Being Judge

5Then they all went home, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.

At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

11 “No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

John 7:53-8:11 (NIV)

How easy it can be for a person to judge another person. Whether we know the individual or not really does not matter in many situations. We seem to learn this type of behavior from a very early age. One of the most judgmental and cruel locations in a child’s life is the school playground or lunch room. This behavior is acquired by watching adults in a child’s life. Judging others usually is an attempt to make ourselves feel better about our own lives, a mental game of “I may be bad in (fill in the blank) but at least I do not (fill in the blank) like that one.

Our passage for today is a controversial one. Many ancient copies of John’s Gospel do not include these verses, The debate about the authenticity of the words I will leave for a different discussion. The message is an important one for us no matter how the debate is settled.

Jesus is teaching in the temple courts when Jewish leaders bring an adulterous woman before him. They quote the law concerning adultery and the prescribed punishment of stoning to death anyone who is caught in this sin. The leaders want Jesus’s opinion on what to do with this woman accused of adultery. They are hoping to trap Jesus in his response so they can eliminate him. Jesus attempts to ignore them but since they are unrelenting, he gives them a response. He tells them that the one(s) who have not sinned should cast the first stone(s). Slowly everyone leaves with no stone being thrown. Jesus tells the woman that since no one else has condemned her, he would not condemn her. Then he dismisses her and instructs her to leave sinful behavior.

What a message regarding judgment. We stand ready to cast stones at others, maybe not in a physical sense but instead verbally or by our behaviors toward others. Often we do so without any knowledge or understanding of the individual’s life. Their ability to control whatever we are judging does not matter to us. All that we care about is our dislike or disapproval of whatever we are judging. Yet Jesus’s words echo in our ears, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” We, like the Jewish leaders, must walk away without comment or action. None of us can live up to the requirement which Jesus places before us.

The good news for every one of us is contained in the words Jesus tells the woman, “Then neither do I condemn you.” Jesus could/can fulfill the requirement he placed before the leaders and us. However, he chooses not to exercise his right. The Lord does not condemn us but offers forgiveness because of love instead. The challenge to respond to such grace is for us to leave our sinful behaviors.

Any Time

Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.

But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 (NIV)

Many of us share one frustration in common, few of us are happy when the weather forecasters get the forecast wrong. The ability to accurately predict the weather into the future is a relatively new phenomenon. Humans developed the ability to notice trends in nature as signs of general weather and season changes but the accuracy was limited. With the enlightenment which opened a deeper understanding of natural science, the accuracy began to be more consistent and the amount of time into the future for the predictions grew longer. Continued advancement of scientific knowledge and the introduction of technology improved weather forecasting to the point we now know up to seven days in advance what to expect. While the forecast has a day here or there when it is not 100% accurate, if we are honest, the predictions are more often right than wrong. Yet, we crave more accurate and precise predictions.

There is another type of prediction which all believers in Christ crave. Since the time of Jesus, people wanted to know when God will fully establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians addresses this desired prediction. He echoes the words of Jesus when he tells the people that no one knows the date or time. Paul reminds them that part of the establishment of the kingdom on earth will be the return of Jesus. He indicates that many will be caught unaware. These people will be participating in all types of activities which make them unprepared. Paul tells the believers to live in the light and be alert for Jesus’s return. He says that when Jesus comes on a cloud with power and glory, the believers should stand proud for their redemption is at hand.

Our desire to know exactly when to expect the events of the establishment of the kingdom comes from a combination of fear, control, and need for preparation. We fear that we have not been acting and behaving in ways which would please the Lord. We desire to control the events in our lives. Our wish to be prepared is because of our wish to place our best before God. However, there is nothing we can or not do which will make God love us any less. Our fear is unwarranted. Yes, in response to God’s love and grace, we should strive to be our best in following Jesus’s teaching but this will not include or exclude us from the kingdom. We anticipate the kingdom fully on earth but the exact day and time is irrelevant because we are the redeemed children of God already.

Making Mistakes

There is not a person alive who has not made at least one mistake over the course of their life. Mistakes are a part of the human experience. How we react when we make a mistake is the most telling part of who we are as a person. The human instinct when a mistake has occurred is to attempt to cover up the mistake. We want an endless supply of white-out. Okay, I realize that many young people have no idea what that product even is anymore. Maybe a better illustration would be our desire to have a backspace key on the ready at all times. The point is that we hope that no one else notices the mistake, and we can eliminate the evidence as soon as possible.

Times occur when we cannot eliminate the evidence of our mistake. So we may attempt to justify the mistake or blame someone else for it happening. We want to reduce our responsibility for the mistake as much as we possibly can. The mistake does not go away, but we feel better about ourselves if we can become a much smaller player in whatever has led to the mistake in the first place.

