“I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification come through the Law, then Christ died for nothing.”  Galatians 2:21

To my mind, there are no texts in the New Testament that deal with the topic of grace quite as well as Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Galatians.  While Romans does an extraordinary job of exploring our need for God’s grace (a topic we addressed in our series on reconciliation), Galatians invites us to consider what grace requires from God.

urlPaul wrote Galatians to correct what he understood to be a serious error in the community’s approach to the Christian life.  When Paul established the church at Galatia, he preached a law-free gospel: non-Jewish gentiles were invited to become part of the Church without being circumcised and keeping to the Mosaic Law.  This was the central dispute among members of the early Church: should the followers of Jesus, who himself was a Jew, be required to become Jews themselves?  Paul’s contention was that by raising Jesus Christ from the dead, God had changed the game, and the gospel was to be spread to everyone regardless of their ethnic heritage or their adherence to the Law.

After he had left, Paul began to hear rumors about other people who had come to the Galatians telling them that Paul was wrong, that in order to be true followers of Christ, they needed to adhere to the Law.  The Galatians started to believe this, because on one level it makes sense.  After all, God established the Law through Moses so that human beings could make themselves righteous before God. On it’s face, it makes a lot more sense than this law-free stuff that Paul was talking about.  The Galatians might have assumed that Paul had thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

But for Paul, it is not the law that makes people righteous; it is God’s grace.  He writes (in Galatians 2:15), “We know that a person is justified (made righteous before God) not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”  This is how most versions of the Bible translate this verse.  In another correct translation of the same text, though, it’s clear that Paul was also writing about the faith OF Christ.  Paul was also saying that we are made righteous through the obedient faithfulness of Christ, that we have been justified by Christ’s willingness to be obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Christ was willing to be spat upon, willing to be flogged, and willing to be hung on a tree outside the city walls, all for frail and sinful human beings who have fallen short of God’s glory.  If there was any group that was less deserving of the favor of God, it was humanity.  Even the very commandment of God was powerless to prevent us from falling into Sin.  And yet, in God’s never-failing grace, God sent God’s only Son to die on our behalf, to conquer death by his death, and to open salvation to everyone in the world.

By returning to the Law, by returning to that which was powerless to make us righteous before God, the Galatians were saying that God’s grace was insufficient, that the faithful obedience of Jesus Christ wasn’t necessary, that Jesus Christ died for no purpose.  For Paul, Christ’s death and resurrection have changed the world; the Galatians simply didn’t understand the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice and the costliness of God’s grace.  This recalls a text by William W. How set to music by John Ireland: “It is a thing most wonderful, almost too wonderful to be; that God’s own Son should come from heaven, and die to save a child like me.”  This is what grace is.  This is why it is so hard to define, because it’s almost too wonderful, almost too incredible for us to imagine: that God should save undeserving humanity through the death of his Son.

And our only appropriate response to this costly grace is to be utterly grateful for the magnificent thing that God has done for us.  We are called to thank  God every day for the incredible opportunity to live, to be in relationship with our families, to experience the beauty of this world, and to be creative and productive in our daily activities.  We are called to thank God every day that not everything always goes our way, that we have the opportunity to be disappointed because we are alive.  And we are called to share with everyone we meet the incredible gift that we have received from God through our Lord Jesus Christ: this costly grace that has changed the world.


One of my great frustrations growing up in the Church was that I never got a satisfactory definition of grace.  Clergy and Sunday school teachers, televangelists and authors all talked about grace constantly but never defined the term.  So I was excited, almost giddy when a guest preacher began a sermon at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford by saying, “Today, I’m going to talk about grace.”  Perhaps I would finally receive that definition that I had craved for so much of my young life.  The preacher told a story:

gritsI was traveling through the American South, and one early morning I stopped at a diner for breakfast.  I ordered from the menu, but when the waitress brought my food, there was a slightly runny pile of mysterious white goo sitting next to my bacon and eggs.  I called to the waitress, and asked what the runny goo was.  And she said (and at this point, the preacher put on perhaps the worst fake Southern accent I have ever heard), “Oh those are grits!”  Perplexed, I responded “but I didn’t order that,” to which the waitress replied, “Oh you don’t order it, it just comes.”

