In his book, If the Church Were Christian, Philip Gulley tells about an interesting conversation he had in a local restaurant. Gulley had entered at noon, could see that the restaurant was full and turned to leave. But as he did, an older gentleman who was seated by himself invited Gulley join him. Gulley was familiar with the man only by reputation and knew him to be intelligent, somewhat outspoken, but also capable of great kindness. Gulley also knew that the man self-identified as an agnostic.
Gulley initiated the conversation by asking him about the new house he had recently built outside of town in a wooded setting. “It’s just a house,” he said, swatting away the topic as one would a pesky fly. He responded, “What I want to know is why you became a pastor.”
Gulley told him that he found the study of theology interesting, that he valued the sense of community a church provided, and that he found it very meaningful to help others navigate life. The man responded rather bluntly, “I don’t believe in God.” Then he asked Gulley, “Would I be welcome in your church?” Gulley said, “Certainly.” Then Gulley’s new friend asked, “Would I eventually have to believe in God in order to stay there?”
Gulley thought for a moment and said, “If some people discovered you didn’t believe in God, they might try to convert you. If they couldn’t, they might grow upset with you. But as a pastor, I don’t think belief can be compelled. I only care about your beliefs insofar as they affect your behavior. Given that, I would prefer a congregation of kind atheists over a congregation of hateful Christians. But,” Gulley added with a smile, “if you became a kind Christian, I would not be disappointed.”
An engaging conversation followed. As the waitress cleared their dishes, Gulley thanked his new friend for inviting him to his table. After they paid their bills and walked out of the restaurant, the man paused to say good-bye. He said, “You know. I love the theory of the church. It’s the practice of it that leaves me cold.”
Gulley then asked him to be more specific. He said, “I can’t take the hypocrisy.” Gulley acknowledged that hypocrisy bothered him too and was quick to admit that his own conduct was often inconsistent with his professed beliefs, but that he hoped that by being in a Christian community he might become a more integrated person. His friend ended the conversation with, “Well, good luck with that. But I think I’ll just stay a humanist.”
Think about the man’s statement for a minute: “I love the theory of the church. It’s the practice of it that leaves me cold.” I have to admit, I have had church experiences that have left me cold and wanting to walk away from the whole thing, and almost did at one place in my faith journey. It was probably I good thing I wasn’t really qualified to do anything else. You have heard of “fake it till you make it.” Well, that’s what I did until I found my faith again. But what I found was so much deeper and richer. It was a faith that could handle the questions and doubts without becoming cynical. I had to deconstruct my faith before it could be reconstructed.
In Paul’s final words to the churches of Galatia he reminds them of their responsibility to bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. The law of Christ, of course, is the law of love, the supreme law, the law that supersedes all other laws. And all other laws that are any good at all will lead us to fulfill this ultimate law, the law of love.
Now, who knows what Paul has in mind when he says, “if anyone is detected in a transgression.” And since his argument has been that we are not under law, it’s probably not very helpful here that he resorts back to using legal language. “Transgression” is a legal term. Old habits are hard to break.
Richard Rohr, in his book, Breathing Under Water, applies the Twelve Steps of AA to the spiritual life. Rohr sees the term “addiction” as a helpful metaphor for what in the biblical tradition is called “sin.” He writes, “How helpful it is to see sin, like addiction, as a disease, a very destructive disease, instead of merely something that was culpable, punishable, or ‘made God unhappy.’ If sin indeed made God unhappy, it was because God desires nothing more than our happiness, and wills the healing of our disease.”
Doesn’t that give us a healthier image of God than God as lawgiver and judge. As Jesus taught us, God is our Abba. God wants us to be free from our destructive addictions and negative patterns so we will be able to be better lovers, so we can be kind, considerate, authentic persons. How did we ever miss this and turn God into a stern, demanding ruler or judge who is mainly interested in our conforming to a standard of holiness. Jesus embodied a holiness of compassion and grace. God is like a loving parent who wants the best for us. In the Gospels the word for “being saved” means to “to be healed, to be made whole, to be made well.” How did we ever get so far off track?
Authentic Christian community combines honesty and forgiveness in the process of healing and restoration. Real healing and liberation cannot take place unless there is honesty and forthrightness. So that means destructive patterns and habits cannot be swept under the rug. We have to confront them in our own lives and when they surface in the community. Otherwise we simply become enablers and the community descends into dysfunction and deception. Our harmful patterns have to be acknowledged. But the goal is always forgiveness and restoration.
A Raisin in the Sun is a play by Lorraine Hansberry that was turned into a movie. It is about the dreams and struggles of an African American family in the 1950’s. The son, Walter, gets cheated out of a large sum of money and accepts a buy out of their new home from a white community association that didn’t want them moving into their neighborhood. The sister, Beneatha, is beside herself. She holds her brother in contempt. She tells her mother, “He’s no brother of mine. That individual in that room from this day on is no brother of mine.”
