The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
April 30, 2017
The Christian faith conveys an exhilarating moral vision that rings true and right. But that’s not what it is first and foremost about. It is more about a gift from God than a demand from God, a blessing of compassion than a burden of responsibility, a relationship before a requirement, a love to receive than a load of obligations to fulfill.
You can see that in this story of Jesus’ interaction with this woman caught in adultery. Jesus, when He could have done anything, gives this morally compromised person compassion without either condoning her wrongdoing or condemning her for it.
We can only guess where this story belongs in the life of Jesus. It is absent from the oldest manuscripts of John’s Gospel. It sometimes appears, instead of in this chapter, in John’s previous chapter or in John’s last chapter. It sometimes appears in Luke’s Gospel. Yet, for all this story’s floating about, Jesus’ followers have always recognized it as historical and true of Him.
The woman is as guilty as they come. She’s broken solemn promises to God and to her husband. She’s deceived and dissembled. She’s hurt another woman. She’s violated one of God’s Ten Commandments.
Jesus’ enemies drop her in His lap to make a decision about, in hopes that, however He decides, He’ll alienate some of those who are following Him: either the mercy crowd, or the standards crowd. The former embrace unconditional forgiveness; the latter, unreserved respect for the inviolate moral law.
Jesus idly scribbles in the dust with his finger while He prayerfully thinks over the course He will take. Finally, He stands up and levels a challenge to His self-righteous enemies, saying, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” In response, they walk away – not, I think, because they have grown suddenly sensitive to their own faults – but because they want to keep Jesus on the hot seat and leave Him the only one to make the decision. They’re thinking if He claims to be without sin, that puts Him in the position to throw the first stone. They want to see what He’ll do. Will He admit He Himself is with sin? Will He start the stoning and violate His own teaching about mercy, or will He give the woman the cheap grace of an easy pardon and show He has no respect for scriptural standards?
What Jesus does is cut the Gordian knot. He tells the woman first that she is safe from condemnation and then that she should sin no more. Both parts of the message are important, but the order of the parts is even more important. He gives her compassionate acceptance before He gives her ethical obligation. He first gives her His love that she might gain the strength to change her ways. He instills in her a sense of God’s grace, that the awareness of God’s unconditional goodness might inspire in her an unhindered resolve to repudiate her sin.
It is not just that God’s gift comes before our righteous action, but that our righteous action cannot come but after God’s gift.
The work Christians do derives from their being graciously loved by God apart from doing any work at all.
In John 15 Jesus compares Himself to a vine and each of us as a branch. Apart from Him we can bear no fruit. We branches bear fruit only if we dwell in, rest in, draw from the vine which is our life and our power.
Beating ourselves with the stick of corrective exhortation does not bring forth fruit. Nothing we do changes us decisively. But drawing in the supernatural sap of God’s life, resting in the hope of its power, staying connected with Christ and letting Him infuse us with His grace, that makes us different.
May then our first word to ourselves and to others be, not one of scolding exhortation to get ourselves together and get ourselves right, but one of gratuitous kindness and unearned generosity, for us just as we are!
Christian author Tony Campolo once flew from Philadelphia to Honolulu to give a speech at a conference. Being an early riser, and biologically six hours ahead of Hawaiian time, he found himself sitting in a greasy spoon at 3:30 a.m. sipping a coffee and munching on a donut.
Suddenly, a boisterous group of provocatively dressed prostitutes burst into the tiny diner and sat on either side of Tony. Their talk was crude and loud.
He heard the one to his right mention that the next day would be her birthday. Her “friend” scoffed, “So you expect a birthday cake and a party?” “No,“ she replied defensively, “I’m just saying. I’ve never had a birthday cake or anyone sing the birthday song to me – and I sure I sure don’t expect it now!”
When Tony heard that, he made a decision. He waited until the women left, called over the fat guy behind the counter with a name tag that read “Frank”, and asked, “Do they come in every night?” “Yup, all of them.” “So, what’s the name of the one right next to me?” “Agnes,” Frank replied suspiciously. “Why do you want to know?” “Because I heard her say she’d never had a birthday party. What do you think about our throwing her one – right here – tomorrow night?”
After a pause, a smile crossed Frank’s chubby cheeks, “I like that idea.” “OK, then,” Tony replied, “I’ll come back tomorrow morning at 2:30, decorate the joint and bring a cake.” “No way,” Frank answered. “I bake cakes.”
At 3:00 the next morning Tony had strung crepe paper across the diner and hung from a light fixture a big sign announcing, “Happy birthday, Agnes!”. Frank’s cake adorned the center of the counter. By 3:15 the greasy spoon was packed with hookers who’d heard about the surprise party. At 3:30 on the dot, Agnes and a friend walked in, and everyone screamed, “Happy birthday, Agnes!” Agnes nearly fainted on the spot, and her friend had to steady her to make it to a stool. When they finished the Happy Birthday song, Agnes was blubbering so hard that Frank had to blow her candle out for her. When he handed her a knife to cut the cake, she stared at it and then quietly asked, “Is it OK if I keep the cake a while and we don’t eat it right away?” “Honey,” Harry said gently, “You can take it home right now if you want.” “Really? My crib’s just a couple blocks away. I’ll be right back.” And she walked out, carrying that cake like it was the Holy Grail.
When the door closed, everyone stared after her in silence. Not knowing what else to do, Tony asked, “You guys want to pray?” And all those skanky prostitutes and big fat Harry bowed their heads to pray along with Tony that God would bless Agnes, save her and get her on a better track.
When they finished, Harry leaned over the counter and in an accusing tone said, “Hey, you never told me you’re a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?” Tony answered, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 a.m.”
May we belong to a church that would do that, a church that conveys caring and concern before correction and obligation. Then we’d be a church that’s just telling the good news, but being the good news itself!