That was it.  That was the preacher’s definition of grace.  As you can imagine, my frustration continued.  I didn’t want an analogy, I wanted a definition.  What are we talking about when we refer to the grace of God?  It seems that this should be a fairly easy question for us to answer.

My second opportunity to get a definition of grace came in confirmation class.  I was sitting in the Dean’s office with several other people studying to be confirmed or received into the Episcopal Church.  During the course of one discussion, somebody mentioned “grace.”  This was my opportunity, I thought.  I raised my hand and asked, “Could we please define grace?  I’ve been looking for a definition since I was five years old, and I’ve never been satisfied.”  The Dean, like any good Episcopal priest, passed the question to the group and said, “What do people think?  Can anyone help with a definition?”  One of the older women in the class raised her hand and said “Well, I once heard a sermon about a priest having breakfast in the South…”  My groan was audible.

It wasn’t until I was a junior in college that I finally got the definition I was looking for.  I was taking a class on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the word “grace” came up in one of the documents we were studying.  The professor turned to the seminar class and asked, “Can anybody clarify what we’re talking about here?”  I was entirely prepared to hear another story about grits, complete with a bad Southern accent, when some angel, sent by God to clarify something that had confused me for fifteen years said simply “unmerited favor.”  Grace is favor from God that we do nothing to deserve, but it is given to us anyway.  I breathed an enormous sigh of relief, confident in the notion that I finally understood the nature of grace.

Or did I?  Certainly, I now had a simple definition of grace.  But I wonder whether any of us can truly understand what it means to have the undeserved favor of God?  I wonder whether the question of grace is actually one of the more difficult questions we wrestle with as Christians.  Over the next few days, we will be exploring this challenging concept of grace.  We will consider how grace impacts our relationship with God and how it informs our relationships with other people.  I think that we will discover that grace is not at all easy to understand, that although we may have a definition of grace, we are all still striving to understand the wonderful and mysterious grace of God.


Last week, we explored the theme of reconciliation.  We remembered that Scripture assumes our sinfulness and thus our need for forgiveness from God and others.  We explored how forgiveness often requires us to forget the pain we experience when we are wronged.  We noticed how difficult it is to forgive those who are notoriously destructive of community.  And we observed that the Christian faith trusts that it is ultimately God who is reconciling us to himself and one another.  To conclude our series on reconciliation, I thought that we could examine a real-world example that illustrates many of these features of reconciliation.

One of the great injustices of the recent past was South Africa’s brutal system of racial segregation known as apartheid.  The system organized South Africa’s population into racial categories and separated the population on the basis of these labels.  Established in 1948, apartheid was designed to keep the Afrikaner-dominated National Party in power essentially by removing the majority from the political equation.  Under apartheid, the government segregated residential areas, education, medical care, and a variety of other public services, to the end that South Africa’s majority black population was relegated to second-class status.  The government’s intractable support of racial segregation led to constant internal strife, occasional violence, and outcries from the international community.  Apartheid was officially repealed in 1990, but it was not until 1994 that multi-racial elections were finally held, sweeping Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress into power.

The end of apartheid left South Africa with a challenging question: what was the new leadership supposed to do about the wound that apartheid and its supporters had inflicted on the country?  Millions of people had been treated unjustly for more than forty years; everyone agreed that something had to be done.  One option would have been to enact retribution and punish those responsible for subjugating the black majority.  This would have at least given the appearance of justice.  Instead, South Africa chose a far more difficult and a far more controversial path forward.  In 1995, the government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a body headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu designed to give those who had been victimized an opportunity to tell their stories and those had committed injustices an opportunity to confess their crimes.  The most astonishing part of the TRC is the fact that it offered amnesty to those who had participated in apartheid’s work of subjugation and injustice.  For the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the most important part of their work was to allow the truth to be told and to find a way forward for a country that had been divided for so long.  The TRC’s primary purpose, in other words, was reconciliation.

