“Brothers and sisters, if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. Let us therefore join our hearts together in prayer. . . .”
With these words, I invite my congregation into a spirit of confession week after week. To some extent it works: everyone dutifully bows, prays, holds silence, sings a contemplative chorus and rises for the words of assurance.
The Christian faith is never lived, taught or preached in a vacuum. There is always an alternative to it: another philosophy, another religion, another ideal. “I see that you have many gods,” Paul noted when he looked around first-century Athens, and indeed the Greeks had a god for everything: for wealth, beauty, fertility, immortality, warfare and more.
It is the day after Jesus fed the 5,000. The picnic is over and Jesus has taken his disciples to the other side of the lake. But the crowds of people who shared the meal with him yesterday and who then tried to turn him into their king are not about to let him go.
Paul and Jesus, each facing a crisis, are tempted to succumb to despair and fear. Each man has gone out in ministry to his own people and been rejected. Paul recognizes that his Jewish listeners do not accept his message about Jesus and opens Romans 9 with what is the barest beginning of his anxious questioning about whether God’s salvation story still includes the people of Israel.
Here in the rural upper Midwest, it seems every other person has a pole barn. Usually it’s full of old tires, a trailer, dozens of tools gathering rust, coffee cans loaded with lug nuts and screws. Ed and Edna’s place is pretty typical. Edna's cupboards, bureaus, garage, attic and spare bedroom have been crammed full of things that define her. (“Oh, you know Edna Furbelow,” says her neighbor, “she collected Hummels.”) Now that Edna has died and her husband’s pole barn has finally gotten emptied, everything must go.
As Christians, we are joined together, responsible for one another’s Christian walk and well-being. Paul talks about “one body and one spirit,” so when someone we know is in trouble—some metaphorical fuse is burning in his or her life—we’re there for that person, praying, talking, listening and helping. We “bear with one another in love,” with “humility, gentleness and patience.” Of course, it's easier to describe that kind of fellowship with good religious words than to actually pull it off.