William Sloane Coffin, Jr., who recently died at the age of 81, was an honored scholar, civil rights leader, antiwar activist, and a prophet. He summed up his faith by saying, âI believe Christianity is a worldview that undergirds all progressive thought and action.â He also said, âThe Christian church is called to respond to Biblical mandates like truth-telling, confronting injustice, and pursuing peace.â
His actions and words are evidence that he was able to navigate the tension created by those who would separate power into the categories of church and state, or more accurately, of God and man.
His words are good to reflect upon, particularly given the world we live in, where power and authority are often thought of in terms of personal privilege and gain. Are the choices we make to live our lives progressively seen as authentic demonstrations of Biblical mandates or do these choices simply challenge authority and invite criticism? And what if we are criticized? Should we let that deter our actions and cause us to forsake the Gospel mandate?
Especially evident in our reading today is the complex and often volatile relationship between the rule of God and the rule of humanity. Those who recognize the power of God as ultimate, speak the truth, and those who speak genuinely prophetic words are often judged as dangerous and threaten the established political and religious institutions. We can name many prophets of our time who have demonstrated a true understanding of Godâs power and have spoken out, telling the truth about injustices and pointing us toward understanding the Gospel in spite of the cost: Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero, and Desmond Tutu. Their stories inspire our lives and challenge us to ask how privilege and power blind us to prophetic words and their demand for justice. Does our desire for privilege and power (even for benevolent purposes) lead us to feel exempt from living according to the Gospel?
David, the anointed king of all tribes, recognized Godâs power and captured Jerusalem, putting an end to the Philistine threat. This accomplishment is significant because without it, Israel never could have developed as an independent state. This established Jerusalem as a political center. When David retrieved the ark from the Philistines and brought it to Jerusalem, it established a center for worship. Godâs power in the ark -- and in Davidâs reign as a king -- are brought together in a place still identified as holy today.
Godâs power is awesome, and in the ark Godâs power seemed so dangerous that the Philistines let it go. God is king, and His authority is over all of creation. Godâs power is so awesome that being too close to it, coming toward it unintentionally, may be dangerous.
Psalm 24 describes in liturgical form how the power of God must be seen. Our path toward God must be ethically sound, which involves three things: first, purity of outward deeds or having clean hands; second, purity of thought and inward truthfulness, having a pure heart; and finally purity of religious practice or unadulterated faith, not pledging to falsehood or swearing by what is fraud. As it says in Ephesians 3, Godâs power âworking in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine,â and that is at the root of our worship and is the reason we live as Christians.
Being close to the power of God, being prophetic, and being truth-telling advocates for the Gospel message can be a euphoric experience. As Christians we ritualize the experience of approaching God through prayer and song. In Native American traditions, dance is a significant part of that expression. The procession that brought the ark into Jerusalem was ecstatic with singing, playing instruments, and dancing. David lost himself in the feeling of approaching God and sensing the power of God. Others may despise us for expressing our encounters with the holy, with our whole selves, bodies, minds, and souls, but that cannot discourage our joy.
In our Christian tradition, the liturgy brings us close to God and feeds us to go out into the world to live as God intended. David shared the blessings with offerings and then distributed meat, cake, and food to the people just as we gather to share the blessings in the Eucharist. The way in which we live our lives and the way we celebrate our joy and connection to God is what unites us as people of faith. We are also united as living members of the Body of Christ, people who live in accordance with the gospel message.
The prophets of the Old and New Testaments and the prophets of modern day demand justice and a life lived according to the Gospel. Their witness exposes those who misuse power and privilege for their own glory. Their witness exposes the use of power to control and oppress others. Their witness assures us that it is possible to recognize Godâs power as the only authority. We must strive to live lives that are evidence of the power of God as we become truth-telling advocates for justice and peace. And, when this brings us close to God, let us be moved to celebrate ecstatically with our whole selves.