Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Condemnation Replaced with Grace” (Romans 8:1-4)
July 16, 2017
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Recently my daughter Emily and I were on a trip out west and while driving through the Utah desert we heard a classic Beatles song from their 1965 album Rubber Soul. You may recognize these lyrics:
He’s a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody
Doesn’t have a point of view
Knows not where he’s going to
Isn’t he a bit like you and me?
Nowhere man, please listen
You don’t know what you’re missing
Nowhere man, the world is at your command
We laughed because we certainly were in the middle of nowhere. But after we crossed from Utah into Nevada on old U.S. Route 50 we visited Great Basin National Park, one of the “younger” national parks since it was designated such in 1986. As you ascend to the higher elevations of 9,500 to 11,000 feet you encounter—yes, in the middle of nowhere— the oldest living things on the planet, bristlecone pine trees, some of which are over 5,000 years old. Listen to how these amazing trees are described in the park brochure:
Ironically, the oldest grow near tree line where survival is the most difficult. Adversity seems to foster long life. They grow slowly, a branch at a time, their needles living up to 40 years. Often a tree looks nearly dead—a thin strip of living tissue clinging to a gnarled, naked trunk. Most species decay under such conditions, but bristlecone wood’s high resin content prevents rot.
As we hiked in the higher elevations of Great Basin National Park, Emily and I saw many of these bristlecone trees up close. In the middle of nowhere we saw firsthand the oldest living things on the planet. Who knew?
The Beatles’ song “Nowhere Man” resonates because people experience times in their life in which they may feel like nowhere men and women making nowhere plans for nobody, in which they no longer have a point of view and know not where they’re going to—and this may include some of you here today.
Psychologically this can be caused by many things, including condemnation. Condemnation refers not only to sentencing someone to punishment or death, but also to the expression of very strong disapproval. There are many people who encounter this latter sense of condemnation on a regular basis, many who encounter strong disapproval from family members or neighbors or people at work or, tragically, even at church. Such condemnation is encountered both internally and externally, as Dr. Mark Zaslav describes in an article for Psychology Today:
Blaming can be internalized or externalized. People who tend to self-blame may attribute virtually any negative outcome to a lurking sense of badness or deficiency. Cognitive psychologists have coined the term “depressogenic attributional style” to refer to the tendency to interpret all negative events as evidence of personal failure or toxicity. On the other hand, we are all aware of people (narcissists, for example) who externalize blame. Victims, other actors or forces beyond control may be targets for blame (April 4, 2016).
When condemnation seeps into your heart you not only internalize others’ disapproval of you, you disapprove of yourself, and begin to attribute all the blame for all the difficulties in your life to yourself as payback for the wrong things you have done—you condemn yourself. Or you may turn that condemnation on others, blaming them for all the difficulties in your life. Either way, condemnation will turn you into a nowhere man in your nowhere land making nowhere plans for nobody; condemnation will leave you in a social and emotional desert.
But if that describes you at all, I have good news for you today, because that is exactly where the gospel connects. Today’s epistle lesson is from one of the high water marks of the entire Bible, the eighth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. In the first four verses Paul writes about condemnation:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:1-4).
In other words, in Jesus Christ condemnation has been replaced with grace.
A couple illustrations…one of condemnation and one of grace…In his novel Fall of Giants, Ken Follett recounts the lives of several European families before and during World War I, including a poor mining Welsh family, the Williamses. The daughter, Ethel, works as a domestic servant at an estate, where she is taken advantage of by a wealthy lord and becomes pregnant. The lord has left for the battlefront and Ethel returns home. After telling her mom, brother, and grandfather what has happened, her father walks in the front door. Follett writes:
His eyes fell on Ethel’s suitcase. “What’s this?” They all looked at Ethel. She saw fear on her mother’s face, defiance in her brother’s, and a kind of resignation in her grandfather’s. It was up to her to answer the question. “I’ve got something to tell you, father,” she said. “You’re going to be cross about it, and all I can say is that I’m sorry.” His face darkened. “What have you done?” “I’ve left my job.” “That’s nothing to be sorry for. I never liked you bowing and scraping to those parasites.” “I left for a reason.” He moved closer and stood over her. “Good or bad?” “I’m in trouble.” He looked thunderous. “I hope you don’t mean what girls sometimes mean when they say that.” She stared down at the table and nodded…
“You wicked girl!” Ethel cringed away from him, although she did not really expect him to strike her. “Look at me!” he said. She looked up at him through a blur of tears….He pointed his finger at Ethel. “I will not have a fornicator living in my house! Get out!” Her mother began to cry, “No, please don’t say that!” “Out!” he shouted, “And never come back!” There was a long moment of stunned silence. Father looked at mother. “Get Ethel out of here,” he said (226-228).
Many months later Ethel returned to visit her parents with her toddler son, Lloyd, hoping things would be different this time. Follett continues:
Ethel did not know how her parents would react to her. They might throw her out again, they might forgive everything, or they might find some way of condemning her sin without banishing her from their sight….Ethel was hoping her father would be out. That way she could at least have some time with her mother, who was less harsh (472).
When Ethel arrives only her grandfather is home, and he greets her and Lloyd with open arms. Then her mother walks in the door, and she too welcomes them with open arms. Then her father enters the house, and as Follett writes:
They all looked as father came in from the street, wearing his meeting suit and a flat miner’s cap, perspiring from the walk up the hill. He took a step into the room, then stopped, staring. “Look who’s here,” mother said with forced brightness. “Ethel, and your grandson.” Her face was white with strain. Father said nothing. He did not take off his cap. Ethel said, “Hello, father. This is Lloyd.” He did not look at her…He looked at his wife and said, “I have no grandson.” “Oh now,” said mother appealingly. His expression remained rigid. He stood still, staring at mother, not speaking….Ethel picked up Lloyd. “I’m sorry, mother,” she sobbed. “I thought perhaps…” She choked up and could not finish the sentence. With Lloyd in her arms she pushed past her father. He did not meet her eye. Ethel went out and slammed the door (475).
That is what condemnation looks like.
What does grace look like? The other illustration…this time from the Gospel According to John. Early one morning as Jesus is teaching in the temple some scribes and Pharisees usher in a disheveled, embarrassed woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They wanted Jesus to condemn her to be stoned to death according to Old Testament law. And yet, as John wrote:
When they kept on questioning (Jesus), he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”…When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (John 8:7, 9-11).
That is what grace looks like. While Ethel Williams’ father persisted in condemnation, Jesus replaced condemnation with grace.
And that is true for you as well—regardless of whether others condemn you, or whether you condemn yourself, God has not condemned you, and God will not condemn you, because in Jesus Christ condemnation has been replaced by grace.
During a rooftop conversation with a Pharisee named Nicodemus Jesus shared why he was sent to earth by his Heavenly Father: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:17). And again, as Paul wrote in today’s lesson, “by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, (God) condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (8:3-4).
Jesus did not come to condemn you, but to save you. And Jesus saved you by being condemned in your place as he received the strong disapproval of the world and was condemned to death on the cross.
Even though the world was literally at his command, on the cross Jesus became the Nowhere Man for you, his “thin strip of living tissue clinging to” the “gnarled, naked trunk” of the cross, which proved to be the Tree of Life in the middle of nowhere that assures all the Nowhere men and women in the world that they are in fact somebody who is loved unconditionally by their Creator. Because Jesus was condemned in your place, God gives you what Ethel Williams wanted from her father—God welcomes you with open arms and forgives everything.
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”—that is the good news of the gospel, because in Jesus Christ condemnation has been replaced with grace.