I heard a story in one of Leonard Sweet’s Napkin Scribbles this week about Tommy Lasorda’s Hall of Fame induction speech in 1997 when he tells this story:
Let me tell you how bad I wanted to win a few years ago we went into Cincinnati to play a big 3-game series against the Big Red Machine and I got up Sunday morning to go to church and who came in and sat right next to me, the manager of the Cincinnati Reds, Johnny McNamara. Now I knew why he was in church and he knew why I was there, and at the conclusion of the Mass we walked out the center aisle together and I’m thinking, “Man I’ve got to beat this guy today.”As we approached the front door he said to me very quietly, “Wait for me outside Tommy, I’ll be right out.”
I said, “Okay Johnny.” And I said to myself, “Where is he going? The Mass is over.” And I watched him and he went over to that side of the church, he knelt down and he lit a candle. Instead of me going out the door I went over to the other side other church and I went in front of the alter and I waited. And when he left I went over and blew that candle out! I knew one thing; he was not lighting that candle for a dead relative. All throughout the game I kept hollering over to him, “Hey Mac, it ain’t going to work pal, I blew it out.” And we clobbered ‘em that day 13-2.
Perhaps Lasorda’s confession reveals a natural instinct in all of us. It certainly appears within the ranks of everyday church goin’ folk. We are often guilty of blowing out candles when we should be lighting them.
Candle blowing behaviour is motivated by fear. Fear that our church is shrinking. Fear that we are losing a purity that we once had. Fear that our grip on the truth is slipping. The apostle John says that perfect love casts out fear. (1 John 4: 18) Maybe our love isn’t as perfect as it once was. Candle blowing also comes from famine mentality: when something is going well for one group, that means that there is less ‘good fortune’ to go around for the rest of us. When we blow a few candles out it makes ours seem to glow a little brighter.
Two sobering and extreme examples of this have surfaced in the past couple of weeks. The first was from a church in the east end of Toronto. They have been street preaching after their Sunday evening service on and off during the summer for years. When the do this they walk their neighbourhood and proclaim God’s judgement on sin. On August 22nd this year they were preaching outside the home of a homosexual couple who had moved into the neighbourhood earlier this year. It’s unclear if the church group had any idea who they were preaching to but needless to say, it didn’t go well:
The community’s response is remarkable. Do you hear what the community is saying? “You are a hateful people!” “We don’t want your hatred around here!” “You don’t know the first thing about love!” “You are not welcome here.” The church group is uniformly hated by the people who live near the church building and that evening’s message, whatever it was, could not be heard. They have brought terrible shame on the cause of Christ and it will be years, decades perhaps before any church in that area can serve people in that area.
The second is the story of a church in Florida that is declaring this Saturday (September 11th) as a ‘burn a Koran day.’ They are going to try to burn Korans at their church in protest of …. I’m not sure exactly. Again, the cause of Christ takes a huge hit for this. We are all diminished in the world’s eyes as a result of the actions of a few hateful people.
Before we go too far and wag our fingers at these two outrageous examples, we must confess that the seeds of the same hatred are in our hearts too. I would hope they have not been able to sprout and bloom in our lives to this extent but I think we can all confess that while in our own tribes, we sing many of the same songs; we believe in the same God, we read the same Bible, all the while we are trying to blow out each other’s candles. For some of us, it is a full-time job.
One dark theme runs through both of these stories: Evil is presumed to be something ‘out there’ that can be identified, rather than something that is within us.
Paul starts a rant in Romans 1: 18 through 32 where he rails on the sin that is present in the world:
…They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. (Rom. 1: 29 – 32)
‘Preach it brother Paul!’ But wait, he’s not done! In the very next verse Paul turns on us…
You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance? (Rom 2: 1 – 4)
Paul continues the rant through chapter 2 saying that we are all the same: liars and murderers, cheats and adulterers. Every last one of us is wicked. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God…” (Rom 3: 23) I have heard that verse so many times before, but always as a stick to convict a non-Christian of their sin. I have always heard it read as, ‘you are totally messed unless you get on board with this program I’ve got.’ But hear the context:
…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3: 23 – 26)
WE all fall short! That verse I have used for others is referring to me! I have fallen short and am justified by the blood of Jesus. Why did God do this? Verse 25 says to demonstrate his justice. How is this just? I get away with murder here! How is that Justice?
Paul is saying here that God’s justice is that someone has to pay for my sins. God is just because He makes sure the price is paid by paying it Himself! God left all the sins that had happened before Jesus came to earth unpaid for, so that Jesus could pay for them too. God is just and God is the one who Justifies. Jesus pays my debt and Jesus also serves as my righteousness. Jesus blood doesn’t just erase the sins on my record. God knows I would fill it back up again! God’s redemption for us is so perfect that it accounts for the sins we have already committed (in the past) and it provides for the future in Jesus. Jesus is my righteousness! It is Jesus who stands before God’s throne right now and justifies my standing as forgiven. If God could ever forget why I was let off the hook, Jesus is there to ‘remind’ God that the debt is paid. It is in this kind of redemption that I have put my faith. I trust Jesus to be righteous for me since I know I can’t pull it off.
Read where Paul goes next in Romans. Paul says, “where is boasting?” (Rom 3: 37) boast in our own righteousness? Certainly not! What a wicked thought that I have attained a standing that others cannot attain through faith also! How brutally arrogant!
May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Gal 6: 14)
So does the church of Jesus Christ go into the world to uncover the sins of the world? Do we go out and convict the world of sin? Absurd! Christ’s church goes out into the world to serve the world and through that service share the story of our own redemption: How we were dead in our own sins. How great is God that He has won the victory for us and brought us back to life.
The gospel of Jesus Christ does not make bad people good. The gospel of Jesus Christ makes dead people live!
Jesus was about lighting candles and not blowing them out.