God Says I’m Better Than You
Have you ever stepped into a church and just felt so far removed from the message they were preaching from the pulpit?
This was my first time in this particular church, and I went in as open as one can possibly be, putting aside all conscious potential barriers. A well-respected pastor with several degrees from various theological seminaries and universities was preaching that day. He had quite a resume, which had been graciously printed out and placed inside the order of service.
When he began preaching, everybody listened. He spoke for about an hour. He touched a wide range of topics, from racial injustice, economic inequality, oppression of minorities, the recent Mr. Rogers documentary, privilege, and the importance of children.
Everything, he argued, is all about the children. We, as adults, have a responsibility to them, to treat them with respect, because the kingdom belongs to them. This was probably his most scriptural claim.
However, one very important topic was missing from his sermon: Jesus Christ. He was mentioned, just once. After waxing eloquently about the wonderful example set by Mr. Rogers, he said, “that was the gospel of Mr. Rogers. And have you been paying attention? That’s the gospel of Jesus Christ, too.” But that’s all that was said.
Not only did he not preach about Christ, but he preached a human-focused theology. He preached law, dressed up as gospel or discipleship. In fact, he came dangerously close to stating plainly that people in positions of power, like Donald Trump, could not be as close to God as the good people sitting in this church. He said that the privileged, the oppressors, are further away from God than the marginalized and oppressed. And this is not good. This means that someone like Donald Trump would have to give up his privileges, give up his wealth, become a better person, before he can get closer to God.
That is not the love and grace offered by Jesus Christ. It is so tempting to view our various earthly sins comparably. It is so tempting to think that I’m really not that bad compared to the guy shooting people, the guy breaking up immigrant families, the person rigging the stock market, the person committing crime, the person having an affair. Compared to them, I’m not that bad. But these are earthly comparisons. And these are comparisons of sin, not of the sinner.
We are all sinners. Therefore, we all sin. The earthly effects of our sins vary, but the extent to which we are sinners does not. No human being is less of a sinner than another. No one of us is better in the eyes of God than another. No one of us deserve God’s love more than another. None of us deserve his grace, his love, his forgiveness.
But he does love us. Because of that love, he sent his son, Jesus Christ, to this earth. He was not a sinner. He was killed by us, charged with a crime he did not commit, and he bore the weight of that sin — of the world’s sin — in that death. Because of that, God does not see us as sinners; he sees us as Christ. God sees us as perfect as Christ. God forsook his only son so that we can live.
And then Christ even conquered that death. He was raised from the dead and he ascended into heaven, with the promise that we will rise and join him also.
Notice that we do not have to do anything. It’s literally already happened. There’s nothing you can do. To God, you are already perfect. We are so imperfect, yet Christ bore those imperfections so that God may see us as perfect as Christ.
None of us deserve that grace, none of us deserve that love. I can think of a million reasons why I don’t deserve it, and yet it’s there. He is there.
“Tut tut tut, Donald, don’t make me walk away!” — God
And he is there for everyone. There are no conditions. Christ didn’t die for some people, he died for everyone. Therefore everyone is saved. Whether you’re a corrupt king or a bullied beggar, Christ died for you. There are two illustrations that demonstrate this best. One is from Søren Kierkegaard:
Consider for a moment the world which lies before you … it is like a play. But when the curtain falls, the one who played the king, and the one who played the beggar, and all the others — they are all quite alike, all one and the same: actors. And when in death the curtain falls on the stage of actuality … then they also are all one; they are human beings. … It seems to be forgotten that the distinctions of earthly existence are only like an actor’s costume.” (Works of Love, 95)
And the other is a poem/song from spoken-word poet Micah Bournes:
Where to Go From Here: The Preacher
So what does this all mean? That there’s no space for criticism? That we can’t say someone who does terrible things in our society is wrong for doing so? That justice cannot be served because ultimately all sins are forgiven? Absolutely not. But it is very important to know what your foundation is.
Is your gospel built on the foundation of oppression, of “me v. them?” and divisions amongst humanity? Or is your understanding of the divisions in this world — the racism, bigotry, misogyny, crime, murder, tragedy, sexism — built on a foundation of the gospel? How can that even work?
The preacher holds some responsibility for this. It is the preacher’s job to help you build that foundation, and to guide you towards the materials to do so. It is the preacher’s job to remind you of the gospel, and important, the gospel for you. Social justice is important, but it needs to come from a scripture-based, Christ-centered, grace-focused foundation and it needs to aim at love of neighbor. This is what should be preached on Sundays. The forgiveness of sins that no one but God can offer you is there for you — and by the grace of God, you can share that with others. This is the true foundation of the church. Christ is the fulfillment of the law, not us. Yes — Christ calls us to poverty, to humility, to powerlessness, and we can therefore draw closer to Him — but if social justice and the breaking down of social structures is our God, then we have not come anywhere. We have replaced the power and money we so detest with our own gods instead of with Christ. Perhaps this is even more dangerous because we are now instilled with a sense of righteousness?
Where to Go From Here: You and Me
But most of us aren’t preachers. How does this apply to us?
Justice is not found by simply readjusting the divisions in our society. It’s found in removing those divisions completely.
We still have conversations. And we can still share this message. In fact, it’s very true that most conversations about social justice are happening outside the church.
Engage. When you hear someone shut someone else down for saying the wrong thing, enter the conversation. Convey your thoughts. Justice is not found by simply readjusting the divisions in our society. It’s found in removing those divisions completely.
Listen. Christ loves you, and he wants to know you. He wants a relationship with you. The best way to build a relationship, especially with someone you disagree with, is to listen. When people complain that God doesn’t speak to them, maybe it’s because he thinks listening to them is more important (or maybe it’s because they’re refusing to listen themselves.) Either way, it’s a lot easier to love your neighbor when you know your neighbor.
Love. I cannot stress this enough: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the one thing Christ commands of us now that we are free. But it is not one we can fail at if we are Christ-centered— it’s a necessary consequence of the Holy Spirit, of Grace, working in your heart — and it’s the best way (indeed, the only way) to share the love of Christ. “Love your neighbor” should be the ethical foundation of every Christian. To again use Micah Bournes’ brilliant work, from a song, “I Don’t Pay No Mind:”
When your enemies are hungry, feed them
When they thirsty for blood, pour’em up a cup of love
Even wicked men are kind to their partners in their crime
But that gospel of divine goes behind enemy lines
Go in peace. Rest assured that despite being a sinner, each and every one of your sins was paid for on the cross by Christ. You are forgiven in Him.
Serve the Lord. Free from the debts of sin, love your neighbor. Love your neighbor freely, lovingly, and graciously.
Engage. Listen. Love.