Well what a week it’s been in Hollywood.
The movie industry thrives on headlines and getting itself in the public eye.
But not these sorts of headlines.
Harvey Weinsteen, the co-founder of Miramax, has become one of the most powerful and influential figures in Hollywood over the last 30 years.
• His movies include Sex, Lies and Videotape, The English Patient, the King’s Speech, Shakespeare in Love, The Crying Game, Pulp Fiction and many more.
• They’ve earned between them more than 300 Oscar nominations.
• He’s been thanked at award ceremony speeches more than anyone else in history.
And yet this week, nobody wants to know him. After an expose of Weinsteen published a few days ago, one high-profile actress after another has come forward to describe the sexual harassment and worse that they received from him. Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow among them. And it’s all coming tumbling down.
• Weinsteen’s wife has left him
• The Oscars Academy are suspending him
• The police are investigating him
• And more
And the big question now, of course, is: how did it go on for so long?
Weinsteen’s bad behaviour has been described as an open secret in Hollywood. Everyone’s known about his antics for years. So why didn’t someone blow the whistle earlier? Apart from one person who tried and failed a couple of years ago, nobody seems to have been willing to speak up. Why not?
Well, sadly the odds always do seem to be stacked against women in sexual harassment cases. But in this case, it seems to have been even harder. The uncomfortable reality that has dawned this week is that some people are simply too powerful for charges to be made against them. Some people occupy positions which secure for them preferential treatment. Some people do think of the rules applying to other people, but not them. “I’m different”
But I wonder if – in some ways – all of us are prone to that kind of attitude.
I wonder how you felt, as we looked at that indictment of human behaviour last week. Romans chapter 1 and verse 18.
The godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness.
• Godlessness – that is a heart that replaces God as the object of its worship with something else
• Suppressing the truth – that is a mind that willfully ignores God
• Wickedness – that is a lifestyle that disregards God’s blueprint
Or look at verse 29 for more detail.
filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful
If you were here last week, you may recall I made a comment that we can all find ourselves there on the list somewhere. But I wonder if you really believed that? The truth is, I suspect, that most of us think of ourselves as a fair bit better than this list, don’t we? We’re a good few rungs up the moral ladder from there. Our response to those verses, if we’re honest, is more like: ‘Well, yes, that is poor behaviour. Shame on them. Thank goodness I’m different.’
That likely sums up the attitude of most of us in just seven words flat: “Shame on them; thank goodness I’m different”. Is that fair, do you think? Well, I don’t know what you think, but it is that very attitude that Paul takes on as he continues his letter to the Romans in today’s passage. ‘Shame on them. Thank goodness I’m different’.
But actually he breaks it down further. He looks at the thought patterns of people like us, and puts his finger on two ways that we – maybe quite subconsciously – try to wriggle out from the indictment of Romans chapter 1. Two tendencies we may be prone to in terms special pleading.
• For one thing, we’re respectable – or so we think. We’re different from other people
• And for another, we’re religious – in the broadest sent. We’ve got an inside track with God.
I wonder how Paul will address those ways of thinking. Well, we don’t have long to wait. Because straight away in verse 2 he makes his first point.
Which is simply that: being respectable doesn’t actually make you any better than others. [REP]
I don’t know what the dictionary definition of ‘respectable’ is. But I suppose when we think of ourselves as respectable, what we’re effectively doing is drawing a line. On this side of the line there are people like us: honest, decent, and so on. And on the other side are – well, the rest. You can fill in the gaps as to what they’re like. When we think of yourself as respectable, we’re splitting people into two camps: them on that side and us on this side. And so when we read Romans chapter 1, we’re left thinking. Yes, God. Quite right. This is shocking behaviour. Show your wrath by all means. I’m with you all the way. You have my full support. And if I were you, God, I’d start by taking a good look at that lot over there.’
But Paul says: no. There is no line here. There is no group that’s somehow immune to God’s judgement. You so-called respectable people are just as guilty as everyone else. And let me tell you why.
• For one thing, God won’t put up with self-righteousness.
You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.
In other word, any time we compare ourselves favourably with someone else, or even just people in general, we end up looking even more guilty, not less. Why? Well, because just making that comparison means we clearly know the rules. We must know what’s right and wrong. So we definitely can’t plead ignorance when we behave the same way.
Which of course we do. If Jesus taught us anything about breaking the rules, it’s presumably that even if you do it in understated ways, you’re just as guilty as the more blatant offender.
• Just because we prefer the subtle verbal put-down rather than a brutal attack, we’re no less guilty of violence.
• Just because we prefer a few quiet comments spoken with a wink behind someone’s back, rather than screaming abuse across a road on a Saturday night for the world to hear, we’re no less guilty of slander
• Just because we largely confine our sexual adventures to our minds rather than a physical relationship, we’re no less guilty of sexual impurity
And so on. We’re just the same in reality. Except, as I say, actually worse off: by tut-tutting at other people, we’ve confirmed that we know what’s right and wrong. So really we’re left up the creek without a paddle. With no excuse, as Paul puts it.
