rigorousness vs. leniency

It’s probably fair to say that we Canadians like things made easy. This become particularly obvious when we think of the various technologies ar out disposal:

Why get off the couch when you can change the channel with a remote control?

Why plant a large garden when you can get your vegetables at Metro?

Why change your whole lifestyle when you can just change your light-bulbs and consider yourself “green”?

At some level of course we can only be grateful for technologies that take some of the pain and harshness out of life. But it seems we always go one step further – yes, we want the pain and harshness out of our lives – but we also want everything to be a little easier. It applies to most living in modern western culture. You can only imagine the financial resources, the production time and the energy that go into making things easier for us.

Now this insistence on making things easy doesn’t only apply to the various technologies we use. It applies to other dimensions of our day to day living, as well – including the spiritual. We tend to like quick and trouble-free answers to our spiritual longings, also. We prefer the easy, uncomplicated path into a deeper relationship with God. Even as Christian communities we sometimes long for a quick fix to our struggles – maybe this program, or that project will slow our decline and bring us spiritual vitality. But of course deep down we know that spiritual won’t be achieved through any such quick fix.

This morning I announced that I will be leading a study of Benedictine Spirituality through the summer. And in the second chapter of the book we’re going to read, the author suggests that the church’s greatest need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or for more gifted people, but for deep people. But he suggests that our culture has created a kind of barrier to the formation of such people. He writes: “We often want the painless quick fix in our sanctification, like a guilt-free diet that demands no sacrifice or the PowerBar that will give us the carbs we need for the next half-hour’s activity. We have become consumers of religion rather than cultivators of the spiritual life.” We like things made easy. But again – deep down we know it doesn’t work that way. Deep down we understand that the cultivation of one’s spiritual life is like the growth of a tree – it involves much time – a steady, almost imperceptible growth in the ways of God – a steady deepening in union with the risen Jesus, by the power of God’s Spirit.

This morning, as we come back again to the letter of James, we are in a sense confronted with the question of things made easy – of the quick fix. We are focusing this morning on verse 13 of chapter 2 in which James writes the following difficult words: “For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy.”

Right away you probably hear an echo of Jesus’ words in Matthew 6. After teaching his disciples how they should pray, Jesus says to them: “If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

James says: “If you don’t extend mercy to others, you won’t receive mercy.”

Jesus says: “If you don’t extend forgiveness to others, you won’t be forgiven.”

That doesn’t sound like life made easy. You mean God isn’t going to just automatically be merciful to me? You mean God isn’t going to automatically forgive me when I do something wrong? Come on, God is suppose to be merciful and forgiving – isn’t that what the gospel is all about? We’re back to a question we asked last week: Doesn’t God’s love triumph over all our failures? Doesn’t God’s forgiveness get the final word?

Well, let’s go back and see what James has been on about in the opening part of his letter. Throughout the first part of his letter, James has focused on the relationship of his readers to those of other social classes. James has insisted that his listeners show no partiality – he has said they shouldn’t suck up to the rich all the while ignoring the poor. James reminds them: “Look the law of God in Leviticus tells you not to show partiality, and it tells you to love your neighbour as yourself.” As James reads God’s law, and looks at the life of Jesus, the only conclusion he can reach is this: “religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is to care for orphans and widows and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

Mercy and forgiveness are at the heart of the gospel for James. As we look upon Christ, we are to become those, as we reflected last week, who don’t merely hear God’s word – but do it. We are to enact the mercy of Christ toward those in pain, those in poverty, those in distress.

So this is what James has been on about in the opening part of his letter. And then James adds that difficult word. He says: “And let me just be clear about this: If you don’t show mercy, if you don’t exhibit the love of Christ toward your neighbour and toward those in distress, then you won’t receive mercy.”

The difficult word of James is this: If we are to be on the receiving end of God’s mercy, we must do the sometimes hard work of extending mercy to others – if we want to be remembered by God in our need then we must in some sense forget ourselves in reaching out to those who are suffering and in need. No easy way out here. No quick fixes. No simplistic way into a close relationship with God. Show mercy, and you’ll receive mercy.

In his book Works of Love, the theologian/philosopher Kierkegaard takes on this issue with his peculiar blend of courage and creativity. Doing so he says this about the Christianity of his native Denmark some hundred and fifty years ago: “Christianity is not infrequently presented in a certain sentimental, almost soft, form of love. It is all love and love; spare yourself and your flesh and blood; have good days or happy days without self-concern, because God is love and Love – nothing at all about rigorousness must be heard; it must all be the free language and nature of love.”

