February 16, 2020.
Deuteronomy 30:15-20, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37
Let your Yes be Yes?
Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine the Great. This happened in the 4th century of the Common Era. Constantine was about 42 years old when he converted to Christianity. His mother Helena had been a Christian for some time. After his conversion to Christianity, the Great Emperor wrote a letter to fellow Christians stating that he believed that God helped him to be victorious in his wars and that God made him a successful Emperor.
When the Church became the official religion of the Roman Empire it brought with it many other advantages and privileges. She now had the luxury of having access to political and financial power. she had direct access to the most powerful person in the world, Emperor Constantine the Great. Clergy became important people with many privileges in the society. The Church became an integral part of the cultural, political and economic landscape. Instead of focusing on serving the people, taking care of those who were poor and sick, instead of sharing the good news with people imprisoned by sin, the privileged Church and her leaders started focusing more on doctrine. It was more interested in what the church should teach and less interested in what the church should do. In 325CE the Emperor called the first Council of Nicaea where the issues of the divine nature of Jesus and his relationship to God the Father were settled. At Nicaea the observance of Easter and canon law were also established.
I am oversimplifying but it did not take long for the Emperor and powers of the day to use the church to serve their interests. Church doctrine served to unify the Empire.
Other subtle changes took place as well: For the first three centuries, before Constantine, the church had been a relatively small movement with limited influence. They were quite vulnerable and they were often the scapegoats if anything went wrong in the society. They did not find favor with non-Christians and rumors about them had spread like a wildfire: they were dirty and smelly because they avoided the public baths. They were seen as morally dubious because they viewed their fellow Christians as brothers and sisters. They met in secret where, according to rumors they ate the body and drank the blood of their deceased leader Jesus Christ.
They were easy victims of oppression because they were non-violent; they were more interested in the return of Jesus than in accumulating wealth or power. They were hardworking, reliable and they were eager to serve their communities. The most astonishing thing was that during this time when the church was vulnerable, without political and economic power the church grew by leaps and bounds.
Why, you may ask did they grew in spite of their weak position in the world? Justin Martyr, a noted early Christian theologian from the first century, wrote to Emperor Antoninus: “We formerly rejoiced in uncleanness of life, but now love only chastity; before we used the magic arts, but now dedicate ourselves to the true and unbegotten God; before we loved money and possessions more than anything, but now we share what we have and to everyone who is in need; before we hated one another and killed one another and would not eat with those of another race, but now since the manifestation of Christ, we have come to a common life and pray for our enemies and try to win over those who hate us without just cause.“
At the time Christians loved, cared and prayed for the sick. By the year 250CE, they were feeding more than 1500 of the hungry and destitute in Rome every day.
On the surface then, the early Christians appeared powerless and weak, they were an easy target for scorn and ridicule. They had no great financial resources, no buildings, no social status, no government approval, no respect from the educators. And after they became separated from their first-century association with the Jewish synagogues, they lacked institutional backing and an ancient tradition to appeal to. And yet they made a difference!
Justin Martyr points out how those opposed to Christianity were sometimes won over as they saw the consistency in the lives of believers, noting their extraordinary forbearance when cheated and their honesty in business dealings.
They did not have much earthly possessions. But what they had mattered. They had a deep-rooted faith. They had a fellowship. They had integrity, honesty and honor. They had a new way of life. They had a confidence that their Lord was alive in heaven and guiding their daily lives.
In terms of our readings today, people realized that when they said yes you could rely on them!
We should of course not idealize the early church because they too were flawed human beings just like us. It is clear from the New Testament books that they too made errors, they too had feet of clay. But they were people with honor and goodness, respectability and integrity, they upright and reliable. They served, they made a difference, they brought hope and joy to others and these attracted people!
My assessment of the situation in our country is that the church is losing influence. There was a time when most people had a positive view of Christianity. There was a time when Christianity had a “special” place. Not so any more. Many Christians and church leaders are concerned about this trend. I am not!
I may be wrong but I think that this change may provide the church with the same kind of opportunities as for the first Christians – if we make the right decisions, if we respond in a wise and appropriate way to our challenges! What does this mean in practice?
Let’s look at today’s OT reading: The Book of Deuteronomy is a fascinating book with a very simple approach. In OT theological lingo the theology of the book of Deuteronomy is called Deuteronomistic theology. This theology was applied when the people of Israel were taken into the Babylonian Exile in the year 586BCE. During their stay in Babylon the Israelites took a new look at their traditions, and their history. As they were wrestling with their situation as prisoners in a foreign country they asked questions: Why did this happen? What did we do wrong?
And they remembered their early history: God promised Abraham a land (and an offspring). God liberated them from Egypt! When the Israelites entered the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua, the successor of Moses, that promise was fulfilled.
Israel, in Babylon remembered their own land, when they were an independent people. They remembered King David, when they were a strong, powerful people and when his son Solomon built the temple. They were convinced that God would bless them and protect them unconditionally.
The also remembered that the prophets warned them that they had a responsibility to live according to God’s instructions which could be summarized in the same way Jesus taught us: Love God and love your neighbor. This was a quote from Leviticus 19.
And then the Babylonians attacked them, destroyed their temple and took them into Exile. And while they were in Babylon they tried to find answers why this terrible thing happened. The Deuteronomist provided them with a very simple theological answer: this catastrophe happened because you made the wrong decisions. You chose to serve other God’s. You chose not do justice, you chose not to love and serve God and you chose not to love your neighbor. This is why it happened.
So in our OT reading the Deuteronomist revisited Israel’s ancient history. And now God presents the people in Babylon with a very simple and clear-cut choice: You have two options: life or death, prosperity or adversity. “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them,I declare to you today that you shall perish. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him”.
For those in Babylon it was very clear they needed to make the right choice. They needed to choose God, they needed to choose life!
History teaches us that they did make the right choice – for a while. They did return to the Promised Land after spending about 50 years in Babylon. And when they returned their lives continued and became normal. They were presented with more choices every day. And we know looking back that they unfortunately made wrong choices again.
So what would we do, if we were to learn from their history? Well, we would see the bigger picture of what God wants of us. God wants us to love God, serve God, be grateful, generous, loving people. God wants us to see God’s image in others, love others, and treat them with respect and dignity. God wants us to choose actions that will enhance life, that will enable to see and enjoy the beauty of being human, of living in harmony with each other.
I think God wants us to learn from the early church. We saw that what finally mattered is what they did have. They had a faith. They had a fellowship. They had integrity, honesty and honor. They had a new way of life. They had a confidence that their Lord was alive in heaven and guiding their daily lives.
Others saw the consistency in the lives of believers. This is what Jesus meant, I believe when he preached the Sermon on the Mount and said: “let your yes be yes and your no be no”. Consistency, reliability, truthfulness, what you see is what you get, no deception. Too many times we hear of words and actions of clergy and church people that are incompatible with the gospel. This harms the message of the gospel.
I am sad to say that I have met people, and you may have too, that are so deeply disappointed in the Gospel because they trusted a Christian and was done in by the person who confessed he was a disciple of Christ. They noticed a discrepancy between what the person did and what the Gospel stands for. “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no!” Integrity, authenticity, reliability, honor, respectability are words that should describe who we are!
Decisions, decisions! All of us have to make decisions every day. Will we choose those things that are in line with the Gospel or will there be a gap between what we say and what we do? Amen!