These two quotes helped me think through my sermon:
Karl Barth, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (pp. 492 and 496):
Love of one another ought to be undertaken as the protest against the course of this world, and it ought to continue without interruption…. Love is that denial and demolition of the existing order which no revolt can bring about. In this lies the strange novelty of love…. Love…sets up no idol, is the demolition of every idol. Love is the destruction of everything that is—like God: the end of all hierarchies and authorities and intermediaries, because, in every particular man and also in the ‘Many’, it addresses itself, without fear of contradiction—to the One
And Herbert McCabe, God Matters, p. 24:
[When the kingdom comes] we shall be able to blow off all those books written by the atheists and humanists and even some of the curious works written by the God-is-dead theologians, and find that at last they come true in an odd way. They all thought that talk of God was just a convoluted and misleading way of talking about man; what we will come to see when we come to the kingdom of divine love is that talk about man is then the only clear and luminous way of talking about God.
Title: Deliverance for Egypt
Date: September 7, 2008
Texts: Exodus 12:1-14; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
Author: Isaac Villegas
Passover is how Israel prepares and remembers how God delivers them from Egypt. God doesn’t forget the plight of Israel. Last week we read from Exodus 3 where God comes to Moses at the burning bush because the cries of Israel have reached up into heaven. God said to Moses: “the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt” (Ex 3:9-10)
Now Israel on the verge of escape—that’s where we pick up the story today. God will deliver the people. So they eat with anticipation: “you shall eat your meal hurriedly,” God says in verse 11. The Exodus is imminent. They are on the edge of new life.
This is an explosive story. African slaves heard this story of escape from Egyptian oppression as good news for them. God will set them free; they believed it. Early Anabaptists also remembered this story and believed in Israel’s God. The peasants who later became Mennonites retold the story of Israel’s redemption as their own story. Itinerant preachers proclaimed the hope of Passover and exodus across the countryside, saying: “The people shall go free; and God alone will be their lord.”
The people shall go free and God alone will be their lord. Passover was how Israel celebrated that good news in anticipation of their salvation from Egypt. It’s the good news that inspired hope among the enslaved Africans. It’s the good news that spread the Radical Reformation across Europe, shining some light into the darkness. And it’s good news for us. But how?
What would it mean for us to be set free from Egypt? Think about that for a moment. What are the powers of Egypt that enslave us? I’ll bring us back to this question at the end of my sermon. Keep it on your mind.
On Friday morning, as I made my way back to the kitchen for a coffee refill, I noticed a cnn video Katie was watching on the computer. Shocking—a protestor in the streets of St. Paul Minnesota, trying to get to her feet, getting rammed by police officers on bicycles. I couldn’t shake that picture from my head. In the afternoon I searched the web for that video. I couldn’t find it; instead I found footage of all sorts of people taking to the streets over the past few days… Incredible scenes, hard for me to believe.
I get angry sometimes, mad at the world, mad at Egypt. There are times when I hear some news on the radio when driving, and I yell at whoever it is that dropped more bombs and accidently killed some kids. Of course, I make sure I’m alone and the windows are rolled up. It’s not very becoming of pastors to be angry.
Or I get angry when I hear about friends who do the best they can, but it’s never enough. They are up against the world, and there’s no way out. There’s not a clear villain, just an assembly of forces that seem to set everyone against you. There’s no escape, it seems. All you can do is protest—make some noise, burn some tires, get in the way. But, usually, everyone goes home or to jail and it’s business as usual. Egypt seems to always win.
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against protests. In fact, I admire them. I don’t have the courage to face down riot police. Instead, when I get angry I flip on my Rage Against the Machine and sing along to “Killing in the Name of” (the clean version, of course). And when I realize that listening to a few songs does absolutely nothing to change the world, then I grow melancholy and put on Radiohead, preferable OK Computer.
I have my personalized protest in the comfort of my home, without the possibility of police brutality. But my personal protest also means that I don’t experience the thrill of crowds of friends at my side. Sure, a protest doesn’t last very long, but it seems like the protestors experience the power of solidarity, even if for a fleeting moment.
What if I said that church is a kind of protest? Sure, it’s a stretch. It doesn’t take much courage for us to get together. We don’t have to worry about police batons or tear gas. Yet there’s a way in which church is a protest, however mundane, against Egypt, against the powers of this world—at least that’s what the apostle Paul argues.
I’d say that we usually take Paul’s Epistle to the Romans to be a dense theological treatise. Chapter after chapter of detailed argument. But I think Paul is more like a rogue organizer than a theologian, spreading news of an illegitimate new movement. Sure, he has his theological training; but that’s not his passion. His passion is the protest, he lives for the protest, the gathering—everything else is preamble, clearing the way of the assembly. He wants people to get together, meet together, organize, assemble.
