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What is a Sacrament?

During Lent I’ll be facilitating a series of discussions at my church on the history of Eucharistic theology. I’ll try to post notes for each week’s lesson here. Tonight we’ll be discussing the preliminary question: “What is a sacrament?”


Sacraments are sacred rites preformed by the Church as a means of grace. The word sacrament is the Latin translation (sacramentum) of the Greek word for mystery (mysterion). For instance, the Apostle Paul likes to talk about the great mystery—hidden in Christ since the foundation of the world, but now revealed to the saints—that the story of God’s dealing with Israel culminates in the inclusion of the gentiles as their fellow heirs (Rom 11; Eph 3; Col 1). Who’da thunk it? But when Paul’s words get translated in the Latin Bible (called the Vulgate), he says: “This sacramentum is that the gentiles are fellow heirs…” (Eph 3:6)—This sacrament.

So that’s the original meaning of a sacrament: it’s a mystery. But very early in the Christian tradition, the word sacrament took on a slightly more nuanced connotation. A sacrament is specifically the mystery that God can sometimes be found present and at work through ordinary, everyday, physical things. Or, to put it another way, that heaven and earth are mysteriously overlapping realities.

The Seven Sacraments (of the Roman Catholic Church)

Well the Church said we see this mysterious presence and work of God in and through the physical world in really deep and important ways through in at least these seven rites of the Church:

Baptism – This is the rite of initiation into the Christian Church, which symbolizes dying with Christ and rising again to new life in him. Roman Catholics will talk about “baptismal regeneration,” where regeneration just means re-birth. So if you ask a Roman Catholic “Are you born again?” the proper answer is “Yes, I’ve been baptized.” (This goes for Eastern Orthodox Christians as well as Lutherans too, by the way).

Penance – But being born again in baptism does not guarantee that you will be saved in the end, because sin can destroy the new life in baptism. So penance is the sacrament for dealing with sin. Nowadays you’ll sometimes hear this called the sacrament of confession, but confession is actually just one part of the sacrament of penance. It has four parts.

  1. Confession – In this first part you tell your sins to a priest. This is the outward part.
  2. Contrition – Is the inward part, where you are supposed to hate your sin.
  3. Absolution – The priest then declares, on behalf of Christ (well get back to that), that the penitent is forgiven of her sins. The declaration mimics the baptismal formula, because the purpose of penance is to restore the new life of baptism.
  4. Satisfaction – Finally, the penitent is given something to do to “make up” for the wrong doing. Don’t get this confused with “salvation by works.” Absolution is declared before the satisfaction is given. The idea is this. Imagine you own a company and one of your employees embezzles several thousand dollars from you over a number of years, and then once he found out says “Oh, I’m so sorry!” Well…okay, but isn’t there something more than needs to be done. We need to set up a kind of payment plan.

Eucharist (also called “Holy Communion” or “The Lord’s Supper”) – We won’t say too much about this one now, because this is what the entire series is going to be about. For now let’s just say that the Eucharist is the sacrament whereby the partaker is united with the resurrected, glorified flesh of Christ, because the flesh of Christ is (somehow) present in the elements.

Confirmation – Is the rite of “the laying on of hands” where by the baptized is “confirmed” in the faith, and the Holy Spirit is said to descend upon her. This goes back to some passages in the book of Acts (18:15-17; 19:6) were people are baptized but do not receive the Holy Spirit until one of the Apostles lays hands on them. The Eastern Orthodox do confirmation right after baptism. Catholics tend to wait until you grow up a bit. Interestingly, Pentecostals looks to these same texts for the doctrine of the baptism of the Holy Spirit.  

Extreme Unction (sometimes called “Last Rites”) – This is a rite of anointing—initially it was for the dying—but now Catholics pretty much agree that it should be done for anyone who is sick or about to have surgery, etc.

Marriage – The sacrament by which an indissoluble bond is formed between two people, which mirrors the bond between Christ and his bride, the Church.

Holy Orders – The sacrament of the ordination of priests and bishops. Like the sacrament of baptism, Holy Orders makes a permanent mark on the soul—it makes you a different kind of person. (We’ll say more about that).

