The Gospel Call: The Problem
So every single one of you who judge others is without any excuse. You condemn yourself when you judge another person because the one who is judging is doing the same things. 2 We know that God’s judgment agrees with the truth, and his judgment is against those who do these kinds of things. 3 If you judge those who do these kinds of things while you do the same things yourself, think about this: Do you believe that you will escape God’s judgment? 4 Or do you have contempt for the riches of God’s generosity, tolerance, and patience? Don’t you realize that God’s kindness is supposed to lead you to change your heart and life? 5 You are storing up wrath for yourself because of your stubbornness and your heart that refuses to change. God’s just judgment will be revealed on the day of wrath. 6God will repay everyone based on their works.[a] 7 On the one hand, he will give eternal life to those who look for glory, honor, and immortality based on their patient good work. 8 But on the other hand, there will be wrath and anger for those who obey wickedness instead of the truth because they are acting out of selfishness and disobedience. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. 10 But there will be glory, honor, and peace for everyone who does what is good, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. 11 God does not have favorites.
So you are probably saying to yourself, “Am I in the right place this morning? Did I happen to wander into the wrong church? This is the same Wallace United Methodist Church that I was told about, the one that loves everyone who walks in the door without exception? Because I didn’t expect to hear that scripture in a place like this.”
No, you probably didn’t. But then again, not everything out of scripture makes us feel warm and fuzzy. In fact, I would say, if you aren’t being challenged by what is in our holy scriptures, you aren’t doing Christianity right. I would be lying if I told you that writing sermons from the Bible is super easy; honestly, sometimes I’m afraid of what the Bible would have me to say, and to live by. Today is a rather sobering passage, much like the one from last week, and the one before it. It’s a very radical vision, and believe it or not, a radical vision for good. That may not be on the surface of the passage, but trust me it’s there. It tackles the problem that evangelism tries to tackle head on.
To recap, this is the third week of our evangelism sermon series, “The Gospel Call.” The definition of evangelism I’ve been using has been a little bit different than the way evangelism has been popularly portrayed. For our purposes here, at this church, in this day and age, evangelism is defined as the process of bringing people into the kingdom of God, heart mind and soul, to reveal Jesus Christ, to help people be empowered by the Holy Spirit, to be anchored in the church, and for the transformation of the world.
Two weeks ago, I talked about the message of the gospel, that it is a message of healing, liberation, and equality, one that seeks to give good news to the poor, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed, so that all would be free. Last week, I talked about the mission of evangelism, and that at the heart of mission is reconciliation, both to people and the world. Having a heart for reconciliation, love, and forgiveness, we begin to see opportunities for Jesus to enter into the lives of those who need it most, and in doing so, we too are transformed. Evangelism is nothing less than transformation.
So why are we given this mission? Why are we given this message? We wouldn’t have to do this if there wasn’t something that was broken, something that needed to be fixed. My brothers and sisters, there is a problem. A big one.
Our passage from Romans enlightens us to the nature of this problem, and it comes across kind of like a scolding. The background to this passage is integral to the message it has for us, especially today. The book of Romans was written by Paul, and it became his sort of manifesto for what it means to be saved by faith through grace. But what problem was he trying to address? The problem was that the Jesus following community was dividing itself between Jews and Gentiles. The word “Christian” had yet to be coined. These were people who knew the risen Christ and had faith in him, but were divided by ethnic, cultural, and even economic differences. The thing is, the Jesus following movement was a primarily Jewish movement that arose out of Judaism, shared a great deal of its practices, and even shared the same holy books. As such, the Jews in the communities wound up being the decision makers. It wasn’t long until a good number of them decided that unless you were a Jew and followed the “works of the law,” the cultural and religious practices unique to Judaism, you could not be a follower of Jesus.
Paul saw this and was horrified; you get a real sense of this anger that he felt in the letter to the Galatians. Romans was written later, and was far less harsh and more well reasoned. Paul saw the division though, and he felt that the vision of Christ was far too important for there to be division like this among his followers, because this division was a result of the very thing that Jesus died to save us from: sin.
The letter begins with a magnificent screed against the Gentiles, a speech that makes me cringe every time I hear it because it is so convicting, so accusatory, and as always, right. I mean, you can’t deny that people aren’t doing these things. Heck, you can’t deny that people are doing it today! And it’s written in this way to get the blood boiling of the Jewish people in the congregation. I mean, just listen to it! This is Romans 1:
“Since they didn’t think it was worthwhile to acknowledge God, God abandoned them to a defective mind to do inappropriate things. So they were filled with all injustice, wicked behavior, greed, and evil behavior. They are full of jealousy, murder, fighting, deception, and malice. They are gossips, they slander people, and they hate God. They are rude and proud, and they brag. They invent ways to be evil, and they are disobedient to their parents. They are without understanding, disloyal, without affection, and without mercy. Though they know God’s decision that those who persist in such practices deserve death, they not only keep doing these things but also approve of others who practice them.”
I mean, doesn’t that just make you mad? Doesn’t that make you want to go out into the world and denounce everybody? To tell everyone out in the streets that they are wrong and we are right? They’re the ones in trouble, they are evil, let’s judge them! And then Paul does something, something that proves he is way smarter than I am. In the height of their fervor, of their anger that he manufactured, what does he say?
“So every single one of you who judge others is without any excuse. You condemn yourself when you judge another person because the one who is judging is doing the same things.”
I imagine the member of the congregation who was reading this to the rest of them probably stopped for a second, and re-read it. Paul’s letter takes a heel face turn of epic proportions. You think he’s going on this rant on how evil non-Christians are, and then BOOM! Brick wall of accountability. You are the ones doing this. You are the ones who do injustice to the love of God. You are the ones who will be judged. I chose this translation, because it’s about as blunt as it gets, especially the last line: God does not play favorites.
