March 31, 2019, The Kind of Light You Need to Learn to See (II Corinthians 5:16-20) – guest speaker, Carroll Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000127
Let’s start by re-reading II Corinthians 5:16-20. “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
In this passage Paul tells us both what we shouldn’t do and what we should do. Let’s start where he starts, with what is not our mission in the world. What does it mean to “regard no one according to the flesh”? Most basically it means not to think of other people in the ordinary human way. There is a lot to be avoided in the way ordinary people think about other ordinary people, but there’s only time to talk about one thing we should avoid: legalism. I think a legalistic mindset is one of the greatest dangers to true Christian faith, and it is all the more dangerous because it disguises itself as an angel. The arch-legalists were the Pharisees, so you know this legalism thing does not have a great reputation in the church. No Christian wants to admit they are legalistic, but it is so natural to us that we just slide into legalism automatically without meaning to. Unless our guard is up.
Probably being judgmental is the most common way of being legalistic. The New Testament warns us repeatedly against judging other people, and it repeats itself so often because judging others is the very easiest habit to get in to. But no Christian is called to have a “ministry of judgment”. We don’t have that kind of authority – not you, not me, not Mother Kathryn, not the bishop. No one. Only God is qualified to be a judge. One problem with judging as humans is that, in the flesh, judges are required to follow the law as it stands; they must condemn the guilty and they must acquit the innocent. But the grace of God has no such obligation.
Sometimes a human judge is able to rise above the human level a bit and work a little like God would, but it is very rare. Here is one example. There is a story of Fiorella LaGuardia, who served as a city judge before he became mayor of NYC, I think in the 1920’s. One day a ragged woman was brought in along with several children. She had been caught stealing food. She was clearly guilty and clearly couldn’t pay the fine for petty theft, at that time $5. She had stolen food in the first place because she had no money to buy food. She was going to end up in jail but LaGuardia did not think of her according to the flesh. He knew he had to pronounce her guilty and fine her what she couldn’t pay; he seemed to be trapped by his obligation to the law. So after he had sentenced her to pay the $5 and she was wondering how they could possibly get by, LaGuardia looked around at the rather full court room and said, “I also fine everyone in this room $5 for allowing NYC to become the kind of place where a starving family can’t eat without going to jail.” And he made everyone in the court room come up with the $5 and then he gave it to the woman.
But this is a rare rare thing to happen in a human court. The law doesn’t allow for grace. The law requires us to judge people according to the flesh. The fact is there is only one Judge who can be trusted to judge, and it isn’t you or me or anyone in the church. Stop judging. The Judge of the Universe doesn’t like it when people try to take over His job.
But legalism is a lot more than a matter of judges. Think about what else always goes with our legal system. That’s right. Lawyers. Now I have known some really kind lawyers, good people, but there is no place in the Kingdom of God for Christians who think they are called to be Kingdom lawyers. You know who the most notable lawyers were in Jesus’ day? That’s right. The Pharisees again.
The problem with the Law, whether the Law of Moses or the laws of the US of A, or with any set of laws, is that they can never take into account all the circumstances. There are always exceptions, always technicalities, always loopholes, always unforeseen consequences. Just going by the book does not guarantee justice, however well written the laws are. People always find a way to play the system, and innocent people always get trapped despite themselves. And laws always expand to fill the empty spaces. In the Law of Moses in the Bible there were 613 individual commandments, but by Jesus’ day the laws of Israel had grown to thousands of laws because so many details were left out by Moses and had to be spelled out somehow. We shouldn’t sniff at the Pharisees for adding so many; it is the inevitable result of any system of laws. There are always loopholes to be closed, always subtleties to be settled, new issues to be addressed. There was no way to get around it. Until Jesus did. Rather than expanding God’s Law to even more thousands of rules, He cut it down to exactly two: love God and love your neighbor.
But the churches I grew up in followed the Pharisees’ example and regarded people according to the flesh. They weren’t bad churches; they meant to be good Christians, but instead of taking Jesus’ approach and cutting the law down they devised rules for every little thing. That is the work of a lawyer, to fill in those details. But the only lawyer mentioned in the spiritual realm is Satan, who is called the Accuser, the Adversary. You and I are not God’s lawyers, Mother Kathryn is not God’s lawyer, the bishop is not God’s lawyer. So don’t go making rules for other people to obey; that is just a way of regarding them according to the flesh.
