Everyone’s Favorite Heresies: Old Testament Mean God vs. New Testament Loving God
January 14, 2024
Exodus 20:18-21 and Matthew 5:17-20
In the summer of 1987, I moved from New Jersey to Raleigh – just in time to enter the 4th grade.
For my money, you will never find a more astute anthropologist than a child who has moved to a new town…they are experts at quickly identifying the local customs and adopting these new norms in order to fit in.
What immediately stood out to me were the T-shirts and how they telegraphed a certain….tension…between what I surmised to be two great empires. One was called UNC and the other – NC State. The one was represented by a stocky sheep-like creature, the other by this stringy Wolf-like fellow.
With all apologies to the prophet Isaiah, it was immediately clear to me that the Wolf and the Lamb were not lying down together and munching on straw. Emblazoned in pale blue and deep red ink on Gilden-brand, white cotton Ts, I marveled at how these two mascots were locked in eternal warfare. Arch-Rivals!
(and to all the youngsters out there, as far as I could tell, the Duke-UNC rivalry wasn’t a thing yet)
Mere months after I relocated to this strange land, on the evening of November 24, 1987, there was a game hosted here at the newly-opened Dean E. Smith Center – it was not a UNC-State match-up…this was some pre-conference exhibition play. I do wonder if any of you long-time Chapel Hill folks can recall what it was.
The Carolina Tarheels faced off against the men’s national basketball team from the Soviet Union. Now, my tail-end-of-the-cold-war, raised-on-Reagan brain was primed to say “This will be the time when these two titans of college ball put aside their differences because nobody would cheer for the Soviet team, right???” (Shake head)
It was then, at the tender age of 9, that it was made clear to me how deep a rivalry can go when I heard reports of NC State fans donning all of their red gear, making the trek from Raleigh to the Dean Dome and cheering for the USSR against the lads-in-blue who played a mere 23 miles away. Unbelievable!
When we talk about Heresies and those who were labeled as Heretics, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that it’s two diametrically opposed forces – the absolute truth vs absolute falsehood. Arch-Rivals! The truth is that the two are actually a lot closer to one another than you think – no more than 23 miles apart.
Heresies are born of deep curiosity. There’s a question before the church – something that is truly perplexing. There’s discussion and inquiry, discourse and debate – and then, usually after a long, long time, a decision. The Church decides what is true to the tradition. Those who choose otherwise become the heretics.
The word heresy is actually derived from the word “to choose.” A heretic chooses a position that the Church deemed to be incompatible with the rest of the faith. This morning, we’re going to talk about a Bishop named Marcion who was named the Arch-Heretic of the Church. In his reading of Scripture Marcion had noted what he perceived to be some discrepancies between the “Old Testament God” and the “New Testament God.”
We have two Scripture readings this morning – one from each Testament. I invite you to pray with me that our eyes, minds and hearts might be illuminated by these ancient words.
When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.
1 John 4: 7-10, 18-19
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.
These readings together are the Word of the Lord
THANKS BE TO GOD.
Have you heard it, before? I may hear it more than most, but I bet you’ve heard it too.
Sometimes it sounds like this:
“I love everything Jesus stands for, but I just can’t get behind the angry, Old Testament God”
Other times somebody will express it this way:
“One thing I cannot figure is how wrathful God can be in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament it’s all about love and grace – how do you reconcile the two?”
Every time we ask ourselves that question we find ourselves on the same ground as Marcion.
You can see the tension in the Scriptures we read this morning.
Exodus presents us with a people who are scared stiff and won’t even approach God.
They push Moses forward as their go-between. And then in 1 John, it’s all “God is Love and perfect love casts out all fear.” Marcion wasn’t crazy – the tension is real.
And here it is worth noting that history’s heretics weren’t terrible people who woke up saying, “Today, I will tear the Church asunder.” They were in fact incredibly thoughtful and faithful Christians…it’s just that, for whatever reason, they simply could not resist the temptation to explain away that which didn’t line up.
They saw a tension in the faith and they wanted to resolve it.
They encountered a mystery and they wanted to explain it.
And who among us does not long for such clarity?
Don’t we want to make sense?
Don’t we want to put our faith in something that is logical and consistent?
But again and again the Church has insisted that God will always be a bit mysterious.
The Church has insisted that the tension is not only plausible – it’s necessary.
Faced with these glaring discrepancies between how God was described in the Old Testament and the God that Jesus and Paul presented, Marcion concluded “Well, they must not be the same God.”
And so he taught Christians to discard the entire Hebrew Bible.
He taught that the Hebrew Creator God was actually evil;
that this god trapped our spirits in these material bodies and Jesus came to set us free.
Marcionism was in many ways a kissing cousin to the Docetism that Meg talked about last week.
He even edited the Gospel of Luke so that it conveniently presented Jesus, not as one who emerged from the Jewish faith, but rather as a spiritual teacher who led his disciples to make a decisive break from this wrathful god.
I believe that, in his heart of hearts, Marcion was devoted to the story of a loving God.
The problem is that he didn’t read the Hebrew Scriptures carefully enough.
Because the Old Testament tells us
of a God who makes an everlasting covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob;
a God who delivers an enslaved people from their chains.
a God who rescues Jonah from the belly of the whale,
a God who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
a God who gathers her young like a mother hen
a God who invites us to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly.
Nor did he read the New Testament carefully either.
Because the Gospels tell us about the time Jesus had a full-blown Temple-tantrum, flipping tables over because he was so mad at the money-changers profiting off of the people’s worship
The New Testament tells us more than once how Jesus warned of a judgment to come
The New testament tells us how Jesus became so frustrated with his followers because they would not internalize one, single thing that he ever taught them.
There is harsh wrath in the Old Testament;
And there is harsh wrath in the New Testament.
Just as there is love and grace in the New Testament;
but no more so than there is in the Old Testament.
Together, the two testaments tell us of a God who has been striving since the beginning of time to restore a broken creation to a state of blessing.
My friend Jenny McDevitt wrote that
“This is a long, long story – a story we Christians did not begin, but a story that has
graciously swept us up within it.”
For whatever reason, Marcion could not see the entire sweep of this story.
He thought that only the Christian chapter of the story matters.
And that so easily leads to the idea that only the Christian God matters.
And that is but a tragic hop, skip and a jump away from thinking that only Christians matter – that Christians are somehow more important or more worthy than Jews, or any other people for that matter, and history has already illustrated what happens when ideas like that begin to take root.
That is why Marcion’s ideas were dangerous. That is why his ideas became heresy.
In separating our stories, he risked separating two distinct but deeply connected branches of God’s family.
And even if it’s as little as 23 miles apart, the love of God seeks to close the distance between,
And we are called to follow in that way of love.
Which is why when we ordain and install our leaders this morning
We will ask them in their ordination vows:
Do you accept the scriptures of the OLD and NEW testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit,
The unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the church universal, and God’s word to you?
It’s a long question, I suppose,
But ultimately it is a promise to hold the whole story together;
To acknowledge that this unified story marches in the direction of love;
And to open ourselves to the possibility that this story has loving and graciously swept us up within its grand arch.
All praise to God who is both Creator and Savior. Amen.