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Constantine Being Tricky
Text: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Three hundred years after the death of Jesus, the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity. Before that time Christians had been outlaws. After that time, Christianity became an authorized religion in the empire. Granting Christians authority to gather in worship made the institutional church possible. Some say that was good, some say not so good. Certainly without Constantine Christianity would have been very different, and we would likely not be sitting here today in this beautiful building, spending time in public worship, and singing grand hymns loudly.
It is said that Constantine refused to be baptized until he was on his deathbed. He put it off because he didn’t want to leave time between baptism and death. The more time he had, he figured, the more chances he had to commit more sins. He wanted his sins to be behind him, and he wanted to be absolved of as many of them as possible. He felt that if he repented at the last minute, he would be all set. If he repented at the last minute, he would greet his death sin-free. It didn’t really matter about his previous life. It didn’t matter what kind of person he had been or done. If he timed it right, he would be all set in the life to come. Did it work? Not for us to say.
Was Constantine right? Is this how God works? And can a life of evil be washed away by one good deed? Can a life of good be forever polluted by one evil deed? Is the last thing we do in our lives more important than all the rest we do? Or is the last thing just one of many in a big pot of good and evil deeds all stewed together, making only a little difference to the flavor?
In the reading today from Ezekiel, the prophet argues against a proverb. “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.” The Israelites have been taken into exile, and are looking for an explanation. How did this come to be that they have endured such suffering? Is it something they did, or something done by their people, their parents and parents before them? Whose fault is it? They quote the proverb because it tells them that they are victims of history. Their ancestor have eaten sour grapes, but they, the exiles, have to grit their teeth.
Ezekiel says: stop it! Stop quoting that proverb. God does not punish the children for the sins of the parents. In the section of this passage that we skipped, Ezekiel gives a long, impassioned argument, with examples.
It might seem in this reading that God works the way Constantine thinks God works. When the wicked turn good, they reap the rewards. When the good turn wicked, then endure the punishment. The Israelites, good and wicked alike, evidently call this unfair. Shouldn’t there be what one person called a “treasury of merit,” an account of good and wicked deeds? Shouldn’t all your good count for something? Shouldn’t all your evil be reckoned with?
But then who does the counting and who does the reckoning? Does each action automatically add to or subtract from the balance? Is this all mechanical, some eternal accounting system in God’s heaven or God’s brain? If it is, how can God get into our lives and bless us? Where is the slack, the crack, the sloppiness, the uncertainty that opens the way for God to act?
Ezekiel is on Israel’s case because the proverb, or the thinking that is behind it, leads to a kind of fatalism. If it is our parents’ fault, then there is nothing we can do to change things. If our future is determined by our past, then trajectory of our destiny is already calculated. It leads us either to despair—nothing I can do can make my life better. Or it leads to destruction—no goofy, dangerous thing I can do can make my life worse.
Ezekiel argues that what we, ourselves, do makes a difference. It makes a difference to God, and therefore it makes a difference to our lives. What we do affects God. God acts in response to our actions. What God does affects our lives. God’s blessings matter.
But it would be stretching things a bit if, realizing this, we decided we knew how to manipulate God. To control God by clever timing, to force God’s hand, as Constantine wanted to do. What Ezekiel asks for is repentance, not maneuvering.
Repentance means to turn in another direction. Not just to take some action which is out of character from time to time, but to become a new person. Repentance has little to do with apologies and firm declarations of purpose. Repentance means to be reborn, renewed, reconsidered.
Ezekiel is talking about our primary orientation, the direction in which our heart is drawn and to which we turn for guidance. This orientation is what you, parents and sponsors, have promised [this child just baptized] in his baptism—to aim his life in a particular direction, toward God.
Ezekiel is offering new hope to Israel, not a new scheme for redemption. If we have no desire to be different than we are, then these words of Ezekiel’s offer nothing to us at the moment.
But for those who feel that their lives are in a predictable and not so pleasant rut, for those who feel trapped, for those caught in disagreeable patterns, the prophet offers encouragement. I am pleased, says God through Ezekiel, when people get themselves a new heart and a new spirit. Not only is God changed by changes we make in our lives, God is not neutral about it. God is not apathetic about the choices we make and the lives we lead. God is prejudiced in our favor. God prefers blessings over curses, forgiveness over condemnation, abundance over scarcity. God has a preference for life.
The future is not today elongated out in time. And it is not the inevitable working out of our past. God has no interest, Ezekiel tell us, in our continuing despair or destruction. I have no pleasure in the suffering of anyone, says God. Turn, then, and live.