5943Some of those who criticize the Truth and Reconciliation Commission complain that people who had confessed to crimes were not punished; others worried that the “truth” was obscured by the spectacle of the Commission’s work.  While these concerns might have some legitimacy, the reality is that South Africa could have descended into racially motivated violence after the end of apartheid as those who had been oppressed sought vengeance on their oppressors.  Instead, South Africa engaged in an process of seeking reconciliation and restoration, enabling the country to move forward.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu summarized that reconciliation presents: “Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”

I can’t help but believe that part of the reason for the success of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is that its leader trusted that it was God who was reconciling people who had been estranged from each other for so long.  Archbishop Tutu trusted Jesus Christ’s mandate to forgive those who sin against us because he knew that it was the only way his country could move forward.  And ultimately, Archbishop Tutu understood that it is only by engaging in the hard work of reconciliation that we can begin to hope for transformation.


urlWhen television shows have been on for a while, the writers begin to run out of material.  After all, there are only so many times that an episode centering around the “on-again, off-again” romance of the two main characters can be compelling.  It is at this stage that the writing staff begin to rely on the celebrity cameo to keep people interested.  The plots of these episodes are predictable at best: someone’s long-lost friend from high school (who has never been mentioned before and will never be mentioned again) comes for Thanksgiving and (surprise!) the character is played by Brad Pitt.  While celebrity cameos are often contrived, they do occasionally make for interesting television.  And ideally, the inclusion of a previously unknown character will reveal something new about one of the regular characters on the show.

Today, we’re going to pause our regular scheduled program (namely, the final post on reconciliation) as Saint Matthias the Apostle makes a cameo on his transferred feast day (it’s usually on the 24th, but Sundays always take precedence).  In the first chapter of Acts, we are told that the followers of Jesus gathered together after his ascension in order to select a replacement for Judas, the one who had betrayed Jesus and subsequently committed suicide.  The disciples agreed that Judas’ replacement must be someone who had borne witness to all that Jesus did and taught, and they proposed two individuals who met that qualification: Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.  Having narrowed the field down to two, the disciples prayed: “Lord, you know everyone’s heart.  Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship.”  They cast lots to determine whom God had chosen, and the lot fell to Matthias, who became one of the twelve.

urlThis is Matthias’ first and only appearance in Scripture.  We never hear where he came from and we never hear where he ends up.  This is a frequent occurrence in the Acts of the Apostles: several apostles make cameo appearances and then disappear completely from the narrative.  While some may think that this is lazy storytelling, the author of Acts is less interested in what happens to the apostles than he is in what they reveal about God’s character.  This leads us to ask what it is that Matthias reveals about the character of God.  There are several interesting details about the selection of Matthias, but I think the most striking is the fact that he was chosen over his competition.  When we’re introduced to the two potential apostles, we don’t know anything about them apart from their names.  Like a popular kid in high school, Joseph is known by three names, which seems to indicate that he is a well-respected guy.  Matthias, on the other hand, is known only by the name his mother gave him.  If the disciples had evaluated the situation objectively, they probably would have selected Joseph, since he would have been able to use his considerable clout in leading the young Church.  Nevertheless, the apostles leave the choice up to God, who selects Matthias, a relative nobody.

This story serves to remind us that God is not interested in popularity or worldly influence; God’s call transcends our human preoccupations.  It’s easy for us to imagine that we are not qualified to serve God or proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.  The story of Matthias, however, reminds us of the old aphorism: God does not call the qualified; God qualifies the called.  As you travel through this journey of Lent, remember that God has called you to proclaim the good news by word and example in whatever way you can.  Lent helps us to remember that we have all been called to be heralds of the gospel, no matter where we have come from or who we are.


“He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory.”  Philippians 3:21

world-series-ringSeveral years ago, one of the bishops of the Episcopal Church was on an airplane preparing to fly home after a conference.  It had been a productive event; he was growing to be more and more well-respected by his colleagues and he was solidifying his reputation as one of the church’s visionary leaders.  As he reflected on the immense privilege of serving God in the Church, the person sitting next to him tapped him on the shoulder.  The bishop’s seat mate had noticed his episcopal ring, a large ring worn by a bishop that usually features the seal of his diocese.  The episcopal ring is a symbol of the bishop’s office and is meant to remind her constantly of the people she is called to serve.  The bishop turned to address his seat mate, who pointed to the ring and asked excitedly, “Is that a World Series ring?!  Were you a professional baseball player?!”  Chuckling, the bishop shook his head and said, “No, as a matter of fact, I’m a bishop in the Episcopal Church.”  Looking far less excited, the bishop’s seat mate turned away, sighed, and said dejectedly, “Oh.  I thought you were someone important.”

