Sometimes Paul drives me nuts. Don’t get me wrong, there is tons of stuff in Paul’s writings that is important and all the reiterations of the same point again and again are a teaching tool to get that point across. He definitely wasn’t a sound bite kind of guy, using short, snappy, quickly grabbed thoughts and pushing them out as quickly as his tongue could speak or fingers write (or his amanuensis’ fingers, come to think of it). There are times when reading an epistle lesson from Paul in church it’s very easy to get lost in the words and phrases. And, if the old thing about taking a breath at the comma is to be obeyed, one could either hyperventilate or gradually turn blue waiting for the next one. Still, Paul has a lot so say and sometimes it is something that so catches the attention that it’s hard to put away and go on to something else. That happened to me this morning with part of this reading.
The lesson deals with judging, something we’re all familiar with and something all of us indulge in perhaps too often. Judgement is a topic about which there is a lot of argument; is it proper to judge a person and under what circumstances? Jesus put it very simply, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (Matt. 7:1). Paul goes into great detail about judgements and stumbling blocks, people doing things that seem quite okay and harmless to them but which are problems for other people. It’s about how people treat each other, caring for one another and being careful to avoid doing things that would hurt, injure or give them problems more than they already have. It’s an important lesson, and worth all the detail into which Paul goes in his letter. Still, it isn’t the part that catches my heart this morning.
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. (7-9)
The words are important – and they are meant as comfort. The Book of Common Prayer uses them as one of several opening anthems read as a body is brought into the church for the burial service (469, 491). We don’t think about judgement with that snippet; we only think of the comfort of knowing that, one way or another, we are, were and will always be God’s. Paul even put it another way earlier in Romans, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:38-39). We are God’s, no matter what.
Just as we are connected forever to God through Jesus Christ, so we are also connected forever to our fellow human beings and, indeed, all of creation including creation itself. Like the proverbial butterfly sneeze in Brazil that causes a typhoon in Japan or the gentle prod of a finger on a domino that begins a chain reaction that causes thousands of other dominoes to fall, what one person does, no matter how slight, causes something else to happen. We judge that our lives to require adequate heat in winter and engineer our houses and thermostats so that we don’t have to think about that, but we never think of the people who have only oil and propane for heat and whose budgets often can’t be stretched far enough to cover a whole month’s worth of fuel. As long as we’re comfortable, all’s right with the world, right? It’s a judgement call and one that potentially causes others to fall prey to cold and despair — and sometimes death.
Paul’s poetic assertion that “We do not live to ourselves” tugs as the heartstrings. We weren’t put here just to amuse ourselves and look down our noses at those who are poorer or of a lower status than we are. We were put here to be stewards of God’s creation and companions to God as well. “Am I my brother’s keeper” is more than a question Cain asks of God, knowing full well he’s just murdered his brother. Jesus answered that we are all our brother’s keeper – and our sister’s as well. Just as we bask in the love of God, we’re charged to pass it on, not hoard it like Midas’ gold. Our judgements have to be what is good for everybody, not just ourselves or our social class or group. We are God’s, whether we live or die, and God expects us to be profitable, not just to ourselves or our company but to God and all that is God’s above all. If we judge someone to be unworthy of help, we fail to see God’s presence and stamp on them, just as they cannot see the same on us. It’s interconnectedness, and it’s vital.
The mystical/metaphysical poet John Donne, wrote:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. *
I think Donne strikes at the heart of Paul’s message: we are all interconnected and we can’t in good conscience believe otherwise, no matter how much we’d like to (or do). If we are interconnected we can’t judge others without judging ourselves as well, and we know how hard that can be to do. We’re used to self-justification for whatever it is and give little thought to the perceptions of others.
I have to stop and remember that every time I judge someone else, I’m chipping away a tiny piece of my own soul. I’m not living into the “. . . [W]e are the Lord’s” and, if I forget that, it is at my own peril. No, not the peril that I will lose God’s love, but that I will lose my love for God that I proclaim with my lips but fail to do in my life. I’m still God’s, whether I live or die, and it’s up to me to remember that and live it until the day I die.
The challenge has been given. The response is now up to me.
* Devotion upon Emergent Occasions