The Eastern Orthodox Church

The Orthodox Church (Greek-speaking Christians from the Eastern half of the Roman Empire) more-or-less agrees with Catholics about the seven sacraments. But the Orthodox are always a little uneasy at Western attempts to classify and categorize everything. So while Catholics are eager to nail down exactly when and how the bread of the Eucharist becomes the body of Christ, for instance, the Orthodox want to say “let’s just leave a little of the mystery.” And while some Orthodox theologians will talk about “the seven sacraments,” they are all much more willing to use sacramental language to describe all kinds of ways that God is at work in the physical world.

Parts of a Sacrament

St. Augustine’s formulated the first definition of a sacrament that really caught on in Western theology: a sacrament is an outward (or physical) sign of a inner (or spiritual) grace.

The Sign: The outward sign of a sacrament is constituted of two parts.

  1. A sacramental sign always has a physical element. (water, bread and wine, the laying on of hands, etc).
  2. And there are always some words to be said. (“I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” or “This is my body given for you” etc.) It is important to note that it matters who says these words. There is not a valid (at least for Roman Catholics and Easter Orthodox) unless a priest is present to speak the words of institution. If I were to preside at the Eucharist and say the words of institution I would just be saying “This is Joe’s body, broken for you”—and that’s not much use to anyone. But the priest speaks on behalf of Christ (that he does so is part of the grace of holy orders). So when a priest say “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” you are to understand this Christ himself is claiming you as his own through your baptism.

The thing signified is the grace received or symbolized in the sacrament (i.e. for baptism the thing signified is regeneration).

Faith which unites the thing signified to the sign. Faith, here, has a threefold meaning:

  1. God’s faithfulness to his promise,
  2. our trust that God will be faithful to his promise,
  3. And our faithful response to God’s promise.

Efficacious Signs

The great Medieval development on Augustine’s definition is that the sacraments are efficacious signs—they are signs that work. Think of the difference between a sign that says “railroad crossing ahead,” and the “thumbs up” sign that the Roman Emperor might give at a gladiatorial battle. The former just signifies that something is going on. The latter actually makes something happen—the Emperor puts his thumb up and somebody loses his head. Now that’s an efficacious sign. It’s not enough just to say that the sacraments signify grace, say Medieval Catholics, the sacraments confer grace. It’s through the sacraments that God bestow grace upon the faithful. Thus the sacraments come to be called the “the means of grace.” This is language that gets picked up by Luther and Calvin, and so finds a home in Protestantism as well.

You can think about the difference between Augustine’s definition and this new Medieval development by imagining the difference between the role of an umpire in a baseball game and, say, the buzzer on Jeopardy.  On Jeopardy the buzzer sounds for the person who hits the button first, and she gets to answer the question. But the buzzer doesn’t actually change anything, it just signals what is already true—that this person hit the button first, if only by a fraction of a second. That’s like Augustine’s definition: the sacraments of visible signs of a grace already present invisibly in the soul. The Medieval revision makes the sacraments more like the umpire in a baseball game. In a baseball game when, if the umpire says “You’re out!” then the runner is out—even if he made it to the plate before the ball did. See what happens? Even if the umpire is factually wrong in his judgment, what he says is true simply because he said it. The words actually make themselves true. A baseball umpire can change the fabric of reality. Medieval Catholics say the sacraments are like that. The sacraments do not only signify grace that is already present, they literally confer grace—they change the state of the person receiving them—because sacraments are promises that make themselves true. So throughout this series the standard definition I’ll use is, “sacraments are promises that give what they promise.”

Dominical Institution

What makes a sacrament a sacrament, as opposed to, let’s say, a miracle? Isn’t that the definition of a miracle—God working in and with the physical world? Well, yes, but big difference is that a miracle happens only once, whereas a sacrament is meant to be repeated. God raised Jesus’ physical body from the dead—that’s a miracle. Each week when we celebrate the Eucharist the glorified flesh of Christ is present there in the elements. That’s a miracle to be sure, but it’s a predictable, repeatable miracle—it happens every week—not many miracles like that. What makes the Eucharistic miracle predictable is the Jesus commanded his disciples (us!) to perform this sacred rite and promised that he would be there when we do. That command and promise of Christ is what we call “dominical institution”—dominical just being from the Latin word for Lord. We can expect miracles when we perform these sacred rites, because the Lord instituted them to work this way.

