Forgiven Sinners

Despite the Reformation/Lutheran bent, I found this blog post, via my friend and high school classmate Dan Moriarity, thought-provoking and, well … provocative generally. While it caricatures the Pharisees (as “grace preaching” too often does) as the worst of the worst (so that we feel better about not being “them”?) much of it has the ring of truth. It seems to give short shrift to the simple, sobering fact that what got us in trouble in the first place, the root of our “rejecting forgiveness,” is our refusal to listen to what Jesus says and accept the “light burden and the easy yoke” while we continue to scoff at whatever of his words we don’t like and often just ignore the rest, persisting in our own self-destructive stubborn stupidity. Wherever one comes down in the great “New Perspectives on Paul” debates, and even if one reads the NT through Reformation-colored goggles, the central issue isn’t really what 2nd-Temple/1st-century Judaism generally (or sectarian Pharisaism specifically) thought about the renegade rabbi’s theology. It’s about how I/you read what the Spirit says about grace, forgiveness, God’s steadfast love, and related concepts. As this blog clearly demonstrates, mis-perceptions about such concepts are by no means limited to one particular religious communion — as some high-minded folk who don’t seem to have had much exposure to the wider religious world seem to think. A dead give-away to such thinking is often when someone begins a blog with (or includes the line) about “what I heard growing up” and then generalizes from their anecdotal experiences and memories (accurate or not) to universalized conclusions about everyone else, as if others were made in their image. One wonders if such folk begin their prayers, “Lord, I thank Thee that I am not like others, especially those Pharisees…”

For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance. (Matthew 9:13)

In the Name + of Jesus. AMEN. Matthew is thrilled, of course, but the Pharisees are horrified. Jesus calls this tax farmer to be his disciple; this crook, this mafia style enforcer for the Roman government. Then, as if that wasn’t enough to spin up the local gossip mill, other tax collectors and sinners who’ve heard the astonishing news that Matthew went and got religion – they crash the dinner party Jesus is at! … How could the religious leaders not be appalled at Jesus’ behavior?

You see, what the Pharisees are blind to is that the only way you can get yourself in permanent trouble with God is to refuse forgiveness. That’s hell. What Jesus reveals to us in the calling of Matthew is that the old baloney about heaven being for good guys and hell for bad guys is dead wrong. Heaven is populated entirely by forgiven sinners, not spiritual and moral supermen. And hell is populated entirely by forgiven sinners too. The only difference is that those in heaven accept God’s grace of forgiveness in Christ Jesus and those in hell reject it. Which is why heaven is a wedding party – the endless reception of the Lamb and his bride – and hell is nothing but the dreariest bar in town.

Jesus shows us that grace is wildly irreligious stuff, vulgar even. It’s more than enough to get God kicked out of the God union that the Pharisees have formed to keep him on his divine toes so he won’t let the riffraff off scot-free… But if all we can think of is God as the Eternal Bookkeeper, the Almighty Tax Collector in the Sky, putting down black marks against sinners, keeping exact amounts and accounts of who owes what to him – or God as the Celestial Mother-in-Law giving a crystal vase as a present and then inspecting it for chips every time she comes for a visit… well then, any serious teaching about grace is going to scare the rockers right off our little religious hobbyhorses.

Jesus did not come to teach the teachable, reform the reformable, perfect the perfectible, or improve the improvable. He came to save tax collectors and sinners. He came to save the least, the last, the little and the lost. He came to raise the dead. But it hurts our pride to admit our helplessness. It pains us to agree that our own death is the one thing needed for salvation. Surely, we think, there must be something we can do to earn God’s approval.

Even if we are not convinced that God can be conned into being favorable to us by way of our pious show of religious devotion, or chicken sacrifices, or the gritting of our moral teeth, we still have a hard time shaking the belief that stepping over sidewalk cracks, or hanging up the bath towel so the label won’t show, will somehow render the Almighty Maker of heaven and earth kindhearted, softheaded, or both.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ, however, proclaims that the entire religion shop has been closed, boarded up, and forgotten. Christ’s Church is not in the religion business. She never has been and she never will be, in spite of all the pew-perching turkeys through two thousand years who have acted as if religious devotion was their stock in trade… Christianity is not a religion. It is the announcement of the end of all our spiritual bookkeeping.

This bothers us of course, because we are positively addicted to keeping records and remembering scores… [but] if God has announced anything in Jesus, it is that He, for one, has pensioned off the bookkeeping department permanently… as he shows us by calling Matthew away from his bookkeeping.

Jesus comes to the world’s sins with no lists to check, no tests to grade, no debts to collect, no scores to settle. He wipes away the handwriting that is against us and nails it to his cross (Colossians 2:14). He saves, not some miniscule group of good little boys and girls with religious money in their piggy banks, but all the stone-broke, deadbeat, overextended children of this world whom he sets free in the liberation of his death…

At the end of the sermon, I sometimes see smiles. I see faces light up – faces which, in spite of a lifetime’s exposure to our church’s teaching about grace, seem for the first time to dare to hope that maybe there isn’t a catch to it after all, that even out of the midst of your worst shipwrecks you are still going home free for the pure and simple reason that Jesus calls you. I see barely restrained hilarity at the sudden recognition that he really means it when he says his yoke is easy and his burden light.

But after the sermon, after the service in the time it takes some of you to get to the coffee, the smiles have been replaced by frowns, mumbles, and gossip. Your fear that there must be some kind of catch has caught up with you again, and you surround the messenger of hope and accuse me of making the world unsafe for your religious devotions and morality… “Be careful how you preach grace,” you complain, “some people might think you’re saying that the more we sin the more God loves us.”

Martin Luther once said a preacher is not truly proclaiming grace until he is suspected of promoting sin. A preacher of Christ crucified FOR YOU relishes this risk for the opportunity to shake you out of self-justifying scorekeeping. To show you that no matter how well you think you’re doing as a Christian, you resent salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

Take for example, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The tax collector returns to the temple the next week. Don’t we all expect a little reform to show he’d deserved God’s mercy last week. No whoring this week maybe, or drinking cheaper whiskey and giving the difference to the American Cancer Society? We are hellbent on destroying Jesus’ parable by sending the tax collector back for his second visit to the temple with the Pharisee’s speech in his pocket.

This is why you listen politely to the pastor go on about grace in his sermon then pray on your way out of the service, or in your car during the drive home, “Lord, please restore to me the comfort of merit and demerit. Show me that there is at least something I can do. Tell me that at the end of the day there will at least be one redeeming card of my very own. Lord, if it is not too much to ask, send me to bed with a few shreds of self-respect upon which I can congratulate myself. But whatever you do, do not preach grace. Give me something to do, anything; but spare me the indignity of this indiscriminate grace and acceptance.”

But, Jesus’ life and death and resurrection is a witness to God’s wildly irreligious, vulgar grace. A grace that amazes us even as it offends us. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wages as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten till eleven on Sunday morning. A grace that hikes up his robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal son who reeks of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party… no ifs, ands, or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request –”Please, remember me”– and promises him, “You bet I will!” A grace that is the pleasure of the Father, fleshed out in the Carpenter-Messiah, Jesus the Christ, who left His Father’s side not for heaven’s sake but FOR YOUR SAKE.

God’s wildly irreligious, vulgar grace is indiscriminate kindness. It works without asking anything of you. This grace is not cheap though. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the Pharisaical foot and a fairy tale for our grown-up sensibility that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The grace of Jesus Christ is enough even though we huff and puff with all our strength to try to find something or someone grace cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough. AMEN.


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