Conviction and clean dishes
There's a funny thing about calling Jesus a Holy Defense Lawyer. It makes the Prosecutor Satan. Which, considering my career plans right now, is rather ironic.
Today's text further ingrains in each us as believers the idea that "God is for us, who is against us? ... Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?"
I went to a courthouse, today, for the meeting of a Grand Jury. In case you're not familiar with the role that this legal body plays, the Grand Jury is composed of around eighteen people who are called in to hear evidence about a crime.
Unlike the trials you're used to seeing on television, the defendant is not present, and neither is a judge. There is only the prosecutor and the jurors. The prosecutor is bringing evidence to the jurors that something bad has happened, and that we think this person did it.
In the language of today's text, the prosecutor "bring[s] ... charge[s]" against persons who have committed wrong, that justice might done in our society.
If, after hearing the evidence that the prosecutor puts on, twelve of the eighteen jurors believe that the charges are probably true, then the State is empowered to arrest the person against whom charges have been filed; that person must then be tried in the jury trials we're all used to.
Before Jesus came, we were in the situation that a defendant faces in a Grand Jury hearing. The only people there were the jurors (God) and the prosecutor (the Accuser, himself). And, unlike earthly prosecutors, Satan has all the evidence in the world to prove that each of us -- every single one of us -- has done exactly what he accuses us of doing. We have not kept God's law, and we are (as they say) "guilty as sin."
After Jesus came, though, things were different. "It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us." It's no longer just the prosecutor and the decision-maker. Now, if we are believers, we have someone going to bat for us. Of course, Jesus doesn't have to dispute evidence or argue persuasively that we should be excused for our law-breaking.
Instead, as I've said before, he walks up to the judge/jury and says, "Dad, I've taken care of this."
Nothing will separate us from the love of God: "Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?" Nope. Nada. Non. Ain't gonna happen.
"As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’" As Christians, we are in the world, but we are definitely not of it -- and the world is not a big fan of that. But, because of Christ and his love for us, we have hope.
"No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us." But what are we conquerors of? If we are more than conquerors, what does that mean?
The pre-eminent conquerors in Paul's day, obviously, were the Romans. Technologically advanced, politically dominant, and economically secure. In this, his letter to the believers in Rome, mentioning a conqueror immediately brings to mind the legions: their strength, their undominitable heritage, and their invincible might.
Paul looks at the might of Rome, at its peak, and says, "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."
No accusations by the Evil One, no armies of men, no demons, circumstances, failed-nurturing; no orientations, persuasions, or addictions: nothing can withstand the power of the Almighty Love which stands astride eternity proclaiming, "This is my beloved."
• Matthew 23:13-26
Sometimes, though, even our faith in Jesus and our knowledge that he holds us in the palm of his hand is not enough to keep us from trying to take care of things ourselves.
And even in following God, we can sometimes pervert and spin God's amazing love and grace into something that would make even the Prosecutor-of-the-Saints smile. When we read God's word, or we gather with God's people for worship, there exists some of the greatest tempation to sin. When we are confronted with God's holy law, we want to run away from it -- for even in our redeemed state, we shirk away from the Light to hide in the darkness.
We try to play hide-and-seek with our Dad walking in the cool of the evening while scrambling to put some leaves together for clothes. And while we're lurking in the dark corners of our self-righteousness, we cover our mouths with a hand, say "Bless his heart," and point. In our minds, we lock people out of God's kingdom, and try to keep them from getting in to find the Truth.
And it makes Jesus mad.
"But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!"
"Woe to you, blind guides! You blind fools!"
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You blind guides! You strain our a gnat but swallow a camel!"
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You blind Pharisee!"
I'll be honest. I'm kind of hunkered down. I'm looking around with shifty eyes. It's a good thing that Paul has just affirmed that God is for us; that none can stand against his Love. Because Jesus just laid it down like it is.
When I read today's Gospel lesson, I feel convicted. I think of every time I didn't involve someone I knew needed hope and love and friendship with the love and hope found in Christ. I think of the times I told people what to wear before coming to church. I think of my own virulent reaction to some of the people whose sins I know, and who have "the audacity" to show up in church.
"Woe to you ... hypocrite!"
I feel the conviction of the Spirit in thinking about my denomination and my churches for our treatment of some people whose sin we have elevated to some sort of super-sin that apparently requires recourse to the old Covenant Law. I think of how we tolerate all kinds of evil in the name of grace and love while keeping our churches firmly (and comfortably) full of people who think, dress, and worship just like us.
"For you cross sea and land to make a single convert" -- but you don't talk to the person across the street. Next door. In your own family.
"...you tithe mint, dill, and cummin," making sure to avoid this drink, and that type of dress or music while making sure not to do that, "and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith." Walking by the homeless man. Ignoring him on the way to church. Caring nothing about starving people dying in our own cities and around the world while we sit fat and happy eating our Double-Quarter-Pounders with cheese (and ketchup only, please -- with a Coke, too).
We're too busy "straining the gnat" out to take care of the "camel" we should be avoiding. We're so careful to clean the outside of the cup, that the inside swims with filthy self-indulgence and greed.
Hypocrites. Pharisees, right? Not just the Pharisees. Us. Each of us. Convicted. Guilty.
But wait a second. I seem to recall that the Holy Spirit, through Paul, just had something to say about conviction. Is there only woe? Are we called to a spirit of fear and loathing? Must we wallow in the dark recesses of our self-indulgent sin?
"Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?" There is no codemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
What, then, should we do when conviction, especially conviction we deserve, presses down?
"First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean."
Repent. Claim the promise of the power of God's love. Remember that it is Jesus who intercedes for us, and that our holiness must be linked to his. We have nothing on our own; as we saw in yesterday's text, we must not put on our fine clothes and strut about praying for two hours on the JumboTron at the front of the Six Flags Over Jesus.
We must get our knees, in humility, and ask our Intercessor to head into the Courtroom. We must come to the end of our excuses and have the awe-inspiring understanding that we bear the image of the Almighty, and that we must depend totally on His love.
We cannot clean the inside of the cups of our lives. We try all the time, and we just end up fishing out the gnat while we swallow the camel. But nothing can stop Jesus, not even death itself.
Surely, then, He can take care of a little dish-washing.
Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, we confess that we, in ourselves, are hypocrites. We proclaim with our lips and our works that we love and serve you while we struggle in our hearts for our next opportunity to sin. Lord, we confess that without you, our lives are spent spit-shining the outside of the cup, while the empty filthiness remains thickly lodged in our hearts. We repent, Father. We adore your mighty Love, that set us free from sin and death. Save us, Lord, from our own hypocrisy. Create in us, O God, a new spirit and heart each day. We thank you, Father, for your word and its powerful assurances coupled with challenging conviction. Help us to hear your voice, Holy Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and our Almighty Father, One God, now and forever, Amen.