By the way, dominical institution is the reason that most Protestants accept only two sacraments rather than the full seven of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. The Lord clearly instituted Baptism and the Eucharist, but extreme unction isn’t quite so clear. Well, there is Mark 6:13, in which, as Catholics like to point, the disciples go on Jesus’ command and “cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.” But Protestants don’t buy it—sounds more like description than prescription to them.

Apostolic Succession

Another important aspect of sacramental theology is Apostolic succession, or what is sometimes called “The Power of the Keys.” In Matthew 16:19 Jesus says to the Apostle Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This power to bind and loose things on earth, and they will be bound and loosed in heaven refers primarily to the power to forgive sins—to loose the bonds of sin—for instance in the absolution part of the sacrament of penance.  When the priest says in the sacrament of penance, “I absolve you of your sins,” he literally speaks on behalf of Christ, with this power of the keys. And this power is given to the Apostle Peter who, for Roman Catholics, is always a symbol of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. Peter is the first bishop of Rome, and this power Christ bestows upon him is passed down to each of his successors—through the sacrament of holy orders—so that anyone ordained in the succession of Peter possesses this power of the keys to make valid sacraments. This is why, by the way, Roman Catholics will accept Eastern Orthodox sacraments as valid but not Protestant ones, because Protestants do not have a valid succession of bishops and priests going back to the Apostle Peter.

The Priesthood of All Believers

Martin Luther basically buys this logic, except that he insists that when Christ said that to Peter he was really saying it to the whole Church. So Protestants will talk about “the priesthood of all believers.” The big difference between Roman Catholics and Protestants on the issue of priesthood is that if a bunch of Catholics get stranded on a desert island with no priest, they have no sacraments, because there is no one in the succession of Peter perform the rite of holy orders. If a bunch of Protestants get stranded on a desert island, we’d just elect a priest or a pastor and start celebrating Holy Communion.

Next week we’ll take a look at The Passover: Old Testament Background to the Eucharist


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Of Exile and Resurrection: A Lenten Homily

I know it’s customary for preachers to start with a joke or a cute story. But there’s simply no cute way to start a reflection on Ezekiel—it’s a sad story from the very beginning.

It Begins in Exile

In 597 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, laid siege to Jerusalem. The war lasted for over two years and, aside from the casualties of battle, it led to disease and famine on a massive scale. The result was utter despair. The Babylonian army tortured and killed many Judeans, and took the rest, Ezekiel included, into captivity in Babylon. It is a grim sight, indeed.  Ezekiel is a priest with no temple over which to preside. He and his people are estranged from the land given to their forefathers and cut off from the center of God’s activity in the world.

One of the bleakest scenes in Ezekiel comes right after the exiled people get word that the temple has been destroyed. Understand that in the Old Testament the temple is seen as the locus of God’s presences in the world. Ezekiel has a vision that before the Temple is destroyed, God’s presence departs from it. Even God himself, it seems, has abandoned Israel!

Life in exile, by the way, is one of the Bible’s primary metaphors for the human condition. So Ezekiel’s story is our story. Exile is a condition of alienation, of separation from our homeland. It’s marked yearning, grief, loneliness, anger and despair—by a sense of being cut off from the center of life and meaning and energy. What we need is make the long journey home to God, in whom we live and move and have our being—God, who, though we have been estranged, has been there all along.

It Doesn’t End There…

Ezekiel doesn’t end with exile, though. The second half of the book is a declaration of God’s promise that one day he will restore the people to their land, and that God himself will return to the Temple.

I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land.

I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt.

The land that was desolate shall be tilled, and you will say “this land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden”

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean.

I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.

I will remove the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh

I will put my Spirit within you and you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers.

You shall be my people, and I will be your God.

