Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Law and Gospel, Or, Only in Paul's Dreams

This week's lectionary texts are among the richest in Holy Scripture. We have the first of three accounts of the "10 Commandments" in Exodus/Deuteronomy, the "noting but Christ and him crucified" in I Corinthians, the so-called natural revelation/special revelation in Psalm 19, and everybody's fave, Jesus' cleansing of the Temple in John 2.

Interestingly, in the other gospel accounts, the episode of Jesus' zealotry for the purity of Temple worship comes late, at the beginning of Holy Week, and serves as one of the primary motives for Jesus' enemies to move against him in a final, murderous way. In John, the story is early, just after his first sign (turning water to wine), as if the second clause to the preamble of ministry's agenda (miraculous grace, withering judgment).

There are many, many points of convergence in these stories. Right now I am interested in the fact that God's command to have no other Gods "before me" might be suggestive of the clutter we put in between ourselves and God. For fear or comfort, the human tendency is to mask the divine, to carve it into manageable shape, to render it in lifeless stone, to turn to mediators both human and inanimate (priests, horoscopes, tarot cards, formulas and periodic tables) who/that can interpret the mystery and make it less frightening).

Churches, Temples--created to carve out essentially empty space for God to fill and for us to experience God--are gradually filled with stuff (related to faith or not) but in every case the result is that we shield ourselves from the terrible and wonderful intimacy that is crucial to true epiphanies or real experiences.

Later in the Exodus text the people of Israel--already terrified by the signs they see of God's presence on Sinai, fire and smoke and the thunder of God's voice--put Moses "before God": you go talk to him and tell us what he says (vs. 19). Moses tells them not to be afraid, but they are anyway. And so we remain. Half-disbelieving, half-afraid. And so we protect ourselves either from disappointment or Reality with the "stuff" we put as buffer between ourselves and the Almighty. If no one can see God and live, no one can really live who has not caught at least a glimpse of God, but as Willimon and others have suggested, pastors spend a good bit of their time and energy protecting their people from God--and so pastors and their people are often mostly dead.

The Temple is filled with idols and junk during the time of Hezekiah and Josiah...cluttering the space with things that apparently were meaningful or important or pleasant to the people (feel free to make your own joke here), but were between the people and God. I think, too, of the walls in Martha's kitchen... she is doing stuff for Jesus but that keeps her from being with Jesus. Those who give themselves to the business and busyness of the church are doing things for God, but many times these things are "before" God, not just in terms of priority but also proximity: a shield, a buffer, in between us and God.

Interestingly, the critique of John 2 is addressed to the priests...the preachers. Those of us who are so busy about the stuff that we protect ourselves and our people for the terror and wonder of worship.

We proclaim nothing but Christ and him Crucified? Only in Paul's dreams!

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