Sunday, June 6, 1995

Location - Newtonville
Bible Verses - Numbers 9:15-23
John 9:13-22

So when the cloud rested from evening till morning and was taken up in the morning, then

they journeyed: whether it was by day or by night that the cloud was taken up, they

journeyed. And whether it was two days, or a month, or a year that the cloud rested on the

tabernacle and stayed on it, the children of Israel stayed in their tents and did not

journey; but when it was taken up, they journeyed.

Numbers 9:21f.

For centuries, Christians have looked to the Gospels for answers to their questions about

the nature of Jesus, without coming to any abiding agreement. Perhaps the simplest reason

is that the Gospels do not record an answer--they record a debate. Some people thought he

was deranged, some saw divinity in him, and in between there were all kinds of shadings of

opinion. Jesus himself is reported to have proclaimed his oneness with the Father and to

have cried out "Why have you forsaken me?"

This variety of opinion carried on into the apostolic church. There were some devoted

followers, led by Jesus's brother James, who saw Jesus as the second Moses foretold in

Deuteronomy, as the last of a chain of prophets. His role, in their eyes, was to cleanse

the essential laws of all the extraneous material that had been added "because of the

hardness of your hearts."

These people had an ingenious explanation of the saying recorded in our New Testament

reading, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." They took it more

literally than the Gospel itself does. In their view, the temple was a mistake, a

concession to the nation's penchant for idolatry. What had actually been commanded at

Sinai was not a temple but the tabernacle, and if the temple were destroyed, the

tabernacle could be raised in three days.

One of the problems of the temple was that it tied the faith to one geographic location.

How could God lead Israel anywhere when the ark was enclosed in this massive structure of

stone and cedar? When Babylon came, or Greece, or Rome, all they could do was huddle

within their city walls and wait for the end. They could not take refuge in their natural

habitat, the wilderness, without deserting "the place where the Lord's name dwelt."

These particular early Christians, who were known as "Ebionites"--from a Hebrew word

meaning "the poor"--looked back to the image of our text. The cloud was a sign of the

divine presence. If Israel wanted to remain in that presence, their course of action was

clear. When the cloud rested on the tabernacle, they stayed put. When the cloud rose and

started to move, they picked up stakes and followed it. They were guided not by their own

inertia or their own judgment, not by the decisions of their leaders or by democratic

vote, but by a kind of direct revelation. They placed themselves in God's hands.

Human nature being what it is, we may suspect that this was an idealized reading of what

actually happened. We ourselves tend to look back at "the good old days" through

rose-colored glasses and find it hard to believe that in fifty years or so people will be

looking back at these years as "the good old days." But the image is not to be dismissed

simply because it is idealized. Our spirits need ideals, ideals suited to our own natures,

ideals that call us out of complacency or discouragement. We need a measure of

dissatisfaction, an awareness that we can do better.

If we turn to the correspondential language of our theology, this is what our text is

talking about. In the Biblical image, the cloud needs to get up and move from time to

time. There is no predictable time for this, apparently. The cloud may stay put for two

days or a month or a year, and presumably it may journey for two days or a month or a


Both modes are essential. The image does not call us to constant innovation. It insists

that there are times to remain at rest, times when we are called not to change, when we

are called to stay where we are. But in like manner, the image does not justify blind

fidelity to the past, always keeping things just the way they have been. It insists that

there are times to get up and get moving. A few decades ago, the role of the church was

described as "to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable."

Common sense tells us much the same. We can hang on to the old car just so long before it

becomes more of a liability than an asset. Depending on how adventurous or how sentimental

we are, it may take a little or a lot to convince us that the time for a change has come.

We may make the move as soon as we suspect that the next repair bill will be a big one, or

we may have to reach the point where the repair bills would cover the down payment and the

insurance and the first month's installment on a replacement.

In other words, the theory may be obvious, but that does not mean it is easy to put it

into practice. If we go outside and look at this church building, we do not see a cloud of

divine glory resting on it, telling us that we should stay here. There is no cloud

justifying any of the features of our church as an institution--our forms of organization,

our forms of worship, the traditions that have developed over the generations, the habits

we have developed over our own lifetimes. How do we know whether it is time to move or

time to stay still?

The Ebionite image is intriguing. In a way, these were very conservative people. They saw

Jesus not as founding a new religion but as calling Judaism back to its foundations. But

on the other hand, the "foundations" they looked to were far more "mobile" than the

institution they saw around them. They were calling Judaism back to a lost flexibility.