The book ends with another vision: “just like the vision that [Ezekiel] had seen when they came to destroy the city,” except this time “the glory of the Lord entered the temple by the gate facing east…and behold, the glory of the Lord filled the temple.”

So we know where we’re headed, but before we get to the people restored to the land and the vision of God dwelling once again in Zion, we have to pass through what the Psalmist calls “the valley of the shadow of death.” That’s the Christian story—the story of Lent and Holy Week and Easter—that life comes to us by way of death, so that death never has the last word.

Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry bones

So in our Old Testament lesson today, Ezekiel is led by the spirit of God into a valley. Now, that word translated “spirit” will be important for our reflection, so let’s talk about it. In Hebrew the word is ruwach. Say it with me: ruwach. One more time: ruwach. Isn’t that beautiful? It means “spirit” as in “the Spirit of God” or “the spirit of a human.” But it can also mean “breath” and “wind” Okay last time, ready? Ruwach. Good! So, the Ruwach of God led Ezekiel into a valley fully of bones. And not just any bones—these are dry bones!

Bones, of course, become dry only after they have been exposed to the elements for a long time. Dry bones are evidence of battles fought many years ago. They are reminders of the long and weary exile and the lives that were lost at its beginning. Dry bones signify a complete loss of hope. The very last thing anyone could imagine when looking to dry bones is the potential life.

Nevertheless, God asks Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” The question seems ridiculous and Ezekiel’s answer is appropriately ambiguous: “O, Lord, you know.”

But God’s not going to let his prophet off the hook with an evasion. “Prophesy to the bones,” God says. “Say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” Now, if this is not the most absurd thing God ever called one of his prophets to do, it’s certainly in the top five. Preach a sermon to the bones! Really? But even as crazy as it sounds, Ezekiel begins preaching to the bones.

The result is nothing less than creepy. At first it’s just a noise—a rattling. But then bones began popping out of the ground and flying together. Then sinews crawled on them, followed by flesh and skin. But still these zombies had no breath in them—they’re just lying there, lifeless and silent. But then the Lord gives Ezekiel a second and equally absurd instruction. This time he says “prophesy to the breath.”

Wait, prophesy to the what?

…Right, to the ruwach.

“Prophesy to the ruwach, and say, ‘Thus says the Lord: Come from the four winds, O’ breath, (O’ ruwach) and breathe on these slain, that they may live.’”

Does this sound familiar?

It should. It’s an intentional echo of Genesis 2 where God breaths into the clay and creates humans in his own image.

Again Ezekiel preached as he was instructed, and the ruwach came into the bodies, and they lived!

Wow! What is scene that is, huh?

In the last four verses of our lesson, Ezekiel tells us what this bizarre image means. “These bones” he says, “are the whole house of Israel.” The story is thus an extended metaphor: the bones are dejected and defeated exiles, like the Jews in Babylon, like us. So Ezekiel’s message is good news for us exiles.

For a third time he is asked to prophesy, but this time the demand doesn’t seem so ridiculous. The hearers are not bones or wind but his people. He prophesies: “Thus says the Lord: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O’ my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. In other words, there is still hope! Even though we find ourselves far from home, defeated, landless, without a temple or a priest, God has not forgotten us. And then the final words of the prophesy: “I will put my Spirit within you…

My what?

…My Ruwach

I will put my Ruwach within you and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land.”

The Non-Return from Exile

But that’s where Ezekiel leaves us: with a promise not yet fulfilled. Through the rest of the book, the Jews remain in exile, their hopes dried up like the bones in that valley. In fact, some sixty years later, when they finally are able to return to their land, they rebuild the temple and have a big grand opening. Ezra tells us that at the ceremony, while the young men were singing and dancing for joy, the old men were weeping. Because, you see, the old men remembered the dedication of the previous temple, so they knew that this time the glory of the Lord had not returned.

