Lent 2: A Shift in Perspective
A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church
on Second Sunday of Lent, March 4, 2012
Psalm 95: 1-11 Romans 5:1-11
March is Women’s History Month, and March 8 in International Women’s Day. Next week we will have a special service celebrating the gifts of women in church and in society. Throughout the month you will find that all of the music played by our Director of Music Ministry has been composed by women. Many of our hymns, and much of our liturgy will be authored by women, which will be refreshing as we journey through Lent together.
I must make a confession. I personally find the liturgical season of Lent tough going when it comes to the theology and imagery, especially of hymn lyrics. It’s all blood and gore, violence and crosses, wretchedness and sin, sorrow and judgment. What do we do with this theology that envisions God as an angry judge, satisfied only by punishment or the bloody sacrifice of his own son? Well for many years, this image of God has dominated if not predominated our understanding of God. It’s certainly a biblical image – in Psalm 95 we find God judging and declaring “for forty years I loathed that generation…they shall not enter my rest.” In fact it was this God as a judge who demands punishment enough to satisfy his sense of justice that sent Martin Luther into extremes of writing down every single transgression he committed in a day and seeking penance for each one. The church of the middle ages taught that a person had to become holy in order to be acceptable to God. One had to do “good works” and these were possible because the sinner received God’s grace through the sacraments. But over and over Luther noted that he failed to perform these works or perform them well. Eventually this cycle of good works, failure and self-punishment had him so obsessed that he entirely lost sight of God’s love for him. One day he just “broke,” emotionally and theologically and left the church. Several years later he began constructing another theological approach called “justification by grace through faith” that became the clarion call of the Protestant Reformation.
The Biblical text that Luther drew heavily upon for this new concept of “justification by grace through faith” was Romans 5, our text for this morning. Luther pointed to Paul’s phrases such as “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” And “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.” Grace, insisted Luther, is not something that we earn, but something that God freely bestows. Grace is a gift. There is nothing we do to merit it. We need only receive it. We are justified by God’s free gift of grace in Christ Jesus and we receive it by simply having faith, or believing. Now this didn’t mean that Christians were to just do anything they want and then ask for forgiveness. No! It meant, rather, (using hand motions) that while our good works could only get us so far, God’s grace through Jesus Christ, would make up the difference. God’s grace took over after we had done “our utmost for his highest” to allude to a famous devotional book by Oswald Chambers. Luther’s theology confirms human failing but instead of resting in God’s disappointment with our behavior, this approach has God “fix” what we fundamentally cannot, and “finish” what we principally cannot, accomplish.
Now this was a great relief to Luther and, frankly, to generations of Christians. But while “justification through grace” softens God’s judgment, it doesn’t fundamentally correct the image of God as an angry, judge who demands satisfaction. God the angry judge is appeased, surely, but God remains at first and last, an angry judge. And we remain, first and last, wretched people who have deeply disappointed this judge. And it is this theology of disappointment that we encounter in most of our Lenten hymns. If St. Augustine is correct that “those who sing, pray twice” we must admit that, whether we like these lyrics or not, they shape us. We remember the cadences of the words with melody, we repeat them annually, we lodge them in our hearts, remembering the great disappointment that we are to God and the undeserving mercy that God has shown, nonetheless to us. And, in time, we become just like the angry, judging God that we seek to serve. Hard people. Hard on ourselves. Hard on others. Even our very expression of mercy confirming our worthlessness. We would do well to be cautious and critical of this theology and those beloved hymns which enshrine it.
But isn’t this what St. Paul is saying in Romans? Aren’t we the ungodly for whom Christ died? Frankly we Protestants are so used to reading the book of Romans through the eyes of Luther that it’s extremely hard for us to hear most of what Paul is saying to us. Ted Jennings, a contemporary biblical scholar argues against Luther’s reading of this passage. While for Luther grace is about making us legally righteous, grace “makes up the difference” between what it is possible for us to do and what God’s justice demands (hand gestures), Jennings insists that for Paul, grace does not make up our failure to keep the law or be holy, rather grace carries us beyond the letter of the law. Grace carries us beyond notions of what constitutes “acceptable” before God into what can only be called the justice of God which is the practice of mercy, compassion and the greatest of gifts, love.
But we need not look to contemporary biblical scholarship for a re-imagining of God and the theology of grace. If we look back to the late middle ages, 175 years before Martin Luther, we discover an anchorite– a nun cloistered in a cell that was attached to a church sanctuary – named Julian of Norwich. As an anchorite, Julian spent her life in contemplation totally within the confines of the walls of her cell. She never left the cell. Not to eat, not to exercise, not to sleep. Her entire life was spent within a space of about six feet by six feet. Julian was entirely dependent on help from women outside her cell to meet her needs of food and health and other necessities. She had a small window from which she could see various images which adorned the walls of the church, featuring Christ crucified. Julian is perhaps best known for her disturbing visions of the violent crucifixion of Jesus – called “Showings.” As a woman in the middle ages, she was forbidden to study scripture, so her approach to the knowledge of God came through mystical experience.
