Catholic Voices: The Sin of Uzzah

By John Mason Lock

Wherefore I dare not, I, put forth my hand

To hold the Ark, although it seems to shake

Through th’ old sinnes and new doctrines of our land.

-George Herbert , “The Priesthood ”

In 2003, I decided that I could no longer be an Episcopalian, and I certainly could not contemplate ordination in the Episcopal Church. General Convention’s approval of Gene Robinson ‘s election as a bishop was tantamount to a rejection of the Bible and its authority. I spent the fall of 2003, the final semester of my undergraduate studies, attending a Russian Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy appeared like a light on a hill: its bishops and priests were free from gross doctrinal errors; disturbing liturgical innovations were non-existent. Perhaps this is the place to wait out the storm of secularism that has assailed the churches in North America?

That winter, as a fresh graduate, I spent a few weeks at a monastery trying to discern a next step. Although I felt called to ministry, ordination seemed like a closed door: an impossibility in the compromised Episcopal Church; a very distant hope in the Orthodox Church in which I was not even a catechumen. I spent a good deal of the day reading, particularly the recommendations of the Abbot. One of these was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, which caused such a stir because of Bonhoeffer’s allusion to “religionless Christianity.”

But the document that spoke directly to my situation was Bonhoeffer’s essay “After Ten Years,” written in veiled language and addressed to his peers in the Nazi resistance. Bonhoeffer addressed the problem of whether it is “more responsible to take the field like a Don Quixote against a new age, or to admit one’s defeat, accept the new age, and agree to serve it” (p. 29). The Episcopal Church was certainly confronting a new age, and the alternatives appeared to be either armchair criticism or opportunism which capitulates to the new age.

It was clear that until then I had been the former, merely an outraged critic, criticizing the Episcopal Church from the comfort of my intellectual and ecclesiastical freedom. But Bonhoeffer concludes that neither alternative is acceptable, writing that Christians “must take our share of responsibility for the moulding of history in every situation and at every moment, whether we are the victors or the vanquished” (pp. 29-30).

I was born and baptized into the Episcopal Church; surely my responsibility is to address, as best as I am able, the ways in which the church is compromised. My flirtation with Orthodoxy had not amounted to a serious commitment to Orthodoxy in itself, but rather a running away from the Episcopal Church. As Jonah and Elijah prove, running away is never consonant with God’s purposes. As “the responsible man,” therefore, I would undertake to change the Episcopal Church for the better, in as much capacity as I was granted. The Episcopal Church would be my Alamo, even in the face of likely, maybe even inevitable defeat.

While these may be clear and helpful ideas to one who is running away, the impulse at the heart of them is ultimately prideful and earthbound; it is sin, a rejection of and rebellion against God’s gracious rule and authority. While theological progressives were rejecting the authority of the Bible, I was rejecting the authority of God.

Chapter six of 2 Samuel contains one of those bloody, disturbing episodes which can make some mistakenly claim that the God of the Old Testament is solely a figure of wrath and judgment. King David intends to move the sojourning Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, where the power of state and religion can be united in one city. According to ritual law, the Levites were not permitted to touch the Ark except by wooden poles put through loops on the sides of the Ark (Numbers 4:15). Abinadab, a Levite, and his two sons, Uzzah and Ahio, place the Ark onto an ox cart. David and the people worshiped before the Lord as they led the Ark up to Jerusalem, but “when they came to Nachon’s threshing floor, Uzzah put forth his hand to the ark of God, and took hold of it; for the oxen shook it. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God” (6:6-7).

The sin of Uzzah – that which merits the just judgment of God ­– is not merely in his formal transgression of the Law but in his willful action to try to save the Ark. Is God not able to look after his own? Uzzah’s action reveals that his answer to this question is no. His transgression was a negation of a recurring motif and theme of God as the agent of Israel’s salvation.

It is when Moses holds up his hands that the Hebrews triumph over the Amalekites (Ex. 17:8-15). After marching with the Ark around the city for seven days and blowing trumpets, the Israelites conquer Jericho (Josh. 6). Gideon must send home most of his army before he and his small band of men defeat the Midianites, “lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, ‘Mine own hand hath saved me”‘ (Judges 7:2). If God may save his people by miraculous means, could he not, in his holiness, look after his own Ark, the very seat of his presence?

Like Uzzah, I have answered no. I have convinced myself that enough hard work and diligence might save the Episcopal Church from destruction. But this salvation is entirely on the plane of human effort and work: political maneuvering, at its most crass, but even pastoral ministry undertaken with the goal to foment grassroots change, at its least offensive to human standards.

The Greek word for church means assembly or gathering. Perhaps, as a declining church, we have become so focused on rebuilding, attracting young people and young families, that we have forgotten who gathers and assembles the one, true, Catholic Church: Jesus Christ, the Lord. He calls men and women out of every nation, tribe, and tongue to faith in him, as the crucified and risen one, the promise of a new humanity, engendered by his death and resurrection.

The sin of Uzzah is to overestimate our part in this assembling of his body, the Church. The standpoint of Christian faith is necessarily eccentric; that is, we must renounce ourselves – our will, purposes and works – and offer the center to the Lord and his justifying grace. It is a lack of faith in the Lord himself that would compel one to think that human work could improve or save the Church.

My response to this revelation can only be penitence for my faithlessness. My work and effort can only be at best contingent, secondary, and ancillary to the Lord’s primary and necessary redemptive work in the Church. The salvation of the Episcopal Church or any other ecclesiastical institution cannot be based on political maneuvering or diligently building “traditional” congregations or even on such well-intentioned things as the Anglican Covenant and the Instruments of Communion, but only on the sole name under heaven given to man through whom we may receive salvation: Jesus Christ.

I and many others stay in the Episcopal Church because of our historical attachment to this particular institution, but I hope that my future commitment will be based more upon my conviction that Anglicanism – in its frank yet not fanatical biblicism, its historic editions of the Book of Common Prayer, its hymnody, its Articles and order – is a church in which our Lord can use me to gather his people. Where else can one find put so gravely the reality of our rebellion and sin on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the greater reality of the objective and final sacrifice for sins and redemption that Christ made on our behalf?

The Episcopal Church has clearly much more trial and adversity to face. No one contests this. I suggest that our time is like that of Jeremiah or Ezekiel, who saw the religious and political foundations of Jerusalem uprooted. In our own day as in theirs, the ecclesiastical landscape is filled with false prophets and false hopes.

Jeremiah and Ezekiel advised the people to understand their calamities not through the lens of political power but through the lens of God’s judgment and grace. All this was befalling them because of their faithlessness, but even in this judgment, grace was offered of a future hope, not merely of a restoration to a former, idyllic past, but a greater future in which God would remake and renew his people.

In our own time, it would be easy to blame particular events or point to demographic studies to describe the decline of the Epis copal Church and the discord in the Anglican Communion. But ours is a time of judgment for our unfaithfulness and the unfaithfulness of our fathers to the Lord. There is grace, though, hidden in this judgment.

Therefore, we hope, not because we have confidence in our efforts to stem ecclesiastical chaos or a reasonable hope for a restoration to the idyllic Episcopal Church of the 1950s. It is difficult to say what that grace will be, except that, because it is a grace hidden in judgment, it will involve a death.

The Rev. John Mason Lock is curate of All Souls’ Episcopal Church, Oklahoma City. This article was first published in the February 26, 2012 issue of The Living Church.


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