The gospel writer Matthew makes the same point in his genealogy. You know, those lists that we always skip over. “Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob, and hard-word begat hard-word hard-word, and on and on…” Matthew breaks his genealogy into three parts. There are fourteen generations from Abraham, Israel’s patriarch, to David, her greatest King. Then, fourteen generations from David to the exile in Babylon. And finally, fourteen generations from the exile to Christ. Notice what’s missing? There’s no return from exile. It’s one of the most important events in his people’s history and Matthew just leaves it out. The oversight is no mistake. Matthew is trying to make the point that, though they have physically returned to the land, spiritually the people are still in exile. We are still in Babylon. We’re still waiting for Ezekiel’s to be fulfilled.


Well, by the time we get to the New Testament, Ezekiel’s metaphor of resurrection has become a full-blown hope. Many Jews in the first century believed that when the long night of exile had finally come to an end dawn broke on the kingdom of God, that God would speak to the dry bones of Israel and all the dead would be raised to new life. Let’s be careful not to over-spiritualize this text or we’ll miss the point.  They actually believed this! Many first century Jews fully expected, when the kingdom of God had come, to bump into their once dead ancestors in the street or at the market. “Hey! Uncle John, haven’t seen you for years…smellin’ a little musty.” The fact that this kind of thing was not happening is one of the ways they knew that the exile was still not over, that spiritually they remained in Babylon.

So one afternoon Jesus goes down to Bethany to visit his friends, Mary and Martha. Their brother Lazarus has been dead for four days now. Death is a lot like exile. It’s about separation, about being cut off from the land of the living. Mary and Martha feel like they are so deeply entrenched in Babylonian captivity that has reached into their own lives and hearts. Have you ever felt like that? The captives in Ezekiel’s day sat down by the rivers of Babylon and wept. And all Mary can think to do is set down and weep. So Jesus weeps with her.

But Jesus knows that the time for weeping has come to an end. He gets up, looks into the tomb and says “Lazarus, come out!” And, get this, Lazarus does! Now, as Jesus discusses with Martha, Lazarus’ resurrection was not the real and final thing—he will die again. But it is a signpost pointing toward the great and final resurrection of which Jesus himself will be the first fruits. It is proof that the long, weary exile is finally coming to an end.

The Great and Final Resurrection

Okay, one more text as we close: John 20. It’s the end of John’s gospel. Jesus has been raised from the dead.

“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week…”

John points out that “it was the first day of the week.” This is a metaphor John uses to say, it is the first day of the new creation—the exile is finally over—the kingdom of God has come!

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22And when he had said this, he breathed on them.

Remember? Ruwach. But this time we are the dry bones and God’s breath of life is being breathed on us! You, friend, have been drawn into Christ’s resurrection life. So that exile mentality you thought you had to live with—the sense that you have deep in your gut that you are out of place, that thing are just not quite the way they should be, the absence energy and meaning, the yearning to be connected to something bigger than yourself, the grief, the despair—all of it is just the last remnants of a kingdom long since overthrown. Good news, friends: the exile is over…the kingdom has come…and we are home!

So I leave you with the words of St Paul from this morning epistle: “He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit (Ruwach) who dwells in you.”



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Two Compromised Men: A Lenten Reflection

I was given the opportunity to do a meditation on the theme of repentance at one of St. Luke’s Lenten services. Here is the manuscript.

One of the cool things about this Holden service is that it has us meditate on the text first before we read it, so that by the time we actually hear the Word, we can hear some of its nuance and depth and richness. But in case you want to follow along beforehand, I’ll go ahead and tell you that the story I want us to reflect on this evening is found in 2 Kings chapter five. It’s the story of two people both who both are in the midst of confused and compromising situations. The ultimate fate of the men is quite different, however, because really it’s a story about how the two men are turning in different directions. That’s what we have been talking about during these Lenten evening services: repentance. The Greek word literally means to turn around. So both men in this story are repenting—they’re both turning around—just in different directions.

It’s also a story about baptism. In the middle of the story one of the men washes himself in Jordan River. Almost anytime there is a washing in the Old Testament, it is a symbol which prefigures baptism. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. I just wanted you to see that this story anticipates the message of John the Baptizer. Remember, the gospel writers tell us that John “preached a baptism for the repentance of sins.” So too, this is a story about baptism and repentance.

