Sunday, September 24, 2006

Not a moralism but a mysticism

I have been troubled by Simon’s comment on my ‘not ducking’ post. It’s opened up a whole abyss, which I would like to describe.

Simon said:
“It is clear in scripture that Paul expected the church to exclude unrepentant sinners - for their own good [so that they would understand the seriousness of their sin] and for the good of the church [if you let person A off without comment person B will feel he can commit the same sin with impnity].

Sin is a cancer, which should not [be] left untreated. It depends very much on the manner in which we treat it. Paul tells us to deal with things privately where possible, so that there can be love and so that reputations are not harmed. If my brother sins and the first thins I do id denounce it at the next church meeting - I am wrong. But if my brother sins and I privately show him a better way and help him renew his relationship with God - i am right.

The brothers in your story are learning how to avoid being picky and judgmental and grassing on each other and to have a right self awareness. Good. But I am concerned that they might start to accept sin - we still need to know that sin is sin, and help each other to overcome it rather than beating each other about it.”

Now then. I really disagree with this, but the disagreement goes so far down that I don’t know quite where to stop. So I end up writing something which is (hopefully) more positive.

Firstly, though, let us take a cue from the way in which the Roman Catholic Church dealt with Galileo. Cardinal Bellarmino wrote:
“If there were any real proof that the Sun is in the centre of the universe and that the earth is in the third heaven, and that the Sun does not go round the Earth but the Earth around the Sun, then we would have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and rather admit that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true".
This is how I feel with respect to the sorts of passages in Paul that Simon is referring to. I think Paul is wonderful, but I also think that – if he is saying what Simon thinks he is saying – he is saying something radically opposed to the message of Christ. So I would rather admit that I do not understand Paul, than to accept him as an authority mandating something which I know – from Christ – to be untrue.

Of course, the burden is on me to say what I know from Christ to be true. Which is the point of this post. It needn’t take very long.

I think that Christ established a New Covenant in his blood. This New Covenant was the one promised in the Old Testament, whereby God’s laws and commands would be written in people’s hearts. The foundation of this New Covenant – this new marriage between God and His people – is built upon a refusal to judge. Hence ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged, for the measure ye give will be the measure ye receive’; hence ‘forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’; hence all the teaching about forgiveness as the foundation of Christian life.

The Old Covenant(s) involved keeping to God’s commands. Hence, for example, David’s charge to Solomon at the end of David’s life (which we had at Morning Prayer the other day, and I found very moving):
“"I am about to go the way of all the earth," he said. "So be strong, show yourself a man, and observe what the LORD your God requires: Walk in his ways, and keep his decrees and commands, his laws and requirements, as written in the Law of Moses, so that you may prosper in all you do and wherever you go, and that the LORD may keep his promise to me: 'If your descendants watch how they live, and if they walk faithfully before me with all their heart and soul, you will never fail to have a man on the throne of Israel.'”
I understand the New Covenant to be God’s fulfilment of these promises, built upon our fallen state, unable to raise ourselves up, and WHOLLY dependent upon God’s grace for all that we do. We are not to focus upon the commands of God – however wonderful and liberating they are to follow – but we are instead to focus our hearts upon God, to have our hearts broken, to remove our hearts of stone and have instead the gift of hearts of flesh placed within us.

Our New Covenant is the setting aside of judgement upon us, with the quid pro quo that we set aside our judgement of one another, leaving ourselves, as a community, wholly dependent upon God’s grace at individual and group levels. We rely upon God to save the church, for He did say that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.

So I really don’t know about the exclusion of unrepentant sinners. Jesus’ example, which we are mandated to follow if we are to walk in his way, was ‘love one another as I have loved you’. The way that he loved was to go to the sinners and break bread with them.

And I’m really unsure about the need to exclude ‘for the good of the church’, pour encourager les autres, so to speak.

So often Christianity has collapsed into being merely a new coat of paint on the Old Covenant. A different set of rules, but the underlying spirituality is unchanged. Even when – perhaps especially when – sola gratia is emphasised the most, the acceptance of grace seems to become a work in and of itself.

We are invited in to a relationship of love. We are the prodigals returning, being met with eagerness by the Father. It is not our business to close the door on the prodigals behind us.

We are the ones who have excluded Christ from amongst us; He is outside the city wall; yet He forgives, and it is that forgiveness which is heartbreaking and liberating.

It gives us no place to stand with regard to one another.

No place to stand.

We must not judge.

We must not judge.

We must not judge.

If this means that an institution falls away then so be it. The church, the Body, this is divine, and far beyond our control.

We are simply to allow that grace to take root and flourish within us, to become channels of mercy and peace.

So if the priest tells the sinner to leave, then I shall leave too. For I too am a sinner, and my place, following Christ, is to be with the sinner. I have no place to stand other than that.

And it seems to me now that that is where the church belongs, that is where the church is most truly itself. So perhaps God is even more in this process than I suspected.

The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

And Jesus' blood ne'er failed me yet.

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