Agents of Hell?

Sometimes it seems as though the modern translation of John 3:17 is: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, because that’s something the church can do so much better.”

While Jesus came to save the lost, heal the sick, give hope for the poor, and bring new life to all creation, so many Christians act as though the great mission of the church is to identify, root out, shun, and condemn as many people as possible. Joyfully and in Christian love, of course. At the rate and enthusiasm with which pastors and congregations condemn people, it would make an unbiased observer suspect they are agents of hell who get a 10% commission on every soul they can toss in there.

Jesus spent a lifetime breaking down barriers that divide us. He ate with sinners and outcasts. Why, then, this obsession with turning congregations into exclusive fortresses where (despite advertising that “all visitors are welcome!”) only the few, the proud, and the pure are brothers and sisters worthy of fellowship?

Looking through my dad’s files, I discovered a very old and fascinating pamphlet entitled, “The Beard.”  It is 16 pages long, with illustrations, and cites more than 40 Scripture passages to prove that for a man, shaving is an insult to and a mockery of God. It claims emphatically, in dead seriousness, that no man who shaves his beard will enter the Kingdom of heaven.

The argument is so incredibly silly and yet so earnestly and piously proclaimed that you don’t know whether to weep or laugh. I suspect that’s why Dad had it among his things–as a caution against giving in to the powerful human urge to condemn others. To guard against the sin of insisting that one’s opinions and interpretations are, in the words of one wise observer, “what God would say if God were in possession of the facts.”

The pulpit may be a place for speaking prophetically. For speaking harsh truths that afflict the comfortable. But given the human propensity for building ourselves up by tearing down others, especially those who are not like us, a preacher should do so humbly and prayerfully, and should use the weapon of condemnation with extreme caution.

The pulpit is above all, a place for proclamation of the Gospel. For preaching the Good News of what Jesus Christ has done for us and will do for us. It is a platform for declaring the promises of God that life has meaning, that God is love, and that God’s outpouring of love seeks out and finds all creatures in this world, even you, especially you.

If that is the primary message of the sermon, we can be certain it is a sermon worth preaching.