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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

Love of a Lion, Love of a Lamb

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!’ ”  Revelation 5:11-12 (NRSV)

How does the Church love in a world with so many opposing views of what love should look like?  We see some who say that love can be boiled down to telling the truth and demanding that everyone lives up to its standard.  There are others who say genuine love is letting people live their lives however they see fit, no matter the consequences.  The problem with these options is that truth without grace becomes cold and indifferent to the experiences of others, while grace divorced from truth dissolves into a kind of whimsical feeling shifting from one day to the next. We need to be a Church that enters into this world upholding both grace and truth.

But how?  Well, we can start by clinging to the One that is full of both.

John 1:14 says that “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory…full of grace and truth” (NASB).  Word became flesh.  Grace and truth.  It is no accident that John, inspired by the Holy Spirit, chooses these words to describe Jesus.  They are apparent contradictions, seemingly irreconcilable with each other.  How can this person be completely full of both “grace” and “truth”?  It is precisely in this tension that we begin to uncover the beautiful mystery of divine love.

But what, exactly, does this “divine love” look like?

Fortunately for us, Jesus provides us with tangible examples of this divine love throughout his life as recorded in the gospels. Here are just a few of these examples:

  • Jesus drives out merchants from the temple with all the force of a fanatic (Mt. 21:12-13) and then turns around to show compassion and heal the lame and the blind (Jn. 5:7-9).
  • Jesus, with a mighty word, calms the screaming winds and the towering waves (Mk. 4:35-41), but finds himself speechless when weeping with his closest friends (Jn. 11:35).
  • Jesus scolds the religious leaders of his day with all of the conviction of a prophet (Mt. 23:33), but is also willing to converse with a Pharisee under the cloak of night (Jn. 3:1-21).  
  • Jesus, the same one who on the mountainside became transfigured in radiant glory (Lk. 9:28-36) was somehow able to forgive those who tortured and mocked him (Lk 23:34).
  • Jesus, the King of the Cosmos (Rev. 19:16), the second person in the divine community (Jn. 10:30), and the promised Messiah (Is. 9:6-7) finds himself forsaken and alone on the cross struggling for every breath (Matthew 27).

As we study the constellation of events, teachings, and actions throughout Jesus’ life, a pattern of divine love begins to emerge.

In Jesus we see the fullness of grace and the fullness of truth exist without tension. This kind of paradoxical love transcends all of our earthly categories, it breaks into our feeble constructs and completely transforms everything it touches.  In Jesus we have our answer to the problem  of having to choose between one good thing at the expense of the other.  Jesus, fully God and fully man, showed us that in him all beauty and goodness can exist together in perfect harmony. Grace and truth, justice and compassion, rest and action, all of these things find their fullest expression in the life and love of Jesus.  

Artwork by Hubert Van Eyck

To help us understand this more clearly, John in Revelation 5 provides a beautiful picture of this divine love.  He describes his vision of the angels searching for the one who is able to break the seal of the scrolls that hold within them all of mysteries of God and His Truth.  Then one of the elders tells John to not worry because “the Lion of the tribe of Judah… has conquered” and will be able to accomplish what no one else can do.  But when John looks around for this “Lion,” he instead sees “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” taking the scrolls with authority and power.  What a breathtaking picture.  The logic of divine love, which is the wisdom of God, tells us that the fierce power of the Lion finds its ultimate expression through the humble state of a sacrificed Lamb. 

And here is where we enter the picture, Church: It is precisely because we are in relationship with Jesus, who mysteriously holds all these things together, that we are compelled to do the same.  We too have this very same love because we are in Christ and Christ is in us (2 Cor. 13:5). By virtue of Christ’s presence in our lives, we carry this divine love wherever we go. We need Christ Himself to indwell us with His Spirit so that we may carry the fullness of truth and grace into the world.  This means we do not have to choose between our convictions and our compassion but instead we allow them, through Christ, to inform who we are and what we do in this world.  Is this not the Gospel message that we are both saved from our sins by God’s grace and are now called to live in His truth?  Does Jesus not, after saving the adulterous woman from death by stoning then tell her to “go and sin no more”? 

So, as the Church, we must reject the ultimatums of our world outright.  We cannot subscribe only to grace or truth, to only compassion or justice, to only us or them.  We have a better answer, the only answer: The Love of the Lion and of the Lamb.

So this day, this week, and for the rest of your lives abide in Jesus Christ and let his perfect love transform all of who you are.  The world desperately needs it.  

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor 

 

(Featured Image artwork: The Sacrificial Lamb by Josefa de Ayala)