Rights…and Wrongs

I’m going to wax political for a bit here. Don’t worry though. I’m not going to wade into all of the liberal vs. conservative issues swirling around. I have my sights set on something much more deeply engrained.

The political philosophers coming out of the Enlightenment, folks like John Locke, were as much sociologists as they were philosophers. They looked at what people tend to do and how they live and drew conclusions from that about what it means to be human and how societies should operate. Most of Western civilization, and Eastern too for that matter, make use of their basic premises. The American Declaration of Independence puts this front and center: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This is the kind of idea forms the basis for our government and is the structure upon which our entire society is built. All of the big political debates erupting in our country can all be traced back to this central idea. Is abortion legal or not and who decides? Is a marriage only between a single man and a single woman or are other arrangements an option? These are all based on discussions about human rights, such as the right to life and the right to happiness.

Looking at government and society from a Christian perspective changes things quite a bit. When you look through the Levitical laws given to Israel as the way they were supposed to live and conduct themselves, you don’t see any sort of discussion of rights. All of the things we describe as “human rights” are nowhere to be seen. Even a right to life simply doesn’t exist.

Many transgressions against God or against society were punished with death. Appeals are not discussed at all. Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, misuse the incense of the tabernacle and are immediately struck down. Then there are people like poor Uzzah, who tried to steady the Ark of the Covenant when King David was transporting it. For touching the Ark, Uzzah is also immediately struck down. Similarly, God commands the Israelites to put the native populations of Canaan to the sword. Man, woman, and child, none are to be left alive.

Many read stories like this and think how terrible it is that God would do such a thing. How can a loving God be so cruel and callous? We think this way because the concept of rights are deeply ingrained in how we think. Rights presume I have some intrinsic value, something that no one else can overturn without my say so.

God does not talk this way. In fact, God works in quite the opposite manner. He chides those who think they have the right to make demands of their Creator. When God establishes the laws of Israel, He doesn’t talk in terms of rights, but of responsibilities. He doesn’t want people thinking of themselves, but of others. Rights make everyone focus on me and what I want. Responsibilities make me focus on everyone else.

So what does this have to do with the sacraments? Quite a lot actually. This same attitude follows us everywhere we go, even in church. Many Christians treat the sacraments as simply between God and the individual. No one else needs to be involved. Really, as a Christian, it’s my right to have the sacrament. So, when the pastor tells you he has concerns about your participation in the sacrament, whether baptism or communion, he’s the one in the wrong because it’s your right to have it.

Again, from God’s perspective it’s quite the opposite. None of us deserve anything from God, including the sacraments, perhaps even especially the sacraments. Luther makes very clear God’s grace is a gift. If it were not a gift, then I earned it somehow. But, as a sinner, it is beyond my capabilities to earn anything from God. The bar is set at perfection and anything less than perfection falls short of the mark. That means every one of us.

There have been a number of instances where I’ve turned people away from the communion rail because of their understanding of communion and their church body’s proclamation (see my earlier post on proclamation in communion). I’ve considered holding off on baptism because the understanding of baptism barely fell within basic Biblical teachings. It isn’t always the case, but it’s often enough that I’m met with hostility when I do so. The argument usually revolves around rights in one way or another. “I grew up in the Lutheran church.” “My mom is a member here.” So on and so forth.

None of that really matters, because the sacraments aren’t earned and they are not something you have a right to. They are God’s gifts and, because they are God’s gifts, they must be used carefully and appropriately. There are consequences to you and to those around you if you do not, as Nadab and Abihu and those St. Paul references in 1 Corinthians 11 found out. Your pastor is trying to protect you and the congregation from a possible misuse of God’s holy things. Rather than getting angry at the pastor, take a closer look at your status before God and whether you have any right to be angry at all. Your pastor does not hate you. He does not despise you. He loves you and cares for you. He wants you to receive the gifts God offers, but not if they will bring you harm. If he tells you “no,” it’s because something is off kilter and needs to be fixed so you can participate in the way God wants. Talk to your pastor. Listen to him. He is responsible to God for the use of His things and will be called to account for his actions. So he works very hard to make sure they are used for the benefit of God’s people, and that includes you.

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