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Dignity, John 8, and Christian Love

“Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” John 8:11b

At New City, we are currently going through a series on our core values of Love, Rest, Risk, and Send. This past Sunday, we covered our core value of “Love” and Zach shared that one of the essential features of Christ-like love is a focus on restoring dignity, both in others and in ourselves.

To put it succinctly, our dignity ultimately finds roots in our identity.  If our identity is based in fleeting and superficial realities, then we will find ourselves constantly searching for worth and dignity in all the wrong places.  To illustrate this point further, Zach gave us the biblical example of Adam and Eve before and after they rebelled against God in Genesis 3.  Before their turning away, Adam and Eve were living in “Shalom,” a kind of perfect peace and harmony where there was no fracturing of their identity in God.  Because of this, they experienced a fully dignified life harmonized with the One who gave them life.  What happened, however, after both Adam and Eve removed themselves from identity in God is that their understanding of their own worth and dignity began to fall apart.  They were now flooded with shame (v 7) and fear (v 8-10).  This is precisely why they hide from God in the Garden (v 8), it is why Adam immediately blames Eve for what happened (v 12), and Eve immediately blames the serpent for her sin (v 13).  When our identities fail to be rooted in the Creator, our relationships, both with God and each other, unravel.  In other words, there is a kind of outward ripple effect that takes place when our identities shift from God to something lesser and the first causality of this ripple effect is our own inherent dignity and worth.

Humanity’s rejection of God and His perfect love in Genesis 3 began a bleak trajectory where the loss of identity is followed by the disintegration of dignity and relationships. However, this “bleak trajectory” also set up the stage for the most beautiful restoration that could ever take place. The Fall of humanity establishes the impetus and context for the mission of God to reunite Himself with His wayward people.  This mission climaxes in the person of Jesus Christ.  The mission of Christ needs to be understood in light of the rebellion and sin of humanity because it demonstrates the steadfast and perfect nature of God’s love for His creation and it gives insight into the nature of Jesus’ ministry.  These will be explored now.

Towards the end of his sermon, Zach shared that wherever Jesus went during his earthly ministry, he was always dignifying others.  In other words, Jesus was (and is!) re-weaving the world back together through providing a way for our identities to be rooted in God once again.  You see, because Jesus’ own identity was and is perfectly aligned and at one with the Father, he is able to ignite the inherent dignity in others all around him.  Zach said that “dignified people dignify people,” and Jesus is our ultimate model of this truth.  If our identities are in Christ, they are in God (John 1:12) and if they are in God, then our dormant dignity is awakened and inflamed by our renewed knowledge of His love for us.  This then pours out of our own life into our spheres of influence, whether that be our homes, workplaces, or other spaces where we spend our time, like the local coffee shop or neighborhood park (Phil 2:17).  Christian identity is contagious because its very nature is to re-ignite a wildfire of dignity in all who come in contact with it.  And when this doesn’t happen amongst God’s people, we know something is amiss. When the life of the Church doesn’t reflect the life of Jesus, when the Body is misaligned with the Head, it means that our identities have strayed from the identity Giver.  This is why Christocentric practices are so important! Another topic for another time.

Now that we see the downward trajectory of sin’s undignifying effects and how this trajectory set the stage for Jesus’s mission to provide identity and, consequently, dignity to all who call upon his name, we can now explore what this looks like in practice.  And, to do so, our gaze will remain fixed on the one who practiced it perfectly.

In John 8, the Pharisees toss a woman in front of Jesus who has been accused of adultery.  Under the Law of Moses, adultery is punishable

Christ and the Pharisees by Earnst Zimmerman

by stoning to death.  The Pharisees knew that to be a faithful Jew one must adhere to the Law and they wanted desperately for Jesus to be unfaithful to the Law, giving them reason to undermine his ministry so that they could hold onto religious and political power. You see, the Pharisees weren’t at all concerned about the state of the woman who they threw down at Jesus’s feet–they weren’t even concerned with the sin she represented! They were only concerned with the woman insofar as she provided a means to their twisted end.  How many times have we called out the sin of political candidate or church leader from another tradition only to validate our own tribes?  I know I have been guilty of this.  In his sermon, Zach called this the problem of “diagnosis.”  It isn’t that diagnosis is wrong in and of itself–it’s that diagnosis isolated from grace and love becomes Pharisaism.  For example, we would never want our doctor to break the news to us that we have a serious illness as if it were mere routine.  This kind of behavior violates the image of God in others. When we aren’t concerned about the state of another’s heart, we neglect God in them. This is precisely what the Pharisees were doing to that woman, who now sat in the dirt, with stones raised above her head, between the religious leaders of the day.

Jesus, on the other hand, understood the law differently.  He understood that the purpose of the Law was to facilitate communion between God and His people.  Its primary aim was to capture hearts so that true relationship could be restored.  This is why in that moment, instead of dismissing the dignity of the woman before him, it becomes his primary concern.  Jesus speaks his famous line in verse 7 when he says, “You without sin cast the first stone,” and in this moment he extends protection and grace.  The heart of the story, in my estimation, is what takes place after the Pharisees leave and Jesus is left alone with the woman.  The text says in verses 10-11: “Jesus stood up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.’”

Jesus knew that to heal her life of sin, this woman did not need to be beaten or harassed or arrested–she needed to be dignified.  This bloodied, dirty woman who is standing with her head down before Jesus, the one many are calling a prophet of God and some are even calling the Messiah, must have been feeling so little in that moment.  Jesus, recognizing this, clothes her with dignity.  He does this in two ways.

