Sunday, July 16, 2017

Throwing Stones or Casting Lifelines

During the last Victorian state election we had the leader of one of the minor parties visit our local pastor’s network to promote his political and religious agenda to the churches. He brought along with him a Christian political analyst who passionately explained to us what he considered to be the greatest threat to Christianity and the church today.  As I sat and listened to his perception of this external threat from the world around us I found myself disagreeing with him for two primary reasons (even though we did agree on some issues):

1. Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18)
2. Jesus also said, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” (Mark 3:25)

According to my understanding of Scripture, the greatest threat to Christianity and the church today is not external forces but internal division!  In other words, it is not atheism or consumerism, secularisation or Islamification, homosexuality or gender fluidity that poses the greatest threat.  It is the deep division within the church that cripples the ability of Christians to effectively and biblically engage with these challenging issues in society that is our greatest threat.

From my observation of the way Christians interact with each other on social media I see the evidence of internal divisions play out almost daily.  Out of my 1300+ friends on Facebook from extremely diverse cultural and religious backgrounds, there are those from the far left who would consider themselves as “progressive” Christians and there are those from the far right who would consider themselves as “conservative” Christians; with the left labelling the right as “fundamentalists” and the right labelling the left as “liberals” in often very unloving ways.  When you watch both sides of the Christian spectrum interact publically about a number of current issues it is not difficult to see that we are a deeply divided church hell-bent on throwing stones at each other!

I picture this much like a group of kids from a neighbourhood building forts and engaging in a street battle with two sides bunkered down and throwing stones at each other's fort to see whose is the best.  What starts out as a bit of competitive fun between friends who live in the same neighbourhood becomes a battle of egos that crosses the line when a rock penetrates one of the forts and injures someone who is supposed to be a friend.  It's not the neighbourhood bullies that are the threat in this scenario but the friendly fire that is exchanged between neighbours.  So often, the way Christians behave in the public space is not that dissimilar to way these kids play in their forts out in the street.  Despite living in the same spiritual neighbourhood we bunker down behind our forts of theology and ecclesiology, engaged in a fierce battle to protect our respective worldviews. We share the same faith and fellowship as followers of Jesus Christ until we get stuck in the forts that divide and cripple the church.

Out of all the encounters with Jesus recorded in the Gospels, I want to suggest that this story has the potential to profoundly change the way Christians interact with each other and society!

At dawn [Jesus] appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them.  The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.  In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”  They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.  But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.  When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.  At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”  “No one, sir,” she said.  “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:2-11)

Christians are faced with comparative dilemmas today that challenge the way we respond to the issue of sin in the church and society. While the context may be a little less extreme, the religious conflict remains much the same. There are those who demand that the "righteous requirement of the law" be upheld because we "do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Romans 8:4). Then there are those who insist that "there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" because we have been set "free from the law of sin and death" (Romans 8:1-2). Interestingly enough, these are two parallel yet polarised conclusions drawn from the same place in Scripture. Some pursue a legalistic adherence to biblical truth, while others promote a liberal application of the gospel of grace; and more often than not, one at the expense of the other. Despite the emphasis from either approach, a dualistic response to sin does not resemble the way Jesus responded in the original story. In fact, I would argue that any response that separates grace from truth or truth from grace is a false representation of the gospel. To understand why, we need to take a closer look at what Jesus actually did and didn't do or say in this story...
  1. Jesus did NOT disregard the law of Moses.  Instead, Jesus challenged those who assumed to have the authority to apply the law - “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  The only person in the crowd who fit that criteria was ironically the One whom the religious leaders were setting up "in order to have a basis for accusing him."  Talk about a monumental backfire!  What the religious leaders didn't understand is that "in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form" and "He is the head over every power and authority" (Colossians 2:9-11).  Their self-appointed authority misapplied the law to enforce condemnation of sin whereas the divine authority of Jesus applied the law to evoke conviction of sin.
  2. Jesus did NOT throw any stones.  As the only one present who had the divine authority to carry out what the Law of Moses required, Jesus instead exchanged the stones with a cross by standing alongside the accused in the face of condemnation. In that moment, Jesus demonstrated His Messianic purpose - "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him" (John 3:17).  This is an often overlooked and significant twist to this story.  Jesus, God in human flesh (John 1:14), exercised His divine authority from a posture of vulnerability as he stood alongside the sinful woman fully prepared to receive the same punishment of death intended for her! However, as the accusers left convicted of their own sin Jesus declared, “Then neither do I condemn you.”
  3. Jesus DID cast a lifeline of salvation.  Another often overlooked dynamic in this story is the self-condemnation that the woman most likely felt standing before a crowd with the shame and guilt of her sin publicly exposed.  It is entirely possible that the way she saw herself would not have been too far removed from the way the religious leaders viewed her.  Standing condemned in her sin by others or even herself imposed a punitive reaction but by becoming convicted of her sin by Jesus invited a response of penitence. Through the latter invitation, instead of throwing stones we see Jesus casting a lifeline of salvation when He said to her, "Go now and leave your life of sin."  Therefore, the transition from condemnation to conviction that rescued her from the crowd also rescued her from herself by providing her with a life transforming opportunity. 

In complete contrast to the way many Christians would approach this story today, Jesus demonstrated two fundamental and indispensable principles in the way He interacted with the woman who was publicly shamed and condemned.  First, He demonstrated ABSOLUTE GRACE when confronted with the reality of her sin.  Second, He spoke UNCOMPROMISING TRUTH in response to her sin.  In that order!  The sequence of the way Jesus engaged with this scenario is no accident and as important as the two principles in discussion.  In fact, it is a manifestation of how John described Jesus in the prologue to his gospel:  "...the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). 

Why is it then that the 'left' (progressive) and 'right' (conservative) expressions of Christianity too often seem far from being "full of grace and truth"?

Maybe because both sides have been too focused on building forts to protect what they believe to be missing from each others faith perspective!

Jesus, on the other hand held the two – grace and truth – in redemptive tension to ensure the complete character of God – holiness and justice – was personified in the way He lived and interacted with humanity.  He neither condemned nor justified sin but convicted humanity, whom He loved so deeply, to abandon anything that would distort the image of God within them.

Instead of throwing stones, Jesus cast lifelines of salvation to fallen humankind so that they would be redeemed from their sin and shame!  

Instead of throwing stones at each other, the church "full of grace and truth" (John 1:14) with "the same mindset as Jesus Christ" (Philippians 2:5) has been commissioned by Jesus to cast the same lifelines:  "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations...teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20).

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