September 14, 2014

The Lord is Able to Make Them Stand

Passage: Exodus 14:19-31, Psalm 114, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35
Service Type:

Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

It is one of those Sunday School stories that has been circulating for some time. A little boy comes home from Sunday School and his parents ask him what he learned that day. The boy proceeds to describe the story of the Israelites crossing of the Red Sea. However, the little boy’s version included bulldozers, tanks, helicopters and a daring rescue by some brave soldiers. His father quizzed him a little further, “are you sure that is what you were taught today?” The boy admitted that it was not but in his defense said, “If I told you what they told me you wouldn’t believe it either!”

We read today of God’s Red Sea rescue of the Israelites. (Exodus 14:19-31) We read of how God’s presence in the pillar of cloud went between Israel and the approaching powerful Egyptian army guarding them overnight; of how Moses stretched out his hand over the sea and the waters moved so that dry ground appeared so Israel could cross; of how the Egyptian army was defeated and not a single arrow was shot by an Israeli soldier. This story, along with the whole narrative of God’s intervention to release them from bondage, is the story Israel tells of the mighty acts of God; it is these events that inform them of their relationship with God as their gracious redeemer; it is the prism through which Israel views their existence as a people of God.

I sometimes think that if you were one of the eyewitnesses of this Red Sea rescue it must have left an indelible mark on their minds and hearts. Surely these people would be so impressed that they would be forever changed in their awe of God’s great mercy to rescue them. And yet we know that even these very people were soon grumbling against God—questioning his care of them in the wilderness even though they had witnessed God’s mighty hand to save at the Red Sea.

And each succeeding generation of the Hebrew people were to celebrate and tell these stories to their children so they would learn to trust in this God who saves, who loves them and keeps them. The annual feast of Passover was for this very purpose. They were ever the people whom God redeemed and through whom God would bless the world; this rescue, this Exodus, was the prism that was to shape their faith life and their communal life together.

It was at a Passover meal that Jesus shared with his disciples when he blessed, broke and gave the bread—“take eat, this is my body, which is given for you.” And then the same with the cup of wine—“Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” What the rescue from Egypt is for Israel, Jesus says his life given on the cross will be for his followers. And so, for Christians, the cross of Jesus Christ is that prism through which we understand our faith life and communal life together. Indeed this rescue from the power and penalty of sin in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is the event we cling to, that shapes our very lives. It is the story on which everything else hinges. It is the ‘mighty act” of God which towers above all the rest.

Indeed it made an indelible mark on those first Christians that we read about in the apostolic witness. And each generation of Christians comes again and again to this story to understand our lives. We rehearse it, not just at Easter, but also Sunday by Sunday as the gospel—this good news of Jesus Christ—is ever the story that shapes sermon, prayer, song, indeed worship itself. Our worship includes, for example, a prayer of confession because the cross teaches us that it is our sin that needs forgiving, that needs to be turned from.

There was a time, not that long ago, where the church was the centre of community life in Canada. Not so any more. We live in a pluralistic culture where other groups and movements lay claim to our allegiance. Civic groups, sporting clubs, political parties, advocacy groups, and all kinds of leagues, clubs, and associations, many of noble and worthwhile endeavor, call for our attention. We have multiple allegiances and are associated with lots of different groups. How, then, do Christians understand the role of faith and the church and its worship in this cultural landscape? Israel and the first Christians lived in a pluralistic world. As then, so now. Worship and church life brings other activities into focus, that we might see these different enterprises in light of our faith. Congregational life deepens me in the faith so that the Christian story provides a lens through which I look at and make sense of the rest of my life.

1. But what does this broad-brush picture have to do with our text of scripture? “Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.” In a word, the cross of Jesus Christ also shapes the conduct of his people toward one another. In Christ Jesus giving himself for us, the forgiveness of our sin is procured. The just judgement for our sin was laid on him; as was that of every believer. So, Paul asks, “Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall.” Paul is applying the gospel to church life.

In the progress of the book of Romans, chapter 12 begins the section of the book where Paul deals with the application of gospel to life. In the earlier chapters of the book Paul has expounded the riches of the gospel: how God makes sinful people right with himself, why all humankind needs to be made right with God, the manner in which the gospel quickens faith in people and binds them to Christ, and so on. Then beginning in chapter twelve he tells his readers how this gospel is to be lived in their day-to-day affairs. It is never enough that the gospel be understood and believed; it must always be lived. In fact, we understand and believe the gospel in order that we might live it. Truth has to be done.

This is the context of the portion we are considering in this message. Here is how Paul begins this section. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1)

The first thing Paul puts forward in his section on what the Christian is to do is the ground of our doing anything at all. What moves the Christian to live like a Christian, to want to live like a Christian? The ground of all that we do is simply God’s mercy. Our motivation is gratitude for this mercy. J.B. Phillips, the best paraphraser of the NT, writes, “With your eyes wide open to the mercies of God.” Christians are those who have intimate acquaintance with the mercy of God. We know ourselves freed, renewed and invigorated at God’s own hand.

I know that I am the beneficiary of God’s mercy. I have known since childhood that as sinner I merited only condemnation; that the amnesty which God fashioned and pressed upon me I didn’t deserve at all. Therefore it had to be rooted in his mercy alone. Mercy is love poured out on those who merit no love at all and never will. That I live at all is a manifestation of God’s mercy. That I have been rendered a new creature in Christ Jesus, am sustained in this newness every day by God’s Spirit, and am destined for eternal glory; this is an even greater manifestation of mercy. It is this greater mercy which will always be the rock-bottom truth and reality of my life. And ceaseless gratitude will ever be the only worthy motivation of my Christian conduct.

