Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Law or Gospel?

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.  You say, "We know that God's judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with the truth."  Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?  Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience?  Do you not realize that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?  -- Romans 2:1-4

When I read these words, I am reminded of many of Jesus' words:  "Do not judge lest you be judged," and "you who is without sin cast the first stone," and "why do you see the speck in your brother's eye but not the log in your own?"

But these words of Paul also fit well with the story I have been reading, "Crossing the Bar," by a Lutheran pastor, James Johnson, who committed adulteryHe was "found out" and removed from his office.  I imagine that his congregation might have read these words in Romans with a sense of justification.  For how can a pastor be such a sinner (even if he is repentant), and still have any credibility?   How can he preach against sin like he's supposed to?

Eventually, this man, James Johnson, becomes the owner of the local bar where he comes into contact with many other people who are church outsiders like himself.  He writes about the barrier between "bar people" and "church people" in his town.  One reason for the barrier is that bar people see church people as "judges, critics who want to tell them how to live ... and want to change them into church people -- so they'll be acceptable to God."  But James Johnson asks the question:  "Where do you think you would find Jesus?"

Jesus ate and drank with sinners.  "He's not the kind of shepherd who focuses on the sheep that are fattened up and handsomely groomed for the county fair.  He is the shepherd who goes looking for the ungroomed lost lamb as well....  Jesus was not your typical "church person." " (pg. 35-37)

If you think about Jesus' flock, even his own disciples, all of them had character flaws; especially Peter, the person Jesus singles out for special significance.  And if you think about the patriarchs and prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, most of them are flawed:  Abraham prostitutes his wife; Jacob steals his brother's inheritance; Joseph is arrogant; Moses kills a man; David has a man killed so he can make legal the adultery he has committed with that man's wife; Elijah helps murder hundreds of false prophets; Elisha sends bears to kill a large group of children who mocked his bald head; etc.  Each one of these people, chosen by God for a special purpose, is seriously flawed.  I take great comfort in this fact.  It means that, if God didn't give up on them, God won't give up on me.

I am coming to the conclusion that the gospel message of Jesus is most particularly for those who realize they are flawed, and in need of a savior.  Jesus attracted those who were desperate, the outcasts, the shunned and persecuted.  These were the ones who flocked to Jesus, and these were the ones Jesus healed.  When questioned about this by the Pharisees, Jesus said, "only those who are sick have need of a physician."

For those who think they are without sin, like the Pharisees of Jesus' day, the gospel message doesn't mean much or make much sense.  For them, the priority is the law.  Laws must be enforced.  Sin must be preached against to all those sinners out there.  If you don't, if you actually forgive sinners, all hell will break loose, so to speak. 

But how can any of us say we are without sin?

And maybe, just maybe, a pastor isn't supposed to preach the law at all.  Maybe a pastor is supposed to preach the gospel.  That is what heals the sick, and turns their hearts to God with humble gratitude.  And that is what ex-pastor, now bartender, James Johnson is able to do, occasionally.  James Johnson knows how flawed he is.  He also knows that he is one of the few "church people" whom many of his flawed patrons can trust to know the real deal.  If he still knows the love of God, then there is hope for the rest of us.

Dear Lord, thank you so much for putting "Crossing the Bar" in my lap this week.  It was a perfect fit, and just what I needed to think a little more about.  Your care for me overwhelms me.  Love always, Pam

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