Sunday, September 17, 2017

Phil Kniss: Trusting the Justice of God

Judging and Forgiving
Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

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Offering forgiveness and passing judgment
are two behaviors the Bible talks about . . . a lot.
So you’d think we would be very clear about those behaviors.
That we would fully understand what they are,
and when to practice them, and when not to.

But as a matter of fact, they are often misunderstood,
so the way we practice these behaviors can be distorted,
and even, potentially, harmful.

The Bible is quite clear that forgiveness is a virtue, and judgment a vice.
Jesus taught his disciples to forgive always, and judge never.

But when we get confused about what that actually means,
we sometimes play down the call to forgive,
and play up the need to sometimes judge.

So this morning,
I want us to take a fresh look at two of the lectionary texts for today,
Romans and Matthew.
And I want us to suspend our objections,
at least for a few minutes,
and assume that Jesus and Paul meant exactly what they said.

Let’s begin with Romans 14.
This is the apostle Paul’s application of Jesus’ teachings about judging.
Jesus taught, “Judge not, that you be not judged.”
Paul took that clear and simple command,
and applied it to the complex realities of the church in Rome.

That church was made up of all kinds
of strange and disparate people—
Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, slaves and slave-owners,
those with connections in high places, and those without.
This was true in churches all over the Mediterranean world,
but especially true in the city of Rome.

So of course, the church was fraught with conflict
and sharp disagreements among its members.
They were not of one mind
about what was morally and ethically proper,
about how to apply Jesus’ teachings in their complex situation.
Rome was a long way from Palestine, you see.
In lots of ways.

Imagine some modern prophet spent his life in Harlan, KY,
teaching a whole new religious framework
for life in Appalachian mountain communities.
And after he’s gone, his followers try to spread his wisdom,
by moving to New York City,
and setting up a mission on Times Square.

That’s what it might have been like building a church in Rome,
based on the teaching of a Palestinian Jewish prophet.

They all had to work it out, on the ground,
in the moment, in that new context.
How did Jesus’ teachings in Galilee,
make sense here in this space, in this time,
with these moral and ethical issues we face?
Thus, there was conflict in the church.
One troublesome issue in particular
was whether it was permissible
to eat food that had been offered to idols.

That doesn’t even register on our radar.
But to the church in Rome, it really mattered. A lot.
It mattered theologically, morally, ethically.
It touched on matters central to their identity as Christians,
many of whom had a Jewish identity.
Idolatry—idol worship—was the underlying, foundational sin
of the Ten Commandments, and of Jewish law.

Food that had been offered to idols in a ceremony of worship,
was not all that easy to avoid.
It was commonly sold in the marketplace.
Because after the worship ceremony,
the meat was still good, had monetary value,
and supplied a dietary need.
For some Christians, eating meat tainted by idol-worship,
was dabbling in idolatry itself.
It was fundamentally sinful.

So it was not a trivial matter,
which side you came out on in this conflict.

The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15,
even settled on this as one of four basic prohibitions
that would stay in force, including for Gentiles.
No food offered to idols, for anyone, Jew or Gentile.

But Paul tips his hand in this passage, and elsewhere.
Now, years after the Jerusalem Council,
at a later stage of development in the church,
Paul is actually okay with eating food offered to idols.
He considers the food itself morally neutral.
It’s what’s inside the heart that matters.
Paul even labels those who abstain, as “the weak,”
and those who eat—he calls “the strong.”

Don’t draw too many conclusions from that choice of words.
Paul was not saying the so-called “weak” were spiritually inferior.
It wasn’t an insult.
He meant it at face value—“weak” as in “tender.”
He was simply saying they were sensitive.
Their conscience was prone to be offended
sooner than some others.
They were less hardened.

But other church members did not see it that way.
They saw this as a critical boundary marker,
separating followers of Jesus from idol-worshipers.
So there was sharp disagreement, in the church.
This is what Paul is talking about in Romans 14.

