Jewish Piety, Greek Wisdom, and Roman Power

A while ago, Roy Howard asked me to preach this summer on July 19th, a nice coincidence for me. It’s my father’s birthday. Then, just two weeks ago, he asked me to preach today, March 15th. Yet another coincidence. My mother’s birthday.   Uncanny! What’s going on here? Where did Roy buy that know-it-all I-Phone attachment of his? I’d like one of those.

Last Sunday, Roy warned us that his Lenten sermon on the scripture readings for the day would be dense. Today, mine will be even denser. But hey! Better dense and denser than dumb and dumber. Be patient with us though. I think you will recognize some continuities of theme from last week to this.

In struggling to understand their identity, the early Christians found themselves in a world dominated by three different cultures: Jewish, Greek, and Roman.  Every culture holds to a basic understanding of human salvation. It provides people with a strong shelter against the stormy blast from without and the terrors of the heart within. In effect, the Christians faced the differing cultural ideals of: Jewish piety, Greek wisdom, and Roman power. Our scripture reading this morning concentrates on the first two of these ideals.

The Jewish tradition grounded salvation chiefly in obedience to God’s law. The first five books of Moses—the Torah–concentrated on the body of law received to regulate human practice. In keeping with that tradition, you may recall, we read here at Saint Mark just last week the passage from Exodus 20 on the Ten Commandments.

However, the Torah, in addition to recording the commands of God, also contained powerful narratives about God’s deeds. Did you notice that the Ten Commandments do not begin from scratch? They began with God’s compelling declaration about his deeds. I am the Lord your god who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. I did it, not some other god. Therefore, you shall have no other gods before me. From the narrative flows the imperatives. You shall not make for yourself an idol. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Do not murder, commit adultery, steal or lie. The narrative about God’s deeds grounds God’s commands and shapes the content of the obedient life.

Please note also, the Jew did not think of God’s law as casting a pall on life. Obedience to the law is not oppressive. The law offers the path to life, peace, and joy. As the Psalmist put it, “The man who meditates on the law day and night

shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of waters

which bringeth forth its fruit in its season.”

However, emerging as they did in the setting of Judaism, the early Christians recognized a daunting problem. If they viewed themselves exclusively in the light of the law, they fell woefully short of obedience. Viewed honestly in the mirror of God’s word and command, they found themselves falling either into the sins of unrighteousness as they broke the law or into the even worse sins of self-righteousness as they meticulously kept the law. (Dealing with this problem much later, Martin Luther referred colorfully to his struggles with the black devil and the white devil. The black devil tempted him to break the law and the white devil–by far the worse devil of the two–tempted him to keep the law—insufferably self-righteous in the keeping. In my own case, I was the oldest child in my family. I watched the law-breaking of my younger brothers like a hawk, and, wheeling in the air, zealously enforced the law on them, the self-appointed enforcer in family life.)   I think the apostle Paul had me in mind when he was able to say two things: both that the law is good and yet, at the same time, the law condemns and kills.

The law exposes humans in their unrelenting efforts to justify themselves, whether through their law-breaking or their law-keeping. We are obsessively self-justifying and self-serving.   All of us come equipped with built-in lawyers and beauticians, the lawyers, rationalizing our shortcuts and the beauticians, rouging up our virtues.

Salvation, the apostle Paul argued, comes not from our doing but from God’s deeds by which he undoes the direction of our doing. Wrestling with these matters, Christians began to highlight the second theme in the scriptures of Israel, the deeds of God, which they saw compacted in the Nazarene. The apostle Paul and the disciples recognized in his life and death an event in which God addresses all sorts and conditions of men and women–burdened with their unrighteousness and their self-righteousness– and embraces them, forgiven. God lets each of us stand out in the open, unconcealed, just as we are. Scripture captures this with the Greek word for truth, aleithia, standing out, unconcealed; and the liturgy captures this in the confession of sins which invites us out in the open before God, (ex-posed). We are free at last of the self-imposed burden of justifying ourselves. God lets us truly and freely serve one another. What a relief. The steadfast forgiveness sealed at Mt. Golgotha is not far from the resurrection—the great weight and stone have been removed from the human heart. Entombed sinners have been invited to rise to their feet and start afresh. Their good works are not a grubby means to salvation; rather, they flow from a life freed from self- striving, free now to serve their neighbors gratefully and gladly. That is a new identity in the law, surprised by grace.

