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Leaning into God's Future

Commentary
There is a powerful scene in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons. The story is that of Sir Thomas More, loyal subject of the English crown. King Henry VIII wants to change things to suit his own devious plans, so he requires all his nobles to swear an oath of allegiance which violates the conscience of Sir Thomas More before his God. Since he will not swear the oath, More is put in jail. His daughter Margaret comes to visit him. “Meg,” he calls her, with affection. She’s his pride and joy, the one who thinks his thoughts after him.

Meg comes to plead with her father in prison. “Take the oath, Father!” she urges him. “Take it with your mouth, if you can’t take it with your heart! Take it and return to us! You can’t do us any good in here! And you can’t be there for us if the king should execute you!”

She’s right in so many ways! Yet her father answers her this way: “Meg, when a man swears and oath, he holds himself in his hands like water, and if he opens his fingers, how can he hope to find himself again?!”

You know what he means, don’t you? When our lives begin to fragment, it’s like holding our lives like water in our hands, and then letting our fingers come apart, just a little bit. The water of our very selves dribbles away. We may look like the same people, but who we are inside has begun to change.

This is why Jesus comes pointing the way to another Kingdom. Here there will be no separation between the impulse of the heart, and the thought of the mind, and the word of the mouth, and the action of the hands. Somehow, everything about the coming Kingdom is integrated. And Jesus’ words are an echo of the righteousness sought by Jeremiah in his tough prophecies in Israel’s younger years, and the anticipations of the apostle Paul as he leaned into a future when truth and glory and beauty, as seen in the resurrected Jesus, would surround all of us.

Jeremiah 17:5-10
Jeremiah lived almost a century after Isaiah. By his time, Assyria had long ago destroyed Judah’s northern brother neighbor Israel (722 B.C.). Judah was itself only a tiny community now, limping along with diminishing resources, and constantly tossed around by the bigger nations of its world.

But things were changing rapidly on the international scene. Assyria was being beaten down in 612 B.C. by its eastern bully province, called Babylon. After snapping the backbone of Assyrian forces at Carchemish, and wrestling the capital city of Nineveh to the ground, Babylon immediately took over Palestine, the newer name for the old region of Canaan.

Judah was experiencing a rapid turnover of kings, many of whom were puppets of Babylon. For decades already, the country had been paying yearly tribute or security bribes to Babylon. Since 606 B.C., Judah had been forced to turn over some of its promising young men for propaganda retraining exile in the capital of the superpower, in anticipation that they would return to rule the nation as regents of Babylon.
For reasons like these, Egypt began to loom large in many minds as the only possible ally strong enough to withstand Babylon’s domination of the region. Even though Israel’s identity had been forged through a divine exit strategy from oppressive Egyptian mastery several centuries before, now a good number of voices were publicly suggesting that the remaining citizens of Jerusalem get out of town before a final Babylonian occupation, and find refuge in the safer haven of Egypt.

Into these times and circumstances Jeremiah was born. From his earliest thoughts he was aware of Yahweh’s special call on his life (1:4-10). This knowledge only made his prophetic ministry more gloomy, for it gave him no out in a game where the deck was stacked against him (chapters 12, 16). So he brooded through his life, deeply introspective. He fulfilled his role as gadfly to most of the kings who reigned during his adult years, even though it took eminent courage to do so. Although he lived an exemplary personal lifestyle, political officials constantly took offense at his theologically charged political commentaries, and regularly arrested him, treating him very badly. Jeremiah was passionately moral, never allowing compromise as a suitable temporary alternative in the shady waters of international relations, or amid the roiling quicksand of fading religious devotion. He remained pastorally sensitive, especially to the poor and oppressed in Jerusalem, weeping in anguish as families boiled sandals and old leather to find a few nutrients during Babylonian sieges, and especially when he saw mothers willing to cannibalize their dying babies in order to keep their other children alive. Above all, Jeremiah found the grace to be unshakably hopeful. He truly believed, to the very close of his life, that though Babylonian forces would raze Jerusalem and the Temple, Yahweh would keep covenant promises, and one day soon restore the fortunes of this wayward partner in the divine missional enterprise. All of these themes are echoed in today’s lectionary reading.

