September 6, 2020
This week, I again want to bring in the other lectionary reading as we think about this passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. And rather than actually read the passage to you from Exodus 12 because the passage is more about the details of the Passover celebration… I want to do instead is plant in your mind what’s behind that Exodus reading… which is the tenth and final plague in Egypt… the killing of the firstborn. As you listen to Paul’s theology on our obligation to love one another, keep in mind the contrast of Paul’s words with that story of the tenth plague. This morning we are going to let scripture interpret scripture… and see where that journey takes us. So I invite you to listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you this morning from Romans 13.
READ Romans 13:8-14
So yeah… I found it very intriguing that the lectionary would put these two passages together today… one of death to the neighbor and the other the ethic to love our neighbor. It is quite the contrast and one that I would like to say is no longer being played out today. I would like to say that… but it wouldn’t be true would it?
The story of the final plague… the killing of all the firstborn in Egypt… human beings and animals… that is a horrific story. I know at this point… especially with how we’re used to hearing the story told… or seeing the story interpreted, often in cartoon form… we can lose that sense of horror. For myself imagining the scene, I can’t help but see the scene as it was done in the old Ten Commandments movie with Charlton Heston. I can’t read Exodus without the intrusion of Cecil B. DeMille. The way they show this green killing mist in the movie making its way through the streets… people either instantly falling down dead or ducking into safe homes with the blood spread over the doors. As we’re watching the mists move about there are the off-camera screams and the wailing of people either dying or mourning the dead. In scripture, the tenth plague is God’s crescendo of power in the story of the plagues… a deadly killing power that will suddenly come upon thousands of people if you imagine it out completely. Now of course, the power of Egypt could kill innocents as well. I mean… isn’t that how the Moses story begins… with the killing of children under the orders of Pharaoh. But this final plague from God multiplies that event… takes it to another level altogether. With this plague, Egypt has to finally acknowledge the greater power of God. It has met a force that can be far more murderous than itself.
But we know that that submission to this greater killing power lasts only for so long, as the Israelites leave, Pharaoh becomes determined again to match his killing power against God’s killing power… and he sends out his chariots to bring them back. And we also know Pharaoh is defeated again at the Red Sea… a greater power killing his men and horses… laying waste to his great military strength that made Egypt the power in that particular part of the world at that particular time in history.
So what do you think of my description of this story so far? Does it make you uncomfortable at all to think of God being murderous… of using power for blindly killing in order to show that power? Are these the words or phrases that you would use to describe God? But how do we get around this idea of God’s use of power with this final plague without completely rewriting the story found in Exodus? The truth is we don’t. And we shouldn’t try to. We should listen to that little voice in us that is disturbed by this scene.
What’s interesting is that in all the Passover meals in which I have participated… there is not an element of triumphalism when we get to this part of the story. There is no joy expressed in the killing and the suffering of the Egyptians throughout all the plagues. In fact, I would describe the telling of this part of the story as being done with a reverence… the plagues are the story, but the power of the plagues aren’t celebrated as they are memorialized. The liturgy of the Passover reminds its participants to not rejoice in the suffering, but to take seriously the awful price that the Egyptians paid for the freedom of their ancestors. There is no attempt at spin. There is no attempt to describe this as deserved judgment… that God is justified at doing this because of the evil that the Egyptians had visited upon the Israelites in bondage. The killing of the firstborn is indiscriminate. You simply can’t get around it. The plague has no sense of deserved justice to it to help qualify it as righteous or just. The plague doesn’t seek out only the guilty… those who either kept the Israelites in captivity or made their slavery bitter. It’s like using a hand grenade to swat a fly.
Only the blood of the paschal lamb protects from this plague, so that even Israelites who don’t get the message or do as they are told have no other protection from this plague if they are firstborn. And right there, why focus on the firstborn if not to make a brutal killing statement? Truthfully, this plague in a way reminds me of those atomic bombs that I would hear about as a kid that would kill all the people but leave the buildings and the technology in place… for later colonization I suppose. I honestly don’t know if those bombs really existed or not… or if they were just the imagination of Cold War times… but still… what’s the difference. How could such an act of horror be glorified… whether it was some bomb or scriptural plague?
