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God Sets Us Free And Keeps Us Together

Commentary
In accord with the Pentecost season’s preoccupation with living the Christian life (Sanctification), the theme for this Sunday is how God keeps us together by setting us free, with glimpses at how the Christian life looks from those vantage points. 

Exodus 12:1-14
The first lesson is the story of the establishment of the Passover, taken from a book so named for the Greek term referring to the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Its Hebrew name (meaning “these are the names”) refers to the first words of the text’s prologue. Like all of the first four books of the Pentateuch, it is the product of three distinct oral traditions. This text originates with P, the 6th-century BC source rooted in a priestly oral tradition.

Instructions are given about how to celebrate the festival -- its time (vv. 2-3a), the use of a lamb without blemish (v. 5), how it is to be killed and eaten (vv. 6-11). This is the Jews’ annual and perpetual celebration of freedom (v. 14). We need reminders of freedom and how precious it is in our context. Like the Jews are ever in danger of forgetting their roots, so American ignorance about the marvels of our political freedom puts our freedom and the political system in which it is embedded in jeopardy. And numerous polls in the last decade have shown the ignorance of our governmental system even among college graduates. Freedom is in jeopardy in other ways. Gallup polls from 2006 to 2013 showed a decline among Americans in satisfaction with freedom. And it seems that we are not as free as we say we are. A 2015 CNN Kaiser Family Foundation poll found nearly half of us (49%) believe that racism remains a problem. And a 2003 Gallup poll found 57% of us see anti-Semitism as a problem. The task of freedom, the celebration of it in order to renew it which the celebration of the Passover brings, needs perpetually to remain.

Our lesson applied to our times reminds us that freedom is for all of us. When it is really working it keeps us together. Christian sermons on this text might also concentrate on the role of the lamb without blemish in the Passover celebration, for we believe in the Lamb who was slain for us (Revelation 5:12). Christ’s blood spread among us grants the freedom we need to overcome all the prejudices and bring us all together. Sermons on this lesson might be all about Christ’s freeing work, about how the freedom God has given Jews and Christians might change America!

Psalm 149
The psalm, which may serve as the alternative first lesson, is a hymn to accompany a festival dance found in the collection of Hebrew hymns, most of which were written to accompany worship in the Jerusalem Temple, the book of Psalms. Traditionally the book as a whole, has been attributed to David. This is unlikely, though it is indicative that David was held in great esteem as a great singer.

The psalm refers to singing, rejoicing, and dancing (vv. 1-3, 5). Its primary theme is that the celebrating which the faithful do is about glorifying God, for he executes his judgment on all (perhaps expressing the hope of God’s ultimate victory over all who oppress his people) (vv. 7-9). The ecstasy that this psalm seems to describe may be the essence of religion. Historians of religion have identified ecstatic experience, a sense of being carried away emotionally by a perceived greater power, as the essence of religion. But these shared emotions itself seem to bind religious communities together (Matt Rossano, Supernatural Selection, pp. 128-131). That’s no surprise; we lose ourselves in the intense joyful celebration the psalm describes (Robert Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, pp. 17-18). Sermons on this lesson can be occasions for reminding the faithful how losing ourselves in worship, how sharing common liturgical acts with other faithful can bring us together, not just with those in the church building but with all the followers of Jesus all over the world (Nicholas Wade, The Faith Instinct, pp. 78ff).          

    
Romans 13:8-14
The second lesson is part of Paul’s letter of self-introduction to the church in Rome, written between 54 and 58 AD. This lesson is a discussion of love fulfilling the Law and the immanence of Christ’s second coming. Paul urges the Romans to owe nothing to anyone except for love for one another, that whoever loves fulfills the Law (v. 8). We need this message of love for neighbor in today’s context, filled with suspicion and isolation as American life is. A 2016 Pew Research Center poll found that only half of Americans trust their neighbors. And we seem to be divided by economics. Social commentator Charles Murray (Coming Apart) has found that the professional classes and working classes live such different lifestyles that we have become ignorant of each other’s interests and values. We are no longer one people, and this explains much of our political polarization.

The good news of this lesson is that this love the world needs so badly is not something we must accomplish by our own will and strength. As we put on Christ whose advent is near, we are strengthened to make no provisions for the things of the flesh (v. 14). Salvation is near (v. 13), and this saving reality is all about love. Sermons helping parishioners to become certain of their salvation, how near it is to them, can stimulate the kind of loving our society needs.  

Matthew 18:15-20
The gospel reports Jesus’ instructions to his disciples and his comments on the nature of discipleship. Matthew’s gospel especially urges here the importance of reconciliation and forgiveness of sin. Though traditionally attributed to one of Jesus’ disciples (9:9), we are uncertain about the gospel’s real author, since there is no self-identification of the author in the most ancient manuscript. The phrase “according to Matthew” was a late 2nd-century addition. We should recall the author’s purpose: he was writing to Jewish Christians who were experiencing tensions with the Jewish community (see 24:20).

The lesson begins with Jesus’ discussing discipline among the faithful, that if one member of the Church sins against the other he is to go and point out the fault to the offender in solitude. If this succeeds, the fallen has been regained (v. 15). If there is no reconciliation, then one or two other Christians are directed to accompany the one offended in order that there be confirmation of what transpires (v. 16). If this fails to bring reconciliation, Jesus directs that the Church should be told, and if the offender still refuses to listen he or she should be treated as a non-member (v. 17).

Our Lord’s aim in these instructions seems to be to make forgiveness and reconciliation possible. He proceeds to confer the power of the keys to all the disciples, the authority to forgive sins (v. 18). America needs this word. There seems to be a hunger for more forgiveness in American society. As recently as 2010, a poll conducted by the Fetzer Institute found that 62% of us feel the need for more forgiveness in their personal lives, 83% want more of it in their communities, and 90% (almost all) say we need more forgiveness in America and in the world. Perhaps related to the lack of forgiveness in our world is a sense among Americans that God is distant. A 2006 survey conducted by Baylor University revealed that nearly two in five Americans believe in a distant God who is not engaged in our daily lives. Jesus’ claim that where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name then he is present (v. 20) is an important antidote to this sense of God’s distance! Forgiveness is not something we do alone. We only have the power of the keys to forgive because we are doing God’s work, functioning as his tools or mouthpieces. Sermons which help the faithful appreciate that keeping people together is God’s will, that it is he who makes the forgiveness possible, that he does the forgiving, can also help bring God closer to the people of a nation who are probably more secular today because the Lord seems so far away.

All these lessons witness to the importance of keeping human beings together, that it is God’s will that in freedom we love and forgive, and that this lifestyle only emerges as a byproduct of the Lord’s profound freeing love for us.
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