Saving the Soul of Our Nation (Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, I Corinthians 3:1-9 and Matthew 5:21-37)
By Rev. Dr. James Forbes
Our nation has a right to expect faith communities to provide vision, vitality, meaning, purpose, responsibility toward each other, respect and care for our planet, as well as accountability and trust in God who is the creator of us all. Lukewarm and lackluster religion will not be able to address the demands of these troubling times of polarization, destabilization and lightning speed change. What is needed now is deeply rooted faith, firmly held convictions and conscientious and courageous discipleship among the adherents of all our faith based institutions. There can be no question but that we are being called to help save the soul of our nation. Do we have the strength of character and moral and spiritual influence to tilt our nation toward justice, peace, compassion and ecological responsibility?
Imagine having been invited to attend a Bible study session designed to begin the healing of the many divisions in our country. Representative of the various factions have been convened by the Spirit to hear a word from the Lord about getting us ready for the powerful witness we will need to make. We have been assured that all attendees are loved equally by God; that no group holds all the truth, that neither has been declared to be a paragon of virtue in the eyes of God; that all are in need of forgiveness; and that all are invited to become a part of God's dream team for the building of the beloved community of justice, peace and compassion. It will be likely that each group will bring the particular perspective of their age, gender, race, class, orientation, religion, party membership, regional affinity, immigration status, political ideology, national origin or previous condition of servitude or incarceration. The only basis for participation will be that all members of the group will treat each other as fellow human beings-no more-no less-and with mutual respect.
The scriptures chosen for our Bible study are Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, I Corinthians 3:1-9 and Matthew 5:21-37. From these texts we will gain crucial insights into what it means to be truly conscientious disciples of our faith. From these texts consider the following:
The Dynamics of an Exemplary Covenant Relationship (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)
For a people who have entered into a covenant relationship with God there must be an awareness of an "if-then" connection. God has set before us "life and prosperity", "death and adversity", "blessings and curses". The benefits and the delights of the arrangement would not be expected apart from obedience to God's mandates. In Moses' sermon to his people he reminds them that there will be dire consequences if their hearts are turned away from God and they are led to bow down and serve other gods. The urgency of his message is due to the fact that they are facing serious changes in their living conditions. They are about to cross over into what had been viewed as the "promised land" which also is a situation of intense cultural conflict among the Canaanites.
1. What are the most serious challenges of our times which require a higher quality of discipleship?
2. What are some of the consequences of unfaithfulness in our communities today?
Sentiments of Sincere Servants of God (Psalm 119:1-8)
To be known as people with deeply committed hearts is a distinction not based on the perfection of our achievement but due to the depth of our longing to be faithful servants of the Lord. The NRSV recognizes the committed heart as happy and faithful: "Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord. " The contemporary translation in The Message speaks of what it is like to choose God's way of life: "You're walking blessed when you stay on course; walking steadily on the road revealed by God." Happiness and blessedness are just some of the traits at the core of a believing heart.
The Contents of the Heart of a True Believer:
Not consumed by guilt
Faithful in the ways of God
Diligent in the disciplines of righteousness
Free from condemnation and share
Mind attentive to the ways of God
Heart full of praise
Earnestly pleading not to be forsaken by God
1. How unusual is this level of personal devotion in your community of faith?
2. What disciplines and practices of faith might deepen such sentiments?
3. Is there a likely relationship between the depth of one's feelings and the diligence in one's courageous witness in the world?
Characteristics of Premature Discipleship (1 Corinthians 3:1-9)
St. Paul identifies two groups of members in the church at Corinth-those who were of the Spirit and those who were people of the flesh. Those whose lives were guided by spiritual considerations were viewed as mature. The others who were bound in mere human attitudes and selfish values were thought of as immature and sub-standard members of the body. This latter group was the source of dispositions not worthy of the high calling of God's servants. Paul points to jealousy, quarreling and party spirit as evidence of immaturity. The beloved community worthy of being called God's "body" or "building" would recognize that there may be differences and diversity of gifts but the unifying and edifying possibility is the power of God who gives the increase.
1. Is the national epidemic of anger polarization and party spirit a reflection of the discipleship crisis in our churches, mosques and synagogues?
2. Can faith communities serve as a source of healing in our community?
3. What process of spiritual formation might equip us for such an important assignment?
Marks of Ideal Discipleship (Matthew 5:21-37)
Scholars debate the meaning of this section of the Sermon on the Mount. These verses are usually referred to as the "antitheses" because of the formula where Jesus says, "It has been said of old...but I say unto you..." Some interpreters see the contrasting principles as implying claims of the elevation of one tradition and the negating dismissal of the other: "Torah versus Gospel", "Judaism versus Christianity", "the ancient tradition versus evolved contemporary understanding". Since this Bible study is proposed for interfaith multicultural exploration, I invite consideration of the possibility of studying these verses in ways which offer clarity about ideal discipleship in our various faith traditions.
Fully aware of the spirit set forth when the study group was convened, we are likely to agree that most of our traditions have some members who are extremists, hypocrites, misrepresenters, adherents in name only and those who identify but lack heart commitment to even basic traits of true believers. On the other hand, as Maya Angelou wrote, "we are more alike than we are unalike..." in regards to how we describe ideal discipleship. Consider then, in the light of our text, these distinguishing marks of ideal discipleship:
- One's hopes, dreams and vision of the good life are derived from what is revealed to be the ultimate will of the Divine.
- One seeks to build and sustain relationships which reflect the love of God.
- One's piety and religious practices do not substitute for loving respectful relationships with others.
- One approaches rules, regulations and laws diligently seeking to fulfill the spirit towards which they direct us.
- One is willing to sacrifice legitimate rights, claims and even possessions in loving service of higher ideals.
- One views thoughts, attitudes, disposition and actions as expressions of the heart, for which they are willing to be accountable.
- One cultivates unity of being and integrity of expression so that one takes full responsibility for what one says so that it does not need external authority as a guarantor of honesty and truthfulness.
1. Is this too demanding a list to commend to our faith partners?
2. Are there important principles in the text not included on our list?
3. How might faith communities cultivate such as sense of discipleship?
4. In what ways might these ideals empower the faithful for effective public witness?
Perhaps the best way to end the Bible study session is to make plans for the next one. Every effort should be made to keep ideals from either frustrating members to aspire to higher levels of faithfulness or others from making false claims or developing a judgmental spirit. I offer this prayer for the edification of all who are seeking to be conscientious disciples:
Holy Spirit, lead us, guide us as we move throughout this day.
May your promptings deep inside us show us what to do and say.
In the power of your presence, strength and courage will increase.
In the wisdom of your guidance is the path that leads to peace. Amen
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