Judgment

Thinking About ‘A Christian Nation’

I want to try something a little different in my blog this week.

The last two weeks, I’ve preached texts containing a concept I was barely able to consider on Sunday morning. With the help of anyone reading this blog and willing to write in, I’m hoping we can delve into the idea in at least some depth here.

The first text was Matthew 25:31-46, where we see an image of the judgment. The criteria for being a “sheep” (with Christ) or a “goat” (against Christ) puzzle some readers. The criteria are very action oriented: Did you or did you not give food and water to the hungry and thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned? On the surface, Christ’s basis for judgment seems to conflict with the notion we are saved by grace alone.

There was a basic conclusion to this sermon. Real faith results in discernible compassion for others. We imitate the compassion Jesus Christ showed us on the cross.

The second text was from Mark 13. Jesus is quite apocalyptic here, predicting the destruction of the temple that would come four decades later, and talking more broadly about the end of time as we know it. He also talks about signs of the time to come, but warns us there is no way we can know for sure when this will be.

Again, there was a conclusion, the same one Jesus offers: Keep awake! We also could say, “Keep busy,” deliberately working in the highways and hedges to grow the kingdom.

Now, here’s the part I want to explore. In both texts, there is the concept of “nation.” Individuals are judged, but nations—our governments, our politics, our systems for functioning as a group—are judged, too.

In the United States, the claim we are a “Christian nation” gets thrown around a lot in politics. If you pay close attention to those using the phrase, you’ll find each leader or potential leader can mean very different things. In some cases, it is simply a trigger phrase designed to appeal to a particular part of the electorate.

Here’s my question: Looking at Christ’s teachings, what would a Christian nation look like? What kind of policies would it have? What actions would put it with the sheep, opposite the goats?

Consider some of the big issues that are current. How would a Christian nation approach war? Immigration? Poverty? I have just one rule here. Be biblical! There are already enough people using the phrase “Christian nation” without letting the Bible be their guide.

While links to this blog appear on Facebook, LinkedIn, and some other venues, I would appreciate it if you would post any thoughts you might have through the blog site itself. Just type your thoughts into the “Leave a Reply” box at the bottom of the page.

 

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Sinners, Part Two

Romans 2:1-16 (NLT)

You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things. And we know that God, in his justice, will punish anyone who does such things. Since you judge others for doing these things, why do you think you can avoid God’s judgment when you do the same things? Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?

But because you are stubborn and refuse to turn from your sin, you are storing up terrible punishment for yourself. For a day of anger is coming, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. He will judge everyone according to what they have done. He will give eternal life to those who keep on doing good, seeking after the glory and honor and immortality that God offers. But he will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and instead live lives of wickedness. There will be trouble and calamity for everyone who keeps on doing what is evil—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. But there will be glory and honor and peace from God for all who do good—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.

When the Gentiles sin, they will be destroyed, even though they never had God’s written law. And the Jews, who do have God’s law, will be judged by that law when they fail to obey it. For merely listening to the law doesn’t make us right with God. It is obeying the law that makes us right in his sight. Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right. And this is the message I proclaim—that the day is coming when God, through Christ Jesus, will judge everyone’s secret life.


Well, I warned you last week that Paul’s discussion of sinners, including some very specific descriptions of particular sins, was a set-up. It’s easy to think of sinners as “them,” as in “those sinners,” those people we like to pretend are somehow worse.

We should never get too big for our britches, though, no matter how good we may think we are. We are the sinners. And sinners shouldn’t be in the business of judging other sinners.

When we judge, we are doing something even angels fear to do. If you don’t believe me, look at Jude 1:9. It references a story we find nowhere else in established Scripture, a story about the archangel Michael contending with Satan for Moses’ body. Why Satan wanted Moses’ body, we don’t know—Jude likely is quoting from a story in Jewish tradition. But for whatever reason, Satan was after the body, and Michael was sent to claim it for God.

Jude says, however, that “even Michael, one of the mightiest angels, did not dare accuse the devil of blasphemy, but simply said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’”

Only the perfect Creator, the being who makes the rules, is qualified to judge. Others who attempt to say certain people are unworthy of God have crossed a dangerous line, assuming we believe God’s loyal angels are generally wise, prudent beings.

Clean up your own house, Paul is saying. Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

I will long remember the man and woman in a Sunday school class several years ago who asked me what could be done about homosexuality and its effect on the larger church. She was a young single woman; he was an older married man. They were quite worked up about the issue.

I did not find out until more than a year later that they were having an extramarital affair at the time they asked me the question. I walked around for a couple of days thinking, “Really? In their minds, the homosexuals were the problem? Really?”

Again, clean up your own house.

I also once witnessed the terrible effect large-scale judgment can have on a church. A church about the size of Luminary had two women visitors who began to attend regularly. Word quickly spread the women were known to be lesbians.