But there are people out there who don’t want these meetings to happen. These enemies want to preempt Paul’s explosive message by raiding these communities before he can get there and organize. They don’t want Gentiles and Jews eating together, worshipping together, meeting and talking with one another.
It’s not that Paul just wants to stir up trouble and make some enemies because there’s nothing better to do. It’s not that at all. No. Paul is at the mercy of the power of love and nothing can separate him from that divine love. As he says earlier in Romans (ch. 8): “I am convinced that [nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Paul will stop at nothing to join in the love of God. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ is at work creating a dwelling place for God’s love, a people who will be God’s home.
“Owe no one anything,” Paul says in our assigned passage, “except to love one another” (13:1). To love one another, that’s the point. It’s the whole purpose of the law; the law tells the people what to do in order to get along with another: don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t covet. These are not random rules. No. They give us the basics so we can be together, so we can truly and deeply love one another, so we can assemble. That’s the point of the law, Paul says.
Now, this command to love is familiar. We’ve heard it before from Jesus. What does he say? Someone comes up to Jesus and asks him “which is the greatest commandment in the law?” And Jesus replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:5, the shema. But Jesus goes on to add a second commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself;” Jesus quotes Leviticus 19:18.
For Jesus, the first commandment is to love God; then comes the second, love your neighbor. Isn’t it strange that Paul leaves out what Jesus says is the first and most important commandment: to love God with all your heart? Romans 13:9, “the commandments…are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (v9). What kind of theologian forgets about God?
Or maybe Paul helps us see the radical nature of Jesus’ statement in our passage from Matthew 18. In verse 20, Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” God is present in and with the people. And if God is present among the gathered, then to love God is to love one another. The way we love God with our heart, soul, and mind is to love one another. To love your neighbor as yourself includes all the other commandments, including the command to love God. Our love for one another is a demonstration of God’s love for us, and our love for God.
That’s what Paul wants. And he can’t wait to join in their love, their divine love. At the beginning and the end of his letter, he is honest about this longing. In chapter 1, verse 11, Paul comes right out and says it: “I long to see you.” Then again, at the end, chapter 15 verse 23: “I have been longing for many years to see you.” “Pray…that I may come to you with joy,” he says a few verses later, “and together with you be refreshed” (15:32).
This desire is at the heart of Paul’s letter. Paul has heard about the powerful presence of God in this Roman community. And he can’t wait to be with them, to taste God’s love at work in their midst. Keep up the faith, he tells them. Never stop loving one another no matter what anyone says.
Our love for one another is how we actively await our deliverance; it’s how we prepare for our exodus—like Israel at Passover, with sandals on our feet, a staff in our hand, ready for God’s salvation. Similarly, Paul describes tells us to get ready. “Now is the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (v 11). Get ready; it’s here; God is here; it is the moment of our exodus.
But what does it mean to be set free from Egypt? The powers of the world infect our lives in all sorts of ways. That’s why Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18 is so important to how we love one another. We let each other know when Egypt—the powers of this world, sin—has a hold on our lives. We love one another so intensely that we won’t let our people fall into Egyptian slavery, otherwise called sin (paraphrased from Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 165). We make sin known to one another; we expose the hidden grip of the powers of this age; we make public our protest against Egyptian slavery.
Sin is not only something we do; sin is also the way we are under the dominion of evil powers that squelch the life out of us. Sin is slavery. Sin is like Egypt—it keeps us barely alive so it can use us as cheap labor for its projects of destruction. And that’s why are a protest movement. As Karl Barth puts it in his commentary on our passage from Romans 13: “Love of one another ought to be undertaken as the protest against the course of this world” (Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, p. 492).
Church is like a protest, even if it’s quite underwhelming. We gather in the face of a world of sin and destruction. We assemble, get in formation, say some things, enjoy our solidarity, read litanies, and do some strategic planning. Then it’s all over and we go home and wonder what difference it all made. The world hasn’t changed. Or so it seems. Because we remember what Joe said last week, God’s presence is weak—we don’t know when it comes or where it goes.
At the very least, we are certain that God is here. And something is happening to us, although we don’t quite know where we are being led and why. That’s why we continue to gather in expectation, like Israel on Passover. We are like protestors who hit the streets knowing the problems, but not quite sure what the solution may be, or where we’ll end up.
We continue to assemble as a church, anticipating God’s redemption, protesting against sin. We are disciples who await God’s presence, even if we don’t know what it looks like. We are like Matt, who mentioned last week how he continues work at our community garden, even though nothing important ever happens.
God’s redeeming doesn’t usually overwhelm us with effects and rewards or products. But we gather nonetheless, and we love wholeheartedly, because our salvation is nearer than every before, Paul says. It may have already happened, but we are too busy looking for results, a strong kingdom, a powerful God, that we haven’t noticed the God who is among us in weakness.