9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 13But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’ Luke 18:9-14
It is a deep struggle to live by grace. A deep struggle.
As I move through this Holy Week, several things are on my mind, and they have weighed heavily:
1. I received a phone call from a local nursing home. The activity director was, as kindly as she could possibly do it, ask me to give up part of my afternoon on Easter to lead a worship service for the residents. Another congregation scheduled to lead worship canceled on her. "I know it's short notice, but..."
"I will do it," I responded.
This is not the first Easter this has happened. Once before this same congregation had canceled on this same nursing home. The last time it happened, I was asked again. I remember the occasion vividly as I was lovingly and gently reminded of my calling.
You see, I was quite angry last go round. I was quite angry that the other congregation canceled. I was quite angry about giving up my time. I was quite upset that I felt obligated to go and preach. There was quite a bit of righteous indignation on my part. My heart was not exactly in the right spot because it was all about me.
And then one of my congregation members came up to me to visit. I told her about my impending afternoon. She smiled at me, and she said, "Someone needs to tell those people the good news, especially on Easter."
I was floored at that moment. I won't say that my anger completely left or that I proclaimed the Good News of Jesus' resurrection out of a joyful heart that afternoon, but I did (and do) realize the Absolute Truth of my congregation member's words. "Someone needs to tell those people the good news, especially on Easter." Especially since many cannot get to church. Especially since many have indeed spent their lives worshiping. Especially since many of their families cannot bring them to worship. They need to hear the Gospel! They need to hear that Christ is risen!
There was no hesitation this year when I was asked. "They need to hear the Good News. I will do it." I am looking forward to it, this time with joy.
But there is still a smidgen or more of anger toward that other congregation. There is still a bit of righteous indignation. Am I like that Pharisee pounding his chest and saying, "Thank God I am not like that tax collector."? Perhaps I am, and it is not good. Not good in the least. For I have no room to boast like that. I have no room to think that I am doing better or my congregation is doing better. I am not. We are not. It's hard not to get angry. It's hard not to be in contempt. It's hard not to be self-righteous. This morning on my walk, I asked God for forgiveness, for I sorely need it.
2. A friend posted a link on Facebook to a prominent blog by Mark Sandlin. Without going into all the details, I will let you know that I disagree most vehemently with Mr. Sandlin. It's not the first time.
But I was and am very curious about how well the theology Mr. Sandlin promotes is accepted in my own denomination and in my own synod. I asked for feedback on our syond's Facebook page. The commentary was intriguing as I found a great many of my colleagues wrestling with the idea of why Jesus had to die on the cross.
I am a proponent of the sacrificial atonement understanding of the crucifixion/resurrection. This understanding of the cross permeates through the New Testament writings.
It is Matthean.
It is Markan.
It is Johannine.
It is Pauline.
It is deeply ingrained in the book of Hebrews.
It is Petrine.
The idea of Jesus' atoning sacrifice on the cross seems, in a very real way, to tie all of the biblical witness together. From Genesis 1 to Revelation 21, the entirety can be understood with extreme clarity by looking through the lens of the cross: that Jesus lived the life we should have lived, that He died the death that we deserved; He placed his perfect righteousness upon us that we may stand before God as accepted failures--blameless though we have sinned. This is the reason we are justified by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. Many of us who are Protestant can recite that particular verse from memory. Yet, what follows? What did Paul add right away? These words: 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. (Romans 3:25).
As I wrestled with Sandlin's article and the responses given by my colleagues, my heart ached. For it seemed as if we lost the centrality of that which gave us our core identity as a church--the Theology of the Cross; God's great act of salvation. And once again, the wellspring of contempt and anger began to rise. The wellspring of self-righteousness that "I've got it and you don't" began rearing its ugly head.
Ah, but I have no room to boast. For I have spent the bulk of my ordained ministry failing to proclaim the Gospel. I have spent the bulk of my ordained ministry failing to point to Jesus. I have spent the bulk of my ordained ministry thinking Christianity was mainly about me and my actions and the actions of those who call themselves Christian instead of mainly about Jesus and His actions. I am one, like Paul, untimely born. I do not deserve to wear the collar or the stole. How can I be contemptuous? Because my heart isn't there yet. My heart still has the Old Adam trying to pull it away from Jesus. I asked for even more forgiveness.
For grace does not allow contempt. Grace does not allow self-righteousness. Grace shows definitively and demonstratively that all have sinned. All have no right to claim moral superiority. All have missed the mark. All have corrupted and warped hearts. No one is exempt. Even those who proclaim the Gospel and know the Gospel and have a relationship with Jesus. This is why we need a Savior.
This is why Jesus had to die. We cannot escape being in bondage to our sin. Someone has to free us. Someone has to make things right.
Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ.
In one way, it makes things so much easier. I do not have to worry about justifying myself. I do not have to worry about fulfilling the Law. But it also makes things much harder--it means I must love those who are different from me in understanding and practice. It means I must look at them as accepted failures as I am an accepted failure. It means I cannot be contemptuous or self-righteous even if I believe I am right. Indeed, it is a deep struggle.
Have mercy upon me, O Lord, a sinner!