Proper 12 (17), Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
30 July 2023
1 Kings 3:5-12
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
When I was in grade nine or ten I wrote a paper on the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. I do not know what possessed me or our teacher to take on or to give such an assignment, and perhaps having written on Hegel at so tender an age forestalled my PhD in Philosophy. Been there, done that, you know.
Hegel lived between the eras of enlightenment and German Romanticism, and the reason Hegel is relevant today is because our understanding of history as ever-unfolding progress can be traced back to Hegel. Hegel regards history as an intelligible process moving towards the realization of human freedom.1
This has come to mean for us that things are always getting better. In some ways that is true. We have vaccines against Covid and a host of other illnesses, our life expectancy is greater than ever before, most of us are more affluent than our parents, and our freedoms exceed those of our forefathers and foremothers.
But at the same time, our children or grandchildren will likely be poorer than we are, slavery continues to exist not only as it relates to human trafficking, but also through economic dependencies (think of the temporary foreign worker program), the planet continues to warm, there is war in Europe and no-one seems to want peace, AI is increasingly worrisome, and church attendance is at an all time low.
So, is it true that things are always continually and inevitably getting better? And if your answer is “yes”, how do you account for human sin in this equation? Does the understanding that things always and necessarily get better require us to suspend moral judgment? Is all progress good progress?
I have recently been intrigued by Louise Perry’s approach to the sexual revolution. While she would not want to turn the clock back, she thinks that the sexual revolution has made people like Harvey Weinstein possible. She says that the sexual revolution was supposed to allow women not to feel guilty about having sex. Instead she believes, it has resulted in women feeling guilty about not having sex.2
I recently bought a book by the historian Brad S. Gregory with the title, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. Our society is undoubtedly secular and becoming more so, with fewer things holding us together, and so this is a topic of interest.
Admittedly, Gregory writes as a Catholic but one of the assumptions he challenges is that when we look back at history we believe that history must have evolved in this way. The case he is putting forward is that it must not have, and not because of the Counter-Reformation.
It is common to say that the treaty of Versailles led to Hitler, and of course, that would not be counted as progress, but speaking of moral judgment, does that not leave people off the hook? You see when someone makes the case for pacifism, people will often say, “But What About Hitler?” I am thankful that Nazi Germany was defeated, but imagine what would have happened if the German people had resisted. One of the peace movement’s slogans during the cold war was, “Imagine it is war and no one shows up.”
All this is important because chapter eight of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome seems the climax of the letter. It is a chapter we are well familiar with, especially, verses like these,
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. (28)
If God is for us, who is against us? (31b)
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? (35a)
I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (38-39)
These verses anchor our perspective not in progress but in the salvation God worked through his Son Jesus Christ. Because it anchors us not in a belief in progress, we can look at the world with our critical capacities intact, not denying hubris and sin, including our our own.
These verses say that our future lies not with us but with God and in this they proclaim that God is God and we are not.
Now, we must admit that to say that our hope is in God alone can also have us get things wrong.
We may mistake that God did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, and the assertion that with him God will also give us everything else as focused on us personally, not regarding the communion of the church, or the salvation of the world. This then is the god who has a plan for your life, will give you a parking spot, and potentially make you rich.
But we can misread these verses not only in regards to what is called the prosperity gospel, but also in the way that we may solely focus on the glory to be revealed to us (v.18) and abandon all personal responsibility. But hope, and this is very much a chapter about hope, is a moral commitment. And that is because for Paul those who are in Christ Jesus, for them it is no longer I but Christ who lives in me; and that we not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that we may discern what is the will of God. (Romans 12:2)
That means that Paul is not talking about future glory without also talking about what it means to follow Jesus, and to follow Jesus means to live lives that conform to the life of Jesus, and the life of Jesus was not without suffering, suffering for witnessing to the Kingdom.
Paul says that those whom God foreknew God also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. (29)
Conforming to the image of his Son suggests a life that resembles that of Jesus. And a life that resembles that of Jesus is sacrificial and lived for others, which means to take responsibility, to witness to God’s shalom, to live God’s shalom.
One of the rhetorical questions that Paul poses in Romans 8 asks what may separate us from the love of Christ? Pauls asks, “Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (35)
Paul answers this question in the last three verses of our passages. “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
But Paul’s answer does not skip over suffering with Christ. His answer does not go from the question to glory, rather, since the followers of Jesus have become like Jesus in their baptism, they die with him and rise with him. We have been conformed to the image of his Son (29). A life that is conformed to Jesus knows suffering, yet it also knows resurrection, and it knows God’s final purpose of redemption.
Therefore, Christians are a people who die and rise with Christ, with their moral senses intact, knowing that we are not saved by progress but through the One who made us and redeemed us, has adopted us and made us God’s family, and who has conformed us to the image of his beloved Son.
2 Louise Perry, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, Polity 2022