A GOOD CONSCIENCE
February 18, 2018
I Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15; Genesis 9:8-17
During the height of the Cold War nuclear arms buildup in the early 1980’s, Cynthia and I were invited by the American Lutheran Church to participate in a conference here at the Mercy Center in Burlingame. The purpose of the conference was to gather a small assembly of people from the ALC who had differing opinions about the nuclear arms race, and to engage us in a dialogue so that we might grow in our understanding about other people’s perspectives on this matter. Among those present were an army general, a politician who favored the arms race, a just war advocate, a few people who were undecided about this nuclear threat, and those of us who were advocates for peace without the use of such weaponry.
Martha Stortz, then a professor of ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, was one of the guest theologians who was invited to give us a foundation and context for this dialogue. In the course of her presentation, she explained that the word, “conscience,” literally meant “to know together with.” In other words, the word, conscience, is a corporate word that implies that people have come to a meeting of the minds about some significant matter that might threaten a human life, all of humanity, or our entire planet. For those of us who attended this conference, I don’t know that any of our minds were changed about the nuclear arms buildup, but we certainly came away with a better understanding about each other’s perspectives on this nuclear threat.
In our second lesson for today, the author of this letter describes baptism as an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We don’t often think about baptism in this way because for too many centuries, baptism was understood to be something that an individual must do in order to be assured of a place in heaven. The corporate benefit of baptism here on earth simply was an afterthought in this context. Thankfully, our understanding of baptism has shifted in the recent past to include an emphasis on the entrance into the body of Christ as one of the primary benefits of this holy sacrament. Through holy baptism, we are brought into this global community of faith so that we might know together with our sisters, brothers, and all who do not identify with either gender, what is good, right, holy, true, and acceptable in God’s sight.
In the early church, one of the primary motivations for being baptized in the name of Jesus was for the purpose of joining in the resistance movement against the militarism of the Roman Empire based upon the principle of refusing to shed the blood of another human being. That is why for almost 300 years after Jesus’ resurrection those who were baptized in the name of Jesus refused to serve in Caesar’s army until the 4th century when Constantine convinced the bishops of the church that it would be to their advantage if they would tell their people that it was alright to serve in Caesar’s army and that it was justifiable to shed another person’s blood so long as it meant that people throughout the Empire would be free to worship Christ as they so choose.
Based upon this shift in understanding about what was righteous in God’s sight, these bishops crafted what we know today as the criteria for fighting a just war, never conceiving of the day when fighting with swords would escalate into the possibility of complete nuclear annihilation. Even today, proponents of this just war theory who are baptized in the name of Jesus would acknowledge that these criteria are still relevant in terms of choosing the lesser of two evils, at which point I would have to ask the question, “If we are choosing the lesser of two evils, then how can we be living and operating with a good conscience?”
Lutherans seem to pride themselves on being a part of the body of Christ that acknowledges and accepts paradox—the paradox of being both saint and sinner, of accepting into the church both baptized people of good conscience and people of bad conscience, and of welcoming militarists and pacifists into the same community of faith without wanting to offend anyone in the process. This paradox is most evident in the halls of Congress these days as we witness avowed members of the body of Christ calling on the name of God to justify all kinds of military buildup, access to automatic weapons, war on those who are impoverished, and an assault on the environment that could result in the decimation of this planet, the likes of which we have never seen since the time of the great flood.
If the story of the flood was supposed to pre-figure baptism, then it might be good to acknowledge that this metaphorical story actually was told as a commentary on and critique of all of the violence and corruption that existed throughout the monarchy when most of the kings of Israel and Judah did what was evil in the sight of God. As the end of this story goes, God had a change of heart and vowed never again to kill off humanity and destroy the earth by the waters of a flood. Today, we don’t have to be too concerned about whether or not God is going to keep this promise, because we human beings seem to be the ones who are intent on killing off humanity and destroying many parts of the world by waters of a flood as the result of global warming.
Nothing has really changed in 3000 years since this story was told. Our appetite for gun violence and political corruption that is rooted in our pride, our greed, our fear, especially of the NRA, and our lust for power continues to exterminate human life and leads to the extinction of so many species on this planet Earth. Is there anything that will save us from this pending disaster? The author of our second lesson for today seems to think that baptism could serve this purpose by giving us a good conscience whereby we might know together with one another what we can do that would appeal to God’s good pleasure.
When Jesus was baptized, he certainly appealed to God’s good pleasure, as we are told, because he had a good conscience—meaning that he was so in tune with God’s will that everything that he said and did by the power of the Holy Spirit would be considered righteous in God’s sight. After his baptism, Jesus spent the rest of his life giving testimony and witness to this good conscience by proclaiming the good news of God’s realm and calling all people to repentance which would involve turning back to God and being so in concert with the will of God that we might not only know together the things that make for peace in this world, but actually pursue them.
When I was growing up, I was taught that my conscience was God’s way of letting me know right from wrong, and that whenever I felt guilty about something that I had done, that probably was God’s way of letting me know that I had done something wrong. Then, one day in my early 20’s, I realized that my conscience had much more to do with pleasing my parents and having my neighbors think well of me than actually pleasing God. That perception became even more clear to me during my clinical pastoral education experience when I discovered that my conscience primarily was informed by my older sister whom I idolized.
Jesus had to deal with similar dynamics in his life. He was pressured by his family to quit his ministry because he was too threatening to the religious leaders of his day. His disciples tried to talk him out of going to Jerusalem because they knew that Jesus’ life as well as their own lives were in jeopardy. The religious leaders and the civil authorities always were present at Jesus’ gatherings and constantly were challenging the good news that he was proclaiming in order to make sure that he would not threaten their authority and power. When Jesus repeatedly committed religious disobedience by healing people on the Sabbath day, and then chased the animal sellers and money changers out of the temple courtyard because, in good conscience, he knew that those who already were poor were being ripped off, the chief priests and the elders knew that they had to get rid of this itinerant preacher.
The challenge today for those of us who have been baptized in Jesus’ name is to have a good conscience so that we might know together with one another what is pleasing to God and then act according to what we understand God’s will to be. In any given assembly of the body of Christ, we are going to have differing opinions about matters of life and death. Therefore, in order to come to an understanding together about what might be righteous according to God’s will, we need to be in dialogue with one another in a safe environment where everyone can have an opportunity to speak and no one has to be afraid for their lives.
At a Synod assembly several years ago, our bishop attempted to create such an environment for the voting members around the issue of homosexuality. I remember sitting at a table with one of the most notorious pastors in our synod for his public denunciation of homosexual behavior, and being told by him that you progressives keep inviting us into a conversation about moral deliberation which really is a smoke screen for wanting to convince us that you are right. As an afterthought, my answer to this accusation was “No” and “Yes.” No, I do want to hear how you in good conscience can be so judgmental and condemning of others, and yes, I do want to convince you not so much that I am right, but that I and many of us in this room have a different understanding about what is pleasing to God according to the revelation of Jesus, our common Christ.
Our challenge today is to be in dialogue with those baptized members of the body of Christ who attempt to justify all kinds of violence, corruption, discrimination, oppression, and decimation of this planet as the will of God and appeal to their good conscience. Jesus spent his entire ministry proclaiming the good news so that he might appeal to the good conscience of the religious leaders of his day, and for that his life was taken from him. What are we willing to lose for the sake of this good news—the good news that God desires everyone to be saved and to come to the full awareness of what is true, right, and just in God’s sight? As we wrestle with this question together, may the love and peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding, keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto Jesus Christ, the bearer of good news and the revelation of a good conscience. Amen.