The first is man is Naaman, the commander of the army of Syria. Right off the bat, that should give us pause. Right here is the Hebrew Bible we’re looking at a story about a Syrian—he’s a gentile—he’s outside of the covenant people of God. That’s what Jesus interprets this story to be all about. Remember when Jesus was rejected in Nazareth he said “a prophet is never accepted in his home town. Surely, there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” So Naaman’s is baptism in the Jordan and turning toward the God of Israel points toward the ultimate fulfillment of God’s Kingdom in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but we are all one in Christ Jesus. But even here in the Old Testament we see that there is, as Robert Schuler has said, “a wideness in God’s mercy” that reaches farther than anyone ever imagined.

This is also how we know that this is a story about us, too. Remember that in the grand narrative of scripture you and I are the sinners—Gentiles, cut off from the house of Israel. And this is good news, you know? Because, of course, the gospel is only for sinners. That’s why Luther said that a significant part of the life of faith is “learning spiritually to be sinners.” Not that we need to learn how to be sinners—we’re all pretty good at that—but that we need to learn to understand ourselves as sinners. Now don’t get me wrong. When I talk about learning to be sinners, I’m not talking about preaching hellfire and brimstone in order to scare people into accepting Christ—that’s a sort of theological abuse that we could do without. I’m not saying we should be mean or moralistic or that we need to “crack down harder on sin.” To the contrary, I’m talking about what Luther calls “the gospel’s use of the law”—learning to understand that we are the sort of people for whom Christ died. So, good news! You’re a sinner, just like Naaman.

Now Naaman is described as a great man and as a mighty man of valor. He had a good report with the king of Syria, because of his success in battle. According to conventional wisdom Naaman is and has everything one could ever want. But Naaman was also suffered from leprosy. Now, the leprosy we read about in the Bible is not necessarily the same as Hansen’s disease, what we now call leprosy. It’s more likely a blanket term for all sorts of ailments that affect the skin. It’s more of a symbolic than physical disability. Leprosy signifies separation. It cuts you off from the communal life of Israel, from the Temple courts, from God himself. It is the disease of gentile sinners, like Naaman, like us.

When the king of Syria caught wind of a prophet in Israel who had a reputation for healing diseases, he wrote a letter to Jehoram, the king of Israel, asking him to command his prophet heal Syria’s esteemed commander. When Jehoram receives the letter, he thinks Syria’s king is taunting him. “What am I, God?” he asks “that he would send me word to cure a man of leprosy.” This is an example of something we see all the time in the Bible, especially in the prophets: the wisdom and power of this world are being mocked. Naaman, though mighty in battle, is powerless to help himself. Kings and rulers send royal decrees, but to no avail. If Elisha, the prophet of God, does not step forward and consent to heal him, then Naaman remains, as Paul described us in Ephesians, “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, a stranger to the covenant of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”

But Elisha does consent, and so Naaman journeys to Israel. Now obviously Naaman was expecting treatment fitting for a general of the army of Syria, because he shows up at Elisha’s doors with his horses and chariots—an entourage designed to impress the prophet. So imagine Naaman’s shock when Elisha sends one of his servants to the door. (We’ll get to know the servant a little later). And he tells Naaman “Go away, wash yourself in the Jordan and you’ll be fine.”

Well!” says Naaman, as he stomps off, “I thought surely the prophet himself would come out, call upon the name of the LORD, wave his magic wand around, and cure my disease. What, does he think that the Jordan River is better than the ones we have back home?”

Now remember, washing is a typological symbol for baptism. So what’s on offer is not physical healing only, but forgiveness of sin and membership in the covenant family of Israel. We know that, but Naaman doesn’t. And nobody snubs the commander of the Syrian army, thank you very much! So Naaman goes away in rage. Baptism, you see, is an insult to the wisdom of the world. After all, it is just water. And there are plenty of rivers in Syria. How could washing in the Jordan River heal Naaman? How could this possibly be, as Paul says, “a washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit”?

