A bargain? (A sermon)

by Kim on September 14, 2007

A gospel of grace means no one gets what they deserve, and life isn’t fair.

Not long after I became a Christian a friend of mine gave me a collection of sermons by the great Karl Barth. The collection was appropriately entitled Deliverance to the Captives: all the sermons were preached towards the end of Barth’s life in the city prison in Basel. One sermon in particular overwhelmed me. It was entitled “The Criminals with Him”, and took as its text a verse from Luke’s passion narrative: “They crucified him with the criminals, one on either side of him” (Luke 23:33). “Do you know what this implies?” asked Barth. “Don’t be too surprised if I tell you that this was the first Christian fellowship.” And Barth went on to conclude: “In reality we all are these crucified criminals. And only one thing matters now. Are we ready to be told what we are? Are we ready to hear the promise given to the condemned, [and] to ‘get in line behind’ [them]?”

“Get in line behind them?” I thought. Hang on a minute, Karl! I know you’re big on grace, but aren’t you getting carried away, isn’t this taking grace a bit too far? I mean isn’t this unfair, unjust, criminals at the front of the kingdom queue, evil folk ahead of the good? I was particularly miffed at what Barth preached because I myself came to Christ out of a rather sordid existence, having lived for a time on the streets of Amsterdam and London, homeless and broke, begging, taking drugs, even doing the odd bit of shop-lifting just to survive. I knew what kind of people wheeled and dealed there, the crime and the violence. I’d left that scum behind me — and now Barth tells me that I’m going to have to get behind them to enter the kingdom of God? And, adding insult to injury, observe: Barth made no distinction between the penitent and the impenitent thief — both were going to precede me.

Can you sympathise with my annoyance and discomfort? I’m sure you can. For my anger and confusion are typical of Christians — indeed they are the temptation of all religious people. For here is what religion, at bottom, is all about: it’s about making a bargain with God. And the bargain goes like this: God, I give you my faith and all that goes with it: the church-going, the praying, the morality, the charity, the extra mile, and so on; and you, God, in return, you’ve got to be fair. If I keep my side of the bargain, I expect you to bless me with good things — health, work, family. I don’t expect life to be perfect, but I do expect a sense of proportion — no terminal illnesses, no long-term unemployment, no painful divorce or kids who are on crack. Of course if I don’t keep my side of the bargain, if I lapse and behave badly, fair enough, I get what’s coming to me. But we both keep to the contract. And there is an unwritten codicil to this contract: other people — they too must get what they deserve: the righteous must prosper and the sinner must suffer. Do we have a deal, Lord?

This is religion. Isn’t that the way it is? Isn’t that why we get so ticked off when the righteous suffer and sinners prosper? Up goes the cry: Unfair! Unfair! And isn’t that why suffering is so faith-threatening, why suffering – especially seemingly undeserved suffering – especially my underserved suffering – is the principal reason that people lose their faith? My child is killed in a car accident or murdered, my wife gets ovarian cancer and dies in a matter of months, the market crashes and I lose everything I’ve ever worked for. But how can that be? I’ve kept my side of the bargain – but, God, you’ve reneged.

During that awful course of treatment I had last year for my viral infection, I confess that sometimes I found myself trying to strike just such a bargain with God – and I wasn’t even dying! “Get me through this, Lord; cure me, Lord; and I promise I’ll be a better person, a better minister!” Conversely, I sometimes found myself envying the healthy, and asking, “Lord, why can’t I be like them?” And, worse, “Why them and not me, Lord?”

Well, this morning I am here to tell you that God doesn’t do bargains. I mean the whole idea, really, is a no-brainer. Why should God do a deal with us? What do we have to offer God that he doesn’t already have? And why should we trust God to deliver the goods we’re expecting? I mean the deity has form, doesn’t he? One word should suffice: the Holocaust. If God didn’t deliver his own people from the ovens of Auschwitz, why should I expect him to deliver me from affliction? Or if one word isn’t enough, here are two: Good Friday. For heaven’s sake, man, God didn’t deliver his own Son, totally sinless, completely obedient, from torture and death, he watched him get strung up between those two thieves, so am I God’s gift that I am going to be exempted from fortune’s slings and arrows? What makes me a special case? The idea that God might owe me – really, folks, it’s fairyland.

A bargain? Think again. But we can only think again when we abandon religion and embrace revelation – which is what Christianity is: revelation. Unlike religion, revelation is not something that confirms the way we think and what we think we know; on the contrary, revelation disrupts and destroys it. Revelation is always utterly unexpected and surprising; revelation disturbs and shakes us to the core. Although in fact revelation comes as a gift – it is good news – our first response is always recoil and resistance, because it is so threatening to the what’s what and who’s who we thought we knew. And that goes both for us and for other people.