I like the way Paul frames the conflict.
I find his words of advice helpful.
I think they can help us in church conflicts today, too.

Paul does not suggest the issues don’t matter.
He does not say they are blowing something out of proportion.
He does not propose a kind of moral relativism,
where everyone does what is right in their own eyes.
He is sober about the problem.
Yet, he does not render judgment.

He said, v. 1, welcome everyone in the church—
the abstainers and the eaters—
but not for the purpose of getting into an argument.
The eaters dare not despise the abstainers.
And the abstainers dare not judge the eaters.

The kicker is v. 4,
“Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?
It is before their own lord that they stand or fall.”
So if they stand, when facing their lord, let them stand.
It is not up to you to decide when they stand and when they fall.

V. 7, he writes that we all alike answer to the Lord.
We do not live to ourselves,
we do not die to ourselves.
We belong to one who is greater than ourselves,
whose place we should not try to usurp.

Christ is Lord, of the living and of the dead.
We need not pass judgement,
because justice belongs to God,
and we can trust God’s justice, because it is right and true.
We will all stand before the judgment seat of God.
Then Paul quotes Isaiah,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
          and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
So then, Paul concludes, each of us will be accountable to God.

I find a lot of peace in that realization, don’t you?
We need not decide the spiritual fate of others.
Our spiritual destiny is a serious matter, of course.
We should care about our own.
And we should care about others’.
But we need not decide for others’.
We are called, rather, to humbly relinquish our desire to judge,
and instead trust in God’s good justice to prevail.

That is not mere semantics.
It shapes how we relate to others in Christian community.
It shapes how we express Christian love for one another.

To quote Paul,
we admit that
“all stand before the judgment seat of God” (v. 10),
“each of us are accountable to God” (v. 12),
and those we fear might fall—
“the Lord is able to make them stand” (v. 4).

Our desire to usurp the role of God,
and render judgment on others,
is the source of humankind’s original sin.

That’s the story of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden,
the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
This point is made by Greg Boyd,
the prolific author, theologian, and pastor,
in his book, Repenting of Religion.
Boyd writes, and I quote,
“the Bible depicts the origin of our separation from God
as eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil,
which was in the middle of the garden (Gen 3:1-9) . . .
The essence of sin is that we play God . . .
We are not satisfied with being God-like in our capacity to love;
we also want to become God-like in our capacity to judge,
which is how the serpent tempts us.
But in aspiring toward the latter, we lose our capacity for the former,
for unlike God, we cannot judge and love at the same time.”

Now let’s be clear, judging is not the same as discerning.
No one is saying we should not be discerning.
We can, and must, observe and evaluate,
make distinctions, make decisions,
and be accountable for the choices we make.
We have a calling to reflect the love and goodness of God.

However, we are not called to render judgment on others.
As we heard in last Sunday’s reading from Romans,
we “leave room” for God to deal with things that aren’t right.

This week a new book was released from Christian publisher Eerdmans,
titled Forbearance: A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable Church,
by James Calvin Davis, a Presbyterian professor and pastor.
I’m quite sure Davis is oblivious to Mennonite Church USA,
and our controversial “forbearance resolution” from 2 years ago.
To our discredit,
“forbearance” has now become a trigger word for Mennonites.
Davis knows nothing about that, I’m sure.
He’s just making a very reasoned plea to the Christian church
to practice this basic Christian virtue.
I read an excerpt online, that makes me want to buy the book.

Davis is trying to “imagine a better way for us Christians
to navigate difference in our own midst,
as an opportunity to practice biblical virtue
and improve our social witness.”

At a time when public social discourse
is so full of rancor and vitriol and violent rhetoric . . .
can the church step into the public forum
with a positive witness,
when we can’t get our own house in order,
when we do so poorly talking to each other inside the church?

Davis says we should embrace the virtue of forbearance.
And he defines forbearance as “the active commitment
to maintain Christian community through disagreement,
as an extension of virtue and as a reflection of the unity in Christ
that binds the church together.”

