This is the text of the message I prepared for Kaniva Uniting Church for Sunday 5th July 2020.
Years ago when I was ministering in a local church one of the women there introduced me to the concept of the “humble brag”. The concept describes a person who runs below the radar most of the time, and is generally happy to be so, who then highlights that that’s been occurring. This is not supposed to be the ironic situation of “look at me, look how humble I am!!” but more the immediate desire to be noticed not being noticed, perhaps when the anonymity is wearing just a little bit thin and a boost in morale is needed to keep things going. A friend once self-described to me her role at work as “the tuxedo”, saying that she was usually left in the closet only to be brought out on special occasions. At the time of our conversation she was feeling a bit “used, in that she had had to work very busily and under extraordinary external pressure, immediately. Once the need for her had been met (by her activities) she was then shuffled back to inconsequentiality. I wonder whether “the tuxedo” is a humble-bragger, or just a braggart, or whether she was justifiably annoyed and simultaneously creative with her self-description?
It can be easy to humble-brag the gospel or to present false-modesty, which in themselves make it difficult for others to receive the gospel. If the God who makes you righteous where others are not then sends you out as a messenger of righteousness, how do you stop turning self-righteous? How do you play down the reputation of a braggart or snob-for-Jesus? Well, in looking at the lectionary offerings from Christian Tradition for July we are potentially opening the most consistently braggart book in the New Testament, Paul’s preacherly and dogmatic letter to the Romans. Ugh!
In Romans 6:14 we are told that as Christians we are servants of grace and not of law; consequently sin has no power over us. Sin cannot compel us to do anything because sin is not our master; sin is not the boss of me. If Christ truly is the boss of me then I live under a regime of grace; the same is true for any Christian disciple and sin has no place in the regime of grace. Sin is from a different kingdom and it has no jurisdiction and no power in the Kingdom of God. If a Christian sins then it is because he or she has freely chosen to do so, and not because of sin’s governance because sin is no longer governor if you are a Christian. That seems logical and it’s a heavy word; but does it mean that the sins of a Christian are more heinous because the Christian chooses to sin while the Heathen is forced into it as a slave to the world? It’s a great question, and I’m going to ask it again to leave it with you: are the sins of a Christian are more heinous because the Christian chooses to sin while the Heathen is forced to sin? (Yes it’s preacherly and dogmatic, but it’s gospel so suck it up Christian.)
I do not understand my own actions cries Paul in Romans 7:15. I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Perhaps it is not so simple to say that Christians are truly free and Heathens are completely chained to sin. For I do not do the good I want, he goes on to say in Romans 7:19, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Who’s been there in life, trying to do good and willing to do good but ultimately crashing at the delivery end? “How did that happen,” you ask yourself, “why did that happen, I mean, what the actual actually happened”? I’ve been there, and it appears that Paul has been too. So whatever is going on in Romans you know it’s not Judgey McJudgeface being all superior and…well…judgey. People often tell me after one of my Beyond Blue talks, or even a sermon where I touch on my history of chronic Mental Illness or Child Sexual Abuse, that I have been “brave” or “generous”: well here is Paul being the same. Paul preaches the hard-won victory of the righteousness of God in his life as a disciple, a righteousness which is his own by the grace of Jesus and the work of the cross, but it is never self-righteousness. If Paul is righteous it is because he has been saved by grace and not because he has saved himself by lawfulness. And Paul is righteous, by grace through faith; he knows this and so he has no case for self-righteousness. He also knows that, the not self-righteous part; it’s a lesson many of us might need to learn and put into practice.