In today’s epistle reading, we heard Paul warn the Philippians about those who “live as enemies of the cross of Christ.”  Paul may very well be referring to those people who have rejected the gospel in favor of an easier life.  One of the challenges faced by the Philippians was the constant threat of persecution by the Roman authorities.  Paul himself had been imprisoned because of his proclamation of the gospel, and part of the reason that he writes to the Philippians is to reassure the congregation that his work had not been in vain.  Earlier in the letter, he reminds the congregation that Christ himself experienced the depths of humiliation and persecution, but was exalted by God through the resurrection.  Paul insists that we are called to be imitators of this pattern set by Jesus Christ.  For Christians, humiliation is a temporary setback, a stop along the way that Jesus himself has already walked before us.  Paul laments that members of Christian community had fallen away from the Church because they were afraid of persecution and humiliation.

While our culture often affirms the value of humility, we very rarely hear people celebrate those who have been humiliated.  Humility is a noble virtue over which we have control, while humiliation is something brought on by those more powerful than we are.  Whether in our jobs, or our schools, or among our friends, many of us constantly strive to avoid humiliation by making ourselves emotionally unavailable or pretending we don’t care.  Yet, Paul suggests that the Christian life is about allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and embracing humiliation.  We are not called to puff ourselves up with self-importance; we are called to be susceptible to humiliation by allowing others to have power over us.  Just like the bishop on the airplane, we are called to allow others to humble us, especially in those moments when we feel particularly important.  When we do this, we follow the trail that has been blazed by Jesus Christ, who did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.  Jesus Christ’s humiliation led to his exaltation and became a means of grace for us.  During the season of Lent, I invite you to examine those places where you refuse to be vulnerable, and consider how you might be transformed by the God who allowed himself to be humiliated.


During the invitation to a holy Lent on Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that Lent was historically “a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church.”  Lent was meant to be a time when those who had injured the community through their actions could be restored to the church and forgiven of their past wrongdoing.  We see this kind of community discipline described in Scripture.  In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul describes a situation in which an unrepentant sinner needs to be removed from the community for a time.  In Matthew 18, Jesus lays out a very specific formula for community discipline that could result in a person’s temporary exclusion from the church.  The important thing to realize is that in both of these examples, the sinner was not permanently excluded from the Christian community, but would eventually be reintegrated into the life of the church.  The body would eventually look beyond a person’s notorious and damaging past actions and embrace that person as he entered a new life of grace.

While there are some churches that still have such forms of community discipline in place, they are rarely used.  When these forms of discipline are used, it seems like the sinner’s exclusion from the community is not a temporary measure, but will probably last for a lifetime.  This is symptomatic of a wider trend in our culture.  Whenever politicians are caught in indiscretions or celebrities are exposed doing something wrong, they will invariably offer a public and tearful apology.  And for the most part, we refuse to recognize even the possibility that they are repentant.  We assume that their penitence is insincere and that their apology is just a media ploy.  There are certainly public figures who only apologize to placate the public, but I have a hard time believing that every apology we hear on television is completely insincere.  We are in danger of becoming so jaded about the penitence of public figures that we won’t be able to recognize apologies from those who are closest to us.

PC_Chick-Fil-A_2012-08-01As you probably remember, there was a dust-up this summer about fast food giant Chick-fil-A’s support of a variety of anti-gay causes.  There were boycotts by the gay community and its allies, while conservative groups organized to eat more of the chain’s chicken sandwiches.  A nasty, public, and frankly annoying debate raged for several weeks on message boards, talk radio, and cable news.  Behind the scenes, however, Dan Cathy, the COO of Chick-fil-A, was reaching out to the gay community.  In an article published in January, Shane Windmeyer, a gay-rights activist, told the story of how he got to know Dan Cathy.  Evidently, Cathy wanted to understand how his stance was hurtful, and if possible, he wanted to make amends.  I’ll let you read the article, but as a result of his conversations with Windmeyer, Cathy withdrew his support from the most divisive organizations.  Windmeyer makes it very clear that Cathy didn’t change his position; he changed a behavior that had been destructive of relationships and community.