That’s one thing, but it goes on
• God does not miss hypocrisy
If you shine a torch at someone’s face in the dark, what happens? What happens is that everyone can now see that person’s face, but nobody can see yours. Isn’t that right? The problem with respectable people is that they behave as though the same thing works with God. That when we speak up about the state of the world over there, he’ll be blinded to our issues.
But he won’t be. He’s not dazzled or thrown off by us trying to shine the light on that lot over there. No, he can see beyond the spotlight to the facts of our lives.
2 Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth.
We can try and divert attention if we like.
• “Oh look at that – it’s disgusting.
• Someone should really do something about those people.
But it won’t throw God off the scent. His approach is absolutely methodical. He’ll look at the facts. He will just hit play on the video of each of our lives and make his judgement on that basis.
3 So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?
Far from it.
The world hates hypocrisy, doesn’t it?
• People haven’t forgotten the MPs expenses scandal: there they all are in Westminster, supposedly governing the country in truth and justice – and meanwhile they’re all privately just diddling the system
• And Church people seem to be the worst of the lot. People hate those churchy types who supposedly stand for one thing but seem to live in a totally different way.
The world hates hypocrisy.
And – well – for once God and the world are almost on the same page on this one!
Your persistent hypocrisy, says Paul, is actually just making things worse for where you stand with God!
Verse 4: you have to show evidence of change.
And verse 5: if you don’t, you’re just asking for it.
5 … because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.
God won’t put up with self-righteousness; he doesn’t miss hypocrisy; and there’s one more thing for the so-called respectable person to bear in mind:
• God doesn’t show favouritism.
No, he’s absolutely fair.
6 God ‘will repay each person according to what they have done.’[a] 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honour and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.
11 For God does not show favouritism.
You see the point? God is 100% just and fair. There are no special cases. No preferential treatment from God. It doesn’t matter who you are. What you get, says Paul, depends on how you live.
• You do the right things, get the right priorities, have the right perspective, then it’s Advance to Mayfair.
• You get it wrong, and, well it’s a different story altogether. Go to jail. Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect 200.
Your destiny, says Paul, depends entirely on your behaviour and nothing else. Doesn’t matter who you are. God is not going to say to Harvey Weinsteen: ‘Oh, it’s you, the famous Hollywood guy. Oh well, in that case, I’m sure I can turn a blind eye to a few misdemeanours. Don’t worry about it!’
He’s not going to say that.
And he’s not going to say anything similar to any of the rest of us either.
The ‘shame on them – thank goodness I’m different’ defence does not wash with God.
It’s interesting. Jesus told a story once about two sons. The so-called prodigal son and his elder brother.
• One was outrageous in his sin. He strayed far. But the other was prim and proper. He did his duty.
• One lived out what Paul was talking about back in Romans 1:18-32. The other was the kind of guy Paul has in mind here in Romans 2.
• One was a rebel, not exactly the sort of man you’d want your daughter to bring home. The other was thoroughly respectable. Perfect son-in-law material, you might say.
But do you remember which one in the end got to enjoy the feast with his father, and which one was left outside? It was the younger brother who finished up making merry with his father, and it was Mr Respectable, Mr holier-than thou, Me goody-two-shoes, the elder brother, who remained in the cold.
Both needed the grace and forgiveness of God. Both were offered it. But the elder brother wanted not mercy but justice. Which is a dangerous approach to take with God!
There is no line in God’s eyes. There is no them and us. We may distinguish between those rebels over there and us respectable types over here. But God does not recognize that distinction. It doesn’t make a difference to him whether we sin outrageously or we sin subtly. We are all of us self-condemned, and therefore desperately in need of the mercy God offers in Jesus.
So that’s Paul’s first point: being respectable doesn’t make you any better than others.
Now for the second point, which might hit many of us right between the eyes: being religious doesn’t make you any safer with God.
It’s worth saying, I guess, that the religious type he is in mind is, of course, a first-century Jew. That’s the religion on his doorstep. But I think we’ll find he has plenty to say to all of us as we go through. Because what he does is disassemble religion into 3 of its key constituent parts.
For one thing, he says,
• having a religious book doesn’t actually help.
12 All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law.
In other words, just having a Bible on your bookshelf, or by your bed, or on your phone doesn’t make you any better off than the person who hasn’t got one. Why not?
13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.
Just having access to a Bible, then, or even just good Bible-teaching, won’t get you very far. ‘You’ve got a Bible?’, Paul is saying. ‘Well, good for you, but don’t think of it as some kind of lucky charm. In and of itself it will get you nowhere. It does contain some information, some vitally important information. But information is only half the game.