In Tolstoy’s masterpiece of a novella The Death of Ivan Ilych, a well-to-do civil servant on his deathbed looks back over his life and, in despair, judges it to have been meaningless. How could a freak and trivial accident result in a tumour that interrupted a business and domestic life that once had “flow[ed] as he considered it should do – pleasantly and properly”? Ivan, you see, assumed that he had certain rights, that life should be compensatory, that, as he puts it, “When we have enjoyed something for a long time, we think it is ours, and that we are entitled to expect fate to let us go on enjoying [it].” Suffering and premature death are not part of the bargain for this nominally orthodox Christian. By contrast, Ivan’s loyal servant Gerasim has a different take on life and faith, which makes him the only one close to Ivan honest with him about the nature of his illness (the rest disguise and dissimulate): he sees life as a gift, not a bargain, and faith too as a gift, with no strings attached, and, finally, death too as a gift, not a sad end but the very climax of life, the final chapter of our biography that gives the preceding chapters their point and purpose. It is not coincidental that Gerasim is a person who selflessly serves and cares, who, unlike his master, does not regard himself as the centre of the universe. And then, in Ivan’ last moments – revelation! He looks at his wife and son – and no longer envies them, he is sorry for them. He no longer thinks of himself. He no longer demands to know why his life has gone this way and not that way. He no longer feels bad done by.

“And the pain?” he asked himself. “What has become of the pain? Where are you, pain?”
He turned his attention to it.
“Yes, here it is. Well, what of it. Let the pain be.” . . .
[And then] “Death is finished,” he said to himself. “It is no more!”

Finally, as for that disgruntlement I felt over having to queue behind those two thieves next to Jesus on the cross, or the low-life I knew from the street, from the short story by Flannery O’Connor, entitled – succinctly – “Revelation”, about one Mrs. Turpin from the deep South. Mrs. Turpin is a hard-working, upright, church-going farmer’s wife. One day, at her GP’s, she is having a go at the white trash and lazy blacks she has to put up with. Suddenly a mentally disturbed girl in the waiting room throws a book at Mrs. Turpin and calls her a “wart hog from hell”. Visibly shaken, Mrs. Turpin returns to her farm, unable to get the girl’s offensive words out of her mind. “Wart hog” indeed! For Mrs. Turpin knows that she is a good person, certainly far superior to red necks and niggers. And she reminds God of her rectitude, as well as of all the good work she does, especially for the church. So she angrily asks, referring to the girl’s outrageous insult, “What did you send me a message like that for?” And then, suddenly, the revelation. As she stares into the pigpen, Mrs. Turpin is given a glimpse of “the very heart of mystery,” and begins to absorb some “abysmal life-giving knowledge.” She has a vision of a parade of souls marching to heaven, with white trash, blacks, freaks, lunatics and other social outcasts up front, leading the way, and, taking up the rear, folk like herself, “marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behaviour. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

Yes, religion is a bargain, but revelation is no bargain, revelation is grace, it is free. Nothing is necessary, all is a gift. We have no rights, are never owed, and are never one up on the “less deserving”. That “scum” I thought I’d left behind – I didn’t: it was me too and I took it with me. But no matter: God’s sun shines and his rain falls on the good and the evil without distinction. As Oxford Regius Professor of Divinity Marilyn McCord Adams puts it: “Expecting God to be interested in invidious distinctions among us would be like our judging the ladybugs to see which had paid us the appropriate honour!” God is sheer, exuberant, overflowing, prodigal abundance. May God grant us the insight and wisdom that Mrs. Turpin takes home with her that fateful night: “In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }


ee 09.14.07 at 8:46 am

So much good stuff in there, I’ve no idea where to begin to comment. Thanks for posting it.


dh 09.14.07 at 3:18 pm

Well Kim, I really enjoyed your post here. I think this somewhat, however I disagree on part of it, what I said. That our defintion of fair is different than our defintion of fair. If we understand the concept of repentence then we can understand that it was fair that one of the theives received Salvation. Grace is free but one can either accept the gift or reject the gift. The consequences of both choices are FAIR. On this earth where believers, God’s people, etc. “face trials and tribulations” that doesn’t change the fact that at the Judgement Seat of Christ and the Great White Throne of Judgement it will be fair.

Kim, you seem to miss that one thief received Salvation and the other didn’t. It was the first Christian fellowship but it was fellowship between two not three. Also, what about Mary and the Apostle John? They seemed to be Believers by not being afraid at being at the crucifixion? So I guess it was a fellowship of 4 people not three with a difference of which people in addition.

I also disagree with this statement ““Expecting God to be interested in invidious distinctions among us would be like our judging the ladybugs to see which had paid us the appropriate honour!”. I believe God DOES care about all of our individual differences and with those differences wants us to freely choose the Grace made available to all with Sanctification and the process therein thereafter. I don’t believe too much in the “ramdomness of God”. I believe all things work for His purpose but that living in a sinful world makes the world succeptible to things like the Holocost, Tsunami’s, earquakes, etc. Scripture mentions that these things will increase as we get closer to “Christ’s return”.

Just some additional thoughts. It may appear from this that I disagreed more than agreed. That is not the case there was so much I agreed with. I still believe that the whole concept of Covenents are “bargains”. However, I will agree with you that we cant’ “Demand” things from God. If Gods says something in His Word we can “expect” things. However “expecting things” and “demanding things” are two different things.

So in conclusion this post seems to address peoples wrong motives of “demanding things from God” which God desires us NOT to do. He wants us to “look forward as we see the Day approaching” as oppose to “demanding what we are looking forward to”.


dh 09.14.07 at 3:45 pm

Sorry I typoed “That our defintion of fair is different than our defintion of fair.”

Should be Our definition of fair is different that God’s definition of fair. :( Sorry

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