“Foolishness and Faithfulness”
June 26, 2016
I Kings 8:22-23
It was a beautiful
morning on June first when I opened the Press-Citizen
online, as I often do, in order to check out the local news. And there
underneath a picture of our governor was a headline asking the question: “Is
Branstad’s Bible proclamation unconstitutional?”
Well, that’s just
the kind of thing that gets my attention—and quite often raises my generally
very low blood pressure.
I didn’t know
anything about this proclamation before—maybe you didn’t either.
Back in April
Governor Branstad signed a proclamation encouraging all Iowans—and that would
include you and me—to join in a “historical Iowa 99 County Bible Reading
Marathon” from June 30 through July 3 in front of all 99 county courthouses.
As a strong advocate
for a strong separation of church and state I was furious. “Of course it’s
unconstitutional!” I fumed.
made, as it says, “In the name and by the authority of the State of Iowa,”
signed by the governor and with the seal of the state affixed to it, says,
among other things: “All Scripture is essential to prepare us to be the people
God created us to be and to accomplish the purpose for which he created us,”
that “the Bible is recognized as the one true revelation from God,” and that
all “solutions to the critical problems facing our nation, such as the drug
crisis, violence, and social injustice…can be found in God’s revealed will for
And in one section
of the proclamation that cries out for a proofreader—I think some words were
dropped—it seems to lament the removal of the Bible from public schools.
I’m not a legal
scholar—and I don’t play one on TV. Certainly the argument can be and has been
made that the constitution only prohibits laws
that establish religion, not proclamations.
I’m not a legal
scholar, but I know a little about the Bible and theology. And especially in
the light of this morning’s reading from Galatians, I have to proclaim that this is not only an
inappropriate political action, it is most certainly bad theology and a
mistaken expression of the Christian faith.
I want to spend most
of my time reflecting on why this proclamation is bad theology, but first let
me say a few words about why I think it is an inappropriate act for a governor
of this or any state.
proclamations, of course, are not a bad thing. I was delighted to learn that on
the same day that I read about Governor Branstad’s proclamation, the mayor of
my hometown of Peoria declared June as Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, and Bisexual
Pride Month in that fair city. And every November the President proclaims a day
of Thanksgiving—no problem there.
It is one thing to
issue bland proclamations in support of prayer, as many Presidents, including our current one, have done.
It is one thing to even encourage
people to read the Bible.
It is one thing to proclaim
“Muslim Appreciation Day,” as our governor did last year, recognizing, as that proclamation said, that
“Iowans of Muslim faith embrace the noble spirit of the
Hawkeye State and strive to promote the moral and spiritual aspirations that
represent the American character;” and
that “The motto of the great state of Iowa ‘Our liberties we prize and our
rights we will maintain,’ inspires Americans of Muslim faith, in our community,
to articulate the responsibilities of patriotism, and encourages participation
in the duties of citizenship.”
Such proclamations, while perhaps
patronizing, acknowledge the role of faith in public life.
But it is another thing entirely
to issue a proclamation that makes specific claims about the Bible that no
governor, no government should make in the United States.
When the governor proclaims that
scripture is essential, that America is founded on biblical principles, that
the Bible is the one true revelation of God, and concludes by encouraging
“individuals and families to read through the Bible on a daily basis each year
until the Lord comes” he is making truth claims and suggesting a course of
action that are beyond, outside, and above the office
of any elected official. His statements and encouragement are appropriate for
any private individual—and any minister of the gospel who might want to say
such things—but they should not be made in the name and by the authority of the
It was, in my mind, if
not unconstitutional, at the very least a very inappropriate political action.
But we did not
gather here today to hear my political thoughts.
So let me turn to
the Bible and theology.
And let me be clear:
reading the Bible is a good thing.
In this congregation
we have, at various times, had our own Bible reading “marathons”—taking several
hours to read through, for example, the prophet Isaiah or the Gospel of Luke in
We read widely and
deeply from scripture during worship each Sunday throughout the year.
Most of us, myself
included, don’t read the Bible enough.
But when we do read
the Bible, we hear a message of welcome for refugees and of hospitality to
strangers; we hear a message of concern for the poor and of justice and fair
wages for workers; we hear a message that calls us to the stewardship of
creation; we hear a message of the value of all people; we hear a message of
I’m not sure that
many who will show up at courthouses across our state have really heard those
So, yes, maybe all
of us should be reading the Bible more often and more thoroughly.
But as I said, the
governor’s proclamation and the proposed “marathon” are bad theology and a
mistaken expression of the Christian faith.
Which brings us to
Paul’s letter to the Galatians that we are slowly working our way through on
these Sundays in June and July.
Paul is not at all
pleased with the news he has had from the Christian congregation there. A few
weeks ago we heard his opening words: “I am astonished that you are so quickly
deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different
gospel.” This morning we listened as Paul angrily asked: “O foolish Galatians!
Who has bewitched you?”
A member gave me an
article this past week that said: “In Galatians, Paul is confrontational.”
Paul is even more
upset than I was when I read the Press-Citizen!
What is bothering
him so much?