They saw it as having become fossilized around the temple and around an unrealistic and

egotistical nationalism.

To them, the essence of the religion was its ethics, and both sacrificial ritual and

dreams of national glory distracted from that essence. There is certainly no problem

finding these themes in the Gospels. Time after time, we find the Lord turning our

attention away from religious formalisms and toward the way we treat each other. To a

people longing for a Messiah to restore the kingdom of Israel, he proclaimed the nearness

of the kingdom of heaven.

The central principle seems quite clear. The Gospels press us to sharpen and especially to

deepen our focus, to recognize that outward appearances may be deceiving. When we place

absolute virtue in particular forms of external behavior, whether these forms be animal

sacrifice or regular church attendance, we blind ourselves to "the weightier matters of

the law--judgment, mercy, and faith." As these deeper matters become more real to us, we

begin to see both the value and the limitations of the external forms.

Life is full of examples. Until we understand what shortening and other ingredients do in

cooking, we had better take recipes pretty literally. With experience, though, we begin to

appreciate why a particular recipe says what it does; and we know what changes to make if

we want somewhat different results. We have not become "less faithful." Our "faith" has

moved to a deeper level, to a level of principle based on understanding. It is no longer


Surely, then, any church that calls itself "Christian" should be responsive to this Gospel

call to attend to "the weightier matters of the law, to judgment, mercy, and faith." The

trouble that keeps plaguing the institutional church is the illusion that its purpose is

simply self-preservation. No, its purpose is the building of heavenly community--of a

fabric of relationships that nurture individuality, of distinctive individual lives that

nurture mutuality.

This involves a delicate and shifting balance. All too often, individual and community

needs seem to be in competition with each other. We make sacrifices for the church, or we

want the church to change to meet our particular needs. That is the way things are on the

external level, where time and resources are limited. We cannot say yes to everything.

On a deeper level, though, the two sets of needs, the two interests, are not in

competition at all. I can afford to give my loyalty to the church to the extent that the

church cares about me. The church can accept me to the extent that I care about it. The

old motto of the Three Musketeers works like nothing else--the one can be devoted to the

all as the all are devoted to the one, and vice versa. Otherwise, individuals are

constantly demanding that the church accede to their will, and the church is constantly

demanding a conformity that overrides individual differences and needs.

How does this tie in with our text? It ties in very closely as soon as we recognize the

obvious fact that our own individual needs change. There are times when we are lonely and

need inclusion. There are times when we are restive and need space. This is simply the way

we grow. There are stretches of life when our most urgent need is to discover who we are

and what we really want. There are stretches of life when our most urgent need is to bring

that newly-discovered person into relationships. Perhaps time simplest way of all express

it is to say that sometimes we need to be alone, and sometimes we need company.

As we become more sensitive to this kind of alternation of state and realize how important

it is, we can begin to see the church in a new way, as the community that above all is

devoted to helping this process happen. This has everything in the world to do with the

Lord's will for us. We have been created as distinctive individuals, to live in community.

Love of the neighbor means offering our distinctive gifts and accepting the distinctive

gifts of others.

As church members, we are on both sides of the equation at once. We have our individual

needs, and we have responsibility for the common policies and decisions of the church.

The more clearly we see the purpose of the church community, the more clearly we will

discern when it is time to move and when it is time to rest, what needs changing and what

needs preserving.

One of the lessons of experience is that people's loyalty to a cause, people's investment

in a program, is proportional to their involvement in its design. If a group sits down

together and agrees on a project or a purpose, they will tend to engage in it with a

particular energy. If someone else tries to sell them on some predetermined project or a

purpose, there will not be the same sense of "ownership," of responsibility and


So a church that simply adopts the forms offered to it by tradition or by the books will

not have the same energy, the same liveliness, as the one that has thoughtfully worked out

its own way of embodying the tradition or the message of the books. In the larger

community, the church is a kind of distinctive individual, and it needs to take time now

and again to step back and consider who it is.

These times of reflection are like the times when the cloud rests on the tabernacle. When

they are taken seriously, when the work of reflection is done, then the cloud moves of its

own accord. That is, out of the reflection come a new sense of mission and a fresh supply

of energy. It is not a case of having to psych ourselves up. We do not need cheerleaders

or threats. There is something there that is calling us forward, and we find ourselves

wanting to follow.


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