Why Does It Matter?
If you consider yourself to be a person of faith, a child of God, does your profession of faith in God really matter to the way you live your daily life? To put it a different way, does it really matter that you profess faith in Jesus Christ and call yourself a Christian? This is the question that is present in this series of texts (yes I understand that Amos didn’t know about Jesus, and doesn’t have Jesus in mind in his prophetic word to Israel). In each text there is a critique of what one might call a culturally based religion. Consider the response that is given to Amos by his critic – he’s told to go away and stop bothering the king or the temple at Bethel – for this is "the king’s sanctuary, and it is the temple of the kingdom" (Amos 7:13). Amos is declared – in one breath – of being both a traitor to country and blasphemer against the religious establishment. God and country, seemingly are one and the same.
In each of the texts that lie before us, there is a reminder that God and state not only aren’t the same, but that God has, as the text is translated from Amos suggests, God has placed a plumb line in the midst of the people. That is, God is checking to see whether the people are walking in the ways of God. The Colossian letter seems to presume that the people are living according to the ways of God, but there is an encouragement nonetheless to keep the faith and stay true to this faith. Finally, we again encounter the beloved parable of the Good Samaritan, which offers a broadened answer to the question – what must I do to "inherit eternal life?" In each of these passages there is the sense that faith and life are related. That is, who live our lives should be influenced by the faith we profess.
In the first text, which comes from the prophet Amos, a nation is told that it faces extinction because it has failed to live as God desires. Amos looks forward into the future and sees a nation on the precipice of disaster. It’s not a message that is appreciated by the religious establishment, which doubles as a defender of the state. Go away and do your prophesying elsewhere. Yours isn’t a message that we appreciate. Amos responds by telling his critic that he’s not a professional prophet, he’s just a herdsman whom God has is using to speak truth to power. Those who respond to such a calling aren’t appreciated, but Amos says he can do no other, and besides shutting up won’t change the situation. And, according to Amos, the reason why they’re in this predicament and the reason why God has chosen to judge both the state and the religious establishment is that there is no connection between their religious observances and their lives – and therefore God, who isn’t impressed with their behavior, is letting them suffer the consequences. The nation addressed by Amos is Israel, a nation that faces extinction, and Amos wants his neighbors to understand why God was letting this happen. Yes, may "justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream" (Amos 5:21-24).
The writer to the Colossian church doesn’t have nearly as a dour a message as does Amos. In fact, the author doesn’t seem at all upset with the recipients of this letter. They are praised for the fruitfulness of their faith and prayers are offered that they might be the recipients of spiritual wisdom and understanding. But, they are also encouraged to lead lives worthy of the God whom the worship and follow. Indeed, they are encouraged to give thanks to God for having rescued them from darkness (being that they are Gentiles) and are now being transformed into citizens of the kingdom of God’s beloved son, the one who provides redemption and forgiveness.
In this week’s Gospel lection, Jesus is confronted with a legal question – what is necessary if one is to receive eternal life. Jesus sums it up pretty simply – love God with your whole being and then love your neighbor, even as you love yourself. There’s no long list, just two commands which feature a call to love. That being said, things are more complicated than they first appear. You see, the lawyer wants a bit more specificity – he wants the identity of the neighbor. This is a question that is very pertinent in this day, when issues of immigration, national identity, and religious pluralism stand at the very heart of the national debate in the United States. And the church is caught in the midst of this debate and some in the church are siding with the dominant culture, which many see as slipping away from them. There is a desire to preserve that which was, something that at its worst receives the judgment pronounced by Amos.
In the Gospel, the lawyer asks about the identity of the neighbor, and Jesus tells a story about a good neighbor. Interestingly the good neighbor, the one who stops and helps the one in need, is a Samaritan – a descendant of Amos’ kin, the ones who survived the upheavals of the 8th century B.C.E. The Samaritan in this story understands that God has set a plumbline in the midst of God’s people and knows that one has a duty to care for one’s neighbor – no matter who they are or where they reside.
In my sermon this coming Sunday I will be asking the question I wish to pose here: What does it mean to be a Christian today, in the 21st century?
by Bob Cornwall
Bob Cornwall is Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, MI and Editor ofSharing the Practice, the journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy. Holder of a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, he loves to write, having authored several books, with a book on the Lord’s Prayer due out in November. Besides contributing to this blog, he writes nearly every day at his personal blogPonderings on a Faith Journey, as well as contributing regularly to the Christian Century blogTheolog.