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Christian Hypocrites

If there’s one thing the World knows about us Christians, it’s that we’re hypocrites. We’re either out there telling people we believe in love and peace when they see volumes one through eight of “The Crusades and Other Christian Wars” on the shelf right behind us. Or we’re wearing a WWJD t-shirt and a purity ring as we stumble down the Strip in Vegas. Naturally, we like to rationalize these hypocritical Christians away in our minds. They’re the “wrong” kinds of Christians: hippies who need to better understand just war theory and cultural Christians who like the Church so long as it doesn’t interfere with their own personal goals and desires.

Now, of course, there is some truth to all this. Anything with a two-thousand-year history and involving billions of people is going to have some outliers, folks who just don’t get it and do their own thing. But, I think we all know deep down inside that isn’t it. We’re all hypocrites. We’ve lied. We’ve cheated. We’ve been unchaste. And, we’ve done it all knowing good and well that Jesus is Lord and that our sins bring us nothing but despair, sadness, and distance from the God we love so much.

In today's epistle, St. Paul has something to say about this hypocrisy. He sees it as a battle between the “Law of God” and the “Law of Sin.” The Law of God, is written on our hearts. We are to “love the Lord [our] God with all [our] heart, and with all [our] soul, and with all [our] mind” and we are to “love [our] neighbor as [ourself].” The Law of Sin and Death is that we are utterly sinful. Nothing we can do of our own accord will bring us life. Instead, our best efforts bring us death. Further, our corrupt bodies seem to constantly work against us. St. Paul finds, “it to be a law that when [he] want[s] to do right, evil lies close at hand.” “Wretched man that I am!” says St. Paul, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

When we read Paul’s take on flesh and Spirit most of us go one of two ways. We either focus on a perceived Christian legalism or we look to the spiritual escape of this world by a focus on Heaven above. For one, living “according to the Spirit” means setting aside the moralistic laws of Christianity. Rules, structure, liturgy are all roadblocks towards the spiritual paths of free love and life found in the diversity of God’s creation. There are many paths that lead up the mountain. For the other, this world is dying and has no value. Focus must be placed on Heavenly things: the right study of scripture, theology, deep meditative prayer. Our treasure is in Heaven, so let’s not bother with the problems of the now.

There is merit in both. Some of us do place too much focus on the doing of Christianity to the neglect of our communion and relationship with God found in worship and prayer. Others of us place too much focus on understanding the mysteries of God to the neglect of Christ’s bride, the Church, and our duty to neighbors. But, I think to stop here at this dichotomy is to overlook a key feature of St. Paul’s writing in his letter to the Romans: Paul shows a deep and real pain for his sinful nature.

Paul isn’t writing a letter to discuss an interesting dichotomy he’s found in life. He’s writing about a reality that hurts him. In his “inmost self” he “delight[s] in the law of God.” He’s seen the Risen Lord with his own eyes. He’s suffered for him. In his many jail cells he’s come to a deeply personal and intimate friendship with Jesus. And yet, he still sins. Paul is a hypocrite. Though he desires and longs for deeper and deeper relationship with Christ and though he has experienced it deeper than most of us could ever dream in this life, Paul is still beset by sin. Paul’s sins crush him. His treason against the Lord who he proclaims far and wide pierces his very heart. He feels sin’s weight and he hates what it does in him, to mar the image of God, his closest friend.

Understanding his pain, however, we can more clearly see the immense joy and gratitude he has for the mercies Christ freely gives to sinners. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Paul says. “There is […] now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death.” His pain is deep, but the immense love of Jesus goes deeper.

As hypocrites, we know of Paul’s joy. We’ve all had those moments when we’ve known our sin. When we’ve confronted and seen it for the ugliness it is. Those moments of deep despair when we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re beyond redemption. And yet, as the Psalmist says, “Great is the Lord, and marvelous worthy to be praised; […] The Lord is gracious and merciful; long-suffering, and of great goodness. The Lord is loving unto every man; and his mercy is over all his works.” In our darkest moments, the Lord comes through time and time again. He forgives. He loves. Looking right at us in our filth, he looks beyond our rags and sees a beloved heir of his eternal kingdom. There is no greater high, no better peace, no purer joy than those moments when God’s grace pulls us out of sin’s darkness.

