Every denomination that makes up the source and lion's share of the audience of Day 1 has experienced religious turmoil in recent decades. We have gone from being known as mainline churches to being called--in some circles--the sideline churches. We have experienced significant internal debate and division over societal norms, taboos and behaviors--most recently around whether there is any possibility that God could honor a homosexual relationship. It seems that this time of foment will continue for many years to come.
My own best guess is that in fifty years or so the Christian world will not be divided as Catholic and Protestant, liberal over against conservative, established versus free, or any of the other ways in which we have categorized ourselves in order to have some understanding of what is going on. I suspect that the Christian world will be organized largely around one pole that will center on right doctrine as the basis for unity. This will include most Roman Catholics, Missouri Synod Lutherans, quite possibly many of the indigenous African expressions of the faith and much of the Orthodox world. These churches will tend to exercise a high degree of discipline around behavior, belief, ethics, and so on. They will often, though not always, be hierarchical in form.
The other pole will be churches that are organized mostly around covenant relationship with Jesus, understanding themselves to be formed in the story of scripture, under the Holy Spirit and around the Lord's Table. These churches will include many, but not all, of the independent churches of the world and will, I suspect, include some of the current congregations of the old American mainline and not others. It may well include the emergence of one or more Catholic or world-wide expressions that place such relationship with Jesus prior to doctrine. One telling point of distinction will be around admission to the Table or Communion. In the first family of churches right belief and behavior will be the key. In the second group the understanding will be that it is around the Table that truth is told, communion discovered anew and behavior shaped by the Spirit.
Whether I am right or wrong about where we are headed, we are clearly in a time of significant change, realignment, some loss, also great possibilities for faith. At the same time we know all the unfortunate side effects of such a time: power struggles, claims to righteousness against the apostasy or infidelity of others, name calling, political maneuvering in the face of perceived threat. In this, we are not so very different from the world into which Jesus was born and on which his death stands as judgment. It was to this world-the world of those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt-that he told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. This parable serves now as then as a word of judgment on all those times when we would compare ourselves with others and declare ourselves righteous or those others somehow unworthy, something to which many of us are prone when life is changing around us, when we are looking for someone to blame.
It is quite common and quite normal for most of us to resist judgment made of us. No one likes to be criticized. If you are like me, it takes you a little while before you can hear any criticism as constructive. I will usually mentally argue against the criticism ("I am not self righteous.") Or I will argue against the critic ("That's really something coming from you of all people.") Anything to avoid the sting of judgment. I am much more likely to be able to hear criticism and make some kind of response if I trust the source. When the word comes from someone in whose love I trust, I am much more likely to benefit from a challenge than when it comes from someone who I suspect is out to get me or wants to see me fail or is quite simply being mean.
I'm also more likely to be able to hear and benefit from a judgment against me when I can separate the judgment from the fear of any consequences. Our justice system does a good thing by separating verdict from sentencing. There are all too many recidivists who believe they have 'paid their debt to society' because they have endured some kind of punishment. This has little or no relation to their experiencing a change of heart. Some years ago I worked with an agency that addressed, among other things, the issue of domestic violence. One of our regular conversations was about whether or not we should be putting any of our resources into attempting to either change the men who were regularly abusive and violent toward those they claimed to love. In those days the evidence was clear that it was extremely difficult to bring about a real change of heart in these men. But it was also clear that if there was to be any change or any hope of change in an abuser it came only after they had stood in court and been declared 'guilty' for all to see and all to hear. Sometimes it is the verdict that opens us to transformation; sometimes it is the verdict that opens us to becoming the people we were created to be.
So when we can recall those times when we have been assured of God's love for us and when we can still all those mechanisms we have for avoiding or hearing judgment--especially through trying to repay those who hurt our feelings--and when we can grasp grace enough to set aside a fear of consequences and punishment; then perhaps we are in a position to hear this parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector as a word to us, even in the midst of what might be radical change in our churches or other change in our lives. Jesus is not interested in our comparing ourselves with the Pharisee or the tax collector or anyone else. Jesus is not interested in our identifying who is like the Pharisee today and who is like the tax collector. Jesus is interested in our hearts being open before God and so being open to discovering what is of true and ultimate worth, discovering the unique person we were created to be. The judgment of God can be a window into how our life can be and how our life has not been all that it could have been. If, as and when we can hear God's judgment in the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, then beating our breasts and saying, "God be merciful to me, a sinner," is not a bad response. It will renew our trust in the source of our life. It will strengthen us to live in love even when we find ourselves in turmoil and foment.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, grant us grace to hear your Word. Grant us grace to lay aside our tendencies to blame others, to compare ourselves with others, to justify ourselves. Grant us grace to turn our lives anew towards your love, toward the paths you have prepared for us to walk in in assurance of that love and of courage. This we ask for the sake of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.