Naaman’s pride nearly excludes him from the blessing of God, but after he settles down, one of his servants helps him put things into perspective. He goes down, as the prophet had instructed, and washes in the Jordan and miraculously he is healed of his leprosy. That’s where our story starts to get interesting.

He comes back to Elisha’s house, this time humbly. He comes to offer Elisha a gift—a rather large gift, as it turns out—a token of his gratitude. Elisha refuses the reward, but Naaman takes the opportunity to ask him some theological questions. He said “I know now that there is no other god in all the earth but in Israel.” This statement marks a radical restructuring of Naaman’s theological understanding. Syrian’s, like most people in the ancient world, did not worship multiple gods—they worshiped their own local deity, Rimmon—but they believed in multiple gods. If you had asked Naaman a week earlier, “Is there a god in Israel?” he would have said “Of course there is! Who else would the Israelites worship?” The Syrians have Rimmon, the Israelites have their god, the Moabites have yet another god, and so forth. But now he says “there is no god in all the earth but in Israel.” This is the first step in Naaman’s repentance. He has come to know who the one and true God is. Now, Naaman still doesn’t have everything figured out. In fact, his theological blunders are a bit comical. He’s still thinking in terms of these local deities, so he asks for two mule-loads of dirt that he can take home and make sacrifices to Israel’s God “on his own turf,” so to speak. He had not yet been form by the Psalms. He doesn’t know that “the whole earth is the Lord’s and all the fullness thereof.” But he’s come a long way. He knows that the God of Israel is the one true God.

Our first step toward repentance, too, is coming to know the true God.

When Tom Wright was the chaplain of Kings College, Oxford, he made annual rounds to meet every first year student, introduce himself and let them know that he was available if they ever wanted to talk about anything. Each year a few students would say to him something like “Thank you for the visit, Reverend, but you probably won’t be seeing much of me. I don’t believe in God.” In fact this happened so often, that Bishop Wright developed a stock response to this. He say, “That’s interesting. Tell me, which God is it that you don’t believe in?” Without fail these undergraduates would then recapitulate one of the god’s that unfortunately many of us came to know either in Sunday school or simply from the broader culture: The Harsh Taskmaster, The Cosmic Santa Clause, The Distant-Demanding Parent. And to this also, Wright developed a stock response. He’d say “I’m not surprised you don’t believe in that God, I don’t believe in that God either I believe in the God revealed in Jesus Christ.” Our first step toward repentance is coming to know this God—the God who humbled himself taking on the form of a servant, the God who rules not with an iron fist but with a towel for washing feet, the God who’s power is in service and who’s glory is revealed on a cross. Repentance is about leaving behind our often idolatrous theologies and coming to know the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

The second thing that Naaman does—and it follows immediately from the first—is that he begin to enact a total alteration of the way he lives his life. From now on Naaman will worship only the God of Israel. That’s why he wanted the dirt. You have to understand that in the ancient world all of public life was situated around the temples of the local Gods. So this once-well-respected commander, this pillar of the community will become, like Jesus, an outcast in his hometown. He has found the Kingdom of God and it is like a pearl of great price that will cost him everything. But what else can he do? He has come to know the true and only God, and now everything has to change!

Turning toward the God revealed in Jesus Christ means also turning away from all the other gods we have worshiped: the idols of money, sex and power—away from security and comfort—away from endless pleasure and our obsession with “my rights”—away from social respectability and acceptance addiction—away from all the things we love more than the true and only God, thing which, as we worship them, mold us into their image and likeness. The second step of repentance, once we have come to know the one true God revealed in Jesus Christ, is turning toward him and forsaking all our idols.

But that’s easier said than done, isn’t it? Naaman is trapped between the healing, loving God of Israel and the idols of his former life. You get the sense that he almost doesn’t bring it up, but just as he is getting ready to leave the prophet’s house he says “There’s just one more thing: My master, the king of Syria, is old and decrepit, and when he goes into the house of Rimmon to worship he has to lean on my arm, so when he bows down before I idol, I have to bow down as well.” Naaman doesn’t try to justify the action. He knows that he is compromising the worship of the one true God. He simply asks if, in this one matter, the Lord can pardon him.

