KEEPING THE FAITH IN BABYLON
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson
Ordinary 9 - Proper 4 - Year A
Genesis 6:9-22; 7:24; 8:14-19; Psalm 46; Romans 1:16-17, 3:22-28; Matthew 7:21-29
"Another Way To Build"
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the
kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my
Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord,
did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your
name, and do many deeds of power in your name?" Then I will
declare to them, 'I never knew you; go away from me, you evil-
I think disguise is the essence of evil," writes Bill Coffin Jr. Not just
doing something evil, but covering it up. Calling the evil thing
something good. That's when the real trouble begins. And what better
disguise for evil could there be than the cloak of religious piety.
In Canada, to cite just one example, ten Christian Brothers who worked at
the Mount Cashel orphanage in Newfoundland sexually abused dozens of boys
in their care between 1962 and 1990. Those in a position of religious
authority over these men knew about the abuses and the abusers and
attempted to cover both up.
In Ireland, children have been sexually and physically abused by nuns,
priests and brothers; and religious superiors knowingly transferred
offenders to other appointments without ever informing the civil
authorities of their crimes and without ever lifting a finger to help the
In the United States, the Bishop of Boston, after finally being arraigned
in civil court, openly admitted that he had protected known pedophile
priests in his archdiocese. Then he commented,
"The repeated calls for my resignation are a clear signal that
many feel that my leadership efforts in this area have been
"Leadership efforts"!? I ask you, what is it going to take before those
who are guilty of such wickedness and who not only claim the name
'Christian' in this world but those who also deem themselves 'princes of
the church' understand that there is no relationship whatsoever between
what they claim to do in Jesus' name and what in fact they do?
That is the disturbing message of the gospel in this week's text from
Matthew. It is a passage that comes at the end of Matthew's sermon on the
mount, which refers to that lengthy series of sayings Matthew puts in the
mouth of Jesus beginning in chapter five. Not that Jesus didn't originate
many of the sayings because in many cases he probably did. It's just that
he was not that long-winded. Maybe a story or two at a time or a pithy
rejoinder, but not a three-chapter sermon. Matthew is editorializing, as
he normally does, to pass on instructions to an early Christian
congregation; and this latter part of 'the sermon' is an anticipation of
the coming judgment for those who do not take his instructions seriously.
In short, the sharp words we find in this part of Matthew are words of
warning to one group or another who choose to live hypocritically or
lawlessly. That is whom Matthew has in his sights in this week's text.
What makes his words even more unsettling is that the group being warned
is a group of insiders. You see, Matthew is addressing these words to
active followers of Jesus. Not the people who never darken the door of a
church, but the people who practically live there. The people who expect
to be commended for their commitment and extraordinary accomplishments.
The ones to whom that verse -
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,...”
refers are precisely those who profess the most orthodox faith in Christ,
the ones who utter the most profound prophesies, who claim to demonstrate
control even over demonic forces, who even work miracles. These are the
ones within the church itself who are being singled out for judgment
precisely because they fail to do what God wills. With absolutely
devastating words, Matthew tells us what Jesus' response is to such evil-
“I never knew you; go away from me...”
Let me underline three things Matthew is telling us. In the first place,
the people being talked about here are, for once, not outsiders. He is not
talking about the enemies of the church, which in most instances meant
members of the Jewish leadership who did persecute the early Christians.
Matthew is not talking about the people we normally associate with "the
bad guys". He is talking about "the good guys", the people who really did
affirm the basic creed of the church ("Jesus is Lord!"). He is talking
about the people who really did preach powerful sermons. He is talking
about people who really did do extraordinary deeds of exorcism and healing
- and all in Jesus' name. Matthew is making it painstakingly clear for us.
Not only does he mean people who are in the church, he is talking about
people who were amazingly successful in it. These are the people who are
so decisively renounced by Jesus. Judgment begins, not in the four corners
of the world where they have never heard of Jesus, but with the people of
God, and in particular those who have no excuse for not knowing what it
means to be the people of God.
Secondly, the judge who pronounces this harsh verdict is none other than
Jesus himself. That's right. The same Jesus who ate with tax collectors
and sinners (9.10-11), the same Jesus who laid his hands on little
children (19.15), the same Jesus who fretted over Jerusalem like a mother
hen caring for her chicks (23.37), and the same Jesus who came to save his
people from their sins (1.21). This is the one who utters these condemning
words. Because in Matthew judgment and grace are not separated. They are
both dimensions of what happens when God acts in the world. Jesus is what
God's relentlessly pursuing love looks like in this world. He is also a
reminder of what happens when people presume upon such love. The words of
judgment in this text are aimed at those who say they believe in such a
love but who are not willing to act on the implications of such a love.
Thirdly, what is it that these people whom Matthew singles out fail to do?
