The Apostle's Tale: PROMISE
Notice: Spoiler alert!
This series reveals details about the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale.
If you don’t want to know anything in advance of viewing, watch the series before you read the sermon notes.
What does God require of us? In the last episode of the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale, the handmaids are ordered to carry out a biblical punishment: death by stoning, of another handmaid. It is an awful scene, and the culmination of a season of particularly harsh treatment of the handmaid who has been sentenced to death at the hands of her sisters in captivity.
In an unexpected last-minute turn, the handmaids refuse to carry out their duty. One by one, they drop their stones on the ground. It is a grand gesture, a mass rebellion for which these women know there will be consequences. Offred interprets her actions theologically in terms of grace; or, to be more accurate, lack of grace. She says, “I am in disgrace, which is the opposite of grace, I guess. We have refused to carry out our duty.”
Is disgrace the opposite of grace? Are we in disgrace if we refuse to carry out our duty? Are those who do not profess faith in Christ, or refuse to follow a particular interpretation of what is required of us as Christians, dis-graced? —That is, are they refused the grace of God? Are they subject to eternal punishment?
This passage is difficult because historically it has sometimes been interpreted in a way that is judgmental to non-Christians. Paul has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart for his fellow Jewish brothers and sisters because they have not accepted the Messiah whom Paul believes God has sent to save them and all creation.
It is important when we read passages like this to remind our congregations that none of us know the criteria by which God judges the righteous and the unrighteous. We like to think that by reading the Bible we can come to understand the mind of God, and thus judge for ourselves on God’s behalf who is acceptable to God and who is not. This has historically formed a basis for all manner of prejudice, oppression and discrimination, and worse.
But we don’t know the mind of God. We have limited vision. We can only see in a mirror dimly.
What is important here, then, is to find a way to identify with Paul’s genuine concern for his fellow brothers and sisters without necessarily taking up his cause. While I hope that the example I proclaim by the way I live my life will inspire others who do not yet know Christ to want to know more about him, I can only give my witness. It is not up to me to convert anyone. That is God’s work and God’s alone, just as it is God’s work and God’s alone to judge.
It is not our job to determine who is in disgrace, nor is it ours to determine the consequences for those who either refuse Christ or who, in our estimation, “refuse to carry out their duty.”
United Methodists have historically affirmed the value of other religious traditions even while asserting deep faith in Christ as the way to everlasting life. In our pews sit people with broad theological understandings of what it means to be a United Methodist. At the heart of our church, we try to live by the example of Christ.
It would behoove all of us, particularly as there are those clamoring for division in the denomination from both sides of the aisle, to seek through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand God, praying only for the knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.
And, having had this spiritual awakening, concentrate on the work of carrying our message of the good news of Jesus Christ to others. At the same time, it is our duty to practice the principles of the Christian faith in all our affairs.
But let us be clear: this does not mean those to whom we carry our message must receive it or come to believe exactly as we do. And while we may have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in our hearts for those who do not know the grace and love we have known in Jesus Christ, it is not our place to judge. Rather, it is our place to simply stand on the promises of Jesus Christ so that our very lives give testimony to his grace and love.
In the words of my colleague Taylor Burton-Edwards, over the last four weeks,
We’ve seen the world from the vista of the freedom Christ offers us. We’ve groaned with the world for the distance between that freedom and the captivities we now experience. We entered the deep waters and done our intercessory work of contending with and for all that needs God’s saving love. And now, emerging from the depth as swimming ashore, we stand on the solid ground of God’s promises as we continue our walk with Christ.
Today is about that solid ground of God’s promises for us, even and especially when we may not see them fulfilled, even in our lifetimes. Just as God has formed a covenant with the people of Israel for their salvation and mission in the world, God has just as surely covenanted with all people, Jewish and Gentile alike, who turn to Christ as Savior and commit their way to him as Lord. As dystopian and toxic as this world may seem or be, the promise of complete salvation for us and renewal of all things in creation abides.
And that promise keeps us moving forward.