The most striking part of this article to me was the comments section.  Just after Windmeyer told a story of dialogue, mutual understanding, and dare I say penitence, people responded by telling the activist that he was being played, that Dan Cathy had reached out to him for the sole purpose of improving Chick-fil-A’s image.  While I was saddened to read these jaded responses, I was hardly surprised.  We live in a culture where penitence is suspect and apologies are dubious.  As Christians, however, we are called to be countercultural.  We are called to trust in a person’s penitence.  We are called to trust that those who have recognized the destructiveness of their behavior and changed it must be welcomed back into the community, regardless of what they have done in the past.  Lent is an opportunity for us to think about those people we have not been able to forgive, to think about those people we have excluded from our lives, and to bring them back into the fold.  It isn’t easy for us to get over the mistrust that has been so deeply engrained by our culture.  But we can move forward, confident that, no matter how notorious our wrong, it is God who is reconciling us to each other.


urlIn honor of Valentine’s Day last week, my wife and I watched the classic romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally.  Directed by Rob Reiner and written by Nora Ephron, the movie explores the age-old dilemma of whether men and women can ever be friends.  Towards the end of the movie, Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) are at a New Year’s Eve Party.  At midnight, the revelers begin to sing “Auld Lang Syne,” and Harry tells his companion that he has never understood the classic song.  Is it about not forgetting our friends?  Or is it about remembering the friends that we’ve already forgotten (which, he points out, is impossible)?  Sally isn’t sure but is relatively certain that the song is about old friends.  It seems to be an appropriate song for the New Year: a promise to do our best not to forget those people and events that we have experienced throughout our lives.

Yesterday, we began to explore the topic of forgiveness.  We noticed that the word that most versions of the Bible translate as “forgive” can also mean “let go” or “abandon.”  In other words, forgiving those who sin against us is entirely our initiative; Jesus does not leave room for us to expect a penitent or even apologetic response from the person we are forgiving.  This leaves us with some challenging questions.  What are we supposed to do with the pain or the anger we feel as a result of the other person’s actions?  If the other person is not penitent and has no interest in being forgiven, how do we move forward in our relationship with that person?  And if the other person has done something to wrong us, how do we make sure that it doesn’t happen again?

When politicians and other public figures apologize for their misdeeds, we often see the people who are close to them say things like, “I’ll forgive him, but I won’t be able to forget.”  I submit, however, that forgetting is a crucially important element of forgiveness.  “Auld Lang Syne” is not a particularly appropriate song when it comes to forgiveness.  It is only by forgetting that we can truly move on from the hurt and the pain that someone has caused us.  In Isaiah 43:25, the prophet writes that God will not remember our sins.  God will let go of our sins and will not permit them to influence God’s understanding of who we are.  In the same way, we are called not to remember the wrongs that other people have done to us; we are called to do our best to forget the pain that other people have caused.  God calls us to avoid carrying grudges, because it is only by forgetting what others have done to us that we can truly move forward in a life of grace.

We are left with the niggling question of what we do about those who aren’t interested in being forgiven.  One thing we cannot do is force our forgiveness upon someone.  Just as we cannot forgive with the expectation of penitence, we cannot expect that everyone will be interested in our forgiveness.  Nevertheless, we must not allow past wrongs to poison our relationships permanently.  We can move on from pain and anger even without the other person, and we can pray that they too will arrive at a place where they can let go.

Perhaps the most challenging question of all is how we avoid being hurt in the future.  On one hand, Jesus instructs us to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves.  We know those situations where we can be hurt and we should avoid those when we can.  On the other hand, part of what the Christian life is about is vulnerability, realizing that we cannot arm ourselves against every hurt, because God himself did not forego pain and suffering.  We are challenged to live in a world where people can cause us pain, but to trust that the new life that God promises us transcends even the deepest pain we might experience.  We live in a world where we can be hurt; God challenges us to let that hurt go and to forget.


