Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Acceptance or Approval? (2)

Another sermon-based topic, which has been brought home in more ways than one through conversations with friends this week - conversations in which I did not initiate the topics discussed.

As children, we are very often (incorrectly) taught that disapproval of things that we do (eg. punishment if we are naughty) means that we are rejected as a person. This usually happens because we are not reminded that we are accepted - especially at the time when our actions are/were disapproved of.

Part 1 of this topic was intended to illustrate a story from the Bible - but there are many other stories that make it very clear that disapproval does NOT equal rejection - and that God very definitely loves each one of us, even if he disapproves of the choices that we make. This is the whole basis for what Jesus did on the cross. If one reads about Jesus life, one will see clearly that He walked among sinners - talked to them, and furthermore ate with them (had fellowship with them) - but in no way did their actions and choices rub off on Him - He was still sinless.

There are three perspectives that we can use to observe this story.

Firstly, consider the relationship between Jesus and his critics - the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. The critics have an agenda - as usual. They want to catch Jesus out, and Jesus knows it. They appeal to Moses' law - but they abuse it at the same time. The law says that both parties caught in adultery should be stoned - not just one - so, where's the guilty man? If Jesus says that they should stone the woman, he breaks the prevailing Roman law which forbids this, but if he says they should not, then he breaks Moses' law. Jesus' answer is therefore all the more brilliant, because it ignores both laws (without breaking them), and invites his critics to get serious and consider their own state. If we are all serious about our lives, we will all find ourselves guilty, one way or another.

Secondly, consider the relationship between Jesus and the woman (and by inference, God's relationship with us). We observe in the story that Jesus refused to condemn the woman. This can be confirmed through looking at John 3:17, which states: For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. (KJV) Jesus COULD have judged the woman, but this was not His role here on earth, and so He did not do so. At the same time, he did not condone her sin. He told her to 'go and sin no more'. He had compassion on her as well - because He would have known that she was a victim of circumstances - a pawn in the plot of His critics. Therefore His words offer her forgiveness, acceptance (of her as a person), and a fresh start. This interaction demonstrates why Jesus needed to go to the cross. He freely withheld judgement, and forgave people's sins - because He was going to pay the price of their sins Himself.

Thirdly consider the relationship between us and others. We need to accept that we are accepted. Too often, we feel that we need to win others' acceptance - and that of God, but this is false. We also need to accept those people (Christian and non-Christian) who we disapprove of (their actions). Jesus shows us very clearly that it is possible to hold high moral standards while accepting those who break those same standards. Also, we need to accept other Christians whose beliefs may not be the same as ours. We need to be kind, compassionate, and as forgiving of others as Christ is of us - unconditionally, and unending.

"Many of us will never feel a real peace with God about our own personal salvation until we break the stranglehold of this childish confusion." - David Seamands

Acceptance or Approval? (1)

What Happened Today ...

At the first light of dawn, an ordinary-looking man walks down the dusty streets, and makes for the steps of the temple, where he sits down. He isn't dressed anything fancy - just in ordinary clothes - maybe even poor. He looks kind, though - the type of person one sees from a distance and wishes one could get to know better.

As we watch, he greets one or two people now and then, smiles at others ... and as the hours pass, a crowd grows around him, as he begins talking to first one, two, and then many people. Those closest to him are seated on the dusty road, while those further away are standing around the edges. Curious, we sidle closer to listen to what he is saying, and we are amazed at what we hear. This man is very practical, but he speaks with a wisdom beyond his young years - he cannot be much more than 30 years old. Very soon we too are seated in amongst the crowd, waiting with baited breath on his every word, hoping, just hoping that we may be able to be like him as we go about our daily lives.

Suddenly a commotion starts at one edge of crowd. People start to be shoved aside, and there are some angry voices as people get elbowed and trod on. It seems to be a group of the big shots from the temple - teachers of the law, and Pharisees - dragging amongst them a rather bedraggled woman. Most of the men are carrying rocks - some carry several small ones, while others are needing all their strength to carry theirs. This is definitely going to be interesting - but why such a commotion. Finally they clear a space for themselves near the teacher - for he cannot be called anything else - and everyone in the crowd heaves a sigh of relief that relative peace has come again. But then the jostling starts again, as the men argue amongst themselves. The reason for this is soon made clear, as one of the younger ones is pushed forward, together with the woman, to stand close to the teacher.

"Teacher," the young Pharisee says (for that is who he is), looking down on our teacher with haughty, accusing eyes, "this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?"

The crowd gasps. I hear mutterings of "Where's the man who was with her?", "I wonder what the teacher's going to say to that?!", and "What a prick! He thinks the world must bow down to him ... we'll show him!" from the crowd around me, but as I keep my eyes on the teacher, he doesn't even acknowledge that he has been spoken to. In fact, as I watch, he bends down, and starts to use his finger to write on the ground. From where I'm sitting, I cannot see what it is he is writing - wish I could!

The young Pharisee asks his question again - a little louder. Does he think the teacher is deaf? I wonder. I know for a fact that he is most definitely not! Suddenly all the Pharisees and teachers start arguing amongst themselves again - and shouting at the teacher. They're still saying the same thing, really.

Slowly, he finishes writing on the ground, looks at it carefully, and then rises to his feet. The crowd around me falls silent, wondering what he will do now - and so does that gaggle of ... Pharisees. The teacher turns to the bunch standing by him, and looks at each one of them carefully - including the woman.

"If any one of you is without sin," the teacher says - and it's clear that the 'you' is the group standing around the woman - "let him be the first to throw a stone at her." And with those words, he again crouches down on the ground, and continues to write.

The crowd around me is now deathly silent. We don't want to get involved with this at all. We know that people who have sinned must die by stoning, but we don't think this is very fair. As some around me expressed - and I've been asking the same question - where's the man in the story? They cannot expect to only punish the woman? And also ... as I think about it more, it seems that this is a test. Those Pharisees don't like the teacher, you see. They never have. He is so wise, and us people who don't understand everything we hear in the temple - we understand this man. He explains the scriptures to us, and tells us how to live good lives. He also tells us how we can believe in God - in a simple way, not complicated and fancy like the Pharisees.

We can see that those Pharisees and the other teachers who are standing by the woman are having a hard time of it. Living in this town, we've seen many people stoned, and these men are just bruising to do it to this woman. But they've asked the teacher's advice, and from where I am, I can see they're all really really angry with him. But first the oldest of them leaves, and then they all leave, one by one, until the youngest is gone, and only the poor woman is left standing there. All this time, the teacher's just been crouched down there, writing on the ground. Suddenly he seems to notice that all is silent. He looks up from the ground, and sees just the woman standing there. He stands up and looks at her. Even from where we are sitting, we can see that his kind face is sad.

"Woman, where are they?" he asks her. "Has no-one condemned you?"

"No-one, sir," she says to him, her eyes downcast. I can see that she's very scared of him.

"Then neither do I condemn you," the teacher says - and everyone around me gasps. "Go now and leave your life of sin."

(Based on John 7:35-8:11, with speech text taken from the NIV.)

Feel free to reproduce this story, but if you do so, please append my name to it. Thank you.