First thing I need to do
in a sermon where I’m talking about obedience,
is to tell you what I’m not talking about.
The topic of obedience is fraught with danger.
It is been so misused, so often, by so many,
that there will be many of my listeners
who might hear me say one thing,
but feel something else deep in their gut.
So I want to say a few things at the outset.
When human beings who are Christian believers
organize themselves into Christian communities,
and name God as their authority,
we have a problem to deal with.
It’s an important problem.
Christian communities, and all other religious communities,
have this problem.
We have this problem by definition, by necessity:
the problem of sorting out the difference
between divine authority and human authority.
If I lead a religious community (as I do)
and if I claim (as I do) that this community is under God’s authority,
then I am always one hair-breadth away from abusing my authority.
I am always at risk of blurring the line
between God’s authority and my authority.
Yes, I accept my high calling as a pastor and preacher of the Gospel.
I admit I am called by God
to study and discern and proclaim the Gospel.
And yes, I understand my task as a pastoral leader
to include a priestly function, being God’s representative,
to represent the character and priorities of God’s reign,
in my acts of public and private ministry
I accept all of that . . . with fear and trembling.
Because I am always at risk of conflating my authority and God’s.
And my own risk is even greater because of the
privilege our culture gives me, as a white male.
Not apologizing or diminishing who I am.
Just recognizing what is,
and the added risk of misusing my authority.
If I’m not careful, I can say things in such a way
that you don’t feel free to raise questions,
or don’t feel invited to discern the Holy Spirit
in my speech or behavior,
or aren’t encouraged to take the next step
of turning sermons into conversations.
Human nature being what it is,
sometimes the human authority gets it wrong.
I shudder at the thought of how often pastors like me,
or other religious leaders,
use their power carelessly, or abusively,
and the harm done is made worse,
because God gets drawn into the equation.
We all know this happens, and we see it all too often.
It gets played out in religiously-motivated wars,
and acts of terrorism done in the name of God.
It shows up in church systems
where racist or sexist or other oppressive systems
are propped up by appealing to God and the Bible.
It shows up when sexual abuse or other forms of abuse in the church
are covered up or glossed over,
to protect persons in authority.
When this happens,
whatever injuries were suffered in the original abuse,
are made worse by the spiritual abuse piled on top of it,
when one is made to believe that God is connected to it.
We Anabaptists were at the receiving end of violent persecution
in the 16th century,
all in the name of God and scripture.
In the 19th century, in our own country, many preachers
used the Bible to justify slavery, and buying and selling humans.
Like the one who said
it was “written by the finger of the Almighty” in scripture,
and that God not only approved, but commanded
the buying and selling of slaves.
In the mid-1800s a pastor just over the mountains in Culpeper,
published a work on the scriptural view of slavery,
saying that slavery was an act of “mercy to the heathens.”
We could spend all day citing examples where God’s people
were exhorted to be obedient to the Word of God,
in ways that we would all now admit
were a corruption of scripture,
So what do we do these tragic facts?
The temptation is to avoid the problem
by turning away from the whole notion of God’s authority.
The temptation is to focus entirely
on the open, welcoming, hospitable character of God . . .
and ignore the rest.
While it’s tempting, to do that is illogical.
It makes no sense to even speak of the reign of God
without asserting that God has authority over us,
as God’s subjects.
All kingdoms, dominions, realms—whatever word we use—
have some sovereign entity
with a claim on the lives of its subjects.
The scriptures of the morning assume God’s ultimate authority.
In our call to worship, from Psalm 111,
we praised our sovereign Lord together.
We exalted God for God’s glorious and majestic deeds,
and for God’s faithful and just laws,
for God’s precepts (i.e., rules),
and for the sacred, binding covenant to obey God.
Then we heard a text from Deuteronomy 18:15-20,
that needs a little unpacking.
I’ve been reading recently in Numbers and Deuteronomy.
It’s striking how God’s authority is portrayed,
as absolute and exclusive, and even fearsome.
When Moses, the great prophet-leader,
was getting ready to depart from this life,
another prophet-leader was being raised in his place.
So Moses stood in front of the people and said,
“Now remember, you yourself asked for a prophet
to intervene with God on your behalf.
You didn’t want direct contact with the voice of God,
you were afraid you’d be consumed by the fire.
So I’ve been that go-between for you.
Now, another one will take my place,
and this is what God says to you,
“I will give you a prophet,
and I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet,
and the prophet will speak my words to you.
And you must obey the words of the prophet,
or I myself will hold you accountable.
But if any prophet who speaks in my name,
speaks something I did not say to him,
or speaks words from some other god,
that prophet will die.”
In Hebrew scriptures God often acts visibly and speaks directly.
But God’s authority is still mediated
through one in whom the people trust.
Then we heard Jesus’ words from the Gospel of John (14:15-21):
“If ye love me, keep my commandments.
And I will pray the Father,
and he will give you another advocate
to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth.”
It seems Jesus is pointing to a new era
in the way God’s authority is mediated.
God’s will is no less authoritative.
But instead of one prophet,
who relays God’s words to all the people,
the Holy Spirit is sent to all who believe.
In the absence of Jesus, we are given the Spirit of Jesus,
who will be an advocate for the way of Jesus.
The Spirit represents to us the will and way of God—
as we open ourselves to the Spirit,
and actively receive what the Spirit has for us.
The Spirit of Truth is with us . . . forever.
That’s certainly encouraging,
if we can figure out what it looks like
to hear the voice of the Spirit in human community.
So to repeat the problem we have in the church—
the necessary, the inevitable,
and yes, I would even say, the good problem we have—
is that God’s authority is always mediated
through human authority structures.
God’s authority is not just an idea.
It’s a real thing,
if the rule and reign of God is a real thing.