But Jesus and James know nothing of this easy, sentimental love, do they? There is such rigorousness in what they preach: If you do not show mercy, you will not receive mercy. If you do not forgive, you will not be forgiven. If that’s not rigorous, I don’t know what is.

But then notice what else James says: “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Well, we seem here to be back at the heart of the gospel. God’s mercy triumphs over judgment. How many times did Israel walk away from God – how many times did they neglect justice and worship false gods – yet God did not forget his children. And how many times do we walk away from God’s commands, from the difficult way of Jesus – and yet God does not finally abandon us. “Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

Now, we should probably all be confused at this point. It seems that two contradictory things are being said at the same time.

First there is this: If you don’t extend mercy, you won’t receive mercy.

But secondly there is this: mercy triumphs over judgment – in the end God’s mercy and love in Christ Jesus are decisive.

On the one hand there is this rigorousness that insists there is no easy way out – no quick fix. To know God’s mercy we must show mercy. But on the other hand there is this leniency that insists that God is love – that in spite of all our wrong-headed living, God extends love and forgiveness to us.

The question for us, then, is how we can hold these two together at the same time. Or, we could put it like this: how do we hold on to the fundamental mercy of God toward us without at the same time losing the rigorousness that is so clearly a part of the gospel.

Here there are no easy answers. But perhaps we can reach toward a possible answer, and one that comes again from Kierkegaard, who out of his reflection on the Christian life and on the scriptures offers an intriguing window onto God’s rigorous call to mercy and forgiveness.

In offering this answer we go back again to the message that lies at he heart of the gospel: that mercy triumphs over judgment – that God’s way in Christ is a way of love toward us, even when we fail.

God’s way in Christ is a way of love toward those who are broken and sinful.

It is a way of mercy toward those who are poor and humble.

It is a way of forgiveness for those who were estranged from God.

It is a way of healing for those who are sick or in need.

God’s way is a way of mercy. God’s love toward us never fails.

Then the next step. As we’ve said, those who fix their attention on Jesus – they cannot help but embody this way of mercy and forgiveness and healing. As men and women become enamoured with the risen Jesus and his way, then God’s mercy and forgiveness come to expression in the words they speak and the actions they undertake. These men and women know full well it’s not easy to forgive those who have hurt us, they know it’s sometimes impossible to achieve reconciliation in the limits of time – but their fundamental posture is one of forgiveness. These men and women who become enamoured with Jesus may know that extending mercy takes more willpower than they often have – but their fundamental posture is one of extending mercy. To be in touch with God, with the God revealed in Jesus, is for God’s way to become our way.

But then the difficult part. What of those who refuse to extend mercy? What of those who refuse to offer forgiveness? What of those who will not live in the way of the risen Jesus. In effect, they are cutting themselves off from God.

When we refuse to reach out in mercy to those who are hurting or in pain, we set ourselves apart from the God of mercy – we distance ourselves from God and therefore from God’s mercy.

When we refuse to even considering extending a hand of forgiveness and reconciliation to those from whom they are alienated – we distance ourselves from God and therefore from God’s forgiveness.

When we cut ourselves off from the way of mercy and forgiveness, we remove ourselves from the presence of the God who is mercy and forgiveness – and we distance ourselves from the mercy and forgiveness that God would extend even to us.

If you do not show mercy, mercy will not be shown to you, for you have distanced yourself from mercy.

If you do not show forgiveness, forgiveness will not be extended to you, for you have distanced yourself from forgiveness.

Sometimes by our words and actions, we say No to God and God’s of mercy and forgiveness. And the difficult word is that the force our No to God bounces back and distances us from God’s mercy and forgiveness. There is a rigorousness here. This is not the cheap grace of which Bonhoeffer spoke. This is the costly grace of discipleship.

But the good news with which we must always conclude is this: that our No to God and God’s way, is never the final word. James says: mercy triumphs over judgment.

God’s first word to us in Christ is Yes.

God’s last word to us in Christ is Yes.

God’s decisive word to us in Christ is Yes.

Yes, you are my children.

By our words and actions we may distance ourselves from God – from God’s way of mercy and forgiveness in Christ Jesus. But God’s final, triumphant word ‘Yes’ – will overcome every ‘No’ we have ever spoken toward God – forgiveness and mercy through Christ will be the final word.

This morning the last word to us is one of invitation – to gaze again at the humble, crucified, risen Jesus. It is an invitation, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to fix our eyes on the one who lived a truly human life – who wants us to live in resurrection life with him. On the path with him there are no easy answers, no quick fixes, no short cuts to glory. But the good news is precisely this – that Jesus walks alongside us. The one who walks alongside us is the one in whom God says yes to us – the one in whom God shows us the way of mercy, the way of forgiveness. May be grow in his way.


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