The pastor told me how matters developed from there. He said the women simply sat in church, never showing any displays of affection for each other. They just wanted to worship, to pray, to hear from God. But because of the allegations about their sexuality, people became more and more incensed at their presence.

The pastor, I think, did everything right. He stuck to the current, doctrinally sound Methodist line: Everyone is welcome in worship. Everyone. It doesn’t matter what your sins are, you are welcome.

And certainly, he did not ask the women to leave. After all, if we start throwing out everyone suspected of sin, churches will be empty pretty fast.

His gracious manner didn’t help, though. People were too worked up, too—judgmental. A significant number of members upped and left, saying they wouldn’t be in the same room with those sinners. The angry exodus of people and money soon prevented the church from being able to employ a full-time ordained elder as pastor.

As I am prone to say when dealing with touchy subjects, I do have to be careful here. As Paul makes clear in last week’s text, there are specific sins listed in the Bible. Homosexuality is one of them, although it is hardly the only one listed. We are called to faithfully teach and preach what Scripture reveals.

Sometimes, when we teach and preach regarding what the Bible calls sin, we are accused of being judgmental. That label is terribly unfair to people who simply are using Scripture as the basis for understanding God’s will, continuing the work the church has done for almost 1,984 years.

Our need to preach and teach truth as revealed in the Holy Bible and our simultaneous biblically based need to avoid being judgmental place preachers and teachers in a difficult position. We must constantly balance the two requirements.

I think the United Methodist Church is a special place right now in the kingdom of God. In our Book of Discipline, the place where we state our doctrine and practices, how we achieve that balance is clearly defined.

The Discipline prohibits clergy from officiating homosexual marriages, and it prohibits the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.” These prohibitions exist for a simple reason: The church cannot affirm ongoing, unrepentant sin.

These prohibitions are balanced with a large measure of grace, however. Here is a portion of what the Discipline says about sexuality in the section on Social Principles:

We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.

I like these words. In them, we have already achieved a middle ground so desperately needed in other parts of the global church. In this statement, we see a rejection of sin combined with a clear declaration of the power of grace.

Unfortunately, like people in so many other places in our world, we in church are increasingly polarized.

At one extreme, some people want church without Scripture, or without the more difficult portions of the Bible, anyway. They find God’s call to holiness too demanding. Let me ask you this: If we don’t have the Bible, or if we chip away at the parts we don’t like, what is the basis for our beliefs? In time, church would become little more than a civic club with a nice steeple.

At the other extreme, some are quick to condemn those they see as lesser followers of God. In their hands church becomes an unpleasant, mean place, a poor location for experiencing God’s grace.

Neither kind of church is fully God’s church. We can do better. In fact, I would argue we have already done better. We as United Methodists simply need to learn to live out what is already written in the Bible and reflected in our Discipline.

Perhaps when the real judgment comes—the judgment meted out by God—our ability to pursue holiness while offering grace will help identify us as followers of the risen Christ.

Out of the Fire

2 Peter 3:8-15a (NRSV)

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.


The Apostle Peter, the head of the church after the resurrected Jesus’ ascension, paints a cataclysmic picture of Christ’s return. It is an image of the universe melting away in an unimaginable heat.

The stars and the planets spun out of them “pass away with a loud noise,” a kind of theological Big Bang announcing the end of creation rather than the beginning. Not all is destroyed, however. The earth remains, stripped bare, with it and all its people exposed before God, their inner holiness and evil undeniably on display.

Peter gives us perhaps the starkest scene of judgment in the Bible, one that grows in audacity as our scientific understanding of the size and design of the universe expands. When I read his words, I see an ash-covered earth hanging in the darkness, with all the people who have ever lived on it looking up, put in a position where we recognize our complete dependence on our creator. We see only with whatever light God chooses to provide from his throne. We become actors on a barren stage, no costumes, no props. At this point, nothing matters but our relationship with God.

Peter’s words could be just fantastic symbolism, of course. But as I’ve pointed out in the past, symbols are a simple way of understanding a more complex reality. If we believe the Bible is communicating God’s truth, then we have to acknowledge the experience of judgment will be at least as overwhelming as what we see here, and likely more so. We will come face-to-face with our holy maker, stripped bare of our pretenses and self-delusions.

Peter’s letter is a call to ready ourselves, to undergo our own personal purifying fire now. It should help us to know this: What comes out of the fire is far greater than what went into the fire.

Peter would have been familiar with Malachi’s Old Testament prophecies of a day when one would come to act as a “refining fire” and “fuller’s soap,” purifying what has been tainted by sin. The prophecy is not so much about the refining process as it is about what comes out, gold and silver in their purest forms.

After his images of fiery destruction, Peter also alludes to the “new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” We submit ourselves to purification by God’s Holy Spirit not out of fear, but in joy, knowing God’s purifying work on the universe through Christ will establish a greater way of living. We ready ourselves for a place in the new creation.

