Do not even eat with such a one

One of yesterday morning’s readings was 1 Corinthians 5:9-6:8. In the first part, Paul is telling the Corinthian church that people who are behaving below a certain standard should be shunned. Well — people who claim to be Christians, that is. Folks with no claim to that faith are not to be judged. Until the next chapter, when he tells the church that they will judge the world, and angels, so surely they ought to be able to handle internal conflicts without recourse to secular law.

So many thoughts.

First of all, there’s the “no true Scotsman” problem. What standard of behavior (or doctrine, or anything) is sufficient to determine who’s really a Christian? Is it possible to set some reasonable standard for behavior without, perhaps unintentionally, treating “lesser” sins as insignificant? Are not the sins people get shunned for usually the obvious scandalous types, usually having something to do with sex or money? But are not pride and anger and coldness worse? What help or support is there for the Christian who is fighting his or her ‘demons’? Is it only the unrepentant who are to be disassociated? How are the unrepentant to be loved and invited further in? After all, does shunning ever bring anyone to repentance, when with God it is his kindness that leads us there? If no one even among the repentant has achieved a life utterly consistent with righteousness, how is any standard of behavior not arbitrary?

If the church is to be a community showing the world a transformed life and the way to it, or however you define the mission and witness of the church, what role does internal purity play in that mission? Do actions speak louder than words, or not? If part of the transformed life is a radical embrace of all people, then how does shunning too-sinful insiders demonstrate that radical embrace? Is it possible for church to be messy, to include people whose lives are messy, who don’t perfectly demonstrate the new life to which we are called, and for outsiders to look in and see not a sanctioned hypocrisy, but a righteous loving that is big enough to move forward without purging anyone?

How is it possible to reconcile, or harmonize, or integrate the call to righteousness and truth with the call to grace, mercy, and love without distinctions?

Jesus was criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners. Why was he not concerned about the purity of the new community he was establishing? Or is it that you embrace ‘such people’ when you’re evangelizing, but once they’re in they’re subject to judgment and exclusion?

Finally, the later bit about taking internal conflicts to external courts — let us understand that this admonition has absolutely nothing to do with sexual assault or spiritual abuse or any other harm inflicted or experienced within the church. There is no reason to tout “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” in those cases, without justice, as ways to keep the problem quiet and the victims docile. Paul’s admonition is better applied to such things as disputes about church property and other non-criminal conflicts.

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Earthly things and things heavenly

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. BCP p. 234

This week’s prayer involves a distinction that is easy to make too black and white. It is tempting to think that earthly things are all the things that have anything to do with this earthly life — food and clothing, work, relationships, hopes and dreams and fears, war and peace, the environment, etc. In that case the things heavenly would be God and… heaven. Harps? Streets of gold? Maybe our character and moral progress? Or our sins and need of repentance? The strength of our faith, the quality of our doctrine, etc.

But heaven is not some place outside this universe where we go after this earth is destroyed and we have died. Heaven is the renewal and redemption of the only universe God has made, including this earth.

What if everything about this present life is intimately connected with life in the age to come?

What if earthly things, the things that are passing away, are the things of falsehood, evil, and sin? People are heavenly things, and so are our relationships. The earthly anxieties I need to let go are not things like caring about people or even myself — how then could one practice the command to love neighbor as self? — but things like worrying about winning and maintaining other people’s approval, trying to contort and distort myself to meet others’ expectations, or any other kind of desperation around trying to get my relational needs met. One could make a similar exploration of earthly anxieties around other things of this life, too — and there are even earthly anxieties around heavenly things — like misguided efforts to earn God’s favor, or a distracting and fruitless scrupulosity.

Psalm 119

“I will run the way of your commandments,
for you have set my heart at liberty.”

“I will walk at liberty,
because I study your commandments.”

Ps 119:32, 45

I used to dread going through the book of Psalms whenever I took on a whole-Bible reading project.

Since beginning the Daily Office in December or so, with its seven-week cycle of the psalms, I have developed a greater appreciation for and familiarity with them. I especially like how 119, which is super long, is divided up so that you don’t have to try to absorb (slog through) the whole thing in one sitting.

