Preaching Text: “[Whatever] you bind on earth will be bound in heaven…” (Matthew 16:19)
Everyone’s got one. An opinion, that is. They’re a dime a dozen, even though, I’ll admit, original ideas these days seem increasingly rare – more conformist than not. But I digress.
Back when I was in divinity school I heard about a particular class. A prominent Christian theologian from India had been invited by one of the professors to speak on the subject of Christian doctrine and the creeds.
The lecturer started his talk by outlining in some detail various aspects of one of the Church’s creeds. No sooner had he begun than a student raised his hand and objected to what the lecturer was saying. “I don’t agree with that point,” he protested, and then proceeded to explain why.
The lecturer, ever polite, addressed his comment as best he could and continued on, only to have the student raise his hand yet again, again arguing with the lecturer.
Finally, after several such interruptions, the lecturer lost his patience.
“With all due respect, sir,” the lecturer professed, “it’s not your creed – it’s the Church’s creed.” For which I personally would have nominated him for a Nobel Prize…in something!
In a sense, this story illustrates how conditioned we contemporary types are to distrust everything we hear. In some ways this is a good thing. It’s not always wise to accept at face value whatever you hear, see, or read. That pretty much goes without saying.
But distrust can have a darker side. If carried too far, it betrays an unhealthy skepticism about everything. Which fits in with our modern tendency to trust only ourselves over-and-against any and all external authority.
Of course, those in authority have a lot to answer for these days, or so it would seem. But the net effect of this dark, indiscriminate cynicism is that we can become immune to any and all outside voices, perhaps especially those born of experience, those reflecting time-honored wisdom and truth.
In our gospel reading today Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” He’s bombarded with a plethora of answers. Everyone’s got an opinion. But only Peter gets it right!
After Jesus commends Peter for getting it right, he announces that Peter henceforth shall be the “rock” upon which the Church is to be built (Peter, by the way, means “rock”).
But then Jesus says something strange. He announces that the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” shall be given to this same Church, and that the Church shall be in charge of determining what is “bound” in heaven and what is “loosed” in heaven.
So if I read this correctly, that means you and I have a responsibility to get things right. We even get to decide!
Yet how can that be? Not only is this a daunting responsibility, but it assumes something we likely reject: that we are to judge right from wrong. Not many of us, if I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, are particularly eager for this assignment.
After all, we’re not supposed to judge, are we? “Judge not lest ye be judged” and all that. And if we were required to judge, wouldn’t that make us modern-day Pharisees, self-righteously condemning and categorizing? Doesn’t this risk making us reckless prigs, deciding how others should live their lives? Who among us wants that job?
Besides, if we’re capable, sentient beings, we know how flawed we are. If we can’t manage our own lives, who are we to manage the lives of others? No, it’s best to let others judge for themselves.
Jesus, however, is resolute. He doesn’t qualify his remark, at least as far as I can tell. He really seems to mean it.
On the plus side, I think it’s good that the church seeks to practice humility rather than an overtly confident and strident judgmentalism. After all, our faith is premised on the fact that it can’t be earned. Christians live entirely in a state of grace, or forgiveness. We cannot perform our way into God’s good graces.
Not only that, we’ve all seen far too many examples of how some Christians get it wrong, so easily and self-servingly dividing people into simplistic categories: those who are saved (“us”) vs. those who are going you know where (“them”)!
But, and this is the kicker, what if our world needs us to assess life carefully and provide life-giving guidance?
Israel, as we know, has been called the “chosen people.” But they are chosen, properly, only for a particular task, and not that they might think themselves superior. They are given special treatment by God, not for their exclusive benefit, but for the benefit of others. This is foundational, and critical.
It’s the same with the Church. We too are chosen for a specific task: to share the Good News of the Gospel with the whole world, and to announce God’s plan to reconcile everything and everybody back unto its Creator.
So what if the Church interpreted Jesus’ mandate as something different than assigning blame or rendering damning judgments? What if the Church interpreted Jesus’ call as helping others by using our God-given gifts? And what if one of those God-given gifts includes the ability to discern truth?
In Romans, Paul makes a distinction between what is “holy” and “good and acceptable and perfect” vs. that which is not. He urges the Church “not [to] be conformed to this world, but [to] be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds,” such that we might properly “discern what is the will of God…”
So, again, what if our world is desperate, even in spite of itself, for someone to inform them about what is holy and good and acceptable in the Creator’s eyes? What if our neighbor needs us to share this with them? And if so, would we be shirking our responsibilities by refusing to do so?
As I say, most of us don’t want to judge, and for good reason. Yet if I’m interpreting Jesus and Paul rightly, that’s exactly what we’re being asked to do. Why? Because our world needs us!
One of the features of our contemporary world, at least in the West, is that we avoid making judgments like the plague. That’s not to say, however, that we don’t make them. We do. Every moment of every day.
For if we never made judgments, as I’ve said, what monsters we’d be. No, every day we make innumerable judgments to do or say one thing and not another. Morality and common sense demand it.
Too often, however, we pretend not to judge. Yet we can take this too far, denying the very decisions that make our lives worth living.
Taking things a step further, what happens when we refuse to share these life-affirming judgments with others, judgments that might prevent them from making the kinds of unnecessary mistakes we ourselves have successfully avoided?
We do this with our children, don’t we? So why would we turn a blind eye to our neighbor by refusing them the help we have to offer?
One writer recently commented on this modern aversion to speaking gospel-values with others. He called it “moral deregulation,” such that we live according to the values and norms we know will produce happiness, but shirk our responsibility to those around us who might otherwise benefit from such received godly wisdom.
Acting, or not, under the modern conceit of “freedom” and “nonjudgmentalism,” we may end up refusing our neighbor’s need.
In Charles Murray’s 2013 book, Coming Apart, he offers a startling comment that speaks to this issue.
“Preach what you practice,” he commends.
We in the church are blessed by the values and virtues of the gospel. It redounds to our benefit, without question. Yet do we have the confidence to share these same blessings with those around us?
I mean, what do you think Jesus would have to say on the matter? Amen.