I am listening to an mp3 of a sermon by the pastor of the New City Fellowship Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The pastor is saying that New City Fellowship Church never excommunicates anyone for sinning.
No no no– they only excommunicate people who refuse to stop sinning.
Not very aphoristic is it? Not a neat little parallel statement: my intuition is, what’s the difference? And I don’t think my intuition is altogether mistaken on the issue.
Pastor Randy Nabors talks as if sins were discrete, isolated acts that violate clear and simple rules issued by God in the bible, in English, and which are readily available in printed form, comprehensible and unchanging.
That was the mistake of the Pharisees, of course. And the first thing we deny is that we are, in fact, behaving exactly like the Pharisees. We just can’t help it.
The truth is, we love rules, because we love strutting around pointing out that other people have broken them. We deny that we are being legalistic or proscriptive or simplistic or pietistic or moralistic and we do all those things by saying that you can only be forgiven if you stop sinning, as if there was the remotest chance in hell that we could ever stop sinning or that you who demand that we stop sinning are not, at this very moment, sinning yourself.
I don’t believe it. I don’t believe that you have repented and are therefore forgiven at the moment when you have stopped sinning. I believe that you “repent” when you acknowledge that all of us are corrupt human beings who are utterly unworthy of God’s grace and unlikely to receive it on our own through our own virtuous actions.
You see– that’s the part I don’t believe Pastor Nabors and most Christian preachers really believe– that they haven’t “earned” it. Theologically, of course, they might say they haven’t, but they don’t really believe it. How can you possibly identify other people as sinners– so bad, they must be expunged from a congregation– unless you truly believe yourself to be so worthy that you can sit in righteous judgment?
They will object:
When they begin their judgments, they say, “of course we are all sinners, but” and then they should stop.
They’ve already said the important thing: they too are sinners. That’s enough.
There is no “but”, no qualification that suddenly, miraculously entitles them to sit in judgment.
“When they said, repent, repent, repent, I wondered what they meant.” Leonard Cohen, the Future.
Pastor Randy Nabors’ sermon was supposed to be about Jezebel, but it turns out it isn’t about very much at all. It is 34 minutes long, and it consists of a long sequence of utterly unremarkable observations and rules. Surprise, surprise, those rules you have heard repeated to you 30,000 times by now are true the 30,001st time and the 30,002nd time too. Maybe. Now do you know what the rules are?
I was really disappointed. New City Fellowship is a very diverse congregation and seems to be involved in some genuinely interesting urban ministries. But there was nothing in this sermon that sounded the slightest bit interesting: don’t sin, Jesus loves you, Jezebel was evil, don’t marry people who don’t respect me (non-Christians).
Why is this same message repeated every Sunday? You can’t remember it? Or could it be that the message is not meant to be teaching or preaching. It’s a public expression of the sinlessness of the faithful listeners, isn’t it? You affirm your own purity and worthiness by receiving this sermon and looking at your neighbors and receiving their approving looks (unless you have a nose ring) smiling and nodding and saying, “amen, brother”, for I am not a sinner like those people…. Me too– I’m against Jezebel.