1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Corinth, located at the southwestern end of the narrow land bridge between Greece’s northern and southern mainland regions, played a vital role for the region in both land and sea trade. It was a wealthy metropolis during the first century A.D., and coupled that abundance of resources with many social vices. Sexual openness and experimentation, in particular, oozed out of Corinth, until the rest of the Mediterranean world began to use its name to identify lascivious lifestyles.

Paul’s stay in Corinth is quickly told in Acts 18:1-17. He began his missionary sojourn there as usual, with a time of teaching about Jesus to the Jews in the local synagogue. Paul was eventually forced out by vigorous opponents who refused to acknowledge that Jesus could have been the promised messiah. Although Paul was no longer permitted to speak in the synagogue, the leader of the synagogue became a believer, as did a good number of its members. From a new location in the house adjacent to the synagogue, and also from his workspace as a tentmaker in the Corinthian market, Paul broadened his preaching dialogues with people, until a thriving congregation was formed of both Jewish and Gentile converts.

Encouraged by a vision that affirmed divine blessing on his ministry in Corinth (Acts 18:9-11), Paul remained in the city at least a year and a half (virtually all of 50 A.D. and well along into 51 A.D.). Then he decided to make a report back at his sending church in Syrian Antioch, and took his new friends Priscilla and Aquila along (Acts 18:18). Stopping briefly in Ephesus across the Aegean Sea, Paul felt a strong pull to engage in a similar church-planting effort there. But he was already committed to his travel plans, so he left Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus, and vowed to return soon (Acts 18:19–21).

It was probably a couple of months later that Paul traveled overland through Asia Minor, and set up shop in Ephesus (Acts 19:1). Priscilla and Aquila had already established a solid core of converts and new leaders. Among their number was Apollos, a keen and well-schooled Jew from Alexandria, who was able quickly to understand how Jesus could be the Jewish messiah (Acts 18:24–28).

Paul stayed on in Ephesus for more than two years (Acts 19:8-10), carrying out a number of regional mission journeys (note the various travel itineraries listed in 2 Corinthians 1:15--7:16), and growing a significant Christian presence in the city itself. It was during this time that members from his former congregation in Corinth to contact Paul with questions about theology, ethics and church practices. Paul’s responses would eventually become his most passionate and profound letters of Christian instruction. We know them today as 1 and 2 Corinthians.

Probably sometime in late 51 A.D. or early 52 A.D. Paul sent a letter of strongly worded reproof to the Corinthian congregation. No copies have survived, but from what Paul himself says about this communication in 1 Corinthians 5:9, it is easy to see why some might take exception to it. Indeed, it appears that a number of people in the congregation began to disown Paul’s authority after reading that letter, and then began to instigate factionalism in the community. Cliques grew, based upon personal preferences about which leaders were better preachers, and who had a right to claim greater sway among them (see 1 Corinthians 2-4). Meanwhile, a delegation of three men (Stephanus, Fortunatus and Achaicus), all highly respectful of Paul’s apostolic authority, traveled from Corinth to Ephesus, bringing to Paul an oral report about the difficulties going on in the church. They also carried a written list of questions that members of the congregation were raising.

Paul quickly wrote a letter of response. Although it was actually his second letter to the Corinthian congregation, because the earlier communication has been lost, this one survives as 1 Corinthians in our New Testaments. Immediately in the opening passages, Paul addresses the difficulties some have at his continued influence in the congregation. He chastises the members for dividing up into parties where each waves a banner acclaiming the worthiness of a different leader. These groupings were sinful and disruptive, according to Paul, for they denied the honor that ought to be given only to the true head of the church, Jesus Christ. Such schisms also played favorites among human leaders, setting them over against each other, rather than recognizing their complementary gifts for helping the church as a whole to grow. By chapter 4, Paul was ready to give a declaration for his own apostolic authority, pleading with the Corinthians to receive his teachings as God’s own initiatives toward them.

