Recently I had the privilege of hearing a preacher bring the word of God to a congregation. He challenged me in some ways. However coming away from the sermon, I was a bit disturbed. I generally do not like to assume a posture of critique toward a preacher or sermon, it is not healthy because both lose, but especially the listener.
Nevertheless as the church engages the culture, which includes the Church itself, how we articulate ourselves is something we need to think deeply about.
As I listened to this preacher, I began to settle on a restlessness the sermon was giving me. His text was Psalm 1. This text is admittedly very binary; it contrasts the righteous from the wicked. The scriptures in general only conceive of two classes of people, the godless and the godly, the righteous and the wicked.
The problem in the Church is the sneaky little assumption of certitude. This means that within the Church, we tend to default to an assumption that we are “in” and that the non-Christian is “out.” It is a problem because it is precisely the Bible that warns us a against thinking this way. While there is a “righteous” and a wicked in scripture, that is not revealed till the end, nor is it always obvious.
Augustine is known for the quip, “There are many sheep without and many wolves within.” It serves as a sober warning to us. Jesus was often encountering prostitutes, tax collectors, and other black sheep rich in faith worthy of the Kingdom. If Jesus’ ministry teaches us anything, it is to not be to sure in our presumptions—especially about ourselves.
My problem with the sermon was how the preacher articulated the “wicked.” At one point he described them as those who are “totally removed from God.” The problem is what does that mean? What we think “totally removed from God” might not be what God thinks. He portrayed them almost as some unique rare class of person. The Bible ironically identifies every person this way, and the way to close that gap is through the person of Christ. For the Bible, all people are totally removed from God apart from Christ.
As we sat and listened, the implication that came through was that the “wicked” were folks who were ”out there.” They did not attend church, they did bad things, and so on. You almost got the feeling that they were criminals. Yet Jesus drew his disciples from among the very dregs of society, many of whom had criminal backgrounds.
Jesus comes along and turns our definition of wicked on its head. They are not the tax collectors and prostitutes. They are in fact the religious echelon, those who make up the establishment.
The Gospel is for the Church
I could not help coming away from the sermon a little agitated. Now maybe he did not mean to convey this at all. But to many, it really came across as, “in here we are ok, and as long as we stay in here, and if we do not associate with those out there we will continue to be ok.” But no perspective could be further from the Gospel.
The Gospel of Jesus then upsets and challenges. The Gospel is not just for outsiders, but also for insiders, sinners in as much need of grace as any other. There is rest in the Cross, but that rest is in the constant self-examination of whether we are truly in the faith. Paul says:
Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! (2 Cor. 13:5)
The Gospel is for the Church. We need to hear it and bathe in it constantly.
The Gospel is for the Church. We need to hear it and bathe in it constantly. @toddjmurphy
We cannot afford to overlook, though we often do, that Psalm 1 was written to a religious community. Psalm 1 in particular is not setting up an oversimplified “us” vs. “them.” Rather it is describing what the true righteous and true wicked look forward to. In fact, the sins of the wicked in Psalm 1 are typically what we bypass in the Church, things like scoffing, scorn, or contempt for another person.
It is subtle, secret, and downplayed sins that church-goers harbor in their hearts every day. In fact Christianity today just does not seem to take these subtle sins, these “acceptable sins” as anything worry about. But according to Psalm 1 these sins will condemn a man or woman in the Judgment.
There is an obscure but sobering statement in Paul’s letter to 1 Timothy. There he states the following:
The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. (1Tim. 5:24) —Apostle Paul
Paul, like Psalm 1 is speaking to a religious community, the Church. Yet he is warning them. His point here is that some people’s sins are obvious, and they will be judged. But more alarmingly, some people’s sins are subtle, hidden from human eye, but they will not slip past God. This is especially the case for those who claim God’s name.
The Gospel is for the Church. We need to hear it, and bathe in it constantly. This begins not with the assumption of our righteousness, but the assumption of our guilt and neediness.