What is the reason for their downfall? Because something was wrong with
their theology? No, says Matthew. Because they didn't know how to
preach? Not at all, says Matthew. Because their involvement with the
church was somehow inadequate? No, says Matthew. The text makes
perfectly clear that those being singled out for judgment have been both
scrupulous and accomplished in their participation in the church. The
problem is that they have not done God's will.
Matthew doesn't spell it out for us, does he? What he means by doing God's
will? Does he need to do that for us? Or have you really understand what
being in the church is all about in the final analysis, what matters most
of all to God? Is it how impressive our list of church activities is?
How well thought of we are by peers and admirers? How articulate we are
at witnessing to our faith? How well we can pray? How favorably the
church views our record? How successfully we have maneuvered the
quagmires of ecclesiastical politics? Not that any of those things are
anything to sneeze at, but if not any of these, then what?
What is it that God has been trying to get through to us all this time?
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good”
said the prophet Micah. And what was that, what does God want?
“...to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly
with your God (6:8)
Because if we don't do that for all our brothers and sisters, if that is
not the way we are prepared to be in the final analysis, if that is not
what we are, then we have not only missed the message, we have desecrated
it by saying that we do. Those within the household of faith who
demonstrate by their actions that they do not understand that will receive
the severest sentence.
We live in a day, dear friends, when judgment is being pronounced upon the
church in every corner of the earth. Not by the bad guys. Not by the
enemy. But by Jesus himself because of those within the body of Christ who
have demonstrated such an absolute disdain for what God really wants. A
house built on sand. The church is falling because some have built it
that way. Of course, there is, as Jesus said, another way to build.
Do you remember Cardinal Emil Léger? At one time he was one of the most
powerful men in Canada and within the Roman Catholic Church. He was a man
of deep conviction and humility. Then one day he laid aside his red
vestments and stately hat, the office in Montreal and Quebec City and
disappeared. Years later he was found living among the lepers and
disabled, the outcasts of a small African village. When the Canadian
journalist asked him, "Why?" he said,
“It will be the great scandal of the history of our century that
600 million people are eating well and living luxuriously and
three billion people starve and every year millions of children
are dying of hunger. I am too old to change all that. The only
thing I can do which makes sense is to be present. I must
simply be in the midst of them. So, just tell people in Canada
that you met an old priest. I am a priest who is happy to be
old and still a priest and among those who suffer. I am happy
to be here and to take them into my heart."
Genesis 6:9-22; 7.24; 8.14-19 - What we have is a synopsis of the lengthy
story of the flood. While the story seems to lay the corruption of the
earth at the feet of "the sons of God" (6.1-4), there is not one of us who
does not have firsthand knowledge of human corruption. "Sons of god"
simply reminds us of something of which we are deeply aware. The use of
the word "covenant" signals a new start in the relationship between God
and creation. It is a covenant that becomes operative with the obedience
of Noah. What is different in this relationship is that God promises
never to punish the world with complete destruction.
1. What do you suppose God feels when he views the world now?
2. Why doesn't she destroy it?
3. Where in the world do we find a faithful remnant today? Why?
Romans 1:16-17; 3:22b-28 - It is a well-known passage that has been well-
worn in the pulpit. The question is whether we can learn anything new
from it. Verse 22 has usually been translated "through faith in Jesus
Christ" (v. 22). A growing number of scholars argue that it means
"through the faith/faithfulness of Jesus Christ". In other words, it is
Jesus' faithful acts of obedience that reveal God's righteousness, which
encompasses all people. This interpretation makes more sense in trying to
unravel verse 25. What is striking about Paul's contention is that he
links God's revelation of his righteousness directly to Jesus' death - not
to his teachings, his exemplary life, or even his resurrection. This is a
difficult, even challenging implication for many Christians and puts them
dangerously close to feeling like the elder brother in Jesus' parable.
1. If this alternate translation is correct, who is it that brings about
2. What does that do to the argument that we must "earn" God's love?
Matthew 7.21-29 - It is a difficult passage to read. Matthew offers sharp
words of warning on the lips of Jesus to all those within the church who
live hypocritically and lawlessly. Matthew is careful about whom he
means: those who have the most prominent places within the church. What
people do within the church cannot be taken at face value. Another
standard of judgment will be used, that of doing God's will. Only on such
a foundation is a house of faith securely built.
1. Is this kind of judgment taking place today? How?
2. Why did they say that Jesus spoke with "authority"?
3. Who speaks authoritatively for Jesus today?
FOR FURTHER REFLECTION - If evil is a soul hiding from itself, if the
primary motive of evil is disguise, then we should not be surprised to
find evil people in the churches. For what better way to disguise evil
from oneself and from others than to wrap it all up in piety and to become
a highly visible Christian - a preacher, let's say, or a deacon or
trustee? - William Sloan Coffin Jr.
HYMN: What Does the Lord Require of You? (Voices United 701)
Keeping the Faith in Babylon:
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
A publication of FERNSTONE:
Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
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Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
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copyright - Barry Robinson 2005
page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 2005
please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.