In the little book of Lenten Meditations 2013 that our priest handed out this past Sunday at the Episcopal Church of St. Michael and All Angels, this penitential season is described this way:
"The walk with Jesus to Jerusalem is a step-by-step procession back to God, giving ourselves more fully with each prayer and act of denial or generosity or compassion."
I have been writing on the subject of the Letters of Paul. When I write of an evolution or progression in the thought of St. Paul, I believe that his ideas changed over the more than twenty years that he preached his gospel. Paul started out on his own after his conversion experience, and he preached for about fifteen years before word of him came to the young Church in Jerusalem. He was summoned to meet with them and explain himself, which apparently he did, and then he went off again to continue planting young churches.
His first letter, I Thessalonians, was written in about 52 C. E., and his last known letter was written to Philemon in about 63 C. E. Other letters came along later but there is scholarly doubt on whether Paul wrote them; Philemon is the last letter that scholars agree was Paul's work.
So when Paul writes this:
"Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God." [1st Corinthians 6]
He wrote it in about 57 C. E., five years earlier than this:
"But before faith came, we were kept under the Law, shut up unto the faith that should afterward be revealed. Wherefore the Law was our schoolmaster, to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. For ye all are the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you who have been baptized in Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for all are alike in Christ Jesus." [Galatians 3:23-28]
There is quite a difference between those two passages--and there isn't any doubt among scholars that Paul wrote both of them. In reading the first one, you can understand why there is some hostility to Paul in the Church, but I think it can be resolved by considering the five years that Paul had to grow spiritually between the two passages.
Consider this, then: once more, from last Sunday:
"The scripture says, 'No one who believes in him will be put to shame.' For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For 'Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'" [Romans 10:8-13]
This passage, too, was written about 57 C. E. So we have the two passages in which Paul stresses that everyone in the Church is spiritually equal. And then there is this:
"For Christ is the end of the Law, that everyone who has faith may be justified." [Romans 10:4]
Paul doesn't say that some who have faith may be justified; he says that everyone in the Church is a recipient of God's grace. In this regard I had a short email conversation with someone on Facebook who describes herself as "an atheist Jew" and suffers from bouts of depression. I suggested to her in my post that there may be a connection between the two.
The existential dilemma of Judaism--which infects Christianity as well--is that if we focus on the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) we will see the immense separation between fallible humans and the perfect goodness and righteousness of God. Christians don't deny that separation; we only believe that Jesus bridged it through a combination of his life and his death. He spent his ministry telling people that they didn't understand the love of God, illustrating that teaching with many parables. As a Jewish man, his level of consciousness was far more complex and profound than the simplistic rules and regulations of the Book of Leviticus--something that he now has in common with much of Judaism as it has evolved since his time. But that's another article.
So if we focus on the Old Testament, as I say, we are swamped in the inferiority of our condition in God's eyes (as he is portrayed). But as I quoted in my title, if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts (can't remember who wrote it, maybe C. S. Lewis). In fact, if you condemn yourself in light of your understanding of the nature of God as portrayed in Scripture, you need to change your focus to the compassion of Jesus, who saw his countrymen as sheep without a shepherd and took upon himself the hopeless task of stepping up to take the ministry of the fallen John the Baptist to another level.
I describe Jesus' task as hopeless because he was outnumbered, not because he was not right in what he said. And so we need to reread the Parable of the Good Shepherd, or the Prodigal Son, and understand that nothing prevents us from going full speed astern and righting the course of our lives.
But if someone else condemns us--well sorry, but why are we even bothering about it? Remember that old saying, "With friends like you I don't need enemies?" Well, to unpack what that means, it's this:
I worry about it when someone that I really like and respect doesn't like me; I do. But when someone that I think is a jerk rejects me as a person, well who cares? In some cases I can say in all honesty that there are certain people whose approval would be a warning that something is seriously wrong with my life. Who wants to be in the good graces of Bryan Fischer or Franklin Graham? They are terrible people with hearts full of hate. The only possible course of behavior that would evoke any respect from me would be to read that they had repented and begged for forgiveness from the LGBT community.
So if your heart condemns you, as it may if you read the Old Testament, you need to turn your attention to the Sermon on the Mount and the other teachings of Jesus when he was explaining to his followers what God is like. And if some bigoted jerk condemns you, don't waste a moment worrying about it!