Save-Money-Shopping-for-Clothing-at-Thrift-Stores-1491One of the interesting aspects of living in a small town (or at least a city with a small town feel) is that one begins to associate people with their stuff.  I have, for instance, gotten to the point where I can determine who is at an event based on which cars are parked in the parking lot.  I can quickly evaluate who is at church based on which coats are hanging on the coat rack.  And this extends beyond possessions.  At several restaurants in town, I am known not by my name or by my role as an Episcopal priest, but rather by what I order every time I walk through the door.  In a small town, one is able to identify a person on the basis of the things that they use on a regular basis.  There is a corollary to this rule: small town living also enables one to associate people with what they give away.  When I walk around Heavenly Rest’s Thrift House, our secondhand store on the north side of Abilene, I can generally identify which member of our parish donated a particular jacket or piece of crockery, because I had associated the item with that person.  In a small town, we are known not only by what we have, but also by what we have given away, by what we have let go of, by what we have abandoned.

Yesterday, we reflected on the intensity of Jesus’ instructions about sin in the Sermon on the Mount.  We would be remiss if we did not now consider one of the most important prayers that deals with sin in the Christian tradition.  Just after Jesus gives us a new understanding of the Law, he teaches us how to pray with words that have become known as the Lord’s Prayer.  One of the clauses in this prayer petitions God for forgiveness: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”  (Though “debts” is the literal translation of what needs to be forgiven, the alternate versions [trespasses, sins] are equally appropriate, especially since Matthew uses debt as an illustration for sin a few chapters later).  Notice that asking God for forgiveness is contingent on forgiving those who have wronged us.  Just as God has forgiven us through Jesus Christ, we are called to forgive one another.

A few weeks ago, I led a discussion in confirmation class about forgiveness.  After my extensive presentation about the importance of forgiveness, someone asked, “What exactly does forgiveness mean?”  I’m a little ashamed to admit that I had trouble answering the question.  What is it that we affirm God does for us and what is it that God calls us to do for other people?  The word that most versions of the Bible translate as “forgive” can also mean “abandon,” “release,” “pardon,” “cancel,” and “let go.”  In other words, we could potentially translate the Lord’s Prayer “Let go of our debts, as we let go of those debts we hold from others.”  What strikes me about this is that the “letting go” is entirely our initiative.  There doesn’t seem to be any room for us to expect a penitent response from the person we are forgiving.  God is calling us to let go of our grudges, to let go of our anger, and sometimes, to let go of something that has caused us deep pain without expecting anyone to apologize.  As Christians, we are called to be known by what we have forgiven, by what we have let go of and abandoned.  This is enormously challenging, and leaves us with some unanswered questions.  While I will address some of those tomorrow, we must remember that God calls us to consider how we can let go of those things that have driven a wedge between us and others.  We are called to abandon those things that have separated us from God’s reconciling love.


“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”  1 John 1:8

Bloch-SermonOnTheMountJust after the Beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus makes an interesting statement: “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”  He goes on to warn his hearers that if their righteousness and their attention to the Law does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (who were very righteous indeed), they will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Though this is a surprising statement (given what people may have learned about Jesus from Paul and others) it also seems very cut and dry.  Jesus appears to be saying that the Law of Moses should govern Christian behavior and that we should abide strictly by its precepts.

In the very next portion of the Sermon on the Mount, however, Jesus indicates that the Law has a much deeper significance than we think it does.  He begins by quoting directly from Scripture: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times (in Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17), ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.'”  This would have been very familiar to his hearers.  But immediately after quoting from the Law of Moses, Jesus says, “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”  In other words, the Law is not limited to our deeds, it also encompasses our words and even our thoughts!  All of a sudden, righteousness is not only a matter of controlling what we do, it is a matter of controlling how we feel.  As Jesus expands the definition of sin in this passage, he leaves us wondering how we can abide by this seemingly impossible standard.