Part of our Lenten introspection is coming to terms with the many and various ways in which our faith and obedience to Christ is compromised. One of my teachers, Chris Hall, always used to say that “spiritual formation is the journey from self-denial to self-awareness.” No sense pretending that we are not compromised, we are. Every day that you and I don’t do something about it, we offer our tacit approval to genocide, homelessness, and domestic violence—to our own bad attitudes and inconsideration. But it goes beyond that, almost every time you and I make a purchase, we actively participate in a global economic system which sucks money from the bottom to the top, creating crippling poverty on a massive scale, enslaving children in sweatshops and raping God’s creation. For what, a latté and a new pair of jeans? You are I are Naamans, bowing down before our idols even as we pay tribute to the one true God.

I’ll be honest with you, every Sunday when I’m directed to look into my heart and confess these sins, I just feel so overwhelmed by it all. No doubt, so did Naaman. So why should we be setting up Naaman as a role model for repentance? Shouldn’t we be less like Naaman and more like Daniel—boldly proclaiming that we will worship the one true God alone, forsaking all the pseudo-gods of this word? Well, yes, but it takes quite a while to make a Daniel. You’ve got to start somewhere. So, from the lips of the prophet comes the Word of God to compromised but penitent sinners—words of comfort and joy, good news words!—three simple but loaded words: “Go in peace.” Elisha says in effect “Yes, Naaman, you are compromised—Yes, Naamans, we all are!—but the wide mercy of God, which reaches beyond the borders of Israel to a leprous gentile sinner, reaches, also, into the depths of your compromised heart and says ‘you are pardoned! Your sins are forgiven! You, friend, are loved by God! So, go with a peace that surpasses the wisdom of the world.’”

Well, I told you this was a story about two men. So, quickly, do you remember the servant who came out the first time Naaman was at Elisha’s door and told him to go and wash in the Jordan? His name is Gehazi. And after Naaman is out of Elisha’s sight, Gehazi runs after him and makes up some cock-and-bull story about how two beggars have just come by and Elisha will take Naaman’s gift after all. (Of course, Gehazi just wanted to pocket the money). You see, Gehazi continued to see Naaman as a gentile enemy to be taken advantage of rather than a brother in God’s new covenant family. Gehazi represents a failure of the chosen people’s mission to be a light to the world. The first readers of this book were Jews exiled in a gentile land, so this story was a reminder to them of how they were to interact with the gentiles. It was possible, and often happened to people like Gehazi, that we can become so obsessed with being the people of God that they forgot actually to be the people of God. We forgot that we are predestined, not for our own privilege, but for proclamation of God’s good news to the nations. We are blessed to be a blessing. So to Gehazi, the prophet says “You are one who is really compromised. For you have seen the one true loving and generous God, and you have chosen instead to worship the God of mammon. And therefore Naaman’s leprosy will cling to you and your household.” The moral of Gehazi’s story is that God judges our lusts by giving us exactly what we lust for. When we seek first the kingdoms of this world and the world’s goods, we’ll get everything we ever hoped for, and the worlds pathologies will be added to us as well.


Well, let’s conclude by thinking again about that scene in the synagogue in which Jesus refers to Naaman’s story. Remember? It’s in Luke 4, right after Jesus announces his mission by quoting from the prophet Isaiah.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

“Today,” he said “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The good news for all of us Naamans and Ghhazis here, in other words, is that Jesus is inaugurating a new kind of kingdom in which our greed is irrelevant because Jews and gentiles—insiders and outsiders alike—are baptized into one sharing community, a kingdom in which our leprosy can be healed and our compromised hearts are washed in the river of God’s grace. So, remember your baptism! Repent, and believe the gospel!


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The Secret of the Easy Yoke

Watch my latest sermon, The Secret of the Easy Yoke.  My thanks to Dallas Williard and John Ortberg to whom I am greatly indebted for the content.

Sorry folks, I just realized that the video cuts out before the end.  I know that after watching the first half-hour, you’ll be thinking to yourself “I would like to hear that guy for ten more minutes,” so I’ll see what I can do about getting the full video up.

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