Sunday, September 20, 2009

Pentecost 16B - Romans Series

“We stopped going to church,” she told me, a little apologetically, a little defiantly, waiting for my response. She knew I was a pastor and was probably waiting for the scolding that might come her way.

“Why not?” I asked.

“’s hard to say,” she said. “I used to go to a church outside of town, where my husband and I are from. We got involved in the evangelical world. Then we landed at a pentecostal church. Then to another, more traditional church. Then we just stopped.”

“Why’d you stop? If you don’t mind me asking,” I said.

It was clear she wasn’t sure if she could fully trust me. After all, I make my living in a church, getting people into church, and chasing after them when they stop coming to church. She probably thought I might see her as a fresh prospect for my own ministry, rather than someone who needs God's love, someone with her own needs and hurts.

But she cocked her head to one side and said, “We just felt that, on Sunday mornings, we left church with a bigger burden on ourn shoulders than what we came in with. The preaching was a lot of finger wagging. There was a lot of talk about sin, but not very much about grace.”

Then she stopped talking for a minute or two.

“My husband and I felt that we needed to get away from church in order to find God, our own sense of who God is in our lives. All we were getting from church was do’s and don’ts, instead of God’s grace and mercy.”

My heart broke for her. Clearly, she knew the bible. She knew that the heart of God's story is mercy, forgiveness, and love. She knew the lingo of the church. But she didn't get God's message from God's people.
I have to admit, I was tempted to invite her and her family to Good Shepherd, because if there’s one thing we know about at Good Shepherd is mercy and grace. At least I hope we do.

But I thought, No, this isn’t the time. As much as I think they would find a welcoming and a home at our church, I thought that she might need some time for her to get to know and trust me. And through me, the church. They needs to know that God has no other agenda for them other than to love them.
She’s not alone. I meet people all the time who tell stories about how they’ve been hurt by the church. I NEVER hear that people walked away from church because of Jesus, saying that his demands were too hard or that they found his message offensive.

But people tell me that it was God’s people that drove them from church. God may be good, gracious, and merciful. But God’s people are often tnot.
I think that’s what Paul was getting at in today’s reading. In the book of Romans, Paul spends a lot of time pouring cold water on a heated church fight. And he was no objective observer, a disinterested mediator. Paul took sides. He sided with those gentile Christians who didn’t want to be circumcised in order to become followers of Jesus ( I know...ouch).

He took the side of those who were being kept out of full membership in Christ’s church because of who they were. He took the side of those outside looking in, hoping to hear a word of grace, mercy, and forgiveness.

But all they would hear is that they weren’t good enough. They ate the wrong foods, they didn’t come from the right families, the prayed the wrong prayers. They kept hearing that they needed rid themselves of the sin in their lives, that they have to approach God in a certain way. They have to....have to....have to...

The bottom line was: they weren't good enough. They had to make themselves acceptable to God before they would be accepted into God's church. And the Roman church had their list of requirements that these gentile believers had to fulfill before they would be received into Christ's church.

And Paul thought he would burst a blood vessel when he heard about it.
Paul calls these requirements “The Law.” This is an important point in Lutheran theology (so, Randy, take off your ear buds), the distinction between Law and gospel.

On the surface, he’s talking about the Law of Moses. But underneath all that he’s talking about all those unnecessary demands that we heap on people.
Lutheran theology talks about three uses of the Law. Actually two, the third being rejected by the ELCIC and for good reason.

The 1st use is – and I LOVE this term: Civic Righteousness. Even the heathen can do this, Luther says. This is good governance, making sure the street lights work, garbage is collected, and your neighbour can't steal your goat. This is civil law. It's what we need to make sure we're no overrun by chaos.

The 2nd use is called the Theological Use: This is what Paul is talking about in today's passage when Paul says that “No human being will be justified in God’s sight” by deeds of the Law for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” That’s his way of saying that the only thing the Law can do is condemn us. That’s the Law’s job. The Law is to rub our noses in our sin, to drive us to the cross for mercy and forgiveness. Paul is saying that the more we try to obey the law, the more we fall into sin.

So, stop trying. He says. And stop making others live by the law. You have been set free from the Law. Now, live by the grace and forgiveness that God has given you as a gift. God is transforming you from the inside out. No longer do you have to worry that you fail, or if there’s sin in your life. Jesus took you sin, your failure, even your death with him to the grave and rose again in victory.

I know what you're thinking, I thought it too when I first heard this law/gospel distinction, “You mean that we DON'T have to OBEY God? That what we do doesn't matter. That we can just run off and sin as much as we want? Don't we need fences around our behaviour to make us act like Christians? If we don't obey God's Law then what makes us different then the rest of an unbelieving world? What about 'cheap grace' that ignores the cost of discipleship? ”

Well, I'd say that grace is always cheap. We will always cheapen it because the law will always condemn us. Grace is cheap for us, but grace cost Jesus everything. And the more we try to pay the cost ourselves, the more we cheapen the gift that God has given us in Jesus. The Law shows us how sinful we are. But grace sets us free, forgives us. Like the woman I was talking to last week found out, the Law puts a burden on our shoulders that we can never shrug off. Jesus takes that burden from us, and rocks us to sleep in the arms of God.

Here’s a rule of thumb to distinguish Law from Gospel. When you ever hear a preacher (or anyone) say that you as a Christian you “should do this” or “must do that.”
Or say “If you do this....then God will do that.”

Or if you hear you “need to do this” or “have to do that.” If you hear a lot of verbs, or conditions on God's love, you’re hearing Law, not gospel.
For example, I heard a preacher this past week say that “If you want to get close to God, you first need to have honour in your heart.”
Other than I have NO IDEA what 'honour in your heart' even means, he's using Law language. “You need to have...” He placing requirements on our access to God. Luther would remind this preacher that “...I cannot come to my Lord Jesus Christ by my own intelligence or power. But the Holy Spirit called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as He calls, gathers together, enlightens and makes holy the whole Church on earth and keeps it with Jesus in the one, true faith” (Small Catechism, Third Article of the Creed).

But if you hear: you are free, you are forgiven, you are loved. Jesus died and rose again so that you may have life. Now live who God made you to be in freedom and forgiveness. That’s gospel. That's what good news sounds like.
I'm going to keep coming back to this over the next few weeks, because I think it's the key to understanding, not just the bible, but who God is.
May this be so among us. Amen.


Post a Comment

<< Home