THIS MUST BE THE PLACE
TEXT: John 8:2-11
The gathering in this scripture story was a gathering of the people of God. Very often the gathering of the people of God gets that way. Instead of to praise God and to give God worship or to encourage one another, very often the people of God gather to stone somebody or to judge. This morning the sermon will be a little bit different for two reasons. One, because I found a song that basically is the sermon, that says exactly what I want to say about the church. The other reason that it's going to be a little bit different is that the part that I wrote out to precede that, I don't like very much now. So I'm just going to talk about the nature of that verse and that passage and that story. The message of that passage, I think, is absolutely critical for us as a church. We can take it to be for us as individuals, and to a degree, we should. But I also think we need to hear it as a message for the church gathered. Because it was the people of the church who had gathered, saying, "This is what the law says. (or in our context, "This is what the Discipline says.") Ok, Jesus, what are you going to do?"
It mentions they said that to test him. They had already known from their experience with Jesus that he broke the law of Moses on several occasions, and that he was prone to hanging out with sinners and some of the riffraff of society, and they knew that he was not likely to condemn the woman. But they brought her with concrete evidence, laying out the law in front of him to be sure that he knew, and then they said, "All right, Jesus, what are you going to do about this?"
Jesus, in this passage, is brilliant. We often think of Jesus in a lot of glib terms, but I want to be sure you recognize that this is one smart cookie. Jesus is a smart, perceptive man. There've been a lot of questions about what he was writing on the ground. I don't think he was writing anything in particular. I think he was just doodling as he thought about how he was going to respond. And as he thought, he knew the law of Moses as well or better than any of them, and in the law of Moses there are many, many reasons to stone people. Adultery is just one of them. (And by the way, we shouldn't leave that passage without noticing -- the woman was caught in the very act of adultery. Where's the guy? The law of Moses was very fair. Both of them were to be held accountable. The woman was caught in the act, and only the woman was brought.)
But aside from that, Jesus knows that the things like idolatry, blasphemy, sassing your parents, working on the Sabbath, a whole host of things, were condemned by stoning in the law of Moses. And he knew the people around him. This was not a gathering of strangers, for the most part. This was a gathering of people who pretty much knew each other. So Jesus laid the burden on the accountability of the group. He said, "All right, the person out there without any sin, you start it." And just as in any community church, people looked around, and some might have thought of picking up a stone, but they thought, "There's So-and-so. They know what I did last week. They're going to say something if I pick up a stone." And all the way around, people left, starting with the elders, because they were the ones who had the right to throw first. And as the elders left, soon everybody left, because somewhere along the line everybody had done something that they should have been stoned for doing, and they knew it.
Then Jesus, the only one who's righteous, is left with the woman. He doesn't condone what she's done. He recognizes it as sin. But he doesn't condemn. "No, I don't condemn you either. Just go and don't sin again." We have two pictures of the church: what the church can often be like when we insist on just going by the book -- we're the righteous ones and we're supposed to ferret out the sinners and deal with it -- and then the picture of what Jesus presented that the church should be like -- accountable-ness, but in love, recognizing that we are all sinners, saved by the grace of God.
One of my favorite quotes says, "The church is a hospital for sinners, not a hotel for saints." We forget that. Let's face it -- the church over time has a crummy history. We call ourselves the body of Christ, which means we are supposed to be Christ for others. We are the physical representation of Christ in the world, now that Christ has ascended to God. We're it. We're supposed to be acting out toward others in the way that Christ acted. Instead, so often we're those scribes and pharisees. Sometimes it's really blatant atrocities -- the inquisition, crusades -- sometimes we're more complicit like in the holocaust, or sometimes we have our little individual atrocities in individual congregations and churches. I'll bet if I asked how many of you know someone who now will not go to church because they were once harmed and judged and hurt within the body of Christ, almost every one of you could raise your hand. And I could probably raise enough hands for the people who didn't. So many people. The church has been its own worst enemy over time. Often the reason people do not come into the church is because of their experiences with the church, not because they don't know. Sometimes it's because they do know. We need to hear the message of John 8.
I often hear people struggle with the notion of being like Jesus was with the woman caught in adultery, saying, "But we can't condone sin." That's true. We can't condone sin. But Jesus didn't condone it. Jesus simply loved the woman. Jesus living in human flesh knew how much we struggle, how hard it was. All of the others did not condemn her once Jesus pointed out that sin is sin, after all, and we are all in the same boat.
I think the church can learn today by looking at twelve-step programs. That's where the grace of God is sometimes shown better than in church. In those kinds of meetings the sins that people are struggling with aren't condoned, but the people are welcomed and they're loved. They know that this is a community that exists solely so that they can all support each other in making their lives better, and for getting through and over and around the sins that beset them. In an AA meeting, when somebody comes in and reports that they fell off the wagon this last week, nobody says, "Isn't that great." It's not ignored, but neither do they pick up stones. It's a time for increased vigilance, to help a person try to get back on the wagon and not fall off the next time.
That's what we're designed to be. Not as a place where everybody's perfect. Not as a place where, when someone confesses a sin, we say "Oh, it doesn't matter." That's how the word "grace" got associated with "cheap grace," which Christians are sometimes accused of. We fall on two extremes. We can throw stones or we can ignore it completely, which is called "cheap grace." Somewhere along the line we have lost the encouragement and the accountability, even within our sin, to be able to come and have a safe place, a sanctuary. That's what "sanctuary" means, a safety place, where we can come and try to live better lives. Not by ourselves, but with each other. Where it's safe to be able to come and say, "I had an affair," "I have a problem with alcohol," "I've been taking money from work." To be able to say those things, sins great and small, and to have a place that's safe from the throwing of stones, but a place where other Christians can help.
We all sin. It's the old fundamentalist message, with a twist. I'm not happy with the way fire and brimstone is used to create shame and guilt. But I think there is a very important component to us being able to live together as the church, in recognizing we are all sinners. Until we realize that about every last one of us, we can't extend grace to other people. It becomes an us/them thing. We're the righteous ones, they're the sinners. When we recognize that we're all a mess, in different ways, that we're all working to be better than we are, then we can all work together to help each other, all coming, as they do in a twelve-step program, from the same place. At the beginning of one of those programs, the one thing that everybody has to admit to is that they're a mess. They have a problem that is beyond their control, and they need outside help to be able to deal with it. That's where we all are, in different areas of our lives.
The church must be the place where we can come and find sanctuary, find safety, and not find stones thrown against us. It's just as destructive to us when we come if sin doesn't matter, or we're too embarrassed to hear what someone has done. We need to be a place that can be open, where we can talk about our failures as well as our successes. How can anyone celebrate with us, when we have finally overcome a problem we've been struggling with in our lives, if nobody knows? It becomes a very individual, private thing, and we lose the joy of the community among us. This has to be the place, as the song says, "where shame meets grace." Where the two of those things come together and we truly are the body of Christ for each other.
© 2000, Anne Robertson
"This Must Be the Place"
Souls on the street, addicted to sin,
The neighbor next door keeps the house looking good,
This must be the place where a broken heart can mend.
There must be a point where sin meets grace,
© 1998 Steve Amerson Music (BMI) and Centergy Music (BMI)
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