Saturday, March 21, 2009

Condemnation Blues (John 3:14-21)

We can play around a lot with the meaning of the word “condemned.”

It can be used as a synonym for judgment. G.K. Chesterton advised people never to condemn someone unless you had walked a mile in their shoes. That way, he said, when you condemn them, you will be a mile away, and you will have their shoes.

When we use it that way, we’re talking about an action someone takes. If we condemn something or someone, we have to actually do something, even if it’s only having an opinion. And of course, whomever or whatever we condemn may or may not listen to our judgment. They may accept their condemnation as justified. “Yes, you’re right. I did wrong and I shouldn’t have.”

Or they may reject it, or offer a reason why their action shouldn’t be seen in such a harsh light. The customary defense is to point out someone else’s much greater failure: “Well, sure I lit his shoes on fire, but you don’t know what he did!”

That kind of condemnation seems to be exactly what Jesus did not come into the world to do, according to John. Remember, John is also the gospel where we find the story of the woman caught in adultery, in which we see Jesus tell someone we know is guilty of a sin that he does not condemn her.

Excellent! We can get away from all this sin and guilt stuff now, and just talk about how much everyone likes each other, and how you’re OK, and I’m OK, and the whole world is OK and full of sweetness and light and unicorns and butterflies…oops. There’s a couple of problems with that idea, aren’t there?

One, of course, is that there’s no such thing as unicorns. By that I mean that we all, Christian or otherwise, live in the real world. In that world are things that any right-thinking person, Christian or otherwise, ought to condemn. Harming someone else to get what you want, for example, or taking something that doesn’t belong to you. There are plenty of others, and some of them may have happened to us. Or we may have done some of them ourselves. Either way we know that there are things in this world that are worthy of condemnation.

The second problem is that if everything truly were just as it should be, then there wouldn’t have been much need for Jesus to have come in the first place, let alone offer himself on the cross. How does the verse go? “So that the world through him might be saved.” I find it hard to imagine Jesus coming to save something if that something didn’t really need saving, don’t you? “Well shoot, here I emptied myself and took on the form of a servant and all, obedient unto death and the whole bit, but turns out you all already did the whole job yourselves. Ol’ dopey Me!”

But wait – if we need saving and Jesus didn’t come here to condemn us, then someone else must have done it. Who might that have been? I wonder…could it have been…Sa–. Yeah, I know what you were thinking, and I imagine our enemy would have been more than happy to condemn us if that was required. I don’t think he needs to, though. As I read this passage, the job’s already been taken care of.

By us.

Yes, nobody else condemns us. Doesn’t matter; we’ve already beaten them to it. For us, in describing how we live in this fallen world, “condemn” doesn’t work as a verb. It works as an adjective. We’ve done it, nobody did it to us. At some point in our lives, we have all fallen short of the life God designed us to live. Actually, make that “points,” plural. Whether or not someone condemns us, we stand condemned, by our own words and our own actions, of living lives that put ourselves or something else at the center of them instead of God.

That’s one of the things we focus on at Lent. As Easter people, we live knowing that Christ has come to heal the broken relationship between God and his creation. We know that healing is real, we know it has happened, and we know it is happening in our lives every second of the day. We’ve chosen to accept that idea as the basis for our way of looking at the world. We live in Easter Sunday.

But we live in the Good Friday world, and the Good Friday world is one in which those things Christ’s death defeated still exist. Christ came to save the world because if he had not, its own separation from God would have ultimately destroyed it. During Lent, we recognize and remember that we have lived lives apart from God – sometimes we still live parts of our lives apart from God – and we give thanks for the awesome sacrifice Christ made so that we can live those lives united to God and growing closer to him.

I read a quote from the singer for U2, one of my favorite bands, talking about why he is a person of faith, and it kind of reminded me of who it is who stands condemned, and who came to save the condemned: “There’s no doubt about the fact that I have a wild streak and I’d be very capable of setting fire to myself. So, you know, I don’t go to church for the view.”

I go to God, I go to his church because I know here I can find the Good News that, sinner though I am, I have been saved by the grace overflowing from his love. I go to hear and be a part of the good news.

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