The Holy Plumb Line
My favorite meal is the English Big Breakfast. It comprises a rashion of back bacon, fried eggs, grilled tomatoes, fried mushrooms, fried bread or toast with butter, sausages, and baked beans, black pudding (pork blood and oatmeal), bubble and squeak (scraps of vegetables from the grill piled together), and french fries. But I don’t order it in the US? Why not? Because it always makes me angry. Why? Because I know what the real deal tastes like, and every American joint seems to get it wrong. And all approximations are—ultimately—disappointing.
I mention all this because it helps make sense of contemporary frustrations Christians often have about issues within both the church and American culture. This is especially the case for many conservatives these days, in the wake of the recent Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.
In Ephesians 1, Paul calls Christians the elect: literally, those who have been called out, which in Greek is eklektos (ἐκλεκτός). This is related to the word for church, ekklesia (ἐκκλησία). Thus, we believers are those who have been called out for a special healing mission in the world, because we’ve caught a glimpse of the heavenly city. Paul says that we have been blessed “in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” (Eph 1:3)
When we are made aware of God’s Holy plumb line, we have a tendency to lose our focus, our joy, and our effectiveness within society. Why? Because we are utopians by nature. We want a perfect marriage, a perfect congregation, and perfect America. But when we chase after utopias, we underestimate the Fall and forget our pilgrim status in this life.
Bonhoeffer describes this pilgrim life as existence within the penultimate (literally, the second to last).
...over and over again, the penultimate will be what commends itself precisely for the sake of the ultimate, and that it will have to be done not with a heavy conscience but with a clear one? Of course, this question is not concerned only with a particular case. Fundamentally it embraces the whole domain of Christian social life, and especially the whole range of Christian pastoral activity. [Ethics, pp. 141-42].
Recognizing political, churchly, and cultural realities, but being faithful as a disciple—even if it means faithfulness in the face of death, as it was for Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis—is what this life of faith is all about.
It also is something John the Baptist knew all too well, as we learn from our Gospel reading. The world is so crooked, we can’t even trust in the friendship of kings. This probably applies to elected officials. Remember, even though John constantly offended the king, the king “heard him gladly” and, according to Mark 6:26, Herod was “exceedingly sorry” to have to execute the great desert prophet.
We celebrate John the Baptist’s feast day this time of the year, by the way, because the days are now slowly getting darker, decreasing until Dec., 25, when we are glad to find that the days once again get lighter. As Grünewald’s famous Esenheim Altarpiece from 1515 illustrates, we must decrease and He must increase. I love the way the Latin sounds here: “illum oportet crescere me autem minui.” A colloquial translation might be: lay down your ego and your need to control everything, and let Christ handle all this. We can let Him execute in this world what Paul describes in Ephesians 1:9 as “the mystery of his will.”
In any case, the kingdom of God does not depend on the power of earthly rulers, even though God often calls on unbelieving rulers to accomplish His plan. Even if we could convert all politicians to our way of thinking today, there are usually complex forces that come in and disrupt our cleverest plans.
But alas, utopias never work. In fact, they usually end up as bloody messes, as the Soviet Union, Third Reich, and Jonestown suicides have demonstrated catastrophically.
But even though we should expect imperfection and bentness in all our institutions, that doesn’t mean we can be complacent about justice. Amos reminds us that God isn’t afraid to bring judgment to his own people. "The time has come,” according to 1 Pet 4:17, “for judgment to begin with the household of God.” We can’t simply trust in having the right denominational logo, or the right book of confessions on the shelf. The Lord is no respecter of persons. God can and will bring the plumb line right into our midst just as he brought it to Israel.
The hard part is, we never know for sure what the plumb line will reveal. We do our best to prayerfully and thoughtfully interpret Scripture. But, on most matters, we could be wrong. We could be missing something important. It’s happened over the centuries to be sure, even as the core faith, once for all delivered to the saints, remains a certain promise. Why is Christ’s promise certain but our theological formulas aren’t? Because the promise is guaranteed by God himself, the One who speaks the promise.
Sometimes, this plumb line is best observed by outsiders. Amos was an outsider. He was from Judah but preached in northern Israel. He wasn’t accustomed to high society. And he wasn’t officially ordained. He said “I was no prophet, nor a prophet's son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs.” Now, neither I, nor you have a direct prophecy from God. But even we who are no pastors, nor pastor’s sons, may be called upon, in a lesser way, to pay attention to God’s plumb line.
The plumb line, demonstrates what is straight (orthodontics, orthodoxy). And it always demonstrates our flaws. It reveals our collective and personal sins. The question is, what do we do when we realize how crooked things are?
We turn back to Paul’s reminder, in Ephesians 1:3, that “in Christ” we have “every spiritual blessing.” We are the elect. And that means our crookedness is straightened out by God’s gloriously gracious gift of holiness and blamelessness (Eph 1:4). It means that (Eph 1:7-8) “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us ...”
Does this mean that we just sit back and watch things continue in their crooked state? No. We have a mission. Ephesians 1:10 tells us that Christ has a plan “...to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” This is the ultimate promise.
In other words, we have an eschatological promise that the end is beautiful. The end, end. Of course, the bit right before the end, the labor pains, will get a bit crazy. Nonetheless, let’s fix our eyes on our long-term, profound hope. Paul says, in Ephesians 1:11 “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will ...”
Recognizing that we’ve been bent in on ourselves, we turn to Christ to get straightened out vertically and horizontally. God is in the business of straightening us out vertically, so we can fix our eyes properly on the cross not our inward sinfulness and regret. God is in the business of straightening us out vertically, so we can get our hands out of our pockets and embrace our hurting neighbors.
Christians aren’t the church because they are pure, or because we’ve properly taken the reigns of American culture, or because we’ve all got on the same page about what Christianity means. We’re the church because wherever Christ is present, there is the church. We are reconciled to God and each other because God declares us reconciled.
Therefore, rest in the peace of Christ, dear Christian reader, knowing that this difficult, penultimate life will be full of frustrations. Nevertheless, we press on in this penultimate life because we have been sealed with the promise, and that promise points us to the ultimate inheritance. It brings the power of knowing, according to Ephesians 1:14, that we have a guaranteed inheritance, and we will acquire possession of it, to the praise of his Glory.
Trust these holy words, dear reader, in the comfort that the Lamb of God has indeed taken away the sin of the world.