Another component to any legal system is the police. A law is worthless unless it is enforced. You need cops. You need detectives whose job it is to go out and track down the bad guys and lock them up and bring them to the courts. But the Kingdom of God has no police. The Spirit has not given any of us the ministry of spiritual law enforcement. The Spirit does not call any of us to make our brothers or sisters stop sinning. We don’t have that authority: you don’t and I don’t and Mother Kathryn doesn’t and the bishop doesn’t. If you find yourself trying to coerce someone else into or out of some behavior, you are regarding them according to the flesh. Quit trying to control other people’s lives. We’d all do better to get our own lives under control. “First take the log out of your own eye”. In I Thessalonians 4:12 Paul says “Make it your ambition to live quietly, to mind your own business, and to work with your hands”. That is possibly the single hardest piece of advice to follow of any in the Bible.
There is one last element of legalism that we must consider: victimhood. Obviously there can be no legalism if there is no one pressing charges. But sooner or later every one of us will be a victim of someone’s thoughtlessness or cruelty or betrayal or violence. And as soon as we are, that voice of legalism will start to clamor for justice. “The people who did this to me must be punished, they must be brought to court and made to pay me restitution.” But this is just the voice of legalism, putting “getting even” into the tuxedo called “justice”, making it look respectable. It sees the one who hurt you as an enemy, and to think of a person as an enemy, is to think of them according to the flesh, to think of them as people who don’t deserve forgiveness.
I just saw, on Facebook (that modern fount of wisdom and humor, not to mention frustration and anger), a marvelous definition of forgiveness: “forgiveness is when you reach around and pull the knife out of your own back and then decide not to hurt anyone else with it.” The truth is, none of us has any enemies. Whatever anyone does to you or against you, they are not your enemy, however much pain you feel. Paul says this in Romans 8:31 “If God is for us, who can be against us?” If God is your friend – and you better believe He is – then no one is your enemy.
Now I have got to be careful not to give a false impression here. I have talked a lot about how we should leave each other alone, but I must point out there is at least one situation when the church is perfectly justified in meddling in your private affairs, in meddling in public affairs. If we see someone being hurt, abused, oppressed, neglected, the church is not only justified in intervening to protect the victim, it is expected to intervene. On the individual level there are a lot of churches that have turned a blind eye to child abuse in their midst – not just the Catholic Church which you have all heard about. It is a much bigger problem. I know of churches that ignore husbands who abuse their wives. They protect the abuser rather than the one who is abused, and that is an outrage against God. We should not allow such violence of any member against any other member. On a social level, the Church in Germany turned a blind eye to the murder of the Jews. The Southern American Church turned a blind eye to the evils of slavery, and still turn a blind eye to the evils of racism. These are situations where God demands His church to step in, not as judges or lawyers or cops, but as body-guards and protectors of the victims.
So what are we supposed to be if we can’t be judges or lawyers or cops or victims? What’s left? Paul answers it in the passage we just read. We are ambassadors of reconciliation. As ambassadors, our true citizenship is in another country. We are all foreigners sent by the King of the Universe with a message to America: be reconciled to God. The word “reconcile” can mean several things, but what it means here is “to win over to friendship” or “to bring into harmony”. That is our mission in Norwood, to our neighbors. Not to condemn them for what they do, not to teach them the right laws to obey, not to make them change the way they live. Our mission is to persuade them to become friends of God.
We just saw a movie, “Entertaining Angels”, about Dorothy Day, one of my heroes of the faith. She founded the Catholic Worker communities in the 1930’s; today there are over 240 of them around the country. These are houses of hospitality for people who have no where to go, and they never refuse anyone for any reason. One night Dorothy came home late discouraged and wondering if she should just give up. When she arrived she found one of the women they had taken in robbing them. The woman was a prostitute and an alcoholic and wanted to go out to her usual ways. When Dorothy found her, she was furious and tried to stop her, but the woman grabbed someone’s cane (I think) and began beating Dorothy savagely. After a few minutes of this, bleeding from several cuts, Dorothy managed to get the cane away from the woman and knock her down. Dorothy raised her arm to beat her in turn, but then she stopped and her eyes grew large and she just whispered, “I can see the light in you.” That is what it means to not regard anyone according to the flesh. To look for the light that is in them, to learn how to see it. They all have it if we have the eyes to see.