So, in the next few weeks as we read on and also read back in Romans let’s read specifically with that lens. Let’s not be preacherly and dogmatic but let’s continue to remember that Paul is desperate for the grace of Jesus Christ to be at the front of all he says, and that his redeemed example is a sign of what the work of Christ has done for him, (and can do for you), rather than a moralising sulk against the condition of the hedonistic world he inhabits. His world does suck, ours does too, but it is Jesus who is the answer and not the five-minutes-redeemed Christians. This is why I read Romans as a kindly book and a letter of desperate love; because Paul knows his place (as a redeemed slave) and gurgles his joyous redemption, even as he acknowledges that he is still a slave to someone. Paul is now a slave of Jesus, he is no longer enslaved by or to his former hyper-religious or hedonistic selves. Romans is not about humble-brag.
So I do think, absolutely, that the sins of a Christian are more heinous; because I am that Christian and I recall making those deliberate choices to ignore God’s Law (which is holy, just, and good). But I also recall the grace of Jesus Christ and I am supremely confident in him that this grace is sufficient even for me. Where Paul self-identifies in 1 Timothy 1:15 as the foremost amongst sinners, I’m not convinced because that title actually belongs to me (humble-brag); however I am also one of the most excitedly redeemed men and I cannot glorify God enough. So, if you think you can out-worship me before the face of God for God’s generosity to me then I say bring it on Sunshine, and go your hardest. When it comes to giving it all to God the Saviour no-one can out-praise me: thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord who must continually rescue me from this body of death (Romans 7:25a, 24).
In the stories told by Jesus we find the same generosity to those who are being saved. Similar to Paul, but I think with much greater justification in doing so, we find Jesus in Matthew 11:16-19 having an actual moralising sulk against the condition of the hedonistic world. (After all he’s unique in not being part of the problem, it’s practically Hebrew prophecy.) Yet, I hear Jesus’ words not a judgementalism but as judgement, he’s accurate in what he’s saying, and he’s saying it with exasperation. “Oh man, you deaf and ignorant people, this world is such a poor place so why won’t you listen to God?” The point Jesus is making is that the people refuse wisdom in any shape: John was too ascetic (because demons) and Jesus is too sociable (because other demons). Yet wisdom is vindicated by her children (or by her deeds) says Jesus in Matthew 11:19; in other words look where the different paths are leading. John and Jesus point to the same thing from different angles, but the result is the same in that people have a new awareness of the Kingdom of Heaven and are coming into the saving, soothing, and salving reality of God’s presence. Meanwhile the scoffers of all angles become more loathsome and distressed: the Judgy McJudgefaces exist and they are very much outside the Kingdom of Heaven, and they are there by their own decision.
So, full of humble and devoid of brag Jesus turns his face (and attention) toward Heaven and he prays thanksgiving for the gift that wisdom in prophecy is to the world. The message of the Father-Son in this day’s revelation is twofold. We hear:
- There is a Father-Son relationship. God lives for community because God lives as community.
- The work of discipleship (the cost of entering community) is light. God is generous and gracious.
God is into friendship and God is not intro burden. Yes the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23) but God never wanted you dead so you aren’t accountable to that liability, unless you choose to be. God’s yoke, the constraint to partnership with God, is easy. If your yoke is difficult and uncomfortable, and your burden is heavy and tiring, the it’s not God you’re yoked to. It was your choice with whom to yoke, but if you once chose God and now find harshness in the task there’s an error somewhere. Have you been re-yoked to sin? Or are you yoked to Christ yet trying to pull more than your share of the load or walking out of step with him?
The Bible in all its traditions, Hebrew (OT), Christian (NT Epistles), and Jesus (Gospels) is judgemental: it has the mindset of judge. But it’s not to be read as “judgementalist” (which is the adjectival form of an -ism, a movement, and not the adjective of a verb), or “judgey” (the same idea but more Millennial). God has chosen right for you and if you chose God then you choose right: that choosing is a judgement. To be overly harsh in the Bible’s name is just as much a sin as to be overly lax in the Flesh’s name: in fact I’d suggest it’s worse, because it discredits God and it maligns grace. To push people away from Christ through churchified churlishness and judgementalism is sinful, heinous, and utterly ungodly.