Also, I used to find 119 puzzling because of its topic of delight in and devotion to and adoration of the law — in Christ weren’t we freed from the law, and how could trying to keep the law be a thing that would evoke devotion, gratitude, and desire?

But thanks to spiritual direction and disciplines and reading, coming into an understanding of discipleship as apprenticeship, becoming students of Christ, embracing his commands, embracing righteousness, patiently and unworriedly working to walk in that way — 119 makes a lot more sense.

Keeping the law doesn’t ultimately mean absolutely consistent obedience (although there is a sense in which every failing and every fault is sin) — it has more of a sense of embrace — of agreeing that the law is good, and desiring to walk more and more in its ways, and, leaning on Christ and taking up his yoke, learning to do so.

Fr. John says Eugene Peterson says (not sure where) that it is harder to be lost than we think. When we have an intention of overall embrace of righteousness, an intention of serious commitment to and trust in Jesus, including prayer, confession, sacraments — our daily sins are provided for. It is when we reject the whole idea, reject God absolutely, reject righteousness, resist every grace that comes our way, that we are in danger; and it is hard to be that resistant.

With this understanding of the life of faith, I get what the psalmist is saying in the quoted verses — embracing the law, righteousness, Rule, is a matter of freedom indeed.

Search my heart…

One of the psalms appointed for this evening was Psalm 139. This is the one that talks about how we cannot escape God’s presence, and that we are fully known by him who made us marvelously. There is no possibility of slipping through the cracks, being forgotten or abandoned, not even the tiniest moment in which he is not fully with us.

Then there’s a brief section in which the psalmist asks God to slay the wicked, and proclaims how much and how perfectly he hates the enemies of God.

And then — then is this:

Search me out, O God, and know my heart;
Try me and know my restless thoughts.
Look well whether there be any wickedness in me
And lead me in the way that is everlasting.

In the Old and New Testaments there are stories of those struck down for various offenses against God, from offering strange fire or getting bored with manna or lying about how much one donated to the church… and yet here the situation looks different.

Here it looks as though God is most gentle and forbearing, perhaps even smiling compassionately at the irony, at the psalmist’s blindness to the wickedness of hatred, even so-called righteous hatred, and at his ignorance of God’s plans for his enemies — plans to invite them into the kingdom.

Dear Jesus, quite frankly, I wish those other stories weren’t even in the Bible. I’m not really sure what to do with them. It is hard to be certain that you are with me, and for me, as this psalmist describes, and that I am in no danger of being struck down like those others, who seem no more wicked than I am. As long as it is possible for you to strike anyone down, it is easy for me to fear the same danger, even at the foot of the cross. Teach me your ways, show me your paths.

Psalm 65

The Mission St. Clare website offers the following opening sentence for today’s evening prayer:

Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. Psalm 141:2

Sounds like it’s written in exile, a time when it was impossible to have the regular temple service. The psalmist asks that his prayer could take the place of the appointed incense offering and burnt offering. It also makes me think of how Israel found ways to continue worship when the temple was destroyed.

There were two psalms appointed this evening — several verses from the second one, Ps. 65, struck me.

2 To you that hear prayer shall all flesh come, *
because of their transgressions.
3 Our sins are stronger than we are, *
but you will blot them out.

“Our sins are stronger than we are” — in our own power we can’t do anything to overcome or outweigh our sin. Instead we look to God to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves. (Is the sacrificial system implicit in this passage? Or is it instead arguing that God does not require sacrifices to enable him to blot out sins? Perhaps this psalm is also exilic, quietly disregarding the discontinued sacrificial system…)

4 Happy are they whom you choose
and draw to your courts to dwell there! *
they will be satisfied by the beauty of your house,
by the holiness of your temple.
5 Awesome things will you show us in your righteousness,
O God of our salvation, *
O Hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the seas that are far away.

