Who’s In and Who’s Out
John 8:2-11 NRSV
2Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ 6They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ 8And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.* 9When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ 11She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’
This morning we continue our Lenten series on questions. Last week we took time to ask the question what does it mean to be created in the image of God? I suggested that to be created in the image of God means to be created with free will and the responsibility to care for creation, being agents of creation ourselves and given the capacity to love as God has loved us. Today we turn to a new question, a question that is as difficult if not more difficult to answer for us. A question that like our last question raises more questions that it provides answer.
The question for this week is this: How do we know what sins and who’s sins are forgiven? How are we supposed to know who will be ushered through those fabled pearly gates and who will be turned away. Who’s in and who’s out?
It carries with it a lot of questions. When we ask who get’s into heaven, we necessarily have to ask what is heaven? And even more difficult, what is hell? What must we do to inherit eternal life…and when must we do it. This morning we’re only going to scratch the surface of these questions, questions that have troubled theologians for centuries, and questions that create some of the deepest rifts in the church today.
Who’s in and Who’s out?
We exist in a culture of creating labels. We like to fit people into out neat little boxes. When we can organize the world, organize people, by a simple set of labels it seemingly helps us to understand the world a little better. Often our labeling of people comes with the organizing of people. Determining by labels where people fall in our ordering of society.
I think our cultures tendency to label and subsequently judge based on those labels is glaringly apparent in our entertainment. As Heidi Klum says on the show Project Runaway, one day you’re in and the next you’re out. Our tendency to label is at its core a desire to determine who’s in and who’s out. What are some of the ways we label? Black and white, Male and Female, Republican and Democrat. Dog person and cat person. We are really good at labeling people, and while some labels are based on some level of truth, the problem occurs when our labels allow us to determine someone’s worth in society. To determine in a very real sense who is in, and who is out.
The church, Christians, are not much better. And in fact, are often a whole lot worse when it comes to labeling. The French philosopher Voltaire said, “Of all religions, the Christian should of course inspire the most tolerance, but until now Christians have been the most intolerant of all…” In our efforts to understand who is in and who is out, we have created some of the most comprehensive ways to label people known to humanity.
Just think about denominations. We call ourselves United Methodists. It’s a label we have created so people know where exactly we stand on certain things. But Christians use other labels too, labels that are frankly a lot more hurtful than denominational titles. We like to label, because we have been taught that a central aspect of our faith should be determining who is in and who is out. We’ve created an image of God as a cosmic umpire, and all people when the time comes will be called SAFE or OUT.
Actually, this question came up because we were talking about what it means to be born again. More specifically what distinguishes those who call themselves born again Christians from the rest of us? Now I could preach a series of sermons on what being “born again” means, but suffice it to say that “born again” is a label that some Christians have created to draw a very clear line between who is in, and who is out. Who is forgiven and who isn’t. Who get’s in to heaven and who doesn’t.
Self described born again Christians say that in order to get into heaven, in order to receive salvation, you must be born again. Typically that involves what they call the sinner’s prayer. If you haven’t been born again in that way then you can count yourself among those who are eternally out. This comes from the passage in the gospel where Nicodemus asks Jesus what he must do to find eternal life. Famous Christian Musician Rich Mullins said before he died, “You guys are all into that born again thing, which is great. We do need to be born again, since Jesus said that to a guy named Nicodemus. But if you tell me that I have to be born again to enter the kingdom of God, I can tell you that you just have to sell everything you have and give it to the poor, because Jesus said that to one guy too…but I guess that’s why God invented highlighters, so we can highlight the parts we like and ignore the rest.”
Christians are good at labeling, good at deciding who’s in and who’s out. It’s really a question of salvation. Or as my theological friends would call it Soteriology, a word that even my spell check doesn’t recognize. Anyway, trying to determine who’s in and who’s out has been so important to Christians that there is an entire field of theology dedicated to that task. Again, I could go off on a multi-sermon tangent about the different answers people have come up with. Who’s in, who’s out, and what does it mean to be in or out?
These theological questions can be fun, but when we get caught up in trying to decide who’s in and who’s out we miss the point. Jesus told us in no uncertain terms that it’s not up to us to decide. We see in the story this morning that some people had taken it upon themselves to decide who was in and who was out. The religious leaders had decided that this woman was definitely out. She had done something in their eyes so despicable, so wrong, that there was no way that she of all people would be in. And since she was out, they were going to make sure she was out.
Getting stoned back then meant something very different. They were going to kill her. Then along comes Jesus and he tells them that only one without sin is capable of making the decision of who’s in and out. And he, as the only one present without sin, decided that this woman, a woman cast out of society, beaten by the religious leaders, marginalized and nearly murdered…this woman was in! This shows us two things. One, that God welcomes in those we would least expect or least want. And two, it is not our job to determine who get’s in.
We may not be walking around in mobs ready to stone people, but we more often than not take it upon ourselves to decide who is in and who isn’t, and we then pass judgment accordingly. This is in direct contradiction to Jesus teaching. If we spent the same amount of time loving and caring for people as Jesus called us to do as we do spouting off our ideas about who is in and who is out, the church would be a different place and the world would be different. As curious as we might be about God’s criteria for judgment, we are reminded that God is the only one who can judge, and if we take on the task of judgment, scripture tells us that we will be judged most harshly. Judge not, lest ye be judged. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Remove the plank from your own eye before tending to the speck in your brother or sisters’.
So, you might ask, what’s the point of heaven? Why do we care about heaven if we’re not supposed to be deciding who does or doesn’t get in? Can we separate our understanding of heaven from our human tendency to judge? I think we have to. Heaven isn’t about labels, about our human capacity to understand salvation. Heaven is about reassurance. It’s about God’s victory.
The point of heaven, the promise of heaven, is that God will be victorious over evil. In each of our lives individually and in the world, in all of creation itself. Heaven is the promise of God’s victory. It’s not a gated community or country club. It’s the home of God, where love and goodness rule. That’s what should matter to us!
Thus, Heaven is reassurance. Reassurance that no matter how we suffer, God is victorious, and God’s love and grace will triumph. Heaven is reassurance that when the evil in the world seems insurmountable, God’s glory is the ultimate truth. The ultimate hope. That’s what heaven is about. I think this image of heaven, of Glory, was captured so well in the now Oscar award wining song from the movie Selma, Glory.
Heaven, Glory, is about God’s victory. It’s not about who is in and who is out. It’s the sustaining promise that motivates us to work towards seeing God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. It was the reassurance of heaven that led MLK to seek justice in the world, and it’s the reassurance of heaven that sustains each of us.
So there are two things I want you to take with you today. One, it is not your job to determine who is in and who is out. Your job is to love fully and unconditionally. If you find yourself passing judgment on someone for any reason, determining that they are out, you are not living out God’s call. God calls us to love.
If you want to know how this church can grow, pay attention to this: I was reading about a recent survey of inactive former church members. The survey found that church ministry would improve by “being more accepting of different kinds of people and different lifestyles.” Cecil Williams, a Methodist pastor in San Francisco, said “It’s dangerous to be just with your own kind…the church must say I accept you as you are, not I’ll accept you when you get like me.”
You might be curious what theologians have said about salvation, about heaven and hell, but know that it is not our job to determine who is or isn’t in. And the second thing to take away from this, is that you are in. You have received God’s grace on days when you feel it and on days when you don’t. Don’t let anyone put a label on you that says you are for any reason outside of the grace of God. We have all been surrounded by God’s grace and promised that we are in! We are safe! We are home. Allow that grace to flow through you, to give you confidence and hope, and to fill your spirit with love for all of God’s children!