So if you heard this passage earlier and were shocked, Good! That’s exactly what it was supposed to do. I was too. That’s why I chose it to talk about sin. It expresses the most profound truth about sin: everyone has it. You have no excuse. And we are so good at making excuses, aren’t we?
Last week, I was in the student lounge at school, reading for a class that was in about 45 minutes. Yes, I realize I wasn’t prepared, but whatever. I got the assignment done. While I was reading it, a friend of mine (who happens to be the Teacher’s Assistant for the class I was reading for) walked in, and we started talking. He looked at what I was reading, and said to me, “Now surely you aren’t reading for our class right now, it’s about to start!” He said this oh-so sarcastically. And I think for a second, because deep down in me, there was a part of me that wanted to deny it but I stopped, and realized it was fruitless, and said “Yeah, you got me.” He said, “Yup, I knew it. I knew exactly what you were doing, because I did exactly the same thing when I was taking the course 4 years ago. But you would not believe how many people have tried to lie to me about that kind of thing!”
And that struck a chord in me. Even in Seminary, a place where people are being trained to be pastors, of which the vast majority are really good people, there is an instinct to lie when we are caught red handed. I mean, what I was doing was relatively minor, but I still felt like I was doing something wrong, and I felt the urge to deny it! Isn’t that insane? Why would I do that? Why would a whole school of supposedly righteous people feel this same instinct? Because this problem of Sin is deep inside all of us. Sin is universal.
When we think of sin, what terms do we think of it in? I would say for the majority of us, we think of sin in legal terms. Crime, punishment, judge, judgment, penalty. Am I right? We have this tendency to do this, and it’s part of a tradition of the church right? How far back do you think this idea of sin as crime goes back, or at least the emphasis on the criminal aspect of sin? Believe it or not, it’s not as old as you think. But Grant, you say, the Bible talks about it that way! Mmmm, yes and no. Yes, God is the divine Judge, this we can’t deny. The way that the word Torah, the word for the Jewish holy books, is translated traditionally is “Law.” But really the word is Teaching. The legal language didn’t really gain emphasis until it was translated into Greek. There’s even a problem with the way we frame Sin as a crime, isn’t there? Because if it’s a crime, that’s assuming that we have control over it, doesn’t it? I don’t like to lie, but I still felt the urge to do it, didn’t I? We don’t like to hate, but at some base level, we’ve all felt the urge to knock someone’s block off, haven’t we? Something deep inside of us must be causing us to Sin, right? So the idea that Sin is Crime doesn’t quite cover all the bases.
So I’m proposing a different way of looking at sin, a really old way of talking about sin, one that acknowledges the destructive nature of sin, but talks about it as it really is. What if sin was a disease? Wouldn’t that make more sense? I think so. Not only that, that’s how a great many of the Orthodox thinkers of early Christianity thought about it too like Gregory of Nyssa. The Methodist church has a lot to owe to the Orthodox thinkers; John Wesley took a great many of his ideas from that tradition. Sin is a disease, something that we are born with. Not only is sin something that we do, but it’s something us that causes us to sin. Sin causes sin. It’s like a wound that drives us crazy and makes us hurt ourselves even more. Not only that, it’s something that we all have, it’s something passed down from generation to generation; while your parents may have raised you without sinning, that doesn’t stop the rest of the world from sinning, and therefore causing you to sin. The it’s a self-repeating cycle, and it goes on and on.
But this is where Jesus comes in. Yeah, you were probably wondering when I was going to bring him back up. This vision of Sin is all over Jesus ministry, isn’t it? I mean, you don’t hear about Jesus walking all over the place, judging people and only hanging out with the people who follow the rules and stuff, right? NO! What did Jesus do? He healed people! He not only healed their diseases, he healed their souls. He healed people of their demons. He offered a vision of healed world, where all are equal, all are free, and all are children of God. In essence, if sin is the disease, Jesus is the cure. However, because the disease had progressed so far, Jesus knew that in the end there could only be one answer. Think of it as a blood transfusion, one that we celebrate every time we take communion.
So Jesus died to sin so that we could be saved. That was only half of the procedure though; what’s more remarkable was the resurrection. Jesus pioneered the cure for us. Our cure is not just death, not punishment or judgment, but resurrection! Rebirth! And don’t you know it, Jesus even gave us a way to be brought into rebirth: Baptism.
Baptism is the way we participate in rebirth; We go down into the water as Jesus went into death, and we rise again out of the water as Jesus rose out of the Grave. As Christians, we have shared in the resurrection; we are born again. Jesus has healed us of our sins, and is healing us as we speak. The treatment for sin last’s a lifetime, but that’s what spiritual growth is for; that is what sanctification is for.
That is all the more reason to take Paul’s message for us seriously. We need to recognize our sin, our brokenness, our own pride which is at the root of every sin, and when Christ calls us to repent, to turn around and be healed, we need to take that call seriously. When we are called to spread the good news, we are called to it because we are in constant need to be reminded of our own sins, so that when we do missions, when we talk to people about being a Christian, we do so with the understanding that we are not perfect, and it is not up to us to judge. That’s up to God, and God does not play favorites.
It all comes back to Christ’s message; it’s not about division, but it is about HIS vision. It’s about a world transformed by resurrection. It’s about the cure from sin. It’s about new life, about rebirth, about changing us from the very root of who we are. As such, because we’ve been changed, it’s up to us to change the world. It’s up to us poor sinners, God help us, to spread the good news. Amen.