In chapters 5 and 6, Paul painfully rehearsed some of the examples of immorality within the congregation that must have been the focus of his earlier letter. Several social sins, including blatantly inappropriate sexual relations and lawsuits between Christians, are marched out onto the platform in descriptions that must have left little doubt as to who Paul was talking about. The reflections about sexual behaviors may have reminded Paul of the queries on the list brought by Stephanus, Fortunatus and Achaicus. To these he turns next. Apparently there were eight questions raised:
  1. Is singleness a more appropriate Christian lifestyle than being married, and if so, what should married folk do about it? (7:1–24).
  2. How should unmarried people handle their sexual desires? (7:25–40).
  3. When we are offered meat that originates in local religious ceremonies involving other gods, what are we to do (and who gives you a right to tell us)? (8:1–11:1).
  4. What is the most appropriate way to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, especially with the diversity of our congregational population? (11:2–33).
  5. The expression of spiritual gifts is becoming a conflict among us. How do we deal with this? (12–14).
  6. Did Jesus really come back to life after his death, and does it matter? (15).
  7. Is there a standard practice about sharing our possessions and financially contributing to the needs of others? (16:1–11).
  8. When is Apollos coming to provide some leadership among us? (16:12).
Today’s lectionary reading comes from Paul’s powerful reflections on the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection, and its implication for each of us who lives and dies (1 Corinthians 15). Beginning with eyewitness testimonies about the reality of Jesus’ return to bodily life, Paul traces out the necessity of Jesus’ physical resurrection for the affirmation of human existence itself. Then Paul goes on to explain the metamorphoses that all of us will go through, when we one day share in both Jesus’ death and his resurrection.

Luke 6:17-26
Fairy tales always paint things in vivid colors. There are no subtle tones, no shadows, no variations on gray. All is in stark contrast: “You may go to the royal ball, but be home by midnight!” “Don’t open the box or the door or the window, or something evil will befall you!” “Say the magic words, kiss the princess or the frog, hug the beast, and you’ll live happily ever after!”

And if ever there was a sermon that sounds like a fairy tale, it is today’s gospel reading. Jesus points to the contrast between the “blessed” and those who are “woed” upon. He raises up those who love God, even if their children are not social or political leaders. Jesus calls on the disciples of eternity to be rich and powerful in the things that truly matter (through, of course, humility and piety). These are the ones heaven loves. They have no worries. They live the true fairy tale life — “happily ever after.” All those who don’t love God are jealous of them.

But we know it’s not true. At least, that’s not the way life meets us from day to day. Good things happen to bad people. Rotten things pile up on devout souls. Death stalks the young, while it evades the lonely elderly person who cries out for it. We don’t live life in black and white.

In 330 B.C., the Greek philosopher Aristotle gave a lecture that might apply here. He said that by observing a person walking, he could tell something essential about that person’s character. Aristotle insisted that the direction of one’s gaze was tied to one’s perspective on life. The person who looks downward most of the time is caught up with the past. His or her identity rests largely on tradition or past performance or the norms set down by previous generations.

The person who looks straight ahead was Aristotle’s favorite. This one, he said, has a balanced view of things, able to take in the short vision as well as the panorama of the sky and horizon. This person, according to Aristotle, lives in the present fully, while being shaped by both past and future.

And then there is the dreamer, the visionary, the prophet. Aristotle didn’t see much of a present life for those who only gaze toward the sky as they walk. But there is something deeply wonderful about them, and their presence is truly necessary for the rest of society. They may not be fully in touch with this world, but they have the uncanny ability to interpret all the grays of life under the spellbinding brilliance of future resolution. They tell fairy tales. They speak in parables. They use the language of Jesus in reference to living right (“blessed”) and getting it wrong (“woe…”).

You and I agree that life is more than fairy tales. And we may search a long time before we find a person for whom Jesus’ strong words in today’s passage seem fully to apply in this gray world of ours. But poorer would be our lives if we didn’t see these verses written across the sky.

Application
English author Osbert Sitwell once wrote a novel about a private detective on the trail of a man in Paris. The detective began to think that his subject might be staying at a particular hotel. But how could he find out for sure without arousing unnecessary suspicion?

