There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ--if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:1-2)
The church I serve in Birmingham, Alabama, has a great location. We're on a busy, east-west artery of an older, but still robust, suburb of the city. The street is narrow and a traffic light at our intersection gives drivers a few spare minutes to look in our direction. So a few years ago we began to hang a banner on the front lawn. Our first message announced the rebirth and renewal of our eighty-eight year old congregation. The banner read,
"A New Day is Dawning. Come See." Sunday's, 9:30 a.m.
Other banners have trumpeted special events, workshops, new classes, even our web page address. Our most productive banner--the one that has actually drawn visitors and even new members into our fold--is one that proclaims us an "Open-minded, Open-hearted" congregation.
Contemplating today's reading from Romans, I have imagined yet a new banner for our church and perhaps your church too. Today St. Paul proclaims, "There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." The banner I imagine reads: "No condemnation." Sundays, 9:30 a.m. This banner will be seen by thousands of motorists. Most drivers will ignore it; some will reject it, but a few will question it. And every now and again, one or more will come to find out if it's true. Is it possible for a church to exist without condemnation of others?
Among the curious who will inquire is a fellow by the name of Bama Bubba. Bama is a fantasy character, of course, but since childhood some of my very best friends have been imaginary, so not to worry. I have imagined Bama coming into our little church drawn by this banner strung across the church lawn--"No condemnation." Sundays, 9:30 a.m. Bama wants to know, "What is the meaning of this message, "No condemnation?" Driving down our congested street day after day, Bama Bubba has puzzled over these two words. He has wondered if it's possible--a church where there is no condemnation. You see, last time Bubba "darkened the doors," he heard lots of condemnation. Back in the 60's, he heard criticism of civil rights leaders, peace proponents and liberal "do-gooders." In the 70's, he heard condemnation of intellectuals and divorcees, women taking on leadership roles. And that's about when Bubba checked out. Not that he had any sympathy for any of the above, mind you. But he was smart enough to know that if the church felt free to condemn others, sooner or later it would surely condemn him.
So this slogan catches Bubba's attention. "No condemnation." Sunday's 9:30 a.m. Surely this does not square with what Bubba has been reading in the papers about churches. From what he has read, churches around the country have been condemning sex in general and homosexuals in particular plus drinking and gambling and even Walt Disney. He has assumed that there must be a catch somewhere. Gotta be some fine print on that sign. Something about "No condemnation of good people. No criticism of folks who can say the right words and know when to stand and when to sit and what to wear and how to write the big checks."
On a certain imaginary Friday in July of last year, TGIF turns out to be not so good for Bama Bubba. He gets chewed out by his boss for a minor mistake. His mama calls him on Friday night badgering him about his failure as a son. On Saturday morning his ex-wife calls complaining about her child support. The kids come over on Saturday afternoon whining from the get-go about nothing to do. Saturday night Bubba's significant other calls to say the relationship is going nowhere and she is going elsewhere.
So Sunday morning, Bama Bubba takes the bait and comes to the little church with the banner proclaiming, "No condemnation." Once inside the sanctuary, Bubba sees he's not the only one trying to hedge his bet. All the back row seats are taken on both sides of the aisle. Best he can do is an end seat on a pew four rows down on the left. From there, Bama surveys the scene. He sees a white-haired man wearing a black dress, a flock of children, a choir of many colors, old people, young people, single people, and families, plus a few suspicious-looking couples. What a cast of characters!
Strangest of all are the words, words, and more words. Written words, spoken words and sung words. They don't all sing, but when they get to the bold print, the whole bunch of them start blabbering out loud. We confess...we have done wrong. "I knew it was a trap! I knew it!" Bubba moans. And the congregation continues. We have done wrong, lived for ourselves, turned from our neighbors, refused to help others, ignored the pain of the world. Bubba grits his teeth. Here it comes. This is it. Somebody's gonna have to pay. I mean in Bubba's experience, you screw up, you pay. Like the preacher back home says, "God gonna rain down hellfire and damnation!" "What a sucker I have been," thinks Bubba.
Just then, he hears the preacher say, "I declare unto you, in the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven." "Can't be," Bubba thinks. "Can't be that easy. Still it is something to ponder."
Soon, a woman stands up and starts to read from a big Bible. Bubba tries to listen, but it is a struggle. Lots of names of unfamiliar places and people talk of enemies and sieges. However, when the reader gets to Romans, Bubba hears a familiar phrase, "There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." So that's where they get that line: "No condemnation."
But, see there, I knew there would be a catch. "No condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Always gotta be insiders and outsiders, just like I thought. And I'm an outsider." For the first time in years, Bubba prays: "God, get me out of here and I promise I'll be real good."
Now the Scripture readings are over and here comes the judge, black robe and all! Surely now the hammer, the gavel, is about to fall. Instead, Bama hears these words:
The divine intention for Christ's church is NO condemnation. NO condemnation of either the self, or the other. For St. Paul, the church is the place where the world, as God intends it to be, is accessible to humankind. The church reveals the world as it has been transformed by the Cross of Christ. The world where there is no condemnation. Here the prodigal child of God is always welcomed home--no questions asked. Here we celebrate the grace and mercy of God made known to us in Christ Jesus. A grace that knows no boundaries. A mercy that has no restrictions. A love that always includes, never excludes.
Bubba thinks, but is polite enough not to say out loud, "You could have fooled me."
As the preacher drones on, Bama Bubba's mind is racing. "What if? What if there were such a place? A place where no one is condemned. Not the liberals or the conservatives. Neither the rich nor the poor. Neither blue bloods nor rednecks. Neither women nor men. Neither straight nor gay. Neither youth nor the seniors. Would he, Bama Bubba, even want to be a part of such a group of people? Not sure," Bama admits. "No so sure."
But, what if being a member of a church like this meant that he, too, would be free of condemnation? Surely, these folks couldn't stop his mama or his ex-wife, or his boss or even his children from criticizing him. But what if these folks could help him stop beating up on himself, stop pounding himself for not getting it right all the time, not having all the answers in every situation, for not being a big success? What would it be like to live without self-condemnation? And what would it be like to live among people who aren't always harping on him constantly trying to get him to be something, someone, anyone but himself?
Of course, Bama is smart enough to know that if he himself expects to escape condemnation, he would have to commit to no condemnation of others, certainly a novel idea. Could a real man, a red-blooded American man, Alabama born and bred, accept people of different color, different gender, different religious traditions, different nationalities, even different sexual orientation? These are huge questions and for Bama Bubba, the jury is still out. He's still thinking about all the above, but he's doing it from that same pew on the left four rows from the back.
Bama Bubba and many of the rest of us in the church today are just now trying to come to grips with this revolutionary concept--this unprecedented idea of life without condemnation--without criticism of the self, without blame or accusation against the other. Bama Bubba and many of the rest of us are just now trying to understand and accept the eternal truth we proclaim to the whole world. Jesus of Nazareth gave his life that we might be free to live our lives without condemnation of either the self or the other.
To Jesus Christ who loves us
and freed us from our sins by his blood
and made us to be a kingdom,
priests of his God and father,
to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever.
Let us pray.
Gracious and holy God, set us free from the past that we cannot change; open to us a future in which we can be changed, and grant us grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image. Through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.