So, thankfully, we come to Paul and this ethic of love that he describes not only in Romans but in his other letters as well. We get to hear this ethic of love which is so absent from the Passover story. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law…” only works to reveal the lawlessness of the tenth plague. Paul is calling the church to live into the Passover story as it has now been redeemed through Christ. That’s important to know… and to understand. It is no accident that Christ… that the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ… is associated with the Passover. The symbols of communion are taken directly from the Passover table… the Lord’s Table is the Passover table remade… redeemed… repurposed for the salvation of the world. Jesus and his disciples are gathered there in the upper room to celebrate the Passover… to tell again this story of freedom… but with a new twist.
To put it simply, the story of Christ is the story of the Passover retold through the ethic of love. Now instead of thousands upon thousands dying for freedom, only one dies for freedom. Instead of being the purveyor of violence and the killer of innocents, God incarnate in Christ, bears the violence himself and himself becomes the innocent that is killed. God in Christ becomes the object of the violence instead of the creator of the violence. And so, the result of this new Passover scene is supposed to be different. The death of Christ leads into a new age… an age where loving your neighbor as yourself becomes the rule instead of the exception… even for God. At least that’s what I believe. Even God must submit to this ethic or else what value does it hold for us. Even God must agree that love does no wrong to a neighbor. And just like the one who asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor”… we have to believe that even God has to abide by the answer given… because that is God’s answer. What good is it for us to put on the Lord Jesus Christ, if there is still some question that God may now act contrary to God’s own revelation in Christ… that God can still use the power of the tenth plague without question?
This ethic of love… I have to say, it’s what I like best about Paul’s theology… whenever he gets to waxing poetic about love. Going back into chapter 12 of Romans and the words found there never cease to inspire me… “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Have I repeated that enough over the last few Sundays? That’s the sentence that really starts off this whole section as he writes about not seeing yourself more highly than you ought to… to let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor… bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them… do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all… so far as it depends on you live peaceably with all. All of this describes what Paul means by putting on the Lord Jesus Christ.
That is the world I would like to live in. That world guided by the ethic of love. I would like to be that person who somehow helped to create that world not just for myself, but for everyone else that I could. I would like to believe that as we human beings keep facing the challenges that keep coming at us… at what seems to be a relentless pace… that the ethic of love would become our first course of action taken. But, the truth is… we still live in the world from Exodus and the first Passover… don’t we? A world where killing power is still the most respected and feared power. Freedom is gained with greater violence triumphs over another’s violence. I look at the political theater that is being staged all around us… political theater that play acts at caring about and loving the neighbor… but in reality loves more its entrenched ideology and maintaining positions of power and privilege through election or re-election for not only politicians themselves but their biggest donors. Personally, I don’t have much hope in politics on either side.
However, I then look at those stories of communities being assaulted by economic woes or even natural disasters… and here… surprisingly here in all the destruction from economic and natural violence… I actually feel hope from our ethic of love. Because in these stories… neighbor will reach out to neighbor. Not all… unfortunately… but many will come together for the common good of their community. Some will resist the ethic of love and some will steal or otherwise take something from their neighbor… some will work to lift themselves up at the expense of their neighbor. But more will come to know their neighbor than not… or at least, that’s what I would like to believe. Neighbors will extend hospitality to strangers. Some will think of others first, even sometimes at a cost to themselves. There is a comfort knowing that some… because they have put on the Lord Jesus Christ… will immediately begin to work for their neighbor… sometimes traveling great distances… to physically help others recover from these disasters. Hamstrung by Covid, denominations and churches are still trying their best to respond with their disaster response teams these days… and it’s all because of this ethic of love doesn’t stop. You don’t hear those news stories much. Chaos instead of stamping it out… often allows the ethic of love to emerge even greater. It’s almost funny how as some folk have been declaring that all of these natural disasters and such… let’s just say 2020… is a sign of God’s judgment… violent punishing indiscriminate judgment… much like the tenth plague… the judgment I see is the redeemed judgment of how people react to one another in times of crisis… giving hope to one another… lifting up one another… loving one another especially in the times of their common struggle. Learning in some way that freedom… freedom means little if it isn’t freedom for all my neighbors. Amen.