Julian from her little cell, challenged what was the popular approach to theology in the middle ages, namely that one had to become holy in order to be acceptable to God. That one had to perform works of righteousness, to be a saint, to live a holy life. That one got the grace to do these good works through the sacraments; not just baptism and Eucharist, but penance and other rites too. Like Luther, Julian was convinced that one could never become holy – and so a life spent in trying to do so, was one that was very sad, lived by people who did not have the right perspective on God. But unlike Luther, Julian did not think that God was a judge who had to be appeased. On the basis of her mystical experience, she proclaimed that “All will be well” because God is “very accessible, familiar and courteous” and “wants to be trusted.” She argued that sinners did not need to fear divine wrath since God cannot be angry. Wrath is a human trait that stems from a lack of power, wisdom, and goodness. This lack is on our part, not God’s. God does not even blame us for our sin. Indeed, sin is not a moral failing at all but a constriction of our perspective, which prevents us from seeing clearly just how much God love us.
She illustrated this theology with a parable about a servant hastening to do his master’s business. While underway, the servant falls into a ditch. Stuck in the ditch, he cannot accurately perceive the disposition of his master toward him. He incorrectly assumes that his master is angry with him when, in fact, the master is graciously disposed toward him. The fall into the ditch was not evidence of pride but was simply an accident occasioned by the servant’s zeal to serve his master. The greatest affliction in all this was the servant’s lack of consolation resulting from his inaccurate perception of his master’s attitude toward him.
Corresponding to this view of sin as a constriction in our perspective, Julian suggested that salvation is also a matter of perspective. Sin is a form of blindness, whereas salvation is a recovery of sight. In our blindness we incorrectly assume that God is angry with us. With renewed sight we correctly perceive God’s character as loving and gracious. Herein lay Julian’s assurance of salvation. Unlike the church’s doctrine, which taught that grace makes sinners pleasing to God by transforming them into saints, Julian’s perspectival approach reversed this completely so that, now. Grace makes God pleasing to the sinner.
Salvation does not consist in a process of sanctification whereby we must first become holy in order to be acceptable to God. Nor does it consist, in Luther’s words, of receiving in faith God’s grace which “justifies” us – God’s free gift which makes us acceptable to God. Rather, for Julian, salvation consists in a shift in our perspective from viewing God as angry to viewing God as loving.
What might it mean for us this Lent, to change our perspective – to widen and deepen our perspective so that we might see God’s healing and joyful love for us? Can we even or ever imagine a God who is not angry? A totally loving God? What might be born within us and within our congregation if we were to throw off the blinders of blame and anger and see God’s love for us – for every one of us?
St. Athanasius, an early church father from the east, who I spoke about on Christmas eve, wrote in his treatise “On the Incarnation” that “God became man so that man might become God.” In writing this, Athanasius tells a very important truth: we become what we worship. What might happen to each of us and to our congregation if we worshiped this loving God – this God who loves us tenderly, without condition, seeing always the best in us – with all our heart and soul and mind and strength? Who might we become? How might our wounded world be healed?
Let us pray: All loving God, we confess that our souls are wounded and sick from our sin, and from the sin of the world. Yet there is a balm, we need only, as Julian suggests, shift our perspective, and we shall see it and be healed. Give us eyes to see rightly. Open our eyes that we might see. Illumine us, that we may be the whole people of God. Amen.
 See Theodore W Jennings, Jr., Transforming Atonement: A Political Theology of the Cross (Fortress, 2009) and Rethinking Derrida / Thinking Paul: On Justice (Stanford, 2006).
 A good introductory text of Julian’s Showings with a helpful commentary for beginners can be found in Love’s Trinity: A Companion to Julian of Norwich (Liturgical press, 2009). The text if translated by John-Julian, with commentary by Frederick S. Roden. The most recent scholarly treatment of Julian is Julian of Norwich, Theologian (Yale, 2011) by Denys Turner. (notes on this text can be found on the pastor’s blog)
For further reading: Dennis Linn and his family particularly focus on the destructive image of an angry judgmental God that has played so large a role in our history. In Good Goats: Healing our Image of God (Mahwah, New York: Paulist Press, 1994), they suggest ways we can let go of the God who is a prosecuting attorney and embrace the God who is our defense attorney.
In Julian’s Cell: An Earthly Story of Julian of Norwich. (Kalawa, Canada: Northstone Books, 2002), Ralph Milton has written a charming short novel about Julian to introduce her to the general reader, as well as direct readers to fuller accounts of her life and revelations.