Forbearing is not just voluntarily restraining ourselves,
or stepping back from the other.
Again, I quote Davis:
“It is actively carrying something or someone for a period of time.
It implies patience, mutual respect, the extension of time,
a certain latitude, and perhaps some affection
that motivates a person to carry the burden of disagreement.”

Carry the burden of disagreement.
I love that.
There is no illusion that doing this is easy or to be taken lightly.
Disagreement over important matters is a burden.
But a burden we are ready and willing to carry,
for the sake of our unity in Christ,
and motivated by the forbearance God already extends to us.

God showed forbearance by extending patience and grace toward us,
while we were yet sinners!
As Davis puts it,
“the forbearance we practice in a season of disagreement
is a reflection of our gratitude for—and an extension of—
the forbearance God in Christ shows us
in the face of our alienation.”

Now this matter of refraining from judging others,
is closely connected to
the more active and positive command in scripture—
to forgive the one who has offended us.
And then to forgive again.

Actively giving forgiveness . . . and . . . holding back from judgment,
both grow out of the same basic spiritual attitude—
we trust the justice of God.
We trust the justice of God.

We refuse to usurp God’s role.
We refuse to circumvent God’s purposes and God’s timing,
and we allow God to be God.
That puts us in a good spiritual posture
to let go of our need to render judgment on another,
and to let go of our own resentment at being treated unjustly.

This was the posture Jesus was commending to Peter,
in Matthew 18, today’s Gospel reading.
Peter was sure there must be a reasonable limit
to how often he would theoretically have to forgive
a church member who offended him.
He decided to be generous in his estimate,
when he asked Jesus, “should I forgive as many as . . . seven times?”
Jesus multiplied it to the point of absurdity—77 times!
In other words, beyond counting.
You never get to the point where you have forgiven enough,
and are now justified in holding on to your resentment.

God is the only righteous judge.
When we refuse to forgive,
it’s a sign we don’t really trust God’s justice to prevail.

Again, we need to be clear on this point.
This does not imply there is no consequence
for inflicting injury or offense.
No. No. No.
This is not about quickly absolving an offender,
or helping an offender avoid accountability.
This is not even about personal reconciliation,
or restoring a normal relationship after serious injury.

It’s about releasing ourselves from the burden of playing God.
It’s about relinquishing our desire to render our own judgment,
just in case God doesn’t get around to doing it.
It’s taking a step of faith toward God, the only righteous judge.

Refusing to render judgment against someone
does not mean we lack moral courage,
or that we view all positions as morally equal.
So also, choosing to offer forgiveness,
and letting go of the resentment and hatred eating away at our souls,
does not mean the offender is left off the hook,
or that accountability is set aside.

offering forgiveness, and refraining from judgment,
are both spiritual acts that require faith and trust.
They both require us to trust in the justice of God.

And as we know all too well,
we often fall short of this bold faith and trust
that God calls us daily to live into.

The only appropriate response is confession.
Turn to your bulletin insert,
and to your blue Hymnal Worship Book.
Open the hymnal to #305, “Where charity and love prevail.”
And be ready to sing that together,
after we pray, collectively, our prayer of confession.

one Holy God, endlessly forgiving, perfectly just.
all We have failed to trust your justice,
and have fallen short of your will for our lives.
east We remain silent when it is better to speak.
west We speak when it is better to listen.
east We turn our backs when you call us to embrace.
west We embrace when you call us to resist.
east We pass judgment when we need to exercise patience.
west We fail to forgive when the better choice
is to let go of resentment and trust in your justice.
one Forgive us, O God, for our sins against each other
and against you.
all Help us to mature into the people you created us to be,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Words of assurance
one Sisters and brothers, 
the mercy of God is from everlasting to everlasting.
In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven.
all Thanks be to God! Alleluia, Amen.

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