“Foolishness and Faithfulness”

June 26, 2016

 

I Kings 8:22-23

Galatians 2:15-3:2

 

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.

Unconstitutional?

As a strong advocate for a strong separation of church and state I was furious. “Of course it’s unconstitutional!” I fumed.

This proclamation, 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 mankind.”

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.

Official 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 state.

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 one sitting.

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 peace.

I’m not sure that many who will show up at courthouses across our state have really heard those messages yet.

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.”

Well, yes.

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 his Judaism.

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.

Outside agitators 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.

“Nonsense!” Paul says. “Foolishness!”

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.