052321 Pentecost Freedom from Toxic Religion
The service begins at minute 6:30 and the sermon at 24:00 of the video
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
I’ve been disturbed again this week by the damage done by toxic religion. We’ve seen it on the inter-personal stage, as well as the world stage. How many more wars will be fought between Jews and Muslims, Protestants and Catholics, Muslims and Hindus because of toxic religion? Have you noticed how the most toxic people – the ones who do the most emotional damage to others – are often the most religious people? There is so much unhealthy religion that non-religious people are often healthier than religious people; and they are often closer to truth and love. As I trust is evident from all the red banners and images in the church today, Pentecost is about the coming of the Spirit. The images are fire, wind, and dove. But the Spirit that Jesus sends is the Spirit of truth and love.
Today’s Gospel identifies three untruths that the Spirit exposes. They reveal the source of religion’s toxicity: when the Spirit comes, she will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment. It is imperative that we remember this teaching, because it doesn’t only affect religious people; it also affects those who have rejected religion because of its toxicity. People often reject religion because of religion’s errors about these three things, which it claims to know a lot about.
The battle between toxic religion and liberating truth gets even more dangerous and destructive when it reaches the institutional and cultural levels. One of those battlefields is creation itself. Some use religion to argue that we have the right to dominate the created order. Today’s epistle and Psalm confirm that toxicity extends throughout creation – the whole creation has been groaning. In this section of John’s Gospel, Jesus is preparing the disciples for institutional opposition: They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so, they are doing God a favor. (16:2) That is the context in which Jesus speaks about the Holy Spirit proving the world wrong about sin, justice, and judgment.
Most, if not all, of us here today have already rejected a toxic view of religion. That’s good. But I also know that often we don’t know the Scriptures well enough to understand that what we have rejected is what Jesus also rejected. We might think we’re rejecting some important religious truth when we can’t answer the accusations religious people hurl at us. I want to equip you with biblical knowledge that may give you more confidence in rejecting truth that people who should know better keep inflicting on you.
The Spirit of Pentecost comes to confirm us in the radical grace of Jesus by surprising us precisely about sin. How is the world wrong about sin? Many commentaries argue that Jesus believes that the world doesn’t take sin seriously enough. But how does Jesus actually deal with sin? Remember the Samaritan woman who had to get water in the heat of the day to avoid an uncomfortable encounter with the other women of the town, who judged her moral failures? Jesus honored her deepest wound rather than judge her moral failures. The people of the town changed their view quickly when she took them to hear Jesus. Maybe they were all waiting to have their wounds honored.
Jesus’ approach is often offensive to the world. The world rejects him because he doesn’t take sin–especially other people’s sin – seriously enough. The world does not accept Jesus’ way of forgiving sin. Many times, Jesus forgave sinners before they repented, or even without repentance. From the cross, he cried, Forgive them, for they know not what they do. Nobody was repenting that day. We don’t read that the Samaritan woman repented. She just confessed her amazement that Jesus knew all about her without rejecting her. Jesus healed many invalids, who were considered sinners because of their illness, and he never asked them to repent or even believe. Jesus shamed the group of men who were accusing a woman caught in adultery until they left the scene. He told her he didn’t condemn her, and told her not to demean her life by continuing to give her body away like that. Jesus gave sight to a blind man without asking for any repentance. His own disciples’ only question was whether it was his parents or him who had sinned. They “knew” that his blindness was due to sin. When Jesus acted like this, it infuriated the religious professionals. It’s what led them to arrest and ultimately kill Jesus. Their error about sin was that they didn’t believe Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness of sin.
Secondly, the world is wrong about righteousness, or justice. It believes that justice consists of keeping things under control. Upholding the official view of the law – often called law and order – is usually the best way to do that. It allows human beings to control others with law. The irony is that God calls this passion for control sin rather than righteousness. Without it, neither the secular ethic nor organized religion can survive. Human beings seek structure for their lives. They want to know the rules. It gives them a certain sense of security, albeit false. If you know the rules, you know what to do. You are in control. This is the kind of religions offered by many churches.
Jesus, on the other hand, believes we act justly when we respond moment by moment, and person by person, to the Spirit’s guidance. That’s why he prayed so much – he kept getting new instructions. That way, he could take more seriously each person’s need for salvation from what enslaved him or her. The authorities thought they were acting out of justice and holiness when they put Jesus to death. That’s why Jesus said, They’re wrong about justice because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer. Jesus’ departure showed that their view of righteousness is wrong. Jesus was the righteous one, even though he is the one who, according to official religion, let people off the hook for sin. I don’t think Jesus came here to start a new religion. He came because God looked upon this planet, and loved it.
Finally, the world’s view of judgment is that it is a threat hanging over people to make them behave properly. That is completely at odds with what Jesus says here. Jesus’ point is that the ruler of this world – the one elsewhere called Satan, which means “the accuser” – has already been condemned. Therefore, people are free to live into God’s grace without having to listen to the accusations of the one who had ruled their thinking and acting up until that point. Many people believe too strongly that they deserve judgment. The voice of the accuser is very strong in them. The last thing they need is more judgment, so they stay away from church because it is too judgmental, not because they don’t long for God’s love. Jesus frees people from the accuser. Jesus has judged the judge! The Accuser has been condemned; the Advocate has been put in his place. The error of most people is not thinking that there is no judgment. The most common error is to think that God still condemns them.
What a huge transformation is available at Pentecost if we can receive it! The path to freedom is not about wallowing in sin; it’s about knowing forgiveness. The path to peace isn’t a false orderliness in which ancient laws define once and for all who are the insiders and outsiders; it is listening to the Spirit bring compassion moment by moment. The path to healing is not judgment; it’s receiving support from One who comes alongside us and says we can face our shadow and survive; we can confront our deepest wounds and be healed; and from that place of healing, we can reach out in compassion to others and become their advocates. Where the Spirit is there’s freedom and peace and healing. Let’s celebrate that!