Last week I was having a conversation with someone, laughing about how quickly things become standard in the church. In my last congregation, the third Sunday I was there, I changed something slightly in the service. While she was not protesting, my Choir director’s initial response was, “but you always do it the other way.” To which I responded, “I’ve been here three weeks!” We had a good laugh. It is funny how quickly things change and how often we get sucked into following traditions rather than the message or Word of God.
Early in the church people were creating these traditions. On of the biggest, at least through reading Paul’s letters, was the determination of who is in and who is out. Obviously this was important because as a new sect of Judaism, the early Christians were carrying with them an understanding of a very ordered life. Even non-Jewish converts, who were most likely the bulk of Paul’s community, carried with them the systems that predated Christ, since the scriptures and teachers were grounded in Jewish thought and tradition. The problem with a carryover like this is that often it interfered with the message of Christ and instead of sharing and evangelizing; it became overly focused on the way in which people live.
Remember, when Christ came into this world he said that he was bringing with him a new paradigm. This radically changed what it meant to have a faith-filled life. Thus, it had less to do with the prescribed ordering of life, and more to do with constantly asking how we are faithful to God.
This was one of the big issues the church had with monasticism. There is a fun article I read back in seminary about how the reformers denounced the Gregorian Chants. Back in the 90’s Gregorian Chants were a big thing. Anyhow, the issue that the reformers had was not only with the Gregorian chants, but with piety and other ascetic lifestyles, is that, in their internal self-focus they cannot be faithful to God because they are too focused on themselves.
In both readings this coming Sunday, we see the new ordering. For the Romans passage, Paul reminds the church that their job is to welcome people and NOT judge. Continuing on the tradition laid out in the previous section on loving your neighbor, Paul takes this one step further by asking us who is actually served when we judge? The answer, especially when we think about it, is typically ourselves. Whether that be comfort or safety or something else, usually there is a selfish motive to our Judgment.
In the parable of the unforgiving servant, the wealthy king went on a mission of collection to his servants. After a heartfelt plea, the king forgave the servant, only for the servant to turn around and not forgive the debts of those who owed him. While there are many lessons in this story, the standout in this passage is how self-focused the servant was. Instead of living into forgiveness, he lived into himself, his needs, his wants, and so on.
Both passages bring to light the new paradigm that Christ talks about. When we live for Christ, we are constantly looking for how we can connect with God, how we can connect with others and how we can move forward in faith. In Romans, Paul is remarking on how it is impossible to bring people to a relationship with God if judgment is part of the church. In Matthew, Jesus is remarking on how impossible it is to be a faithful person if we cannot forgive one another as God has forgiven us.
Together, both passages are asking how we put God first and not ourselves. I really do not know much about the Gregorian community and even less about monastic life, but I know one of the great struggles that Christianity has today is a cult within the church that places the self over God and an individual’s needs over the community. A cult that can claim that some are “true Christians” and others are not. As a denomination, this is one of those great battles that we fight and interestingly, whether conservative or liberal, consistently we fall on the side of rejecting rules and traditions which force a judgment on one another or accept a graceless reality in our lives.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen