Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Risen Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen
Life is more complex than we sometimes imagine.
And what is true, often involves two things that are mutually exclusive, but which are both true, and remain in tension with one another.
We live within a “dialectical tension”. There’s your new concept for today. Dialectical tension.
“Dialectical tensions, defined as opposing forces that people experience in their relationships, are important for relational development. Predictability-novelty, for instance, is an example of a tension manifested by partners simultaneously desiring predictability and spontaneity in their relationships.”
And so in this example, people can at one and the same time desire to know what to expect, and yet want to be surprised. “Expect the unexpected”.
One example of a dialectical tension comes from the Gospel lesson today:
“While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, . . .”
The disciples were at one and the same time, overwhelmed with joy at having seen the risen Lord – and yet still disbelieving.
Another example of a dialectical tension is the old adage: “doubt is the handmaiden of faith”. The two things, doubt and faith, are held together, in tension. Not only that, but I would suggest that you cannot have one without the other.
John writes about what is probably one of the most powerful dialectical tensions with which we live, one that defines the very nature of the life of faith.
Luther called it “simul justis et pecattor”.
Simultaneous “Saints”, without any sin, and “Sinners” that are entirely sinful.
John writes in the first chapter of his letter:
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”
And then, over and against that John also writes in our lesson for today:
“You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.
If we read on in the letter he says:
“Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God's seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God.”
Saint and Sinner.
Child of the Devil, and Child of God.
Simul Justis et Peccator.
This tension between being both a Saint and a Sinner really hit home during our debates over homosexuality.
One example of this came to me via a person who I got to know as a young woman.
She had shared with me that she was transgender.
Transgender is the “T” in “GLBTQ”. “Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer.” Variants of human sexual identity that we often struggle to understand, and, I will add, often condemn.
Well, she ended up having “sex reassignment surgery” and became a “he”, whom he would tell you is who he always had been.
OK, now I have to admit that it is easier for me to understand gay and lesbian, than it is to understand transgender, the condition of being a man in a woman’s body, or visa versa.
But that’s not the point.
What happened is that this woman, who became a man, asked us about becoming a welcoming place.
“The congregation wants to grow. I know that there are all sorts of GLBTQ people out there longing for a church to be part of that will welcome them. Could we become a “reconciling in Christ congregation” and go on the record saying that GLBTQ people are welcome here?”
So I asked that question of the congregation council.
The response of one member of the council was “of course everyone is welcome, but if we have to say “gay people are welcome”, we will leave the congregation because that would condone their sin.”
We are all both sinner and saint.
The woman who raised the question of welcoming GLBTQ people is both a sinner and a saint.
And the woman who objected is also both a sinner and saint.
Simultaneously children of the devil, and children of God.
As Christians we are often viewed by those outside of the Church as being guilty of hypocrisy.
Hypocrisy is the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one's own behavior does not conform.
And indeed, we often say one thing, and do another.
But what those who would accuse us of being hypocrites don’t understand is that what they are seeing is not hypocritical, it is part of the dialectical tension of being both saint and sinner.
As children of God we are called, even commanded to love one another, to, as we confess in our congregation’s statement of purpose, “welcome, love and serve all in our local and global community.”
As children of the devil, we fall way short of that. We are often not loving, and we tend to welcome those who are most like us, and exclude those not like us. Certain sinners are acceptable, other sinners are not. And in making that judgment we are sinful, ourselves.
Oy vey, the tension.
How do we resolve this tension?
Well, first of all, “WE” don’t resolve the tension.
Paul writes in Galations the 3rd chapter:
“Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Again, from John’s lesson today:
“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”
We are “in Christ”.
We are “clothed with Christ”.
“We will be like him.”
We are sinless, because Christ is sinless and his righteousness has become our own.
“All of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
That’s why we do not judge one another, because we are all one in Christ Jesus. One. The same. Holy and pure in God’s sight because Christ is holy and pure in God’s sight.
We are perfectly obedient children of God, even unto death, because Christ was perfectly obedient even unto death.
We are loving, because Christ is loving.
One of my favorite passages from 1 John is found in the fourth chapter:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
Perfect love, in us.
Think about that for a moment.
Can you believe that God’s love is perfected in you, that because you love with Christ’s love you are sinless and righteous in his eyes?
And yet we are sinful.
There we are, back to the dialectical tension.
Another woman, a dear member of my first congregation once said, “The more I grow in my Christian faith, the more sinful I become.”
What she meant was that the more she understood how perfect God’s love is, the more she recognized how imperfect her love was.
And yet, in God’s eyes, she is Jesus. His righteousness is her own.
You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins.
As Lutherans we are used to beginning our worship with the confession of sins. And there is good reason for that.
But one could also argue that what we should do is begin our worship with the declaration that we are in Christ, and as such, without sin. Now there’s an absolution. “You are now in Christ, and your sin is no more.”
In Psalm 103 it is written:
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
We are sinful, yet those sins have been removed from us. That’s the tension of faith. We are sinners without spot or blemish, because Christ has redeemed us.