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Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
On September 22, 1862, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, ending slavery in the United States…in word only. It took three more years of the bloodiest, most grueling war American soil has ever seen to bring it to an end in fact. The deaths of American, north and south, came to somewhere around 620,000. And yet, by the end of that war, nearly 4 million enslaved blacks were freed. The recently appointed holiday, Juneteenth, is a celebration of that fact. It took some time to be finished, even when the war was technically over, and Texas, being the most far-flung Confederate state, had scattered resistance holding out the longest. As a result, the slaves in Texas were the last to hear it, the Good News: You are free! But they did, on June nineteenth, 1865, two months after the South surrendered.
Good news. Freedom. Redemption. Liberation.
This is what the Gospel offers, not always in a historical or political sense, but very much in an actual sense. The Gospel offers freedom from all oppressive powers, from those spiritual forces we cannot perceive, to yes, even the powers that use violence and coercion around us. It does not always mean political freedom, but a Christian does not need to be granted that to be free; in Christ, there is nothing, and no one that can ever take our true freedom from us, the freedom to live in faith, hope, and love.
And it was this freedom, a freedom that transcends social and political freedoms (even as it certainly encourages them as well), that the Jews, those chosen people of God, had rejected. What a tragedy! That those whose history was filled with God’s good and gracious guidance had, not totally but mostly, rejected the definitive act of God to secure salvation for humanity. “Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.” Paul continues to remind us that his desire is that they would see the light, that they would take the gift being offered to them! But, he goes on, “2 For I can testify that they have a zeal for God, but it is not based on knowledge. 3 Not knowing the righteousness of God and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness.4 For Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”
Zeal, but not knowledge. Not the righteousness of God, but seeking to establish their own. Zeal and sincerity do not make a belief true; the Crusaders had a zealous belief, and put thousands to the sword in the name of Christ; the 9/11 hijackers had zeal, and killed thousands of innocents in New York 22 years ago. The Jews did not know the true righteousness of God, which is Christ. As Paul has argued, they sought to continue to use the Law to establish their righteousness, but as he has also said, that is impossible. The Law was never the end goal, never the point. The Law was a guide, pointing to something (someone) greater than itself: The Law pointed to Christ, who is its end, its goal, its culmination (telos). The failure, in other words, was what we discussed last week: presuming on the grace of God, taking for granted God’s choice of them as a people and thus missing the point.
This is addressed in vss. 5-8, which are admittedly a bit strange. “But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say?“The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart.” These verses are essentially trying to say this: Do not look for salvation anywhere, high or low, earthly or heavenly, in anything but Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected! That is what Paul and the other apostles proclaimed, and that is what must be received. And nothing else, even being a Jew, the chosen people, could do what participation in Jesus Christ by faith does, gives us true freedom. “because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” This is what was proclaimed, and how the Gospel must be responded to. The Gospel is only good news if received as such; to the slaves in Texas, Juneteenth was good news. To the Texan slaveholders, not so much. To those who refused to believe what was proclaimed in the apostolic witness, the Gospel is a condemnation. To those who believe it is blessings untold.
But let us not misunderstand what this confession and belief really means. What is in the heart pours forth from the mouth, and Christ is confessed as Lord. But what does that mean? The declaration of Lordship ought not to be taken lightly; for Paul’s contemporaries, Caesar was Lord, which meant total allegiance, absolute obedience, mandatory support, and trust in no other. It meant submission. That kind of totalizing allegiance is what faith is, what confessing Jesus as Lord means. It paradoxically allows allegiance to other, lower, earthly authorities, but only inasmuch as our obedience to Christ is maintained. Faith is the complete trust that, despite what those other powers might do, Christ will see us victorious over death as he was, even as we go through it. In other words, confession and faith are perhaps harder than any of us has understood. Confession is our total submission to Jesus who is Lord, in whom we have total trust in our hearts.
Lesslie Newbigin put the point I am trying to make this way, commenting on this passage: “As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that to be God’s chosen people means not privilege but suffering, reproach, humiliation.” For, “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” We don’t have a special claim on God’s love, any more than the Jews did. It is not us who did the saving. It was only and ever God, and we, responding in faith, were and are only doing the only thing we possibly can in light of the Good News being presented to us. This is why the weak, the dispossessed, and the discarded flocked to the early Church, because they heard the words “you are free!” and like the slaves of our country couldn’t see a choice other than to receive and proclaim it loudly. This is why God’s overabundant grace pours over to the workers who started later in Jesus’ parable, while the first-chosen petulantly complain. This is why despite Jonah’s resentful spite, God gave his grace to nineveh when they repented. Only people who think they deserve grace, or earned it, complain and whine about it being given to others. It is those who know they never deserved it themselves that rejoice when it is poured out onto others.
It is the universality of God’s gracious love that is the basis of election: he elected a people in order that his gracious love might be proclaimed to all. And that is one of the most astounding things about this: God pulls us into his arc of salvation, his grand mission. The Church is the agent of proclamation by which people hear of God’s goodness and victory as revealed in Jesus Christ and carried forward with our words and lives by the Spirit. When our hearts are filled with faith, our mouths cannot but confess Jesus as Lord, our faith, our allegiance shaping our lives to be one’s who free slaves, lift up the lowly, encourage the despondent, mourn with those who mourn, speak truth to those who oppress, and yet do so without the vanity and self-service of demanding privilege, or of seeking the tools of coercion and violence so valued by the world.
And God stands ready to receive anyone, Jew or Gentile, who would call on his name. We do not get to demand special privileges from God, nations, or neighbors because we are Christians. When we do, we are demonstrating zeal without knowledge that a crucified Messiah requires cruciform (i.e. self-sacrificing, humble, privilege-denying) disciples. But we also can rest in the abundant grace of God, that we, no matter what we have done, who we have hurt, how we have failed, or what our futures may hold, if we believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord, are truly also his beloved, adopted children, destined for union with God for ever and ever. Amen.
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