. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber describes the relationships between individuals as either I- Thou or I-It relationships. If we treat our fellow human beings with respect and love, an I-Thou relationship can develop. However, if we deal with others in a cursory manner, if we treat them with disdain, or if we behave as though they didn't matter, we are in an I-It relationship with them. Some interpersonal relationships will always be I-It because of the limited contact we have with many people, for example with the toll booth operator as we drive past or with the flight attendant on the plane. At the other extreme, it is pretty obvious to most people that abusing people verbally (or worse) is a sin that needs to be confessed. However, all too often we're unaware of the people whom we treat as if they didn't matter. When we pray for the safety of American soldiers in Iraq--as well we should--but neglect to pray for Iraqis, we treat them as subhuman. Even if we pray for the safety of Iraqi civilians, but then we rejoice when we hear that hundreds of Iraqi soldiers have been killed in a missile attack, we are treating all Iraqis with contempt. Closer to home, when we make our decision to vote for or against a proposed local revenue package based only on how it affects us, without asking how the weakest members of our society will be affected, is to treat our neighbors as though they didn't even exist. Again, when we wring our hands because of seemingly intractable problems in the world, such as the African AIDS epidemic, yet we tacitly support our representatives when they vote to maintain the global inequalities that lie at the root of the problems of treatment and education, we are implicitly saying to the one in five South Africans infected with HIV, "your life is not important to me." We need to examine our attitudes and actions, asking ourselves how we are affecting the lives of others, either directly or indirectly. When we begin to discover the numerous ways in which each of us puts his or her own desires ahead of the needs of others, then we will understand what the psalmist meant when he said, "You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart." Then we can pray truthfully, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me!"

Hebrew 5:5-10 (first published 6 April 2003)

The high priest Melchizedek is an enigmatic figure in the Old Testament, appearing only twice, in a narrative involving Abraham in Gen 14:7 and in Psalm 110:4, which apparently refers back to the same event. Melchizedek is presented in Genesis as the priest-king of Salem (Jerusalem), also known as Jebus, in the days of Abraham. After David conquered the previously independent Jebusite city of Jerusalem and established it as his capital, he and his descendants were thought of as successors to the priest-kings of the city. Psalm 110, whose original context probably lay in a royal installation service, explicitly makes a connection between the Davidic king and his predecessor Melchizedek, and it draws particular attention to the priestly role that the Davidic king was said to have. The author of Hebrews picks up these references to Melchizedek and applies them to a particular son of David, Jesus. Jesus is portrayed as having a priesthood superior to that of the Levitical priests, and because of this higher pedigree, his ability to minister to the faithful was likewise greater than other ministers, to the extent that he was even able to offer not just forgiveness from sins, but actual deliverance (salvation) from them. Perhaps the most interesting statement in these verses is found in verse 8: "Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered." Setting aside the thorny Christological issue of adoptionism, what are the implications for today's Christians of learning that Jesus learned obedience through suffering? First, if obedience to God was important to Jesus, it must also be important to us. Rather than think of the freedom we have in Christ as a license to do whatever we want, we should think of it as an opportunity to explore the will of God so that we can follow it more faithfully. Second, Jesus had to learn obedience. If obedience didn't come naturally to Jesus, how much less so to us who are not as attuned to God? Therefore, since we have a tendency to follow our own will rather than God's, we should be wary of assuming that our initial inclinations concerning right and wrong in a given situation are accurate. Instead, we need to learn to rightly divine (i.e., exegete) the world around us so that we will better understand who God is and what God wants us to do. Third, Jesus' understanding of obedience increased as he suffered. We should not seek suffering for its own sake, as though self-induced pain were somehow beneficial, for such suffering is profligate. However, we should be willing to go without, to endure loss for the sake of others, and even to undergo physical, psychological, or socio-economic discomfort if God leads in that direction, for such suffering is redemptive.

John 12:20-33 (first published 6 April 2003)

As Eric Liddell prepares to run the 400 meter race in the 1924 Olympic Games, another runner, Jackson Scholtz, hands him a piece of paper that says, "In the Old Book it says, 'He who honors me I will honor.'" Liddell crumples the paper in his hand, takes his mark, and proceeds to win the gold medal. He had honored God by following his conscience and refusing to run on Sunday, even though his refusal cost him the chance to compete in his regular event, the 100 meter dash. Previously just one member among many on the British Olympic team, his self-sacrificial stance concerning observing the Sabbath brought him to the world's attention, and he bore witness to his faith. In the passage from John, Jesus speaks of the necessity of his own death. He must lose his life in order to transform the lives of many others. He willingly gives up his own life, and he promises his listeners that whoever follows him will be blessed by God. The theme of these verses is suffering. Jesus says that it is necessary for a grain of wheat to die in order to bear fruit. He says that his followers must be willing to hate their own lives in order to attain eternal life. Finally, he says that if he is lifted up (a reference both to the cross and to the bronze serpent mentioned in John 3; cf. last week's lesson) he will draw everyone to him. Contrary to the experience of most Western Christians, Jesus envisions a Christian life that involves suffering and even death. Just as we are currently involved in a war in which only a few are called upon to sacrifice, so too many Christians assume that only a select number are obligated to suffer for the sake of the gospel. Maybe it's that missionary in Nigeria, or the pastor in inner-city New York, or the deacon who works in the homeless shelter, but it's definitely not the majority of Christians who are called on to suffer, according to that logic. But what does the current passage say, and what do the lives of early Christians reveal? The current passage says that Jesus calls us to serve, regardless of whether or not we have to suffer in the process. The almost unanimous testimony of the early church shows that many early Christians accepted martyrdom rather than recanting their faith and denying their savior. Are we willing to suffer today for the sake of Christ?