I mean everyone’s got access to some information about what God wants. It’s laid out for them in their consciences. That’s the point of verses 14-15. We’ve all got some idea of right and wrong. But that’s not enough. It’s what you do with what you’ve got that really matters. Will you just hear – or will you actually obey? Because the day will come, verse 16, when God will judge people’s secrets.
And on that day, having a religious book will not help you a jot.
But he goes on.
• Even having a religious pedigree doesn’t really help in the long run
The Jewish people of Paul’s day really did have an extraordinary sense of pride about their tradition and their place in the world. They were a bit like America today, you might say, only more so. There was an enormous confidence about them. And understandably so: it was a confidence built on promises from God himself to their father Abraham.
So Paul doesn’t question the religious pedigree. No he questions something else.
17 Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in God; 18 if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19 if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth
And here comes the sting…
21 you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself?
It’s hypocrisy all over again, isn’t it? You look at the examples he goes to give, and it’s life and lip out of step with each other.
It’s fine to have a religious pedigree. And it really is a great pedigree that the Jews have got. Look down to the start of chapter 3 and you see he’s very clear on that.
• They’ve been given revelation from God. Verse 2: ‘the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God’
• They remain sustained by the faithfulness of God. Verse 4: ‘Let God be true and every human being a liar’.
And so on.
But Paul’s point, back to chapter 2 again, is: you cannot rest on your religious laurels. Your religious pedigree is not something you can presume on. It’s something you have to stay true to.
Once again, it’s not what you’ve got; it’s what you do with what you’ve got.
And then one more religious handhold Paul destroys. He’s addressed the book and the pedigree. Now he says
• Even having a religious ceremony is not enough
25 Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised.
I do apologize if talk of circumcision makes any of us squirm. It’ll be over soon! But it was the key religious initiation rite for the Jewish people. And it was a mark of membership of the community, like observing the Sabbath, or their particular set of food rules and so on. Circumcision was something the Jews wore with pride. It wasn’t just a minor surgical operation; it was a divine stamp of approval.
And yet here is Paul, rebuking his fellow-Jews for making too much of it. Physical circumcision, he says, means nothing if it’s not matched with heartfelt obedience.
28 A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29 No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.
So yet again, it’s not what you’ve got (or I suppose haven’t got, in the case of circumcision); it’s a case of what you do with what you’ve got.
The book, the pedigree, the ceremony. They’re all marks of religious people everywhere. And let’s be honest. They’re marks that we delight in here at Christ Church, aren’t they?
• I mean we talk much of the Bible. We’re talking about it now. The children are talking about it upstairs. Most of us will be studying it in small groups in the weeks ahead. We’re absolutely a Bible church
• And we rejoice in our story. The way God has been at work in us, growing us from nothing 10 years ago to a church of hundreds today. Bringing people to Jesus. Building them up. Sending them out. I don’t know if pedigree is the word, but many of us feel pretty good about belonging to a church where God is so obviously at work.
• And we love our baptisms. There’s another one coming in a few weeks’ time. Another bunch of people announcing their identity in Christ in the waters of baptism. And there’ll be smiles all round, for sure.
We love these elements of religion at Christ Church. And we love them – and more – as individuals. We build our spiritual security on a religious prayer we once prayed; or on the religious feeling we have as we worship God in song; or the religious accomplishments we’ve achieved, like learning Bible verses or knowing the answers to tricky questions or even reading the Book of the Term before anybody else!
And so what is Paul saying to people like us? He’s giving a stark warning, isn’t he? All our religion will not make us any safer with God. In the end, the rebel, the respectable and the religious find themselves all in the same basket. ‘Shame on them; thank goodness I’m different’ holds no store with God. We all have one hope and one hope alone.
So what is that hope? Well, I don’t want to steal Paul’s thunder from next week. But it is of course the hope of rescue in Jesus. What we’ve learned today is that we’re all in a pit. A deep pit. And there’s only one way out. There’s no ledge of respectability to stand on for some people that will help them up. There are no crates of religion lying around that we can pile up on top of each other and climb up to get us out. There’s no way out at all from the bottom up. But there is a hand reaching out to us from the top down. Jesus says: ‘come to me, and I will give you rest’.
And given what we’ve heard of the reality of future judgement, I guess I want to invite anyone here who’s not yet taken hold of that hand to grasp it firmly. To ask for forgiveness, and a new start, and a welcome into God’s family. And know that they will be yours.
And for those of us who have grasped that hand of Jesus, can I encourage you to make sure your weight is carried by him. Don’t start looking for religion to stand on, whatever that might look like. By all means work hard to make spiritual progress, but don’t stand on that. And don’t start leaning on respectability. No, stand on grace. Or rather be carried by grace. Confident of what lies ahead. And grateful to the one who will get you there.