Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Wednesday in Lent 4: Leaven of cowards

Opening Sentence
I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son." Luke 15:18, 19

Commemoration: Thomas Cranmer
Merciful God, through the work of Thomas Cranmer you renewed the worship of your Church by restoring the language of the people, and through his death you revealed your power in human weakness: Grant that by your grace we may always worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ, our only Mediator and Advocate, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Psalter: Psalm 101, 109

Lessons: Genesis 50:15-26, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, Mark 8:11-26

The Pharisees, for all their outward expressions of self-righteous confidence, were a cowardly bunch. They were enslaved, on the one hand, by their devotion to tradition and, on the other, by their desire not to upset their delicate relationship with Rome. As such, they saw Jesus as a threat on both fronts. He was not upholding the law, at least not as they understood it; and his growing popularity among the people was, in their eyes, an imminent threat to the political status quo. Demanding a sign from him was the ultimate cop-out. Were they not blinded by their tradition, they could easily have searched the Scriptures and recognized Jesus as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets -- a truth which, had they embraced it, would have been quite upsetting to the Romans. The blindness of the Pharisees, however, was part of God's plan. As the story of Joesph demonstrates, God can take the most evil of human intentions and turn it to good, bringing salvation to many.

Jesus had to deal with another group of people who had been blinded by the generations of accumulated corruption enshrined in the tradition of the Pharisees and other religious and political leaders (like Herod). His own disciples still weren't getting it. He warned them to "Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod." In typical (blinded) fashion, the disciples heard his words in precisely the wrong way, assuming he was referring to the fact that they had forgotten to bring along bread for their journey (having already forgotten, apparently, the miraculous signs Jesus performed in feeding the five thousand and the four thousand with meager rations). Jesus, of course, had something entirely different in mind.

Concerning Jesus' enigmatic reference to "leaven" or "yeast," Bishop C. FitzSimons Allison has written extensively.

People today rarely see the action of yeast because they buy pre-packaged bread and wine. But the disciples lived in an era when everyone was aware of the remarkable qualities of yeast for good or for ill and most of us today realize that some forms of yeast (or mold) can be dangerous and destructive. Bread or wine can be ruined if the wrong yeast is present. Those who have experienced the effects of a hurricane or a flood are familiar with the destructive character of mold, which is a type of yeast.

A friend of mine once showed me how he made wine. He had a five-gallon glass jug that contained water, sugar, grape juice, and yeast. A tube at the top of the jug ran through a stopper and into a glass of water that was bubbling with released air. I asked the purpose of the glass of water with the tube in it and he explained that it was an air lock. If the air were not released it would break the glass jug. I asked, "Why don't you just let the air out of the jug instead of using the tube and stopper?" "Without the air lock," he said, "unseen yeasts in the surrounding air would ruin the wine and make it undrinkable."

Jesus is telling us, as well as the disciples, that the air we breathe is full of malignant yeast, such as false teachings like that of the Pharisees and Sadducees. These teachings distort and spoil the good news making it inaccessible. Scripture's warning about doctrine (Eph 4:14; 1 Tim 1:3, etc.) and the church's use of creeds, confessional statements, and catechisms are the functional equivalent of the air lock. We must concede at the outset that those of us, who believe in the necessity of boundaries and limits, creeds and catechisms, and the importance of sound doctrine, must resist the temptation to give people water from the air lock to drink rather than the wine it protects. The power is not in the air lock of creeds and confessions but in the Gospel they protect. Creeds, essential as they are, did not hang on the cross for us. They are essential in pointing to, guarding, and preserving the unique love that God has given us.

We make two mistakes: first, we believe we have no need for air locks and, second, we substitute air lock water for the wine it preserves. Sound doctrine should never be devalued. Sadducees would like to substitute correct political structures for Christian doctrine and secular assumptions for the air lock. The wine is too precious and dearly bought to be confused with the contents of the air locks of creeds and doctrine, whose function is not to be a substitute for the wine but to be a guard to protect it from the heresies of contaminating yeast. [Trust in an Age of Arrogance, Wipf and Stock 2010, pp. 19-20]

Change My Heart, O God