Her mother says, “I thought I taught you to love him?” Beneatha retorts, “Love him? There’s nothing left to love.” The mother responds, “There’s always something left to love. Have you cried for that boy today? Now, I don’t mean for yourself and for the family because we lost the money. I mean for him, and what he’s gone through! God help him, what it’s done to him. Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When he’s done good and made things easy for everybody? Oh no. It’s when he’s at his lowest and he can’t believe in himself because the world done whipped him so. When you start measuring somebody, measure them right, child. You make sure you take into account the hills and valleys he’s come to, to get to wherever he is.”
I think this mother reflects how a community of grace responds to those who fail and fall. We don’t need enablers. We need folks who will be honest and shoot straight. Sometimes we need to be confronted. But we also need forgiveness and much grace.
Paul is right on when he says that when we confront sin – these patterns of destructive attitudes and behavior in our lives or in our community – we do so with both firmness and gentleness. And in doing so we acknowledge it’s all about grace. Paul says, “If those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves.” Now, it is true that we are something. We are something very special. We are the daughters and sons of God. However, we are daughters and sons of God by grace, by virtue of our humanness. We are God’s children simply because we are alive. It has nothing to do with believing or doing the right things. If we think we have something to do with it then we deceive ourselves. It’s all grace.
In the next paragraph in vv. 7-10 it would easy to misread Paul. On the surface it seems like Paul is contradicting himself, and Paul sometimes does that like we all do. He had been preaching grace and now it seems like he switches directions and resorts back to law to make his point. He declares that we reap what we sow. On the surface, that sounds like Paul is resorting back to a system of meritocracy based on rewards and punishments. But maybe not.
Paul says that if we sow to the Spirit, if we live a life of love, we will reap eternal life. Eternal life is not a reward for being faithful, it is simply life in God’s realm, and it’s now before it is later; it’s both present and future. We express, we are live out, we embody the eternal life of God whenever we act in love toward others. And what do we reap? Generally, we reap joy and peace and gratitude and fullness of life. There are exceptions of course. When we love our enemies, our enemies may not love us back, but we at least create that possibility right? On the other hand, if we sow to the flesh, if we live for the ego, if we live for our own self glory, then we reap corruption. That is, we reap alienation and hostility and estrangement. The reward or punishment is inherent in the act of loving or acting selfishly.
I love what Paul says in the last sentence of that paragraph. He says, “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, especially for those of the family of faith.” Being the church means that we are committed to the common good – it means working for the good of all. Of course, Paul does give preference to the church, which makes sense, particularly in his context. Paul and the churches he founded had no real opportunity to publicly engage and challenge the totalitarian social and political system in which they found themselves. Had they tried they would have been crushed right out of existence. But what they could do is form communities that reflected within the community the new creation of God. They may not be able to challenge the system, but they could within their community live out God’s dream and hope for the world, which would serve as a sign to the world of God’s new creation. So the church itself functioned as a prophetic voice, the church community bore witness to the love and justice of God made known in Christ through the way they treated each other in community. This is the still the purpose of the church. Our purpose is to embody and reflect the compassion and restorative justice of God in our life together as church.
However, in our culture we have the freedom and therefore the responsibility to engage our social and political system in working for the common good. There is much we can do that Paul’s churches could not, because we live in a democratic society. We can vote intelligently. We can vote all those congressman who are in the hip pocket of the NRA out of office. Of course, to vote them out of office enough people have to share our frustrations and convictions right? So what can we do? We can write articles, talk to our friends, write blogs, send in letters to the editor; we can speak out. We can protest. If we dare, and if we think the cause is worthy and just and calls for exceptional measures, we might even engage in civil disobedience. As civil rights icon John Lewis says, “Exceptional times and circumstances call for exceptional measures.” When John Lewis and his colleagues staged a sit-in in the House of Representatives they were engaging in an act of civil disobedience. The House speaker could have called the capital police to arrest them. He’s was smart not to do that, especially since John Lewis was involved and 90 percent of the American people are in favor of the legislation Lewis and his colleagues were calling for.
Paul said earlier in the letter that the only thing of ultimate importance is the kind of faith that produces love. Now he says the same thing in a different way. Paul says that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything. In other words, what is truly important is not disputes about what is holy and what is not holy. What is important is God’s new creation where love prevails, where love is the supreme law. What is really important is God’s love being expressed through relationships and life together in community. That’s the new creation. It’s a world filled and overflowing with God’s love. And that’s what matters.
I am so glad we are a church committed to that. Clearly, we have our faults but our vision statement that we agreed upon over a decade ago is simply: Experiencing and expressing God’s unconditional love. That’s what we want to do above everything else isn’t it? Let’s not grow weary. Let’s continue to be faithful. Let’s keep incarnating God’s love, because sisters and brothers, that’s what ultimately matters.
Our gracious and good God, help us to expand our capacity to love as you love, to extend to others the kind of welcome, hospitality, and grace you extend to us. But also help us to realize that with great grace comes responsibility and a mission to serve others in the spirit of Christ’s love. Help us to bear with each other in patience and forgiveness, and empower us to work for the common good. In the name of Christ I pray. Amen.