Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Saving Souls
Jas 5:13-20; Mk. 9:38-50[1]
Over the last few weeks we’ve been looking at various aspects of what it means to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” in the light of the letter of James. It seems to me that, as a people, we’re not very good at “loving mercy.” We are not particularly merciful, especially when it comes to “wrongdoers.” We much prefer cold, hard revenge to forgiveness. We don’t really do the whole thing of “letting people off the hook.” We would much rather see people get what they deserve, especially when we think they are “bad,” or at least “worse” than us. I think this inherent lack of mercy in our society has made itself quite plain in some of our recent political debates. I don’t want to get into all the ins and outs of the debates at this point. But what I do want to talk about is the tight-fisted and uncharitable nature of much of what has been going on. Especially when it concerns our attitudes toward those we may deem to be “beneath” us. Rather than mercy, much of the talk I hear betrays a complete lack of Christian concern, compassion, and charity.
Shakespeare’s play “Measure for Measure” illustrates the problem rather dramatically. The story is about a strict judge named Angelo who has condemned to death a young noble named Claudio for violating the cities harsh laws against promiscuity. Claudio’s sister Isabella comes to plead with Angelo for her brother’s life. In one particular exchange, Angelo replies to Isabella’s appeal by saying that her brother’s soul is forfeit because of his crime and therefore he must die. She replies:
“Why, all the souls that were were forfeit once;
And He that might the vantage best have took
Found out the remedy. How would you be,
If He, which is the top of judgment, should
But judge you as you are? O, think on that;
And mercy then will breathe within your lips,
Like man new made.”[2]
The basis of her appeal is that we have all received unconditional forgiveness, grace, and mercy from the only One who could truly judge us all—“He that might the vantage best have took.” We are all “forfeit souls,” but instead of severity we have received mercy. That one thought, above all, should be enough to inspire mercy to breathe new life within us. But it’s not always the case, unfortunately. Too often we are like the “Unforgiving Steward” in Jesus’ parable—all too happy to take the grace we have been freely given, and all too willing to deal out judgment to those around us.
Jesus was the very incarnation of mercy. In everything he did he demonstrated concretely the nature of God’s mercy by accepting and befriending and loving and caring for sinners and tax collectors, outcasts and outsiders.[3] He forgave sins and restored lives freely, joyfully, and without any kind of conditions—whoever, whatever, whenever, wherever.[4] That kind of open-ended generosity seems to me to be completely opposite from what I see reflected in our world.
In the New Testament, Jesus and the Apostles envision the church as a community where forgiveness, and unconditional love, and mercy are the rule, not the exception.[5] That kind of mercy is called “charity” in the KJV. The Latin caritas translates the Greek agape, which is self-giving love, unconditional love, merciful love. It is the love that Jesus showed for us, outcasts all, “forfeit souls” all. Charity in the sense of caritas is not something you do to get a break on your taxes. It is a way of life that flows from the experience of the love and grace and mercy of God.[6] It is a matter of actually caring about other people, what happens to them, their quality of life, their hopes and their fears, their wellbeing.
That’s the kind of life we’re called to live. We are called to live in a community that forgives, that restores, and that “saves souls”, as our Scripture lesson from James makes clear (James 5:19-20). Scholars debate “who” is saving “whom”—the “restorer” or the one who is “restored,” but I think the Scripture may imply that both are “saved” in the process of acting out the mercy of God! [7] We are called to live in a fellowship that shares with others, that blesses others, that cares for others—whoever, whatever, wherever, whenever. Until we get this part right, nothing we try to do in “mission” will make much of a difference. Without caritas, all our best efforts are just a lot of useless and irritating noise (1 Cor. 13:1-3). But with it, we can breathe new life into those around us, and in the process maybe breathe a little life into ourselves.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/27/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] William Shakespeare, “Measure for Measure,” Act II, scene 2. The irony is that Angelo offers to pardon her brother for sleeping with his fiancé if Isabella will sleep with him!
[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 115: by forgiving sins without any conditions and by eating with sinners and tax collectors, Jesus was “demonstrating in his own person what acceptance by the merciful God and forgiveness of sins means.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 129, 131, 141-42, 147.
[4] Cf. George Barna, “Jesus’ Health Care Plan,” editorial published September 2009 at http://www.barna.org/component/wordpress/archives/70. He describes Jesus “strategy” with people in terms of four words: “whoever, whatever, whenever, wherever.” He says, “Whoever needed to be healed received His healing touch. Whatever affliction they suffered from, He addressed it. Whenever the opportunity to heal arose, He seized it. Wherever they happened to be, He took care of it.”
[5] Cf. Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 99-103.
[6] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 249, describes caritas as based on the fact that we all share the “image of God.” He says, “If through his grace God pours the supernatural virtue of caritas into a person’s heart, … that person says ‘yes’ to God, to all his creatures and all his commandments. . . . in the person who is thus inspired and blessed, the love for God extends as far as God’s own love. . . . Neighbour, sinner and enemy will be loved because they are the image of God, and so that they may be led to God and belong to God.”
[7] Cf. similarly Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:732-33. See Sophie Laws, The Epistle of James, 240-41; Peter Davids, James, 136-37; Luke T. Johnson, The Letter of James, 338-39.

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