The early Christians also struggled to understand their identity in a world that reverberated with the second ancient ideal—the Greek quest for wisdom. The Athenian philosophers had a vivid sense of the human scene—the pain and brevity of human life and the fickleness of human opinion. Everything, without exception, passes in and out of existence. Humans flicker with pain and then dissolve into the shadows, their fleeting opinions vanishing along with them.

In response to this plight, the hope for salvation lay not so much in the constraints of piety under divine law but in the power of human reason to rise above the froth of opinion and to discern timeless truth and to regulate their passions in the light of that truth.

The philosopher Plato summarized this account of the human plight and hope when he likened human beings to sufferers in a dark cave. There they sit chained to a bench and get used to the dark with only a few fires lit behind them that cast shadows on the wall they face. But most humans see only the shadows and wonder what it all adds up to and grub for a little food and argue back and forth, flinging their opinions at one another without resolution.

Only a few remarkable people are able to break the chains of ignorance and turn around on the bench and look directly at the fire. And still fewer are able to rise and make their way upward out of the cave, where they must deal at first with the terrible blinding light of the moon, the stars, and the sun and at length grow accustomed to the light, and gaze directly at the sun itself, the very idea of the good to which all things aspire.

Salvation thus entails a vertical ascent from time to eternity, from ignorance to knowledge, from the darkness of the cave, to the light of eternal truth, from the afflictions of mortals to the impassibility of the gods.

This view of salvation here carries with it its own firm understanding of the deity. The God of the philosophers differs from all mortal beings. God is changeless, transcendent and totally in repose. God is utterly self-sufficient. In a sense, God is perfectly at leisure. God is not caught in the snares of need and desire. Humans, however, are woefully needy. They cannot draw their life from themselves. They are imperfect. They have to keep on the move to satisfy their woeful sense of lack. They lack the motionless perfection of deity. The moment a god moves, it would blurt out its neediness, its insufficiency.   That is why Aristotle famously called God, the Unmoved-Mover.  God is a mover, only in the restricted sense that humans, feeling acutely their lack, move admiringly toward the self-enclosed perfection of the deity.

Thus the Greeks could not understand salvation as a movement from God to humankind. Salvation depended entirely upon the movement of wise people from the turmoil of human life upward to the heights of the gods.  In striking contrast, the early Christians, along with the Jews, reckoned with God on the move. The ark of the covenant was on the move. Scripture recounts over and over again the deeds of God. No Greek god really worth his salt could move. No god could be compassionate. To be a god is to be beyond passion. No god could traffic in promises. To be a god is to play it cool, the godlike are beyond the give and take of partnership. And that is why the apostle Paul said in his Letter to the Corinthians that “what we preach in the gospel is foolishness to the Greek.”

The gospel is especially foolish to the Greek since it describes a movement that arcs downward from God to humans. That is the good news of the gospel which the philosophers could not understand. In Philippians Paul wrote, “…let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness….he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:5-8)

Christianity, from beginning to end, is a religion of verbs describing the powerful arrow of salvation from God to us. Consider the Apostle’s Creed which we will affirm together: ….. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried, and descended into hell….” followed only thereafter by our ascent in and through the mercy of God. (If you consider the lectionary readings for today you will realize that they also pulse with verbs: Numbers 21, Ephesians 2 and Psalm 7)

And finally, the passage we read from the gospel of John this morning includes the core verb, love, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” This is the verse that Luther called “the gospel in miniature.”

John sets this passage about God’s love in the familiar contrast between light and darkness. However, the darkness here is not Plato’s cave, the hazy darkness of ignorance removed from the light above. John reckons here with the harder darkness of the evil heart. “The people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” They do not want to come to the light where their evil deeds might be exposed. Here is the deep fear of the truth again–the dread of unconcealment. All of us scurry into the cave where we hope we will not be seen.

Further, the light that comes into the world is not a motionless light distant from the human scene. Rather, it shines into the darkness–once again a verb drives the scene–and the darkness does not overcome it. That is the gospel narrative and the beginning of our identity renewed in the Lenten season.