We deal with some mistakes by trying to repress it. Our efforts are directed toward hiding the mistake. We may choose to not talk about it with anyone and if they bring up the mistake in conversation, we change the subject as quickly as possible. Putting the mistake out of our thoughts becomes the goal. Max Lucado once described this approach in this way, “That’s like walking around with a pebble in our shoe—it causes us so much frustration that our whole body compensates for its presence, when all we have to do is take it out and toss it away.”

Some mistakes in life are minor and have little impact on others or life in general. Other mistakes have a significant impact. The key is stepping up and being honest about mistakes which we make. We have to take ownership of the mistake and where necessary apologize and seek forgiveness. This approach does not cover up the mistake but it can be a tremendous step in correcting the mistake. Healing can take place once the mistake is out in the open. We are able to move forward without having to hold on to the mistake.

God is aware of the mistakes we make whether we are willing to own them or not. God does not need us to admit our mistakes. Yet, God knows that if we are to heal after making a mistake, we need to admit it. The Church has come to term this as confession. The terminology we use is not important but the act is very important. If we do not admit our mistake, then it is just as Lucado states, it is like a pebble in our shoe which brings us discomfort, pain, and endless frustration. The promise which God gives to us is that our mistakes are forgiven and forgotten. They are tossed away as Lucado suggests.

Making a mistake is human, admitting it and then letting it be thrown away is the correct response.

No Separation

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39, NIV)

It was many years ago when I was introduced to this passage from the Bible. I was asked by a very close friend to become involved in a week-long camp for youth interested in music, arts and drama. I was recruited to lead the drama portion at the Presbyterian camp near where I grew up. The youth came to camp on Sunday and were given the script to a musical which was chosen in advance. We spent the week auditioning, rehearsing, building sets, worshiping, studying the Bible, and enjoying the lake. The camp culminated in a performance of the musical on Friday night. A few years later, we began to also tour with the musical around the area for three additional performances. One of the musicals which we chose to perform was entitled, Big Picture. Toward the climax of the plot, a grieving parent sits on his son’s bed and reads from his son’s open Bible. This is the passage which he reads and his perspective on life and God is forever changed. (You can send me a message if you want to know more about the plot.)

Since assisting with this musical, this passage has become the most important Bible passage to me. I have often turned to these words when dealing with challenges in my life. This passage has spoken to me when I feel unloved or unworthy of being loved. When doubts about my faith have arisen, this passage echoes in my mind. Asked what is the most important thing to know about God and I will answer by quoting these words attributed to the writer of the letter to the Romans.

From my perspective, these are the only words a person truly needs to know when thinking about their relationship with God. My reasoning is that if there is NOTHING which can separate us from the love of God, why worry.

Our world tries to convince us that we can never measure up to what God wants. Churches have even made the mistake of saying that the only way to be in relationship with God is by following a list of rules. People have told others that their actions, words, thoughts, lives are unfit for the love of God. Criteria has been established in some faith communities to determine who qualifies to be a member based on the color of their skin, their financial status, their sexuality, their type of work, their background. To all of those with this approach to Christianity, I say it is time to read your Bible again and specifically this passage.

The writer makes it very clear here that no power upon the earth, no spiritual being, no aspects of our lives are capable of removing us from the love of God. We are not even capable of doing this for ourselves. God loves us completely as demonstrated through the life of Jesus the Christ.

Believe this good news and live accordingly!

Is It In There

One of the areas of confusion among people which I encounter frequently is the number of items individuals accredit to the Bible but are not actually written in Scripture. An example is, “God helps those who help themselves.” This phrase is recorded nowhere in Scripture but instead is a popular statement based on the interpretation of various passages. Some Christians argue that it even stands against the concept of grace which is prominent in our understanding of God. As a line from Kermit the Frog’s song, Rainbow Connection, reminds us, “Somebody thought of it, and somebody believed it, and look what it has done so far.” Unfortunately, because this type of confusion prevails, too often people get a very inaccurate perception of God and God’s expectations.

The Church has unwittingly, or at least I hope it has been unwittingly, propagated this confusion. What I mean is that the Church has established rules which the leadership has determined are beneficial for the well-being of humanity. These rules are based upon the Church’s interpretation of Scripture at a specific time and place within its history. Some of these rules truly are beneficial and should be followed to the best of one’s ability. However, some rules over time have changed as the Church reexamines Scripture and determines a change in interpretation is in order. Since we understand that the Bible is the Living Word, and we know that the Spirit continues to reveal God’s truth in the world, this change of interpretation is in order. Just as science continues to discover new understandings of creation, the Church discovers new understandings of what God’s message was and is now.

