Monday, November 9, 2009

not guilty

“But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.”

A couple years ago I was invited by a judge into his courtroom for the final days of a high-profile criminal trial. The defendant – a young man named John – was on trial for murder. And I don’t remember the specifics of the case, but I’ll never forget the outcome. The trial ended, a verdict was reached, and the defendant was asked to rise. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, have you reached a verdict?” We have replied the foreman. “On murder in the first degree, how do you find?” Guilty.

John was guilty, and he didn’t really seem too surprised. In fact, he just stood there: speechless, emotionless, lifeless – completely and utterly alone. Alienated is the word that best describes what I saw in John. I have to say, the scene haunts me – John being escorted in chains to a cell where he’d just wait to be sentenced, which in the state of Texas is usually death by lethal injection. A verdict had been reached, a verdict that would not be overturned. Guilty. The verdict was guilty.

Somewhere along the line John’s life had gone wrong. I wondered, was he mentally ill? Did he make bad choices, or just have bad luck? I don’t know, and to be honest the court didn’t care. The fact is, John was guilty, and justice demanded that John pay for his crimes. The rule that governs life in our world is actually pretty simple – you get what you give. If we do the crime, we must do the time. If we owe, then we must pay. And if we murder, then we must die.

In case you’re wondering, John was not this man’s real name. John is my name, but I could have used your name, or anyone’s name for that matter. After all, something has gone seriously wrong in all of our lives. Now granted – I’ve never murdered someone before, but Jesus had this funny notion that we all have murder in our hearts. If all it took to please God was simply not to murder, I can honestly say – I’d be fine. And so would you. But I think that deep down, we all know that God requires so much more from us. Because the truth is, we murder one another all of the time: with our anger, with our insults, with our contempt and our indifference. We murder each other with hate-filled words and hate-filled thoughts, with poisonous gossip and rage-filled lies. I’m not saying we all yell or scream or pitch fits or lose our temper. We have too much dignity for that. After all, isn’t withdrawing so much easier? How many of us kill with our silence, our indifference, our coldness of heart? Sometimes the best weapon is withdrawing our support, our encouragement, our generosity or our favor in order to prove a point or to get our way. Ignoring others is the best weapon many of us have in our arsenal. But regardless of how we murder one another, alienation is always the result. And so we have a lot more in common with John than we’d like to admit. In our relationships with one another, not one of us is innocent. John isn’t the only one on trial for murder. We all are, and deep down we all know the verdict.

Of course, the real problem is not our relationship with one another, but our relationship with God. The only reason we have a hard time loving others is because we have a hard time loving God. As spiritual beings, God created us to find meaning, peace, intimacy, and security with God, in God, and through God. But how often does our life become a frantic search for living water in the midst of empty wells? Money, sex, power, reputation, popularity, and prestige are just a few of the gods we’re prone to worship. And here’s what’s so amazing – we know that these gods alienate us from the one, true God, but we worship them anyway – even when they leave us feeling hollow, unfulfilled, and disoriented. Now, if this is a fair description of our world, and at times our lives, there’s only one question left to ask. Is this world our cell and are we waiting to be sentenced like John? If we are in fact guilty before God, is death what awaits us?

A Christian is a person who stares these questions in the face, who takes these questions seriously, and who joyfully answers these questions of ultimate concern with an emphatic NO. As Christians we understand that God hasn’t sentenced us to death – he’s elected us to life. As the author of Hebrews writes, “Jesus has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Our world is characterized by alienation. But God’s world is characterized by reconciliation. And that is the good news of the Christian Gospel that tonight’s reading from Hebrews is trying to capture – that through no merit of our own, we have been placed at the center of God’s world. Regardless of whatever alienation we may feel, God has declared that in Christ we are reconciled to God. Regardless of whatever guilt we may bear, God has declared that in Christ we are forgiven. Regardless of whatever sin we may struggle with, God has declared that in Christ, the stain of sin has forever been removed.

We have been reconciled to God. In Christ, we have peace with God. And so whatever went wrong in our relationship with God has been radically put right. But here’s what’s so amazing – there’s still work to be done, and we, who follow Jesus, are the ones God invites to do His reconciling work. To quote the apostle Paul, the same God “who reconciled us to Himself through Christ … has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” Paul even says that we are ambassadors of God’s reconciliation. An ambassador is a person sent by one country to another as a visiting representative. And that’s exactly how the bible describes us – as people from another country, as people from a heavenly country, who have a mission here on earth. We may live in a world of alienation, but we represent a God of reconciliation. And so as citizens in God’s Kingdom, committing murder is no longer acceptable. As citizens in God’s Kingdom, assaulting others is no longer acceptable. As citizens in God’s Kingdom, ignoring others is no longer acceptable. God has embraced us. As God’s ambassadors, the time has come for us to embrace one another. You see – reconciliation isn’t just a big piece of the Gospel. Reconciliation is the Gospel.

Tonight’s sermon began in a courtroom, and so the courtroom is where we shall end. After all, tonight’s reading is crystal clear that we’re all going to face judgment. But there’s a catch. The rule that governs life in our world – you get what you give, you pay what you owe – is different than the rule that governs life in God’s world. And this is what grace is all about. You see, there is only One who can judge us, and he was judged for us. There is only One who can condemn us, and he was condemned for us. There is only One who can sentence us to death, and we are the ones for whom he died. A verdict has been reached, a verdict that will not be overturned. Not Guilty. The verdict is Not Guilty.

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