Preached at Walnut Ridge Friends Meeting:
I don’t know how many of you know about the religious views of Thomas Jefferson, but you should know that he considered himself a true follower of Jesus, but he had serious doubts on the Church’s understanding of Jesus. He created a rather remarkable document called the Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, better known as the Jefferson Bible, in which he separated what he considered to be the real “Jesus” from the Jesus of the church. He created this document by reading with scissors in hand. He went through the four gospels, cutting away what he did not like, and re-assembling what was left into a coherent story. With scissors, Jefferson created a story of Jesus which had no virgin birth, no miracles, no Divinity, and no resurrection. For Jefferson, Jesus was a moral teacher, not unlike Plato.
When I first read Jefferson’s Bible, I disliked it. I am a person of faith — and there is nothing more important to me than the idea that God came to us as a human. The story of Jesus is the story of a compassionate God that lives and suffers with us. It is also the story of the conquering of death. The gospel is not only that Christ is risen, but that we are invited into the community of the resurrection. We are invited to be raised with Christ. For me, Jefferson cut out the very reason the gospels were written.
It is very easy for me to look at Jefferson, and yell at him for the parts of the Bible he cuts out, and I do — because what he cut out affirms my faith, but I will say one thing about this process — almost everybody does it. Jefferson is different from everybody else in that he was honest about it. There are passages that just make us uncomfortable, and it is very natural to ignore those parts, and focus on other parts that we like better. The problem with this natural behavior is that we are supposed to wrestle with scriptures. Sometimes those things that make us uncomfortable are the exact things that we need.
Recently, many people have been struggling with how to understand certain passages. I don’t think it is necessary to get into the argument, but it is necessary to observe something about the nature of arguments, people seek an authority that shows they are right. Problem is with this approach, the only way to quote Paul in to show your own righteousness is to cut out Paul’s conclusions. People rightly identified Romans 3:23 as a central passage in Paul’s writing, Paul reminds those who feel better than others that they are sinners too. No matter what side of the argument people are on, taking sides and feeling better than the other side is reading Paul with scissors.
Another issue at hand is that we are talking about having a strong conviction of the sinfulness of our neighbors. I had a lot of people in my life who very vocal about how they were entirely sanctified. They had not had any sin in their life for years, however they were often convicted of other people’s sin. I’ve had people convicted of the sinfulness of my haircut, my clothing, my diet, my work schedule, and even my Myers Briggs personality profile.
While this clearly communicated that the person was more righteous than I — it did not communicate love and mercy. These convictions did not do me any good — God has not convicted me of any of these things. In spite of this, I did try to live out holiness . For a time, I followed the model of holiness I was provided, and I said some very unfortunate things to people. Eventually, I was convicted of my own sinfulness, I did not love as Christ taught me to love, nor was I as merciful as I hope God will be with me.
Romans was written in the mid 50’s. Caesar Nero was recently made emperor, and Claudius’s banishment of all Jews from Rome had recently been reversed. We don’t know how Rome was first evangelized, but a safe bet is that it was Jewish Christians, perhaps some who were converted on Pentecost Sunday in Acts 2. Paul was dealing with a big problem in the early church, there were two parties fighting for power — the Jewish Christians who had been there from the very start, and the growing Gentile population. A ‘us and them’ mentality started to develop. Paul was a genius, he used the very same us and them language.
Paul starts with behaviors that were common in the Gentile community, but taboo among Jews. No Jew, for example, would be an idol worshiper. This past, if a community made a case for purity could always be seen to taint the Gentile — who would have been an idol worshiper by cultural expectation. Those who called for purity the loudest left no path to purity for the gentile — they would always be second class citizens, even though they now challenged their own culture.
Then Paul shows his complete genius, he moves on to the sinfulness that you find in the church, even the leaders of the church. I think it is possible that he was listing the sins of the apostles. Paul was a murderer, James and John’s envy is why their mother asked for Christ to give them a special place in His kingdom. Peter, the liar was so untrustworthy that he denied even knowing Jesus. I do not think it is possible to find someone who always has obeyed their parents, or who loves perfectly. While Paul tells everybody how terrible “they” are, it should be getting clear to everyone that he’s talking about us. Paul is even talking about himself. All of us should be anticipating when Paul says that those who judge are no better. All of us are in need of God’s mercy.
Thing is, we don’t always get it right — I know I don’t, but I’m also in very good company. Peter was the first of the apostles called to accept Gentiles as members of the Christian community. He went and ministered in Antioch, however we learn from Paul that Peter refused to eat with the Gentiles when Jewish Christians came to visit Antioch. We learn that, Peter, even in his apostleship, was capable of hypocrisy. Paul was not merciful or gracious when he turned away his traveling companion John Mark. Paul and Barnabas split ways over this incident — and from Paul’s writing’s we can assume that Paul later realized that he erred in judgment as well as in mercy. We don’t get it right but we are in good company, the very best of Christians didn’t always get it right either.
Christ still chose to walk with us. For me it is good news that all judgment is given to Christ. Our judge is the same who forgave the Peter for denying him, building him into a cornerstone of the Church. Our Judge is the same one who met Paul on the road to Damascus and changed his heart from murderer to apostle. Our judge is the one who embraced us as sinners, and walks through the mud with us, even though we often get it wrong.