Sunday, August 02, 2015

The Outer Limits of Grace

Deuteronomy 19:15-21
2 Thessalonian 3:5-15
Matthew 18:15-22

"Your eyes, O Lord, are too pure to look on evil; You cannot tolerate wrong.”  Habakkuk 1:13

The text book definition of biblical grace is undeserved mercy.  That is, there is nothing we can do to “earn” YHWH’s mercy from One who is by His nature and being merciful.  This is made real by the reality of Messiah Jesus.  Grace is mercy freely offered to us through faith.  Yet we must also understand there are limits; for our need and desire for mercy for ourselves is as great as our Lord’s demand that we be as willing to forgive others - as Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount that if we would hope to be forgiven, we are required to forgive (Matthew 6:14-15). 

There is no middle ground, no grey area in terms of grace: if we desire mercy even as “undeserved”, we must extend mercy as “undeserved”.  Whether we think someone who has personally offended us or a loved one deserves such mercy is entirely beyond the point and the scope of mercy and may even bring us to a better understanding of Jesus’ prohibition against passing judgment.  If we take it upon ourselves as individuals to decide who is or is not worthy of mercy, we impose restrictions upon ourselves - as we are judged by the same measure in which we judge others mercilessly or mercifully.

Therein lay the basic premise that there are limits to grace we must consider, limits not well defined by subjective and individual human standards, of course, because we are often inclined to individual vindictiveness; but certainly defined by objective standards of community holiness.  Jesus Himself seems to suggest there are such limits.  If we are unwilling to forgive a wrong done to us, whether the offense is real or only perceived (as in how easily “offended” we as a nation seem to be), we are only kidding ourselves with bumper-sticker theology that gives us a pass while imposing strict burdens on others. 

It makes me think of that saying passed around so often on social media (and on bumper stickers!): “Christians are not perfect; only forgiven”.  It is a fond notion with a measure of truth, but whether it is universally applicable without question and without limits even to we who are inclined to spitefully hold a grudge requires more attention to the whole of the Scripture rather than to bank on only a few carefully selected and memorized passages – or cheap bumper stickers whose biblical foundation may be questionable. 

Think of Jesus’ teaching about calling someone to account for their sins (Matthew 18:15-17).  If those who stand accused have rejected the testimony of one who comes to work it out privately, or two who still try to keep it private, and finally will not even hear the consensus testimony of the entire community, they are to become to us “as Gentiles and tax collectors”; willful outsiders who reject the community’s standards of moral and godly conductForgiveness does not seem to factor in once the community is pushed to its limit.  Yet Peter follows up this teaching with his own question: “How often should I forgive?”  By Jesus’ answer, there is virtually no limit to the number of times we are to forgive. 

On the surface there seems to be a contradiction.  On the one hand we are to finally reach a point at which we turn our backs on those who refuse to repent; on the other hand we are compelled to forgive as often as we are pressed to forgive.  We are compelled to forgive as often as we pray ourselves for forgiveness.  That thought alone should boggle the mind and stir the spirit of each of us!

So what is the difference?  John the Baptizer insisted that to be truly repentant, one must “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8); that is, those who are genuinely remorseful will eagerly go beyond only a carefully worded apology.  They will strive to make amends and be willing to repair any damage done.  To fully repent, then, is to go in a completely opposite direction; not merely stopping the wrongful deed but trying to make it right.  Yet Jesus does not seem to impose any such conditions on Peter’s inquiry; He only seems to require that we forgive as often as we are asked.

There are a couple of notable points to be made.  The first, of course, is the central importance of forgiveness as the guiding principle in how we relate to one another, especially in resolving conflicts within our community - mercy.  The second point, which is necessarily connected to the first, is that to determine the existence and/or severity of the sin and any possible consequences is not left to individual discretion – thus assuring justice.  It has everything to do with established community standards according to the terms of the Holy Covenant, the Covenant which requires the witness of “two or three” who would ideally be not only familiar with the terms of the Covenant but also willing to be objective (Deuteronomy 19:15). 

This means we should not be seeking to grind a personal ax by gathering only those who might back us up.  We would need objective witnesses who might back us up but who may also pull back the reins on us.  The standard and well-being of the whole community is elevated while the individual relationship is assigned a diminished role.  This is to say, a real friend of the whole community will be more concerned with the well-being of the whole community than with any individual’s personal feelings.  A real “friend” will not help us pack for our trip to perdition.

There are sources of antiquity (Qumran/Dead Sea Scrolls) which suggest the Essenes community from which John the Baptizer is said to have come had similar standards.  Members of this Jewish community, which was segregated from the wider, Hellenized (watered down) Jewish community, were expected to abide by community standards; and if they refused even after they had been called to account by common witness, there would be consequences the severity of which would depend on the nature of the offense.

The politically correct, social demand of “tolerance” makes a point of our need to not overly concern ourselves with the actions of those outside our communities, but the idea of “tolerance” often confused with “love” has pushed beyond limits of acceptable moral behavior and has even invaded the sacred sanctuary space of the Church.  “Anything goes” has become nearly as acceptable a doctrine of the Church as “Christ crucified”. 

“Tolerance” in our secular culture apparently has no limits; only license to do as one pleases when one pleases without fear of judgment, retribution, or reasonable consequences.  It is why we now feel a need to arm ourselves.  It is for this reason that “tolerance” to such an extreme as to reject accountability to the wider community for one’s actions is incompatible with the higher standards of the covenantal Church.  There are limits measured by a sense of responsibility to something bigger and greater than one’s self or one’s personal feelings. 

So even though we are compelled to forgive as often as we are asked to forgive, we are equally compelled to hold one another accountable to a standard the outside community does not understand and will not abide by.  Within the community, however, it is still entirely about “grace”; but we must understand that “grace” serves a purpose greater than mere “tolerance”.  Even “grace” coming from within the Community of Christ understands that those who deliberately fall short must still not be considered “as enemies, but warn them as believers” (2 Thessalonians 3:15).

“Grace” must not be confused with what our secular culture has come to understand about “tolerance” or even “love”; for we know (or should know) there are limits in understanding that responsibility always accompanies rights.  It is about being accountable to The Lord our God in His Living Word who is Christ Jesus, and happily taking on the responsibility of caring for one another – even to the point of discipline within the community.

It is that “grace” which separates us from the secular culture.  It is that “love” by which we teach our children right from wrong; it is no less that “love” by and through which we seek to restore one another to the “grace” that is our God.  For this is who we are: a people of Grace.  Saved by grace through faith – and restored by grace through Love.  Amen.

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