Just this: After
Paul left the church in Galatia, another group of Christians—whom Paul regards
as outside agitators—came to town. They told the people that Paul, who once
persecuted Christians, had been taught by Peter and the other followers of
Jesus in Jerusalem. But now, well, now he’s started preaching a watered-down
gospel of his own devising. He’s ignoring the Torah—the Way of God given through Moses. These agitators
encouraged the Gentile Christians of Galatia to adopt the ways of Jewish
Christians—the men should be circumcised, certain rules about what could be
eaten and with whom one could eat should be followed, the Sabbath should be
honored, feasts should be celebrated. Paul calls these ways “works of the law.”
The concern of these
people was not so much belief but a system of cultural practices that would
distinguish Jews from Gentiles and would allow these Gentile Christians to take
on these commendable Jewish ways.
We always need to
remember that Paul embraced his own Jewish heritage. He says that he advanced
in his religion far beyond many his age. He was living a wise and good life. Looking
back on that time when he confronted Peter, Paul says, speaking of himself, of
Peter, and of the rest of those present that day, “We are Jews by birth and not
Gentile sinners…” No guilty and troubled conscience here—and no rejection of
But Paul will not
require such practices of other, non-Jewish Christians. Through the faith of
Christ—that is, through the faithful obedience of Jesus, whose love was shown
at the cross, Paul says, they have become part of God’s people without taking
on a particular group’s particular way of life.
A couple of weeks
ago, we heard how Paul defended his gospel as something that he received
directly from God, not from Peter or others in Jerusalem.
And Paul told the
Galatians about that time in Antioch when Peter was eating with Gentiles—James
showed up and Peter and others then separated themselves from those people. Paul
was convinced that Peter would no longer eat with Gentiles simply as a way of
maintaining an ethnic boundary between Jews and Gentiles. Confronting Peter,
Paul said, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not a Jew, how can
you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
All of this can seem
pretty obscure and inconsequential when we read about it separated by two
thousand years. It certainly seemed like that to me.
But Paul is getting
at something quite crucial.
We heard it this
morning: “We know that a person is justified”—that is, put in a right
relationship with God—“not by works of the law but through the faith of Jesus
Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that be might be
justified by the faith of Christ, and not by doing the works of the law,
because no one will be justified by the works of the law.”
Those words have
been called the very heart of the message of Galatians and “the gospel in a
nutshell.” But those words carry two thousand years of anti-Semitism with them
and we hear them after 500 years of Reformed Protestant opposition between
“Law” and “Gospel. So we need some explanation so that we can be sure we are
hearing the Gospel—the good news—in them.
While this is good news, it is in a sense, not news. The faithfulness of God, God’s
eternal covenant with the people, God’s steadfast love for the people is
central to the Jewish faith. We heard that in Solomon’s prayer. The Psalmist expressed
the deep understanding that individuals did not earn God’s favor by their
actions—they were a people already embraced by God’s compassion and mercy.
And now!—here’s the
good news—and now, through the faith of Jesus Christ, we Gentiles are brought
into that same embrace.
were telling the Christians in Galatia that if they did this or that, if as
Gentiles they acted as Jews, such actions would cause God to act in certain
favorable ways toward them in turn. And Paul can only respond in astonishment:
“O foolish Galatians!”
Nothing we do is
going to gain God’s favor. Nothing we do is going to get us on God’s good side.
And nothing—not circumcision, not Sabbath keeping, not Bible reading, not
feeding the hungry, or welcoming all people—nothing is going to put the living
God on our side, in our pocket.
So here’s the thing.
This is why this proclamation is bad theology. It is, as some supporters say,
an “appeal to heaven” through reading the Bible out loud “to change the
atmosphere in Iowa and our Nation.” Others have suggested that by reading the
Bible out loud, it opens up heaven making it possible for God to move—as if God
needed that kind of help.
Now, like me, you
might have been praying recently that God would make the “atmosphere” in Iowa a
little less humid.
But that aside, I,
too, am all for changing the atmosphere in Iowa and our nation. I’d like an
atmosphere of civil rights and equality for all people. I’d like an atmosphere
where the air are water are less polluted. I’d like an atmosphere that makes
gun violence less frequent.
But Paul is convinced
and Paul is clear that there is nothing that we can do to cozy up to God. There
is nothing we can do to force the hand of the Almighty, so that God will change
the atmosphere of our state or our nation. We can read the Bible ‘til the cows
come home or, as the governor encourages, until the Lord comes and that will
not change God’s love for all humankind.
What is needed is
that we act toward one another out of that same love—which, unfortunately, is
much harder than standing on the steps of a courthouse and reading a Bible.
Paul’s opponents in
Galatia urged the Christians there to follow traditional, good and accepted
religious practices. They said that in so doing they would bring order and
moral security to themselves and their community.
A new reality has
coming into being in Jesus Christ. Paul speaks of this as the “faith of Jesus
Christ.” That is, the faithfulness of Jesus, even to death, is all that we can
depend on and all that we need to depend on as we seek to love God and love our
neighbors as we have been loved.