In today’s excerpt from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans the apostle speaks about judgment, insisting each and every one of us will give an account of his or her life before God and on the basis of what we have done and failed to do, we will be judged. Our lives are not simply our own to do with whatever we please. Instead, our lives belong to God and have been given to us by God with a purpose, an intentionality.
In the moment God’s judgment, all the masks we hide behind will fall away and in the radiant light of God’s truth all that is false or untrue will be exposed.
This prospect is terrifying, but necessary, and it will happen, not just at the end of life, but throughout our lives- we will be compelled to be honest, to reckon with the consequences of our actions, to repent and make amends. God will work through some secondary cause in our lives to bring us to honesty about our failures to love and to serve.
While we might fear this prospect, it is ultimately liberating. No one who is living in lies is ever free. The liberation from lies is rarely an easy experience, which is why the scriptures so often refer to God’s judgment as being akin to a crucible, but the scriptures also insist that the purpose of this crucible is not one of destruction, but of transformation and renewal.
St. Paul is clear that the meting out of this judgment is reserved to God alone, not to us. Our proper disposition in relation to our brothers and sisters is always one of humility, for all have, according to St. Paul, sinned, all have fallen short. Our relationship to those who have sinned is to be one of help, not one of belligerence.
If our sense of the faith is constructed simply on the assumption that helping those who have sinned is simply telling them they are wrong then we are evading the hard and necessary work of Christian discipleship in which it is never enough simply to tell people they are wrong, but to demonstrate what is right and to help people to do it.
Christ’s conflict with the Pharisees in the Gospel represents the shocking revelation of his identity and mission to his fellow Israelites.
Remember, the Gospels testify that the Lord Jesus is the God of Israel who has come himself to fulfill the Messianic hopes of the prophets- God has come into the world in Christ to accomplish the very things the prophets longed for God to do.
One of these hopes was the gathering of the Israelites together as one people. Some among the Pharisees had limited this hope to being only those Israelites who conformed to their interpretation of the Law of Moses. In their construal, this meant that only the righteous would be gathered together as one people. True communion with God was contingent on accepting the way of life that the Pharisees insisted would make you a faithful Israelite. Christ reveals God’s vision to be different from what the Pharisees propose, as he desires, not just the righteous to enjoy his presence, but he also desires the restoration of those considered to be sinners. God in Christ intends to draw sinners into a relationship with himself so that even sinners can discover from Christ the possibility of becoming saints.
The new Israel, restored and redeemed, will not just include faithful adherents to the Law of Moses or even only Israelites, but God in Christ will gather as one people all those who would come to him in humility and in a willingness to live as his disciples.
Christ’s purpose is not simply to affirm the sinner as they are, but to invite them into a new way of life. The Pharisees objected to this because it was not their way of life that Christ was gathering people to accept.
All of this constitutes a kind of a description of the Church. The Church is God in Christ’s new Israel, which is constantly gathering into relationship with God, sinners (that’s us!) who desire to become saints!