Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Romans 14:4
Oh dear, I’ve been at it again. I really do try to avoid it, but like most sins I’m afraid it’s pretty ingrained.
What am I talking about? Judging others, that’s what. I suspect it’s a habit any of us can fall into, in spite of the clear words of Jesus, echoed here by Paul.
Mine isn’t (honestly!) a nasty kind of judging - more an instinctive tendency to assess and analyse something I see in another person. And with me, one of the forms it takes is passing opinions on their way of worship - you could almost say, in fact, judging their spirituality.
Nina and I have just got back from holiday in Italy. Last Saturday we were in the beautiful little town of Positano, in the Bay of Naples. At the heart of the town is a spectacularly magnificent cathedral, Roman Catholic of course.
So, coming in out of the heat, we sit and soak up the atmosphere in a place which is totally alien to our Protestant evangelical spirits. The paintings! The statues! The vast ceilings! The altars! There is even a tiny casket containing (supposedly) part of the skull of St Andrew (he of John 1:40) which you can “venerate” if you wish (er, no thanks: we aren’t really the relic-venerating types).
And I’m sitting there thinking “No! No! This just isn’t what Christianity is all about. This is exactly the kind of ‘religion’ he came to do away with!”
A woman comes in. She is wearing a black lace mantilla head-scarf. She kneels before the massive altar. She kisses the bronze altar rail, several times. She crosses herself. Her lips move in what would seem to be a mechanical repetition of familiar words. After a few minutes she gets to her feet and leaves.
And I’m thinking to myself, “There we are, she’s done her religious duty. Poor soul.”
Judging, you see.
The next day, Sunday, we are in Sorrento, where we are staying. We have stumbled across a small shop-front church that announces itself as Pentecostal.
Ah, this is much more to our liking! The meeting-room is very plain. The music is simple, led by a man sitting at an electronic key-board. The songs are Italian versions of some that we used to sing with excitement way back in the seventies, now long forgotten. There’s a healthy bunch of children in the small congregation, and they play a big part in the service (in fact, I think we must have happened into their Sunday School anniversary). The atmosphere is enthusiastic, loving, warm.
But even here I’m judging. That overwhelming torrent of words when the pastor leads us in prayer! That over-heated intensity in the sermon - all right, I can’t understand what’s being said, but the flavour, the feel, is like what I have experienced in “Penty” circles at home. And I’ve never felt comfortable with it.
So... We are glad that God led us here, but it’s not the kind of church we could ever make our spiritual home: too emotional? a little shallow? a touch me-centred, perhaps?
Judging, you see.
And then I think of Paul’ words: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.” Which means, among other things, that God - and God alone - knows the heart. Which, of course, is why we’re on pretty thin ice when we judge others.
The question that matters is not “What do I see when I observe others in prayer or worship?” but “What does God see when he looks into my heart?” I need to keep telling myself that the people I witnessed in those two very differing contexts are, very likely, far more holy, more Christ-like and more Spirit-filled than I am.
That woman, especially, in the head-scarf... Yes, I feel instinctively that I would love to get hold of her and explain the simple, life-changing gospel of God’s grace shown in the earthly life, the atoning death and the triumphant resurrection of Jesus.
But who knows - perhaps within all the ritual, within all the (dare I say it?) superstition, flummery and mumbo-jumbo, there is a little nugget of rock-solid faith in Jesus, pure and beautiful as a diamond. Who knows but God?
After all, we believe - do we not? - in justification by faith: not in justification by believing in justification by faith. (If you get what I mean...)
Thank you, O God, that you look on the hearts of men and women, not on the outward appearance. Help me, then, always to assume the best and not the worst in others, and to remember that my own sinful heart is an open book to you. Amen.