The key here is that people take the time and make the effort to differentiate between what is in the Bible and what is a rule that the Church has established because of an interpretation of the Bible. It is also very important to understand the context in which the rule is adopted. The reason that all this is important is because we know that our interpretations of Scripture are not absolute. They are the best understanding of God’s humanly recorded interaction with humanity at a certain time and place. These interpretations give us some insight into the nature of God and how we are to respond to God. Yet as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and other great reformers of the Church have shown us, these interpretations need to be reviewed, revisited, and reformed.

Next time someone tells you that you should or should not do something because this is what God wants, make sure that you clarify whether it is truly in the Bible or if it is someone’s interpretation of the Bible. The Spirit will guide you in your interpretation at that given moment and your response to God.

The Chains

One of my favorite Christmas movies is A Christmas Carol. I prefer the version with George C Scott playing Scrooge. For me to feel like it is Christmas time, I have to watch this movie. I think the reason is this adaptation of Charles Dickens story speaks to the heart of Christmas, the attitude of giving and being set free from those chains which bind us from appreciating life.

As a Christian, this movie also reminds me of the breaking of chains which accompanied the work of the Lord. Jesus shared the love which God has for every person and gave us the opportunity to be free from the chains which prevents us from appreciating life. In his teachings and actions during his ministry, he worked at destroying the chains which society placed on people. He held leadership accountable for putting burdens of rules and expectations on the people. Jesus taught that love, not oppression, was the intention of God. He redefined social norms. He confronted boundaries established by the world. Jesus taught and demonstrated that God’s love provides freedom.

Every year when I see Marley come to warn Ebeneezer about the chains which he is forging in his life, I wonder about my chains. What is it that is forging the chain which I wear? How am I contributing to the forging of someone else’s chain? This can be a very humbling self-reflection. I always think of the lessons Scrooge learned from the three visitors as I am reflecting on how I live my life and the comparisons.

Then after some self-reflection and recommitting myself to work at providing a better reflection of God’s love, then I am reminded of the promise which I have received. The Lord has promised to remove those chains which bind me. I am set free in the Lord’s love and grace. All I have to do is reach out and accept it. Then my reflection of God’s love is a response and not a requirement. In order for Scrooge to reduce his chains, he had to change his life, his view of Christmas, and the way he treated others. The Lord takes away my chains even before I change my life.

What chains are you forging in your life? Have you allowed the Lord to remove those chains or are you still clinging to them? Are you responding to what the Lord has already done for you or do you think you still have to earn the removal of your chains?

Let the Lord remove your chains forever and enjoy the happiness of life and love!

Amazing Grace

Grace is a word that is thrown around in Christian circles all the time. The explanation of this word often seems to elude individuals. Most Christians understand that this has to do with God’s gift and usually they associate it with God’s salvific act. To complicate matters, the word is used to refer to a prayer which is said at meal times. Yet this is one of the most important concepts for Christians to understand because it is the very heart of God’s relationship with humanity.

In Western Christian theology, grace has been defined, not as a created substance of any kind, but as “the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not necessarily because of anything we have done to earn it”, “Grace is favour, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.” It is understood by Christians to be a spontaneous gift from God to people “generous, free and totally unexpected and undeserved” – that takes the form of divine favor, love, clemency, and a share in the divine life of God.

Wikipedia article

Grace is the gift given to all humanity because of God’s great love for everyone. As mentioned in the above quote, grace is not earned. We are only receivers of grace. Grace is given to us by God before we are even aware of our need for grace. This is an action of God, not humanity. The reason we struggle to understand grace is the very fact that it is not an act by humans. Grace runs contrary to our human behaviors. It is unexpected because of the sense that it is so foreign to our experiences in life.

God’s creation of humans came from the very nature of God. In 1 John 4:7, the writer states at the end of the verse, “because God is love.” This statement is the ultimate definition of God (I will cover this in another post). Since God is love, we were created from and in love. This love manifests itself in a variety of ways throughout creation and the human experience. Stories found throughout the Bible give evidence to this love. Grace is a manifestation of the love of God.

Since grace is God-initiated, God-given, and God-centered, humans have no control over it. Humans have no right to state who the receivers of grace might be. We have no power to prevent it from being given. There is no controlling grace. Anyone who attempts to stand in the way of God’s grace is doomed to failure.

This is what makes grace so amazing… God gives God’s grace to EVERYONE not because of who they are or what they have done but often in spite of both those realities. Talk about leveling the playing field, God’s grace clearly makes all of us equal because all of us need it and no one owns it.