Wednesday, September 14, 2005

“But For Grace”[1]
Mt 18:15-20; Rom 13:8-14
© 2005 Alan Brehm

It’s been a really rough week. There’s just no other way to say it. There are a lot of people out there in our world who’ve had a really bad week. This week, several hundreds of thousands of people—some of whom may be friends or relatives of some of you here today—lost a lot of what defined their lives. Homes, businesses, jobs, churches, schools, and in some cases, family members. The most fortunate of them got out before Hurricane Katrina could do its worst. But others who either chose to stay or were left behind, thousands of people were stripped of much of what I took for granted even as I was having my bad week—a bed to sleep in, a bathroom that is private, air conditioning, running water.

Many of us have watched in horror as the fabric of society came completely unraveled in New Orleans. I can understand someone breaking into a store to get food and water for a hungry family. But I have a hard time comprehending the notion of stealing guns, or computers, or cars just because there’s no one around to stop you. I look at that and I think it’s just not right. It’s all too easy to look at people doing things like that with disgust and disdain.

In fact, it’s way too easy for me to jump to the conclusion that these are just defective people—not like you and me! But the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that it is only grace that keeps us all from sinking to the level of looting and stealing.

I. The Worst of Sinners. The Gospel text for today seems on the surface to grant us the right to carry out judgment on “sinners.” For many in Christian history, this text speaks of the Church’s authority to forgive penitents and censure the guilty who refuse to relent.[2] It has been known as the “power of the keys”—the authority to bind and loosen. The Heidelberg Catechism says that by preaching the Gospel “the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers and shut against unbelievers” (HCat 4.083).
But the problem is that doesn’t fit the Gospel. Until we can admit that, given the right set of circumstances, everyone of us might resort to the kinds of actions that have horrified us this week, we haven’t fully understood the Gospel of grace.

What would have to be taken from you before you would break into an abandoned convenience store to get food and water? I have to confess that I struggle to imagine what it would take to reduce me to the point that I would break into a Walmart to steal a gun and roam the streets in a gang. How many nights without restful sleep? How many days exposed to the stench of flood waters and the constant barrage of insects? How many days and nights of wondering where my loved ones are and whether they are safe? I’m not sure how much could I withstand before it broke me down. But if I take seriously the scriptural truth that we are all fallen, I have to admit that I don’t know what I would do if I were in their shoes.

II. Binding or Releasing? Come to think of it, the idea that Jesus Christ calls us to shut people out of the kingdom also doesn’t fit Matthew’s portrait of Jesus.

But what business does the Church that follows Jesus Christ have shutting the kingdom against anybody? Didn’t Jesus condemn the Pharisees for “locking people out” of the kingdom of heaven (Mt 23:13)? What business do those of us who claim to follow him have shutting anybody out?
Didn’t Jesus condemn the Pharisees for “binding” people with burdens too heavy to bear (Matt 23:4)? What business does the Church have binding anyone?

One way around this is to focus on this as a procedure for disciplining those who go astray in an effort to reclaim them. On the surface of things, that might sound more reasonable. Although we might not be too comfortable confronting others for their “sins,” a process like the one Jesus outlined seems reasonable. First you go individually, then with two or three, and finally you bring the person before the church. The unity of the Body of Christ is important enough that we need some means of preserving the “peace, purity, and unity” of the Church.

I think, however, that even here we have to be careful. It’s all too easy to turn something that’s intended to redeem into something that condemns. And we have to remember that the same Gospel that presents us with this step-by-step procedure for censuring the unrepentant also gives us “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (Mt 7:1).[3]

And what does it mean to treat the one who does not respond to censure like a gentile or a tax collector? In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus shared meals with tax collectors, and he commanded his followers to make disciples of all the “gentiles” (the same word in Mt 28:19 means “nations” or “gentiles”).

Come to think of it, if we’re going to talk about the Church’s authority to “censure” anybody, perhaps we ought to take a look at Jesus. Whom did Jesus rebuke? Not the tax collectors; not the prostitutes; not the “sinners,” but rather the self-righteous religious people who dealt out guilt and judgment as easily as some deal cards!

III. The Fellowship of Forgiveness. [4] But we really need look no further than Matthew chapter 18 to see that Jesus is authorizing us not to shut up but to release, not to condemn but to extend mercy. He begins by saying we must all become like children—those who have absolutely no status or privilege, (in other words, the last and the least). Then Jesus talks about a shepherd who leaves the flock to find and bring home one sheep out of his desire that none of the “little ones” should be lost. In the verses immediately following this text, Jesus talks about forgiving not just seven times but seventy times seven times! And then he tells a story that dramatically illustrates that those who refuse to forgive others patently misunderstand what it means to be forgiven by God!

We have plenty of clues in this text to tell us that our Lord doesn’t call us to bind or shut out anyone—rather he calls us to the task of setting captive free, of lifting burdens too heavy to bear. I think Karl Barth is right when he says that we only shut people out of the Kingdom when we fail to do what we’re supposed to![5] The Confession of 1967 defines our task in this way: “To be reconciled to God is to be sent into the world as his reconciling community” (C67 9.31). Paul calls it the “ministry of reconciliation”: the only thing we really owe others is the love that God has given to us!

Conclusion: “There but for the grace of God go I.” It’s a phrase we use so often that it really only means something like, “Boy am I glad that happened to someone else and not me!”

But if we really embrace the meaning of that phrase, we have to recognize that it is only God’s grace that keeps any of us from falling into the depths—not any quality or character or parentage or position or education or any other human basis for comparison (cf. Phil 3)!

It think for those of us who have spent much of our lives in the Church, we have to grasp the truth that we are all fallen in order to extend God’s grace. At least I know that’s the case for me. I’m all too ready to consign someone to the flames of hell—many times just for cutting me off in traffic!

When we understand that we are all fallen, then we are in the position that Jesus envisioned for his disciples: extending grace to others, and mercy, and love, and forgiveness because we have been given the grace of God, along with mercy, love, and forgiveness. Then we can set about the task of releasing all the chains that bind people, and lifting the oppressive burdens, and leading them into the freedom of God’s love.

[1] A sermon preached 9/4/05 at First Presbyterian Church, Baytown TX.
[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.11.1-2.
[3] cf. Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, 214.
[4] Hans Küng, The Church, 331.
[5] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV, 3: 861.