  • The first is that he extends grace by protecting her, not condemning her, and setting her free. He could have given her a moralizing lesson about sexual sin.  He could have chewed her out for her sins.  He could have even given his own sentence.  And at times, this approach is appropriate and necessary (e.g. Jesus and Peter!).  But instead, recognizing her hearts deepest needs, Jesus decides to speak freedom and worth and dignity to someone who was starving for it.
  • The second is that he tells her to stop sinning. This is so crucially important for us to hear in the Church today.  In our fear of offending others and in our emphasis on inclusion and tolerance, we must never forget that the Gospel demands holiness.  Jesus dignifies this woman by expecting her to be holy.  Jesus sees this woman as really is, a beautiful daughter of a loving Father.  In this vision for her life, Jesus sees purity and radiance and joy, but she can only ever achieve those things when she chooses beauty over depravity.

Dignity demands both grace and expectation.  We must extend mercy, inclusion, and acceptance of those who need it, but then we must see them as Jesus sees them –we must have a vision for their life beyond what it is in its current state.  This is not judgement, this is hope.  Jesus spoke dignity to this dirty, ashamed woman who was entrapped in a life of sin by extending grace and freedom but also by calling her higher to a life worthy of her identity in God.  When we, in our current 21st century Western context, move out into the world and are presented with the God-given opportunities to dignify others, we must see as Jesus sees. We must extend grace and uphold holiness; we must offer freedom whilst clinging to the truth.  This is the tension of Christian love.  It is a tight-rope walk that can, at times, feel impossible to accomplish.  How can we diagnose and care? How are we to accept and demand?  How can we include the person but not their lifestyle?  We begin with what Jesus did and what He does through His Spirit, and that is by reminding people of their real identity and by dignifying them every step of the way.  This is what love lived out looks like and a dignified world is the fruit of this love.

I will end with these thoughts from C.S. Lewis’s famous sermon “The Weight of Glory”:

The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else

a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics…And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

Gratitude in Community

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 (NRSV)

Here at New City, we have been exploring the idea of gratitude and what it looks like expressed in community. The challenge that Zach gave us this past Sunday was to be a church, a community, where “our gratefulness outweighs our giftedness.” There is so much packed into those five words, and this post will attempt to explore what living out this challenge means for us, not only as individuals, but as a people called to live a life together saturated with thanksgiving. This exploration will focus on 1) seeing our individual giftings as God’s pure grace in our lives and 2) viewing the community itself as a gift, transforming our participation in the community.

1) Gratitude means that we see all things as a pure gift from God.

This principle of “gift,” both on the individual and communal level, is the heartbeat of what it means to be the people of God. If in my own heart I view my abilities as primarily my own and my skills as ones that only I developed, then I will build walls of pride and status that will lead to isolation. If I own my abilities, then I can only offer them at great cost to myself. In contrast, if we see our giftings (notice the language shift here?) as not our own, but as the result of God’s grace in our lives, then we have no need to protect them, but only to faithfully steward them for the sake of others.

This posture of seeing the whole of our lives as a gift also allows us to more readily see the gifts in others. If I take sole ownership of my talents, I will naturally see them as better and more useful than the talents of others, which leads to unhealthy comparison and envy. This can develop factions deep within and oftentimes pit us against our brothers and sisters. This animosity runs directly against the unity that Jesus prays over his Church “that they may be one” (John 17:21).

However, if I see my talents as the sole result of God’s grace in my life, I begin to notice God’s grace in all people. The walls are broken down and this deep recognition of gift in myself opens the door wide open for the practice of thankfulness, celebration, humility, collaboration, and love between members of a community. In order to have gratitude, we must see the whole of our lives as a gift from the Good Gift Giver.

2) Seeing our community as a gift necessarily transforms our relationship to it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book Life Together has a convicting and powerful word for us as the Church:

The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own laws, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together… God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship,…God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by his call, by his forgiveness, and his promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what he does give us daily.

Bonhoeffer here gives us two distinct and contrasting approaches to our life together as Christians. He says that we can be “demanders” who have our own ideas of what the community should be like, or as “thankful recipients” who see the community fundamentally as a gift from God. If I enter a community with dreams of leadership without service, of status without humility, of ownership without giving, then I am living in what Bonhoeffer calls a “wish dream,” and I am a “destroyer” of that community from the very beginning. Instead, if when I stand next to my brothers and sisters in awe of the God who placed them in my life, by that very posture I am allowing for the Spirit of God to move and work. How great is the design that God has for His people!

This is the crucial point of Bonhoeffer’s remarks: Jesus is the one who makes this kind of community possible. Through his faithfulness on the Cross, he has destroyed the need for distinctions and “dividing walls of hostility” and gives us all an invitation to a community mediated by him and his finished work (Ephesians 2:14). What a beautiful image! We now no longer have to rely on what we can offer to others, but what Christ can offer through us. The ultimate gift that we have been given is God Himself in Jesus Christ. If we neglect to live into that reality, not only will we begin to erode our own hearts with pride and envy, but we will then begin to erode the community around us. We must remember that the health of our hearts will always manifest itself externally.

Lastly, because we live in a culture so marked by the pulses of individualism, status, competition, and isolation, just think of how a robust community of gratefulness rooted in the person of Jesus Christ could witness to the world around us. Jesus’s prayer for unity among his people ends this way: “So that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:23). Seeing our lives as gracious gift leads to gratitude; gratitude leads to unity; and unity then creates a light for the world that cannot be ignored. The world is hungry for healthy community, and truly healthy community is found only in the self-sacrificial love of Christ. Let us be that vision, that answer, for which the world hungers so that we may have the opportunity to invite others into the ever-expanding table of Jesus.

So, how do we at New City live into this challenge to be a community where “our gratefulness outweighs our giftedness?” We pursue Jesus together and remember that it is in His gift of Himself that we truly find ourselves and each other.

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

 

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together. Harper, 1954, 26-28