He hit upon this plan: he would go up to the front desk and ask the clerk if a man by the name of — here he would give his own name — was staying at that hotel. While the clerk looked through the guest register, he would be able to see if the name of his quarry was listed there.

The plan was brilliant. Except for one thing. When he asked the clerk if a man by his own name was staying at the hotel, the clerk immediately replied, “Yes, sir! And he has been waiting for you. He’s in Room 40. I’ll have you shown right up.”

Imagine his shock at finding that someone else with his own name was staying at that hotel! And because the clerk had already called for another staff member to show him to Room 40, all he could do was follow on where he was led.

So he came to Room 40. There, to his surprise, was a man who looked exactly like himself, only twenty years older.

What would you do if one day you ran into yourself as you will be twenty years from now? What would you ask yourself? What would you most like to know?

So often we wander around as if we were in a forest. We go as we’re pushed or drag along as we’re pulled. There’s a story about a Lock in one of Lewis Caroll’s children’s tales. It’s a big padlock, just like the one you might use to lock your bike or the door on your garden shed. Only this Lock is alive. It has legs and arms and a face on its side. And it’s always running around in a hurry.
 
“What’s the matter?” someone shouts, as the Lock runs by. The Lock replies: “I’m seeking something to unlock me!”

Is that you? Is that a picture of your mad scramble from day to day, caught up in the moment, blinded by the pressures, trapped by circumstances?

Wouldn’t it be nice to stop for a while and climb a tree that gets you above the forest? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a kind of radar that would pierce the fog of the future?

It would be wonderful, sometimes, to be able to see ourselves twenty years from now. In a sense it would lift us above the dense undergrowth of our daily meandering and point us in a direction that we can and will walk with confidence.

Unless we become characters in one of Osbert Sitwell’s novels, that privilege will escape us. But reflections on the promises of hope and resurrection can do something like that for us and do it even better. In another place, the apostle Paul put it this way: “Set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1). From that vantage point the track through the forest of our lives becomes far more apparent.

Can you see yourself twenty years from now? And more important, can you see the face of God?

Alternative Application (Luke 6:17-26)
When Bill Moyers interviewed Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, she told him how it was for her. Dr. Remen has founded several institutes for the care of cancer patients. She said that sometimes she has a much greater sense of integrity within during those times when she isn’t feeling all that well physically. Bill asked her what she meant by “integrity”, and she replied, “That I am what I am…” She said that even with her wounds and her weaknesses, “there’s an essence and a uniqueness and a beauty” about her life that is whole and complete. Integrity. Pure in heart. The Peaceable Kingdom.

Jesus raises the banner of heaven’s royal claims over both Gentile and Jewish territory, and thus is the source of political allegiances that supersede temporal boundaries. This is very good news, when the nations of the earth conspire against one another, and only the Christian church can effect a trans-national celebration of the politics of grace. The Peaceable Kingdom.

Robert Coles is a child psychiatrist and professor at Harvard University who likes to try to figure out why we do the things we do. In his book The Call of Service he wonders about people who try to make a difference in life. People who seek to reform themselves, even with the tenacity of sin that clings down deep. People who attempt to better society, in spite of the fact that it stubbornly refuses the challenge.

Why do they do it, Coles asks? The stories are all so different that it is hard to figure out a way to summarize them neatly in some framework. In fact, the people themselves often have a hard time defining what it is that makes them tick. One young teacher in an urban school gets challenged all the time. Street-smart students, weary of self-righteous “do-gooders,” put the question to him. “What’s in it for you?!” they demand. And he really can’t say.

But this he and all the rest of them can say: sometime earlier in their lives, each of them ran into a crisis situation, a situation that tested their identity and their willingness to do something about it, and in that crisis situation, each of them encountered someone who put his life on the line. Someone who taught them the meaning of service. Someone who gave of herself in a way that bucks the trend of selfishness and of self-preservation. And the influence of that someone else made it possible to be greater than each of them had previously considered. Enter the Peaceable Kingdom, where things change because we have brushed against the holiness of God, and Jesus becomes our savior and mentor.
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