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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 09/07/2014

Sometimes I think I’m a bad Lutheran because I don’t feel like I pay close enough attention to the Apostle Paul; his letters aren’t my favorite part of the Bible. Martin Luther paid close attention; he was heavily influenced by Paul’s writings, especially Romans. Because of that, Lutheran theology is very Paul-ine. Justification by grace through faith is at the center of Lutheran theology and it is straight from Paul but Paul’s theology is not my problem; justification by grace through faith is the center of Lutheran theology.

I don’t deny the influence of Paul or the importance of his theology. It’s also quite likely that we wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for his single mindedness in preaching what he believed to be the truth about Jesus Christ. In many ways, Paul more than Jesus, is the founder of Christianity.

I don’t deny his influence; it’s his writings that sometimes bother me. His arguments can be convoluted and hard to follow, he sometimes rambles in kind of a stream of conscience fashion (as some have said, what Paul really needed was a good editor). Sometimes his passion and his certainty that he’s right and everyone else is wrong gets in the way, all of which contribute to why I don’t preach very often on the second reading. Paul can be a pain in the neck. But then, about the time you get frustrated with him, he comes through. He comes through with a beautiful and timeless phrase or image like “Love is patient, love is kind” that gets used at so many weddings, or he cuts to the chase and gets to the heart of Christian ethics, the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Chapter 13 of Romans from which today’s second reading comes, is a case in point.

Chapter 13 comes toward the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans following many chapters of what can be rather dense theological discourse, dense but insightful. When you sort through it though, Romans really is Paul at his best, not only in its theology but also toward the end of chapter 12 and into chapter 13 Paul is at his best in the advice he has to offer on how to live out the dense theology that he has outlined. Questions are sometimes raised about how much Paul knew about Jesus’ teachings because he doesn’t spend a lot of time in his letters on them but this part of Romans with its emphasis on “Love your neighbor” is evidence that he was quite aware of what Jesus taught.

Good theology is important and Paul does help to provide that. Thinking the faith is important and, following Paul, we Lutherans are pretty good at it perhaps being guilty at times making things overly complicated. At some point though the question of what does all that theology mean for how I live my life has to come up. There is a time for thinking the faith but there’s also a time for the simplicity of “Love your neighbor as yourself” as a guide to living the faith. As Paul says, echoing Jesus, all the other commandments are summed up or fulfilled in that one phrase.

Love your neighbor as yourself isn’t hard to understand. It’s a case in point of what Mark Twain meant when he said “It’s not the part s of the Bible that I don’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts I do understand.” There is a simplicity to “Love your neighbor,” we know what it means. It is at the heart of Christian ethics and as such it provides some context for the other lessons today, especially the gospel.

Today’s gospel provides a procedure for dealing with conflict in the congregation. If you were to look at Article C15.01 of Bethany’s constitution you would find a disciplinary procedure based on these verses as a means to address “conduct grossly unbecoming a member of the Church of Christ or persistent trouble making in the congregation.” Underlying the steps of the process though, is “Love your neighbor as yourself” the intent of the process being to provide healing within the community. There might be a difficult word that has to be spoken, a challenging word, but it is spoken out of spirit of love, not holier than thou contempt or condemnation.

Similarly, with the first reading from Ezekiel, the prophet is called to preach a difficult word, but the goal of the Lord is, “that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” Again, a harsh word may have to be spoken, but it’s done out of love and compassion for the neighbor, it’s done for the sake of keeping the community together, not as a means to kick someone out. Love your neighbor as yourself really is the underlying principle behind all biblical ethics, the underlying principle behind the alternative community that we are called to be.

There is a simplicity to “Love your neighbor” but…allow me to introduce a little dissonance, dissonance that I fear will remain unresolved. This week, on Thursday, we mark another anniversary of 9/11 which, for those of us over the age of about 20 is a day we’ll never forget and even for those under that age it’s a day that changed your life too as it created a new normal regarding things like security and privacy. 9/11 posed a serious challenge to “Love your neighbor” as an appropriate response. It posed a serious challenge to some of the things Paul said in last week’s reading from Romans when he again echoed Jesus and said “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Never avenge yourselves. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Would that have worked after 9/11? Would “love your neighbor” have worked? On the other hand, did invading Iraq and Afghanistan work? As followers of Jesus who are supposed to represent an alternative to the violence and evil that fills our world, how are we supposed to respond? Now, here we are 13 years later faced with the threat of ISIS with visions of beheadings dancing before us. I have to confess that my initial and rather un-Christian reaction to these atrocities of ISIS is vengeance, that we should go after them with everything we’ve got; bomb ‘em back into the stone age; it’s the only thing that will get their attention. But, would that really do any good? Would it really make us feel better? In the short term, maybe, but would it just give rise to something even worse down the road? But then, if we were to follow the advice of Jesus and Paul and try not to be overcome by evil and to live by “love your neighbor” and bless those who persecute you, where does that lead?

There’s dissonance all over the place and the simplest way to resolve it is to say that the teachings of Jesus and Paul sound nice but in the messiness of this world they just don’t work; in this world you gotta do what you gotta do, the bad guys aren’t going to be stopped by Christian love. That’s one way to resolve it and maybe that’s what has to happen, but as Christians, I don’t think we can so quickly dismiss what Jesus said and what Paul explained. Their words should bother us; answering violence with more violence should bother us. Maybe the dissonance has to remain, otherwise, in resolving it, we can wind up no better than those who attack us.

We live in a broken, sinful world; we know that. As Easter people though, we do live in hope, believing that the world is in God’s hands and that we are headed for something better despite what can seem to be overwhelming evidence to the contrary. God can and will do something new, entering into death and evil and transforming it to new life as he did on Easter morning. That is the substance of our faith so that despair is not an option. There will come a time when “Love your neighbor as yourself” will be a sufficient response.

In the meantime though, evil does have to be confronted and we can be thankful that we are not the ones who have to decide what that confrontation has to look like. When it involves violence though, the words of Jesus and Paul should echo in our ears and it should bother us. It should bother and move us to pray the words the choir sang this morning, words attributed to St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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