Right or Wrong?

Let’s play … RIGHT! OR! WRONG!!!

And now, here’s your host…

Jimmmmm Vitaleeeeeeeee!!!

“Hey there folks! This the show Right or Wrong? where I give you a scenario and you tell me if its right or wrong. Easy enough right? There’s no grand prize because, frankly, there are no winners! Ready to play? Alright. Here we go!

Round 1!
Right or wrong: running a red light.
But what if you’re speeding to the hospital because your friend is bleeding out? Right or wrong?

Round 2!
Right or wrong: telling the truth.
Right or wrong: telling a lie.
But what if you promised someone else you’d keep a grave secret and you lie to other people about it in order to remain a person of your word?

Okay one more.

Round 3!
Right or wrong: stealing.
But what if you and your family are starving and you steal a loaf of bread to feed your children? (Yes, I know that’s the plot to Les Misérables).

 

Alright enough of that silliness. On to the devotional.

In his first letter, the apostle John appears to be greatly concerned with contradictions. The first three chapters of his first letter talk about right and wrong, light and dark, truth and lies, Christ and antichrist, righteousness and unrighteousness, children of God and children of the devil. If you take what he writes at face value, you might think that he lives in a very black and white world where right and wrong are perfectly clear. Where the good people always do what is right and the bad people always do what is wrong. Where the good people are rewarded and the bad people are punished.

The letter seems to say as much. Read this from chapter 3:

“Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.” (1 John 3:7-10)

Everyone who does right is a child of God. Everyone who sins is a child of the devil.

 

Bonus round!!!
Right or wrong: You’re a child of God.
Right or wrong: You commit sin?

 

Did you say you’re a child of God? And did you say you commit sin? Well then according to 1 John 3, you’re no child of God! You’re a child of the devil! Yikes.

If the world is really as black and white as 1 John 3 claims, then we’re all in a whole heap of trouble. No one—not one—can live up to the expectations laid out in 1 John. If we are all to be judged under the black and white standard of pure, complete, and constant righteous actions then we are all completely and utterly lost.

But is that really the way it is?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer might help us with this. He was a German Lutheran pastor who lived from 1906-1945. He was a brilliant thinker and authored several famous books on the Christian faith. He was on track to have a brilliant career. And then Hitler took power. Bonhoeffer knew immediately that he could not comply with Hitler’s regime. He did his best to resist, even refusing to join the rest of the German church in pledging allegiance to Hitler. He formed his own seminary of faithful people who dissented from Hitler’s deplorable form of Lutheranism.  But soon that proved insufficient. The Nazi party shut down the seminary and Bonhoeffer was put on a watchlist.

Eventually Bonhoeffer was faced with a decision: flee the country, join the Nazis, or resist. He endured great internal strife over this until the day he died. As a Christian he believed he could not participate in Hitler’s evil. As a Christian he also believed he could not be complicit in the taking of a life, and certainly not in a plot to assassinate Hitler. This is like the worst game of Right or Wrong ever, right? But finally, he had to make a decision. And this is what he ultimately decided: he wrote, “It is better for a truth-teller to lie than for a liar to tell the truth.” Essentially he was saying that a liar will use the truth to perpetuate a lie (which is what the Nazi party was doing); while a truth-teller will use a lie in service to the truth.

So that’s what Bonhoeffer did. He adopted the lie that he was a loyal Nazi in order to infiltrate the government and relay important information back to other resistance fighters. He was instrumental in setting up a plot to assassinate Hitler. I’d love to tell you that the plot succeeded and Bonhoeffer became a hero and lived a long and happy life. But you already know that’s not true. The plot failed. Bonhoeffer was arrested. And he was hanged just a month before the Allied victory in Europe.

Bonhoeffer’s world was not black and white. It was complicated. It was grey. It was full of difficult decisions whose moral implications remain impossible to assess. Was he right? Was he wrong? He would tell you himself that he believed what he was doing was wrong…but that it was also necessary.

We live in a grey world. Right and wrong are easy to name in theory; but far more difficult to name in practice. Despite our longings for obvious truths, for black and white reality: the world is far more complicated.

I think that God could have left us in that mess. God could have placed the blame on us (where it rightly belongs) and washed God’s hands of us forever. But, John writes, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are” (1 John 3:1). By a black and white definition we are children of the devil, right? And yet God claims us as God’s children by an act of grace. We don’t deserve it.

I think its an oversimplification to say that God is right and the world is wrong and so God came to save us from the world. I think the truth is rather that the world is grey, right is not so easily understood, wrong is not so easily avoided. And so God came to save us from having to parse out and live constantly by pure and perfect right over wrong. God steps in and leads us to righteousness.

Now, when we read the word “righteousness” we often assume that means “always doing what is right.” But our Lutheran faith tells us otherwise. We believe that righteousness comes not from what we do but from what God did for us. We believe righteousness comes not from good works but from faith that God is doing good work for us. This is what we mean when we say that we are saved by grace through faith.

Despite appearances John does not expect us to be perfect. He expects us to have faith. This is clear in our reading from last week: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9) Sound familiar? We use those words in our confession liturgy almost every week.

For John, unrighteousness is lack of trust. For John, righteousness is an act of trust: trusting that God will forgive when we mess up, trusting that God will forgive when the grey of this world makes it impossible for us to know what is right or what is wrong, trusting that in the end our salvation is in God’s hands, not our own. God saved Dietrich Bonhoeffer not by showing him what was right and what was wrong (Bonhoeffer died not knowing which was which), but by taking salvation out of Bonhoeffer’s hands completely. Bonhoeffer was saved because God loved and wanted to save Bonhoeffer, not because of anything Bonhoeffer did. And Bonhoeffer trusted that.

God has saved us from this grey world not by giving us a clearer picture of right and wrong and then expecting us to always choose right, but rather by taking our own actions out of the salvation equation. Jesus didn’t make the world any easier to understand (I’d be out of a job if he did); but he did give us hope that even if we don’t understand this world, we can still experience salvation.

My favorite verse in today’s reading is this: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). I think it speaks so clearly to the truth of our situation. We know that we are children of God because of what God has done in Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. But that has not cleared up the confusion of this grey world, and so we cannot see clearly exactly what we are becoming in Christ Jesus. The future remains unknown. The world remains inscrutable. But what Jesus has given us is hope. And hope is just faith in the future. Jesus has given us the hope that despite all the contradictions and impossibilities of this world, God has prepared a future for us, a future where we will no longer suffer and struggle in the grey of this world but will bask forever in the love of God’s grace and mercy.

 

One more round!
Right or wrong: this world is grey and right and wrong are not so easy to know.
Right or wrong: Despite this God loves us and saves us anyway.

 

Good. Now go and live like you believe it.

Amen.