Wednesday, December 28, 2016

No Condemnation III

by Henk Hart

"The Way," by Henk Hart

In today’s blog I am still looking for the way to a place where love fills all, especially when in our time darkness is so overwhelming nd hate so common. So one more time the picture of a way into and through the storm.
I can accept that at some time in history people were convinced that a true church would exercise discipline. I cannot accept that at the same time love was overlooked as a mark of a true church. Next year we remember 500 years of Reformation. This would be a great time to remove discipline as a mark of a church’s authenticity and replace it with love. Scripture seems to recommend it.

Aboriginals are our neighbours, mosques are built next to churches, Africans in hunger and fear flee to Europe, Western countries become xenophobic, the rich steal prosperity from the rest, crimes against humanity are seen on the internet as they happen. These irreversible events and many others first breed fear and confusion, then give rise to violence and hatred. Aboriginals are locked up, mosques are set on fire, Africans drown as they flee, neighbours rise up against neighbours, innocents are murdered. Fifty years ago Martin Heidegger said that in a world so rudderless only a god can save us. But where do we find such a god? In Taizé they sing: ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. God is where love is. Which is where? What’s the way?

The Christian church knows where, the Christian church knows the way. Love, love divine, can heal a world so broken. And God’s choice strategy for making such love visible, for showing the way, is in the community where Jesus seeks to be embodied: the church. In many ways God’s love for the outcasts of the world has always been visible there when sanctuary is offered, when the poor and the homeless are cared for, when places of healing for the sick are built, when prisoners are visited, when strangers are welcomed. These acts of mercy all embody love. Sadly, however, church-love has boundaries. Officially, doctrinally the church has made no full transition in Christ from Exodus 34 to John 8. In the church the jubilant and boundlessly generous, forgiving God of Exodus 34:6 remains bound to the guilt of the guilty pursued for generations in vs 7. When Jesus writes a new law in the sand: no condemnation, the church does not follow.

When John 1 speaks of the incarnation as full of grace and truth, he echoes Exodus 34:6 and does not include vs 7. God’s chesed and emeth, when read in Christ, are without condemnation in Jesus. In the church God calls people to show love divine in all its fulness. But the church practices discipline as a mark of its authenticity. Priests are de-frocked, parishioners are barred from communion, homosexuals are not welcome. So, after 500 years of Reformation, is it time for love to replace discipline and to allow the church to bear witness to Jesus’ no condemnation? In John’s gospel resurrection is forgiving sins, made more emphatic in Jesus’ saying: when we do not forgive, some will remain without forgiveness. That's Jesus’ challenge: Forgive sins and leave no one unforgiven (20:23).

Faith in the resurrected Jesus does not happen in affirming belief in the resurrection, but calls for living the resurrected life of forgiving. Jackie Pullinger, the missionary in Hong Kong who worked with addicts, explains in her book Chasing the Dragon that in her mission no addict falls off the wagon too many times and will then be told: this was your last time. Climbing back on is the never ending rule. Love has no limits, no boundaries, no conditions. In our world in turmoil the ubiquitous bill board slogan that Jesus saves might speak more eloquently in an invitation to trust the God who loves all and condemns none. The God whose church makes love its breath.

The church that continues the incarnation we celebrated at Christmas is not meant to be God’s police or court of law. Truth and reconciliation are a different way to resolve derailment. Armies, jails, electric chairs, or litigation do not heal. Redeeming love welcomes the prodigal home. There are no conditions. Open arms, new clothes, and a banquet authenticate God’s eternal intent. Our world needs the surprise of love’s generosity. A church that loves and never condemns would be a light on a hill in our pitch dark world.

The church, in offering people the sacraments, offers means of grace without cost. If someone has transgressed, what could better show the love of God than receiving these means of grace? So what message goes forth if transgression forfeits access to these means? Even if there is a plausible Scriptural argument to justify such discipline, can the argument be stretched to allow the church to put fences around the love of God? When Scripture speaks of that love its language sometimes testifies to the paucity of words to fully make known that incomprehensible love. Who has the authority to make that love subject to discipline?

A church aiming to fully embrace God’s love would be known in finding creative ways to walk together with transgressors to find healing, to walk together as fellow transgressors experiencing God’s love. Bearing one another’s burdens without condemnation fulfills the law of Christ, honors the new commandment to love one another. Would not such a church be amazing? Would not resurrection become believable? Would not brokenness begin to heal?

The most prevalent response to evil in our culture is to demand punitive justice, revenge, just deserts. If there is transgression in the church, is the response different? Unfortunately the rules require discipline, because theologically a just God demands punishment. But the prophet Hosea affirms that in God’s view, punishment is too human (11:9). God withdraws from punishment. “For I am God, and not a man—the Holy One among you.” As the prohet sees it, when we affirm God’s holiness with discipline, we assert our human nature. A holy God, quite differently, withdraws fierce anger. As Leonard Cohen sang in his last song:
... it's written in the scriptures
And it's not some idle claim.
Discipline as a mark of the true church has very deep roots and a long history. But next year’s commemoration of 500 years of Reformation could be an occasion to review this teaching. The original view found support in a particular time in history. Today's changed world could lead to confessing love as the prime mark of a true church. May 2017 spread more light and joy. Happy New Year.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

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