Today I’m preaching these things to the choir. Y’all know what I’m talking about. You’ve experienced it time and time again. You know the sadness. You know the immense joy. You know the struggle of the Christian life. You also know the relationship with Jesus built in that struggle. You truly know what a Christian hypocrite is. But, like I said just a few moments ago, the world does not. If you say one thing now, but said something else in the past, you have transgressed. There is no forgiveness. There is no path forward. You are forever shamed. Forever unworthy, “problematic,” and most definitely “cancelled.”

“I will magnify thee, O God my King; […] One generation shall praise thy works unto another, and declare thy power. […] men shall speak of the might of thy marvelous acts; and I will also tell of thy greatness. […] My mouth shall speak the praise of the Lord;”

Oh yes. King David has a testimony to share and if you’ve ever been a sinner, you do, too.

My first visit with someone inside of jail came just two weeks into my into my field education placement. Our ministry met in jail each week for worship and a small discussion group. As the intern minister, my job was to handle all the requests for one-on-one visits. I’d only spoken with this guy briefly at worship. All I knew about him was that he was in for drugs and that he’d been a used car salesman. Nasty stereotypes about used car salesmen aside, I had no idea what to talk about during a visit with someone in jail. I prepared for everything and anything. I reviewed apologetics, marked prayers for confession and psalms of forgiveness in my prayer book. With my prayer book and Bible in hand I entered the cold cement room, sat on my metal bench (which I was told I wasn’t allowed to leave), and waited.

When the guards brought my friend in I suddenly realized, “How are you doing?” was probably a stupid way to begin our conversation. — I mean, he’s in jail, so obviously things aren’t going great. — I decided on, “It’s great to see you, again.” And we started in on the usual jail small talk of how long you’ve been in, when you’re getting out, next hearing date, etc., etc.

Once the small talk was done, my friend asked the question that turned out to be his entire reason for wanting a pastoral visit. He asked me why I was at the jail. The question caught me a little off guard. My initial reaction was that he thought I was paying off some sort of community service, but I could tell by looking at him that that wasn’t his intent. He really wanted to understand what would motivate someone like me to visit with someone like him.

So, I told him. Once upon a time, God had saved a scared Mormon boy. Through the ups and downs, the disappointments and struggles, he’d never let me go. Though I didn’t deserve it, God continued to stand by my side, to forgive me, to call me his own. Given all of that, I couldn’t do anything but serve him. Wherever he called me.

I don’t recall anything that was said or done after that, but I do know more questions followed. I know he left our time together knowing that Jesus loves sinners, that Jesus saves the confused, the broken, and the just plain ugly.

It’s easy to read Romans and get caught up in what it means for us. The language is beautiful, the imagery powerful. The theology undergirds our understanding of grace. We get caught up in the joy of our memories, in God’s story of salvation in our life. But, St. Paul wasn’t just writing a theological treaties to Rome, he was trying to get there. He had Good News to share. He had Good News to report to the people of Rome from hypocrites all over the empire.

I think that’s our call, too. We’re all hypocrites. We’ve all got stories to tell. Our stories tell the deep pain and shame of sin. But, more than that, they tell of the God who never lets us go. The God who forgives over and over again. The God who’s always going deeper, always going farther, always pulling us (sometimes kicking and screaming) to a deeper maturity in him.

Find someone younger than you to share your story with. Your mistakes can guide others past similar obstacles. Share your story openly with your kids and family. — I for one, am glad the disciples chose to share their stories, mistakes and all. — Be on the lookout for little moments where you can name a time of hypocrisy and the overflowing of God’s grace that came in repentance.

“I will magnify thee, O God my King; […] One generation shall praise thy works unto another, and declare thy power. […] men shall speak of the might of thy marvelous acts; and I will also tell of thy greatness. […] My mouth shall speak the praise of the Lord;”

The World sees our hypocrisy. It’s not hidden. Let us not shirk away from it. Let’s claim it as our own. We have sinned, in thought, word, and deed. We’ve sinned by what we’ve done and by what we’ve left undone. We name our sin, not because we’re proud of it, but because it points to the hope we all have in Jesus Christ. His blood covers our hypocrisy and we’ll declare it to the ends of the earth.

Let us pray:

Almighty God our Savior, who desirest that none should perish, and hast taught us through thy Son that there is great joy in heaven over every sinner who repents: Grant that our hearts may grieve this lost and broken world, and may thy Holy Spirit work through our words, deeds, and prayers, that the lost may be found and the dead quickened, and that all thy redeemed may rejoice around thy throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.