Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Power and the Name, the Healing and the Love: Easter 4B

The foundation of the church is the love of God for us. Its walls are built of our love for one another. And the fairest crowning stone of those walls is the example of Jesus. And yet those walls are always crumbling, always in need of repair. As an institution we are frequently no better than the Temple before us, and occasionally worse. We are never the ideal apostolic community. And yet, as a community, we are called and healed in the name of Jesus, by whose power and in whose name God enables us every day to love one another. The Father sent him to lead us, and he did not flinch from giving his life to bring us together with all of our brothers and sisters. And so we are, through all of our inadequacies, because God knows something greater than our failures: God knows love for us.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

"Sin is lawlessness"? Est-il vrai?

The epistle for Easter 3B (1 John 3:1-7) bothers me a bit -- especially after the epistolary reading from earlier in 1 John for the Octave last week. From encouraging admission of sin by the promise of God's faithful forgiveness, to talking about sin and righteousness as markers of belonging, respectively, to the Devil and God. And there's one bit in the middle of the reading from Sunday that bothers me more than the rest: the NRSV translates it as "sin is lawlessness."

Now, I get where that translation comes from -- and the churches of the Reformation have every reason to uphold it, on its face, out of a law-gospel dialectic. We have long translated nomos through the Latin lex as "law" -- even though the Vulgate interprets anomia here as iniquitas rather than illegitimacy. And Luther interprets anomia as Unrecht, which brings the German confusion of law with justice and righteousness, combining nomos with dikaios just as the Latins strongly associated lex with iustitia. Justice and legislation.

And yet nomos doesn't have anything directly to do with legislation. It may -- but legislation is a wholly optional feature. Legislation merely codifies nomos. Nomos is not "lawful" -- it is customary because it relates to common custom. It is usual because it relates to common usage.

And if we're going to reset the gloss for nomos, we had as well correct hamartia as well. Here, the Latins are more reliable. The standard gloss for hamartano is pecco, and both have to do with mistake, failure, and fault -- and by extension, guilt. So if "sin is lawlessness," John may simply be saying that failure is failure of custom -- that sin is sin against culture. Or he may be saying something else entirely -- only the text will tell.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Failure Never Has the Final Word

I don't know about you, but I'll bet you do this, too: when I screw up, I really would rather hide the fact that I've screwed up. But there's a problem with that -- it doesn't free me from the fact that I've screwed up. In fact, hiding the fact binds me all the more closely to it! However free I feel when I'm away from the people to whom I'm responsible for the screw-up, the moment I have even a thought that I might have to deal with them, I'm terrified. I am not really free. I lie. I evade. I won't even walk down a hallway they might be in! It screws me up!

And today we have a text in 1 John that is a key part of our liturgy for dealing with failure. For really, genuinely freeing us from our screw-ups. "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." Rolls trippingly off the tongue, doesn't it? Not precisely how I've translated it, but then, you don't remember the Hebrew for the 23rd psalm, either. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, He leadeth me beside the still waters; He restoreth my soul."

"If we confess our sins ..." This isn't as simple an "if ... then ..." as it looks -- in fact, it's far better! This is a promise and a statement: every time, whenever we confess our failures to God, God excuses us from having failed, and washes us clean of injustice and failure by the blood of Jesus Christ. And this is divine justice! This is God being faithful, fulfilling promise, doing exactly what makes God worthy of being our god. Doing exactly the thing that makes it good for us to be this god's people. God removes any reason for us to be afraid to lean on what Luther called "His pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy." Not the Freudian "father-figure" of authority and punishment, but the parent that we instinctively run to when something goes wrong. The one who never fails to help, and who teaches us to trust.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Overcoming Failure: Easter 2B (8va)

Well, Holy Week was quite literally the undoing of my Lenten discipline -- but I like it too much to give it up. So, since I'm getting back on the stick, here the texts for the Octave of Easter in translation. (Also, this is the first year, basically ever in life, that I'm at all glad that all the major portions are in Greek. Generally, I despise the lectionary habit of replacing the OT with Acts -- but if you knew how much longer it takes me to do justice to the Hebrew...)

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Institutions of Redemption: Maundy Thursday

Ah, perennial texts! I had every intention of finishing my Lenten discipline with a tour through Triduum on the way to Easter. As it is, the past week I couldn't find the time to get through the Passion texts after the Palms, and I'll excuse myself from Good Friday and Holy Saturday on the notion that the Seven Last Words and the Great Vigil are a bit heavy. But at least the propers for Maundy Thursday will still be good next year! God bless my friends and colleagues in parish whose job it is to do three sermons this week, and then one on Sunday morning. This ethicist has quite enough to ponder wringing gospel out of the mandatum.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The League of Amateur Rationalizers

Lenten discipline note: I'll be getting to Maundy Thursday momentarily. Yes, I know, it is actually Maundy Thursday today.

Every blessed one of us is a logician. Everyone, that is to say, rationalizes -- and over time has come up with some system of how to rationalize. And generally semi-consciously! Navigating the world is a process of learning practical systems of identifying truth and falsehood, and implementing them -- that is, learning for yourself what is true and false, and when to tell which to whom. And yes, that's to say that logic is inseparable from ethics.

Most of us, however, are bad at logic. Which is to say, objectively bad at making sound and valid factual inferences. We are poor users of vetted systems of formal logic. Why is that?