In the churches to which Paul writes there are Jewish Christians and an ever increasing portion of Gentile Christians. People come from different backgrounds and bring with them varying habits. The Jewish Christians come with their dietary habits shaped by the older testament law. Gentile Christians come with other dietary habits. Disputes arose over which was the most “Christian” of these habits. We might not have these issues today but if you want to start a lively discussion in a congregation ask people what music style is most “worshipful.” You will then get a sense of the kind of thing going on in this early church.

So as Paul reflects on potential disputes arising in the church he considers how the mercy of God for the sinner would shape the life of believers. When I see my Christian neighbour who prefers to worship with guitar, drums, cymbals, horns and other loud instrument when I know that the “right” way is with “organ”, or perhaps like those who insist that the only instrument you need is the human voice—that’s the right way to worship God. Paul reminds us of the gospel. “It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”

2. A friend spoke with me about his twenty-something year old son for whom it seemed that Christian faith was against everything. His church experience appeared to reinforce this idea that Christianity is always finding fault; always carping, criticizing, nit-picking. And there are people like that. Yes, I can understand that preachers can sound like they are perpetually angry. (To be sure, some things ought to make us angry). Some ministers think their job is to make the world a better place and consequently are ever correcting and complaining in an effort to promote the ideal of justice. (This is not to say that justice is not a worthy topic).

Jesus cautioned his disciples not to be always carping or nit-picking. “My followers,” he insisted, “must never be found trying to remove a dust-speck from someone else’s eye when a pine tree is sticking out of theirs. What’s more,” continues Jesus, “it would be utterly foolish for you, my disciples, to be carping nitpickers, because the measure you give will be the measure you get.” In other words, those who coldly, callously fault others are going to get the same treatment themselves. Everyone has heard quoted the KJV version of the text where Jesus said, “Judge not lest ye be judged.” (Matthew 7:1) It is similar in sentiment to Paul’s admonition we are considering: “Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall.” Good. So it’s settled; we mustn’t make judgements.

Except it isn’t settled. Immediately after warning us disciples about dust-speck and pine tree and how we mustn’t be blind to our own depravity, Jesus adds, “Don’t give what is holy to the dogs; and don’t throw pearls before pigs – because pigs and dogs (he’s speaking here of humans) don’t appreciate the value of what you put in front of them. They will only turn on you and devour you.” Plainly Jesus is telling us that either we exercise judgement here or else we invite victimisation.

Jesus insists on two matters: one, we must never be judgemental; two, we must always make sound judgements. In John’s gospel Jesus announce, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgement.” (John 7:24 NRSV) Other translations are worth hearing. “Stop judging by external standards, and judge with true standards.” (TEV) “You mustn’t judge by the appearance of things but by the reality.” (JB Phillips) Plainly there’s a kind of judgement Jesus forbids us to make; and just as surely there’s a kind of judgement Jesus commands us to make.

When Jesus says “Don’t judge by appearances” the verb tense in John’s gospel refers to repeated, ceaseless action. “Don’t judge” plainly means “Don’t fall into the habit of carping all the time.” When Jesus uses the word “judge” the second time – “but judge with right judgement” – he uses a verb tense that refers to one, pointed, particular event concerning which we are to make a discernment and decisively draw the proper conclusion.

The Apostle Paul follows in similar fashion. We are not to be judgemental with one another in these disputable matters. But Paul does not mean by this that we make no judgements at all. He goes on to say: “Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.” Plainly Paul expects that Christians will make discernments in life about all kinds of things and endeavour to draw conclusions in keeping with our Lord’s teaching and leadership. A person in not narrow-minded or judgemental because they don’t sniff cocaine or ogle pornography.

I note also that in this Romans text (Romans 14:1-10) Paul is talking about disputable matters. Paul also warned—in other places—against false prophets and teachers who pervert the gospel, who preach false gospels. Not just any gospel would do. These are to be rejected and repudiated.

Don’t be judgemental; exercise sound judgement. This is what the gospel of our Lord enjoins.
As our immersion in the gospel equips us with sound judgement we shall reflect the judges of Israel, particularly the judge of Israel, Christ Jesus our Lord. For his judgement, like theirs, always furthers his salvage operation, always aims at correction, always issues in blessing. It is through Christ’s judgement that countless people have owned him as Saviour, exalted him as Lord, and will delight in him eternally.

3. I come again to the way that the spirit of gospel informs Paul’s admonition for church life. It ought to have our attention. I am again struck by how the gospel points us, as Christ’s people, to love one another. Not a unity where everyone thinks the same nor a unity for the sake of championing diversity. Rather the unity is for Christ’s sake.

The spirit enjoined in Jesus’ teaching and his life given for us on the cross shapes what Paul says here about protecting the love of one another among Christ’s followers. “Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.” Compassion for one another is to be fostered in the church. Every believer stands with equal need of God’s forgiveness for sin. What unites us is his great mercy in making us his own. A mercy we extend to one another.

“for the Lord is able to make them stand.” It our Lord who gives any of us right standing with God. May gratitude for such mercy ever guard our walk with one another. Amen.