Yes, it’s true, as I emphasized last Sunday,
God’s rule is invitational, and non-coercive,
and loving, and generous, and welcoming, and full of grace.
God gives us second, and third, and fourth, and umpteenth
chances to say “yes.”
But God does invite us into a life of obedience
and submission to God’s authority.
My sermon titles from these two weeks, are equally true.
God’s reign beckons.
God’s reign demands.
But because of the fact that the only way
we can live under the reign and realm of God now,
is to embody that reign in a community of flawed human beings,
we are left with this uncomfortable tension.
We bow to God’s authority,
mediated through human authority structures.
So there is always the question . . .
did the human authorities get it right?
did they hear God’s voice accurately?
That’s the question no matter our theology,
no matter the shape of our authority structure.
Of course we can answer that question the good ole’ American way,
and say “Every individual for themselves!”
God’s in authority,
but I’ll decide what it means for me,
and you decide what it means for you.
In a way, it would be nice if God’s authority was unmediated,
was made directly available to me and you.
we might wish that God was right now, right here,
in our midst, in plain sight,
unambiguously pointing God’s finger,
directing the affairs of each individual and of the church.
But that is not the case.
We are always left to work it out on the ground,
in our human frailty,
with our blurry vision,
from our limited perspectives,
through our sinful and broken human vessels.
But . . . wasn’t the Holy Spirit given to all of us?
Can’t we trust the Holy Spirit to speak?
Yes, we can.
Don’t the Scriptures speak truth?
Yes, they do.
But then I have to ask,
who gets to determine what the Spirit said,
and what the scriptures mean,
for this time?
in this context?
If we want Christian community,
and if we expect order and stability in community,
it comes down to what forms of human authority
a particular Christian community is willing to accept,
and to trust to hear the Holy Spirit accurately.
This question of authority and obedience to God
is at the heart of the struggles in our denomination these days,
and in all kinds of denominations,
and in fact, in conflicts within other religions—
in the various sects of Judaism,
in the various parties in Islam,
and on and on.
The disequilibrium in Mennonite Church USA
is more profound than our disagreement over a few hot issues.
What is at stake is how we, as a church body,
hear and obey the voice of God,
and how we relate to each other in the larger body,
when we are hearing different things.
Some church bodies, and church traditions,
have one clearly appointed representative of God—
be it pope or bishop or ayatollah or rabbi—
who decides for everyone under their authority.
Other church traditions, like Anabaptists,
trust the Spirit to speak to all members of the community,
as we submit our will to God as a body,
seeking truth together in the scriptures, by the Spirit.
That makes things more challenging, of course,
when different bodies hear different things,
and all believe it’s the Spirit speaking.
Yes, God speaks, with authority, by the Holy Spirit.
Yes, God speaks, with authority, through Holy Scripture.
But that doesn’t make it simple and straightforward.
We still need to listen and discern and decide what we are hearing.
So how do we know true hearing, from false hearing?
The same question was asked in Deuteronomy 18,
about the prophet of God.
Immediately after the section we read earlier,
where it said that if the prophet spoke words not from God,
that prophet would die . . .
we have these words, in verses 21 and 22, and I quote.
“You may say to yourselves,
‘How can we know when a message
has not been spoken by the Lord?’
If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord
does not take place or come true,
that is a message the Lord has not spoken.
That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed.”
Now that’s interesting!
And not a whole lot of help, actually.
We only know after the fact?
So the prophet speaks,
and we won’t know for sure if the prophet spoke truth,
unless the words spoken do not come true?
So if the prophet says, “Obey the Lord by doing A, B, and C,
or else X, Y, and Z will happen,”
we still need to decide whether to listen,
because the proof only comes later,
after we’ve decided what to do.
Even God’s iron-clad test of authority,
requires discernment, and trust,
and patience to see how it pans out.
We have nothing more iron-clad and fool-proof than they did,
when we are discerning the truth of what the Spirit is saying,
through the church, through the scriptures,
through the evidence we see around us.
We still must listen to the Spirit,
as we listen to the scripture,
listen to the church,
listen to our context,
listen to the world around us,
and do the best we can,
and be humble,
and be patient as things play themselves out.
Of course, we all want to know the truth.
Let us never accuse each other
of not valuing the truth,
of not honestly seeking the truth,
of not respecting God’s authority.
Let us assume the best in each other.
And let us patiently stick with each other,
as we keep working at it.
Is the way of communal discernment more messy,
and more time-consuming
than a single authoritative interpreter
of God’s will at the top?
Of course it is.
But since all authority is mediated through human filters anyway,
I’d still rather throw my lot in with a church
where every member enters into a lively covenant
with God and with the Spirit and
with the community of disciples,
and that covenantal relationship trumps everything.
It demands that we do the work necessary
to discern the will and way of God for our time,
even when our own sisters and brothers in covenant,
are hearing something different than we do.
Oh, I imagine things would be very different
in a church where all of you agreed in advance,
when you became a member,
that I would be the primary authority
of what God’s will is for us in this community,
and that you would submit to it.
And where I (and a hundred other pastors like me)
would submit our authority entirely to one super-pastor
higher up than us in the structure,
and on up the ladder to Almighty God.
But that’s not the kind of covenant have with each other.
Because that one’s ripe with the possibility
for the spiritual abuse I spoke of earlier.
We are in this together.
And by God’s grace,
we will stay in it together,
as we continue to sort out what God’s will is for us,
and together commit ourselves to obey
even as we are continually discerning,
by God’s help.
Let us pray for the courage to listen to God and each other,
as we pray this prayer, in song,
“Teach me, O Lord, thy way of truth . . .” [HWB 487]
—Phil Kniss, February 1, 2015
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