Monday, March 22, 2010

Cities of Refuge

In today’s One Year Bible reading (Numbers 33) God instructs Moses to build cities of refuge. These cities were to be priestly communities – something like monasteries – in which the Levites went about their scholarly and pastoral work. However, in the event that someone accidentally killed another person or committed some other serious error, he could flee to one of these city of refuge. The reason for this was simple: the family of the person accidentally murdered might decide to avenge the murder of their kinsman before discovering the real cause. The city of refuge allowed the process of law to work toward justice as the momentary passions of the mob subsided.

This idea, of finding refuge in a holy place, came to be known as the law of sanctuary.

Throughout Christian history, church buildings became similar places of sanctuary where a person could not be arrested nor removed by force. The secular authorities would then reason with the one who had placed himself under the sanctity of God’s house until some verdict was reached.

As late as 1989, Americans witnessed a living example of the law of sanctuary.

The United States had invaded Panama to remove Manuel Noriega from office. As the armed forces got closer to his presidential palace, Noriega ran into the Cathedral, where he formally requested sanctuary. Americans – accustomed to a much more secular view of community and law – were appalled. This notorious criminal was granted sanctuary. The priests refused the army entrance into the building. Realizing that Latin American public opinion would simply not tolerate a removal by force, the Americans waited – something we are not gifted to do!

The soldiers played loud rock music over massive speakers, making it impossible for the church to conduct its religious services. Still the priests would not give in. Sanctuary is a sacred trust. It cannot be refused. The dictator remained in this place of refuge until the negotiators convinced Noriega to leave the church voluntarily.

The possibility of sanctuary –of refuge – implies that the church is a separate entity from the state or culture in which it works. Most of the time, church and state are in peaceful coexistence. However, sometimes their distinct roles in society force them into contrast and conflict.

There are situations in which the law of man violates the law of God. At such times, there must be a mechanism to slow down the process of law and force human government to think through its position in a more dispassionate and humble way.

The Church has the authority – even the responsibility – to do this.

The Church, after all, is not merely a name we give to an assembly of believers. God called the Church into being to guide, nourish and sustain believers as they walk through this world. It is not a democracy. It is not beholden to a particular nation. It is not subject to the whims of state and political trends. Although a church should nearly always obey the state, there are times when it cannot do so and must at such time, accept the penalty for its decisions.

As our nation continues its journey toward legalizing gay marriage, for example, churches will find themselves in the position faced by the priests at the Panamanian Cathedral. Do we obey the guys with the guns, or the One to whom we have pledged to follow in life and death? It’s a situation American Christians have never faced: denying the state’s legitimacy in an specific area of social influence. We believe that God has determined what constitutes Holy Matrimony and that cultures in all times and all places have generally agreed with that definition. The sudden decision of one culture to opt out of that definition and replace it with another seems to us to redefine the nature of law itself. It makes the state into its own god; the final arbitrator of what constitutes legitimate law.

The Church says “no.” It rejects the state’s legitimacy on this specific point.

When the Church acts in ways that are faithful to its own calling and identity, secularized people – even Christians – can become very confused. Secularism has no categories for entities that are neither compliant nor rebellious but are simply “other.” We are other than the political Left. We are other than the political Right. We are another kind of category altogether.

We are sanctuary and a refuge.

If a gay-bashing gang were in pursuit of a man simply because he was gay and if he was to solicit sanctuary from the church, the church would need to do all within its power to protect and defend him from harm.

If the same gay person was to ask the church to accept his lifestyle however, the church would be forced to deny his request.

A biblically faithful church sometimes frustrates everyone!

For centuries, American believers have been able to view their culture as an extension and an outgrowth of their faith. We have had little reason to think of the church as “other than” our society. However, we are apparently entering the same sort of cultural territory that believers have experienced throughout history, in which one’s life as a citizen of a state does not completely correspond to his or her life as a believer.

The Bible offers all sorts of metaphors – mental images -- to describe the Church’s spiritual identity and role in the world as a separate and “other” place.. One of those images is that of a kingdom. The king of this kingdom is Christ, who promised his followers that he would never leave nor forsake them. Christians believe that every good thing that this kingdom has done through the centuries has been Jesus at work through His people.

Another image of the church is “the body of Christ.”

The first person to use this phrase was St. Paul, who tells us in the first epistle to the Corinthians (chapter 11-14) that when we believe in Jesus we become a part of this body. Some of us are like ears; we hear the needs of the world. Some of us are like eyes; we see what must be done. Some of us are like feet; we mobilize the church to action. When this “body” works as it should, the members are in harmony, acting in obedience to the head of the body, which is Christ.

The metaphor of “body” can confuse some people because the New Testament also speaks of the bread we bless in Communion as “the body of Christ.” In fact, the very same passage where which Paul calls the Church the body of Christ, he calls the bread of communion the body of Christ.

There is a reason why Paul uses the same metaphor for both things. When Christians eat the bread, they all take into their bodies the very same substance.

We are what we eat.

We leave the worship service where we have eaten bread and drank wine in Christ’s name. We have been reminded of all that He taught us. We have prayed for forgiveness for the ways in which we have fallen short of being His body in the world. After doing all of that, we go out into the world to represent Him and His kingdom.

Jesus now waits in heaven until His Church completes the task of carrying His gospel to the world. Meanwhile, He rules His new Israel, His mystical Kingdom, His body - guiding it, leading it, and completing it, until the day He will be crowned King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

We are therefore, the embassy of a coming kingdom.

We are a city of refuge; an outpost of heaven.

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