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October 16, 2005
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
The two passages from the Christian Old Testament have the common theme of God’s holiness. The other passages have no apparent connection of this sort.
Rudolf Otto considered the experience of the numinous as the fundamental, distinctive element in religious experience as such. In its early manifestations it is entirely distinct from moral categories. He speaks of it as the “mysterium tremendum.” The Exodus passage provides a glimpse into the ancient experience in full force.
Like most of the stories in Exodus, this one is quite strange to us. It presents the relation of Moses to God as one of remarkable intimacy. Moses does not hesitate to give arguments to persuade God to act as Moses wishes. He often succeeds. Our general sense of the encounter with the holy leads us to expect something quite different, an unapproachable deity.
Moses seems to repeatedly press his luck. God agrees to go with him and with the people of Israel , but Moses is not satisfied. He wants God to show him the divine glory. Even to this somewhat unreasonable request, God accedes. But there is a limitation, imposed for Moses’ own sake. God will pass by Moses in a visible form, but if Moses sees God’s face, that would be too much. A human being could not look on the face of God and live. Hence God covers Moses face with his hand, removing this only when God has passed. Moses can only see God’s back. We are not told what that looked like, but apparently Moses was satisfied.
In many cultures this sense of the sacred is associated with taboos. People needed to stay away from certain places and avoid certain objects because they were sacred and therefore dangerous. This notion shows up from time to time in the Bible as well. When David was bringing the ark to Jerusalem , Uzzah tried steady it and was struck dead for his pains. David was upset that the ark was so dangerous and delayed taking it into Jerusalem .
The sense of some things being unclean is associated with the same phenomena. This played a large role in Jewish law. The church claimed the ability to use the power of holiness against demonic forces. Something of the sense of the sacred still attaches to the consecrated host.
A faint remnant of this feeling still occurs for many of us when we enter a medieval cathedral or visit the gravesite of a national hero. It may also be inspired by contemplation of the night sky. But these remnants can at best be reminders that there was a time when “fear of the Lord” was closely connected with a strong sense of God’s holiness of a sort that could destroy as readily as support.
Some Christians deplore the decline of this experience. Yet Christianity itself has played a large role in the change. Paul’s Romans describes the change. Before Christ, God’s righteousness or justice was perceived largely in terms of his wrath against sin. There was good reason to fear God. In Jesus we learn that God’s righteousness or justice is in fact embodied in merciful love. In response to this revelation, fear of God is replaced by love of God.
If that is so, what purpose do these ancient stories serve? At the very least, they can remind us of how amazing, how wonderful, is the revelation that God is love. When we grow up with that teaching, the idea seems simple and easy to affirm. Starting there, we marvel at the amount of suffering and violence in the world and may become angry with God or complain of God’s weakness. To many the problem of evil is insoluble. Some are led to atheism.
The teaching that God loves us all means far more when viewed against the history of religious experience and thought. Christians are extremely fortunate to have an important segment of that history vividly present to them in the scriptures we have incorporated from the Jews. The story before us today is part of that history.
Human beings have always confronted a world filled with mysterious and often terrifying powers. Some of these they have experienced as sacred and treated as gods. They have done much to appease or placate these beings. In Israel more and more the understanding came to be that there was but one God. This was the God who had chosen Israel and who demanded obedience to righteous commandments. Failure to obey evoked divine wrath. But wrath was mixed with mercy, and it was possible to appeal to the mercy to turn aside the consequences of the wrath. Suffering was understood as the normal consequence of sin. When this did not take place, one celebrated God’s mercy. The evil and suffering in the world were easier to understand than the good. Accordingly there was deep gratitude for God’s steadfast love and mercy that mitigated the consequences that would have followed from pure justice.
This God was at once the Holy One of Israel and the Creator of the universe. Jews often complained to God and argued with God. Frequently their arguments changed God’s mind and action. The God of the Bible was much more the God of prayer and religious experience than the God of Greek philosophy who later dominated the sophisticated imagination of the church. The Jews also confessed their sins to God and praised God. They interpreted the whole of life and history chiefly in terms of the interaction between humanity, especially the Chosen People, and God.
It is this cosmic, awesome, and mysterious power that Jesus’ faithfulness revealed to be essentially love. That this is true is far from obvious through the examination of either natural of human events. On the contrary, it is paradoxical in the sense of cutting against ordinary conceptions of deity, of power, and even of righteousness. It has proved hard to believe, even for the great majority of those who call themselves Christian.
In the Christian imagination Jesus has more often been transformed by ideas of divine power arising elsewhere, than divine power has been re-imagined in view of Jesus. Nevertheless, Paul taught that the deepest power in the universe is the kind of love revealed in Jesus’ faithfulness even to death. The time for fearing God’s wrath is past. For Paul, nothing is unclean. The Christian is free to act from the love of God and neighbor with no concern about what is sacred or profane. We may consider everything sacred or everything profane. God is in all things. All things are in God. But the God who is everywhere is not Wrath but Love.