Calling God the hope of those who are far off indicates the broad availability of salvation; referring to those he chooses indicates that some might not be chosen. I admit I hope it turns out that all will be chosen, all drawn to his courts, to be satisfied with him, although I have not yet found the arguments for universalism to be entirely persuasive.

7 You still the roaring of the seas, *
the roaring of their waves,
and the clamor of the peoples.

I wonder, did the disciples, and those who heard about it, think of this psalm when Jesus calmed the storm?

Law and law

Psalm 40 was appointed for this morning. Some folks will know it from the U2 song – it’s the psalm that begins:

I waited patiently for the Lord, and He inclined to me and heard my cry. He brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay, and He set my feet upon a rock making my footsteps firm. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God; many will see and fear and will trust in the Lord.

Just a few verses later is this one:

Sacrifice and meal offering You have not desired; my ears You have opened; burnt offering and sin offering You have not required.” Ps 40:6

We talk about how anyone who thinks they have received a word from God should test that word against Scripture, because God will never reveal anything that is contrary to any word he has given in the Bible. Isn’t this why Peter hesitated when, in his dream, the angel told him to eat of the unclean animals that the law forbade? Isn’t it why Hezekiah refused to ask for a sign when the angel commanded him to? (It was Hezekiah, right?)

How then can the psalmist argue that God has neither required nor desired the temple sacrifices, which were (so it says) indeed commanded by God?

But it seems Scripture itself affirms that Hezekiah and Peter should have obeyed the angel instead of Scripture, and the biblical letters do testify that the apostles were right to declare that the Gentile Christians must not be compelled to obey the laws that marked Israel as set apart from the nations… How much simpler it would have been if, when God gave the law in the first place, he’d not said that it was to be a permanent statute, unchanging forever.

How do you trust Scripture when either God changes his mind and goes back on his earlier words, or else the Scripture writers ascribed the wrong things to God? And how are we to judge the testimony of those who claim to have heard from God, if what they have heard is contrary to any part of Scripture?

This morning’s lesson from Galatians contributes to this discussion.

It begins with Paul arguing that even in covenants between people, it’s not okay to change or dismiss it once it’s been ratified. Paul is talking about the promise to Abraham, which was given before the law was given; therefore, he says, the law does not negate the promise. That’s not what the law was given for – it was given “because of transgressions” – to reduce the expression of evil? To name sin as sin, thereby declaring everyone a sinner, until the time of Christ should come, bringing the promise to fruition?

Again… why not make it explicit, when the law is first given, that it will serve a temporary purpose, and give the sign that will indicate that its time is over? And again, what did Jesus mean when he said he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it?

If at some times “the law” refers only to those markers of distinction, such as food laws and circumcision and temple sacrifices, and other times “the law” refers to God’s standard of moral and spiritual righteousness, such as the Ten Commandments, it would be nice if the biblical authors had made it clear each time which meaning of “the law” they intended.

Chosen

The psalm this morning, part of 119, included this verse (54):

Your statutes have been like songs to me wherever I have lived as a stranger.

Which got me thinking about how one function of the Law, particularly things like circumcision and food laws, was to mark Israel as different from the surrounding peoples — the chosen people, God’s own people. When in exile, or just traveling in a foreign culture, it can be comforting to run into reminders of your own culture, especially anything that you particularly value about your own culture, and/or that seems particularly righteous or good or true or beautiful. So here we have a Law that is righteous in itself, and that also comfortingly reminds the sojourner of his status as one of God’s chosen.

(What it means to not be chosen is a subject for another time; for now I’ll just say that Israel’s chosenness is to involve mission — it is not supposed to be insular.)

I also liked this verse (68):

You are good and you bring forth good; instruct me in your statutes.

What is certain (ha ha — of course this belief is subject to doubt and fear as well) is God’s fruitful, redeeming goodness. What is less certain is our understanding of him, of his law and grace and salvation and justice and mercy, of ourselves and of others, of time and history, and of everything else — but we don’t need to figure it all out before we are counted faithful or welcomed into the covenant family. Let us persist in bringing our requests — including requests for understanding — earnestly and honestly before God.