Had three bells rung, the stiff trees done obeisance,
and the sun lifted up its burnished plate in reverence,
yet this hour could tender no gift of sweeter substance
than this, its transformation – my conversion – in your presence.
The church, in relation to the world, stands as the community of the righteous. Not the self-righteous but the righteous. Righteousness does not describe our relationship to our own goodness or moral standing. Righteousness describes our relationship to or standing before God. It signifies right relationship with God. Right relationship subsists in God’s holy grace and our broken repentance or humility. So the church, in relation to the world, stands as the community of those who know and proclaim God’s holiness and grace – the community of those who know and proclaim that righteousness, including their own, subsists not in moral achievement but in brokenness and humility in the face of God’s holiness and grace.
Almighty and most merciful God, whose thoughts and ways exceed our own much more than the heavens exceed our fragile world, yet whose tender compassion bends low to hear the sighings and groanings of your creatures; search our hearts that we might know our bondage to sin; transform our hearts that we might own your gracious salvation; move our hearts that we might proclaim your holy deliverance to all people and communities. This we pray through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, one with you and the Holy Spirit, now and ever. Amen.
I was reading recently in Luke 19 about Zacchaeus and his encounter with Jesus. When Jesus stays at the home of Zacchaeus there is a general disapproval from the public, for Zacchaeus, as a tax collector, is perceived as a traitor to his people and a sinner. The general response is that a holy man such as Jesus should not associate familiarly with a sinful man such as Zacchaeus, except to point out to Zacchaeus his sin that he might repent. Then Zacchaeus would be welcome. Then familiar association with Zacchaeus would be appropriate. Yet in the previous incident in Luke’s gospel, Jesus heals a blind man, and all the people give approval and praise God.
I am convinced that one very fruitful way of reading the Gospels, that we might encounter Jesus more truly, is to examine how the people, including his closest disciples, approved and disapproved, understood or misunderstood, Jesus. Of course we love and relate well to Jesus when he does what we expect and approve. Yet when he challenges what we expect and approve, we murmur and question and doubt and criticize, just as the general public and even his closest followers did in his very presence.
We must take with utter seriousness the truth that Jesus is not our idea. Indeed, he must challenge and change our very idea of what is right and wrong, what is true and untrue, about the world and ourselves. By reading the Gospels with that dynamic of approval and disapproval in mind, we might better understand how Jesus must change us if we are to be the people God intends.