Mourning. The word evokes images of bereavement, of people lamenting the loss of a loved one. Jesus himself uses the word, teaching that in God’s kingdom, those who mourn are blessed because they are promised comfort (Matt 5:4). And as Christians, we do indeed look forward to the day in which “mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Rev 21:4, NRSV).
But when Jesus speaks of mourning, he looks not only to the future, but to the past, to the ancient words of Israel’s prophets and the laments of God’s people in exile. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus stands up in the synagogue on the Sabbath, and reads from the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2):
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19, NRSV)
Then he sat down and, with all eyes on him, declared, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (vs. 21).
We don’t know, of course, whether Luke has actually given us everything that Jesus said that morning. The quotation from Isaiah ends midsentence; in the prophet’s words, God’s servant is also sent to “comfort all who mourn” (Isa 61:2, NRSV). It’s meant as a word of encouragement to God’s people, who had watched the final fragments of their decaying kingdom destroyed, and who had been carted off by the Babylonians into exile. There they had time to think, time to grieve the sin responsible for the catastrophe. Blessed are those who mourn: not because grief is a happy state, but because those who truly understand their own guilt are best equipped to rejoice in the miracle of God’s redeeming and restoring grace, both now and into the future.
Here’s a test case for mourning. In the previous post, we saw how Paul had to confront a case of incest between a Corinthian Christian and his stepmother. In the Corinthians’ distorted theology, the situation had become a cause for arrogant boasting: somehow, they had come to believe that freedom in the grace of God meant they could flaunt social norms with impunity. Paul, perplexed, confronts them directly: Why are you bragging? You should be in mourning instead, and boot this guy out (1 Cor 5:2).
I’m reluctant to read this text instrumentally, as if our only concern should be to extract a rule for church discipline. I’d prefer to ask this: even if we find it difficult to imagine boasting about incest, would Paul have reason to scold us for failing to mourn sin?
Paul seems to think that a robust doctrine of grace is fully compatible with Christians holding one another accountable for their behavior. That idea might make us nervous; we Americans prize our individual privacy, and treat many aspects of our lives as nobody else’s business.
But I’m not suggesting that we intrusively police each other, even if some behave as if this were their spiritual vocation. The more fundamental issue, rather, turns on three questions. First, do we truly understand ourselves to be one body in Christ? Second, if so, do we understand the importance of holiness in that body? And third, in the pursuit of that holiness, do we understand the depth of our own brokenness and our dependence upon the mercy of God?
Accountability must grow organically from the soil of humble mourning, coupled with the desire to be the people God intends for us to be, together.