So,how do we submit?

Many of you have made that first step, accepting Jesus Christ as Lord. Those of you who have not—well, Peter makes clear God is patient. He has provided a path to holiness through belief in Jesus Christ, and has stayed the end for nearly 2,000 years, “not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” When the time of patience ends, however, it will end quickly, either in Christ’s return or your departure from this life.

Acceptance of Christ as Savior certainly is enough to save us. Even a sincere deathbed confession that “Jesus Christ is Lord” is enough. Those of us blessed to come to Christ earlier in our lives are called to something more, though. We’re given a chance to undergo the refining fire in this life, anticipating the life to come.

The early Methodists had a simple set of rules to live by as they pursued holiness. They are just as instructive for us today.

First, do no harm. What are we doing that damages others? How do we stop doing those things? These usually are actions large and small that are easy to identify, although often hard to stop. Ask any recovering addict.

Second, do good. Again, the principle is very simple. Do we do good in every way we can, whenever we have the opportunity? There’s a lot of evil in the world, and it takes a lot of goodness to push back against it. We cannot earn our salvation, but once we find ourselves part of Christ’s contingent, it’s nice to help the kingdom grow. In fact, that’s a good way to measure if an act is good—is it a victory for God’s kingdom over the ruler of this world, Satan?

Third, stay in love with God. I’m borrowing Rueben Job’s paraphrase of John Wesley’s more elaborate statement, “By attending upon all the ordinances of God.” By this, Wesley meant taking those actions we know will keep us in a relationship with God: public worship, study of God’s word, receiving communion, prayer, and abstaining from activities that can be a distraction from God.

When we follow these rules, we open ourselves to the refining work of the Holy Spirit. And we do not miss the dross that is burned away.

 

 

The Upside-Down World

Matthew 18:21-35

Last week, I talked about the importance of communication, describing a model Jesus gave us to seek peace in times of discord. A few of my congregants told me afterward they found the sermon to be a bit of a toe-stomper—all of us, myself included, were thinking of moments where we had let our tongues get ahead of our relationships.

At least there is lots of forgiveness to go around. Jesus’ teaching on communication and unity is followed immediately in Matthew by a question from the disciple Peter: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

Peter’s question implies there are limits to forgiveness, even within the community of Jesus’ followers. Jesus’ answer, however, shows there should be no limits. Yes, Jesus provides a specific number, but biblically, sevens upon sevens point us toward a lifelong behavior rooted in an eternal truth.

Of all the marks of a dedicated Christian, a willingness to offer forgiveness may be the most important one. Jesus follows his answer with a parable, telling the story of a slave whose master forgives a ridiculously large debt. The slave, however, later refuses to forgive one of his debtors, a fellow slave who owes him a relative pittance. When the master finds out, he rescinds his forgiveness of the large debt and punishes the slave terribly.

“So my heavenly father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart,” Jesus says in concluding the parable.

The demand on Christians to offer forgiveness within the community is indisputable, it would seem. And yet, I often see people struggling with the concept after disputes within their churches. I even have heard Christians use the phrase “I’ll never forgive you” or “I could never forgive that,” which, in the context of the parable mentioned above, causes me grave concern.

Forgiveness is a difficult concept because it seems to conflict with our desire for justice, particularly when we consider ourselves victims. There’s no doubt the two are somewhat related—some people certainly find it easier to forgive after justice has been achieved—but we have to remember the two concepts are not mutually dependent. And forgiveness is hardly the weak theological sister to justice. We are all told to forgive; we have no guarantees of justice as long as the world remains broken, just a promise God will set all things right in the end.

To borrow from Acts 17:6, we are called to turn the common notions of the world upside-down, just as the early Christians were accurately accused of doing. Forgiveness does this more than any other Christian concept, I think. Its most powerful effect is when it ends the cycle of punch and counter-punch, the model the world has long upheld as the norm, the way of thinking still driving much of the decision-making in the world today. Forgiveness likely prevented mass slaughter in South Africa after apartheid came to an end. Properly understood by the right people, forgiveness could end the problems of the Middle East.

Forgiveness also has the possibility to create some very awkward situations on Judgment Day. Imagine this scenario: A man full of anger and evil murders another man, and goes to prison for life. (Justice in this life actually prevails.) As years pass, the murderer learns that even his sins are covered by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, and he accepts Christ as his savior.

During the same time, the brother of the murdered man, a leader in his church, grows angrier and angrier about the crime, despite the killer’s conviction. The brother wants a more painful punishment for the killer, every day imagining the worst kinds of prison deaths. He never lets go of his anger, his hatred, leading a bitter life to the end.

At the judgment, who, according to our text today, is better off? With forgiveness as an important standard, Judgment Day is liable to be a strange scene. As hearts are measured for forgiveness, we may be surprised at who stands as righteous with God, and who does not.