Explosive Grace: Called on the Carpet

by Rev. Doug Gray

     Moms know. I don’t know how, and I don’t know why…but moms know. Mom is folding laundry at the other end of the house and so you try to sneak into the kitchen to get one of the cookies cooling on the racks. Just as you reach for one of the cookies, Mom shouts from the other room, “Don’t take any of those cookies.” How does she know that? Or you and your mother are having a conversation on the phone, and Mom says something and you roll your eyes, and she says, “Don’t you roll your eyes at me.” She can’t even see you and she knows you are rolling your eyes! Moms know. If we need it, moms call us out, call us to be our best, not just for what we do, but for the attitude we are doing it. In our passage for today, Paul calls Peter out for getting something really wrong in his relationships, and their conversation is going to help us understand God and moms a little better.
     First, love first. Philip Yancey shares a story told to him:  A person working “with the down-and-out in Chicago,” tells the story of “A prostitute [who] came to him in wretched straits, homeless, her health failing, unable to buy food for her…daughter. Her eyes awash with tears, she confessed that she had been” renting out her own daughter, “to support her own drug habit. The listener could hardly bear hearing the sordid details of her story. He sat in silence, not knowing what to say. At last he asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. “I will never forget the look of pure astonishment that crossed her face,” he later said. ‘Church!’ she cried. ‘Why would I ever go there? They’d just make me feel even worse than I already do!’” Philip Yancey adds, “What struck me about my friend’s story is that women much like this prostitute fled toward Jesus, not away from him. The worse a person felt about herself, the more likely she saw Jesus as a refuge. [1]” Peter is putting rules first—rules for trying to be holy, rules for separating oneself from food offered to idols. Jesus put love first, people first, reminding people of their best selves. At its best, the church and moms put love first.
     Second, think about the consequences to relationships. In one of my earliest confirmation classes, we were in the opening orientation session, looking at expectations and requirements. The first thing on the list is regular attendance in worship. One of the moms raised her hand, “So how many Sundays a month is regular attendance?” It’s a very reasonable question in some ways—she wanted to know what the minimum was so that she could be sure her teen would qualify. In some other ways, it made me sad, for it showed me an attitude of fear or worry. Timothy Keller writes, “Legalism is looking to something besides Jesus Christ in order to be acceptable and clean before God. Legalism always results in pride and fear, psychologically, and exclusion and strife, socially.” The Christ-followers in Antioch were part of one of the first inclusive churches—Jews and Gentiles worshiping and eating together. Into this community come people who put rules first, that what makes us right with God is following the rules—eat this, don’t eat that. Suddenly, there were people on the “in” and people on the “out”—Jews and Gentiles—where before there were only children of God following Jesus. Where there was one table before, now there were two. Paul calls Peter out for unthinkingly introducing pride and fear, exclusion and strife, into this church. Paul knows the thing that matters is not just what Peter did, or how Peter changed his behavior, but why Peter did it—the attitude he had as he changed what he knew to be right out of fear. The consequences of that attitude were going to be huge!
     What bugged me most about the Confirmation mom’s question is how quickly she gave away her freedom to have a rule. Rules are easier. When we know the rules, we know we are secure within their boundaries, and we know what we can do that will really irritate our parents. Rules are easier. We don’t have to think, and we don’t really have to care—we just have to follow the rules. When we know the rules, we can sneer and jeer and shun those foolish and misguided unfortunates outside the rules. But rules fail to make us loving, whole people, with a good connection with God. Ultimately, what probably warms the hearts of every parent most is knowing that their child is thoughtful and loving, using their freedom to be a blessing, and walking right with God. The saying that parents give their children roots and wings is right on target. From Paul’s perspective, we are rooted in Christ and gain the wings of grace. When we try to live and love like Jesus, God’s grace will make everything work out right—our relationships, our jobs, our parenting, our communities, and our world. The best things only happen when we use our freedom to show grace, to embrace those who need it most, to suffer with those who are hurting— no “us” and “them,” just God’s children loving.
     Paul knows. Moms know. How? Maybe it’s because they have eyes in the back of their head—mine always said so. But probably it’s because they love us that they know us so well. What makes for good relationships? Probably less of the negative thinking of much of Jewish Law—don’t do this, don’t touch that, don’t eat this either. Probably more of the positive thinking of Jesus—Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. At the end of the day, keeping the rules might keep the peace, but living in grace is more about love. At their best, moms live out the kind of love Jesus showed, not just in his teachings, but in his death on the cross. The promise is that when we love—desire it, live it, thank God for it—then whatever our sacrifices, we will rise again just as Jesus did.

One of my favorite T-shirts challenges me: The front says, “Jesus save me…” and the back says, “from your followers.” I like this T-shirt for a bunch of reasons—I think it reminds us that Jesus is the one who saves, not the church…and that all too often, people in the church do not act in ways that Jesus would. So what would Jesus like to the church to be? As the early church was wrestling with how to be faithful, what were its issues? How do those help us today?

As I was thinking about this passage and Mother’s Day, I realized that I had something else that tied in: The Top Ten Ways You Know You’re a Mom:

     1.    Your feet stick to the kitchen floor and you don’t care.
     2.    You spend an entire week wearing sweats.
     3.    Your idea of a good day is making it through without a child leaking bodily
            fluids on you.
     4.    Your favorite television show is a cartoon.
     5.    Peanut butter and jelly is featured in at least one meal a day.
     6.    You’re willing to kiss your child’s boo-boo, regardless of where it is.
     7.    Your baby’s pacifier falls on the floor and you give it back to her, after you suck
            the dirt off of it because you’re too busy to wash it off.
     8.    You’re so desperate for adult conversation that you unload on a telemarketer
            and HE hangs up on YOU!
     9.    Spit is your number one cleaning agent.
    10.    You’re up each night until 10 p.m. vacuuming, dusting, wiping, washing, drying,
             loading, unloading, shopping, cooking, driving, flushing, ironing, sweeping,
             picking up, changing sheets, changing diapers, bathing, helping with homework,
             paying bills, budgeting, clipping coupons, folding clothes, putting to bed,
             dragging out of bed, brushing, chasing, buckling, feeding (them, not you),
             PLUS swinging, playing baseball, bike riding, pushing trucks, cuddling dolls,
             roller blading, basketball, football, catch, bubbles, sprinklers, slides, nature walks,
            coloring, crafts, jumping rope, PLUS raking, trimming, planting, edging, mowing,
            gardening, painting, and walking the dog. You get up at 5:30 a.m. and you have no
            time to eat, sleep, drink or go to the bathroom, and yet you still managed to
            gain 10 pounds.

What do these two readings have to do with each other? Ah yes! Well, as it just so happens, being a woman in general and a mom in particular means you get somethings about being church.

When we make it about the rules, we insert fear into the love relationship. Just like fear finding Peter when he starts to worry about the hard-core, rule-following folks from Jerusalem, so fear and worry find us when we are focused on rules.

[1]Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (1997), p. 11.