For Paul this was a Jewish message that could reshape and fulfill Judaism. It was certainly not absent in the Jewish scriptures. But it was obscured in heretofore dominant interpretations. Paul called for putting it at the center and reinterpreting all else in light of this. Jews in general did not follow him.
But this is hardly a clear difference between Judaism and Christianity. In fact, Paul’s understanding of the work of Jesus has been obscured in dominant Christian interpretations as well. Even while Paul was still alive and active in his ministry, he had to write the Galatians to inquire: “Having begun with Spirit, are you ending with the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3) They were not able to accept the full freedom of the gospel as Paul understood it.
The gospel passage is on quite different topics, but still ones that claim our attention today. The context provided in Matthew is that of the leading Jewish scholars of Jesus’ day asking him questions. They hoped that his answers would weaken his position with the people.
The first periscope was about taxes, a controversial subject then as now. Taxes are never popular, but when a subjugated people are forced to pay taxes to a foreign overlord, the taxes are especially hateful. Jews rose in revolt on more that one occasion to end their subordination to the Roman emperor. The message that they should cease to pay taxes would be revolutionary. Since their resistance would be met by military force, those who refused would either be martyred or they would fight. For Jesus to encourage nonpayment of taxes would be incitement to violence.
On the other hand, if a religious teacher such as Jesus encouraged accepting Roman rule, that could well alienate the resentful. Truly to believe in God and God’s choice of the people of Israel suggested that God would liberate the Jews if they rose up righteously. Counseling acceptance seemed a kind of betrayal.
According to the story, Jesus turned the challenge back on his questioners. Money belonged to Caesar. That it would be paid to Caesar in no way gave priority to serving the Roman Empire . Presumably what belonged to God was or far greater importance. Human life, personal devotion, one’s commitment and values, all this belonged to God. Given Jesus’ attitude toward worldly possessions as expressed in many of his teachings, paying money to Caesar was a trivial affair in comparison with giving to God what belonged to God.
Jesus was not attempting to overthrow the Roman Empire . According to the temptation story, he could attempt that only by allying himself with Satan. That may mean simply that military revolution employs the instruments of death and destruction and contests for power by just those means of power characteristic of the Empire. Jesus was revolutionary, but in an entirely different way. He preached values that were systematically opposite to those of the Empire. He proclaimed the power of love rather than of force. He brought into being a community that lived by those values. This, as he saw it, was a more fundamental challenge to imperial rule than contesting power in terms of the imperial values and methods.
If the reply to the Sadducees reflects Jesus own thinking, then we have here a rare glimpse of his understanding of life after death. The Sadducees did not affirm life after death; so they were pointing out contradictions in the Pharisaic teaching to which Jesus, in general, subscribed. If life after death continues patterns of relationship established in this life, then the question as to whose husband the woman will be is meaningful. But Jesus is here very clear and explicit. The human condition after resurrection will not be physically continuous with life here. We will be like the angels rather than like physically embodied human beings. The angels are not sexed. They do not require food and drink. Whatever is meant by resurrection of the body, it does not entail a renewal of the bodily existence we have known in this life. If the church had taken Jesus’ words seriously, much foolishness about preserving bodies and avoiding cremation, for example, could have been avoided.
Just a PS on the salutation to the Thessalonians. Here and elsewhere, Paul gives a clue to the question of how his gospel took root in so many of the cities he visited. His words of proclamation were not merely heard and critically considered, they were experienced as profoundly liberating and saving. They were accompanied by dramatic events interpreted by Paul to be the work of the Holy Spirit.
There is no reason to think either that such events were lacking or that Paul manipulated his hearers. Similar phenomena have accompanied serious gospel preaching repeatedly. If one reads Wesley’s sermons, one finds no direct appeal to the emotions. But the message itself brought about dramatic events among the listeners. If one truly believes the message of Paul or of Wesley, this is of such profound human importance that acceptance is much more than cognitive. These experiences, in which the participants and Paul saw God’s Spirit at work, changed lives and created a depth of conviction that could endure through time and withstand persecution. We agree with their interpretation of this as the work of the Holy Spirit. The absence of a strong sense of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in many of our congregations is the result of our failure to preach effectively and convincingly what is truly good news for the hearers. Either what we say does not touch the level of what is ultimately important for them or it does so in a way that does not evoke genuine conviction on their part.
John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D., has held many positions including Ingraham Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology, Avery Professor at the Claremont Graduate School, Fullbright Professor at the University of Mainz, Visiting Professor at Vanderbilt, Harvard, and Chicago Divinity Schools. His writings include: Christ in a Pluralistic Age; God and the World; and co-author with Herman Daly of For the Common Good which was co-winner of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order.