Many of us are uncomfortable with the conception of sin that Jesus presents in the Sermon on the Mount.  It doesn’t seem fair that we should be held accountable for our fleeting thoughts or our emotional responses to a situation.  But notice that Jesus is concerned with how our actions, words, and thoughts impact our perception of other people.  If we are angry with our brother or insult our sister, even in our minds, we fail to honor the image of God in our brother and we destroy the relationship we have with our sister.  It’s really difficult to call someone an “idiot” behind his or her back without allowing that insult to change the way we relate to that person.  Our anger feeds our prejudices and grudges and prevents us from seeing our fellow human beings as children of God.  We have all been guilty of this kind of sinfulness at one point or another.  If we don’t think we have, then we are deceiving ourselves and wandering away from the truth.  But there is no need for us to despair.  Remember that it is God who is reconciling us to God and to one another.  We are called to acknowledge that we have sinned before God in thought, word, and deed, because it is only by taking this first step that we can reach out for the reconciliation God has offered through Jesus Christ.  It is by confessing our sinfulness, by acknowledging our failure to honor the image of God in each other, that we can begin to see all of our fellow human beings as brothers and sisters, as children of God.

Passive Voice

a river runs through itWhen I was growing up, one of the favorite movies in my house was A River Runs through It.  Directed by Robert Redford, the film is the story of how the Maclean brothers grow up and grow apart in rural Montana during the 1920s.  The fabulous cast includes Tom Skerritt as their Presbyterian minister father, Craig Scheffer as the older, more reserved brother, and a young Brad Pitt as the rebellious, self destructive free spirit.  My family’s favorite scene in the movie was one in which the Reverend Maclean is teaching young Norman (played by a very young Joseph Gordon-Levitt) how to write “the American language.”  In the scene, Norman brings a manuscript that his father proceeds to systematically mark up with a red pencil.  The Reverend Maclean hands the paper back to his son, instructing him to make the essay “half as long.”  This occurs several times, until the merciless editor finally says, “Good.  Now throw it away.”  

I think this scene resonated in my household because this was my father’s approach to teaching his boys how to write.  My father would give us feedback on our writing assignments, and invariably his critique had to do with the efficiency of our language.  He would mark out extraneous words and put question marks next to sentences that repeated information.  But my father’s primary linguistic pet peeve was unquestionably our use of the passive voice, wherein the grammatical subject is the recipient (rather than the source) of the action of the verb.  When I was first learning how to write, the passive voice felt classy and sophisticated, and so I would write sentences like this: “It was hoped by the combatants that the truce would last.”  Of course, there is a far more efficient and far less clunky way to write this sentence: “The combatants hoped that the truce would last.”  And efficiency is not the only reason to use the active voice.  I was at the airport the other day, where my father would have mercilessly criticized the following public address announcement: “Any unattended bags should be reported immediately.”  Since this announcement is in the passive voice, it diffuses responsibility.  Surely, airport personnel want us to take responsibility for reporting unattended bags, but this announcement merely suggests that it is someone’s job.  The passive voice is not only inefficient, it can also lead us to pass the buck.

In Scripture, however, passive voice is used frequently.  In deference to the Jewish convention of not uttering the name of God, the New Testament writers would often refer to God in terms of God’s actions.  We saw this last week in the epistle that we read on Ash Wednesday.  In 2 Corinthians 5:20, Paul enjoins us to “be reconciled to God.”  In the New Testament, the verb for reconciliation only occurs in the passive voice.  This is not because Paul and others are trying to diffuse responsibility, it is because God is the only one who can be the subject of that verb.  It is God who reconciles us to himself and to one another.  And so when Paul tells us to “be reconciled to God,” we are responding to God’s action; we are allowing something God has already done to transform our lives and allow us to walk in newness of life.  This is important for us to remember, especially for those of us who have strained relationships and are struggling to reconcile with those who have hurt us or whom we have hurt.  If we remember that it is God who reconciles, that it is God who renews our relationships, then our responsibility is to live out that reconciliation, to embrace what God has already done in our lives and in the lives of others.  During the next week, I will exploring the subject of reconciliation, but I hope we will remember that it is ultimately God who reconciles.  Lent is an opportunity for us to use the passive voice (sparingly), embrace the reconciliation offered through Jesus Christ, and affirm what God has already done in our lives.