Here is the truth no one (okay, maybe not “no one”, but most Christians anyway) either don’t know, don’t want to admit, or don’t believe: you are already forgiven. I not only believe this with my head, but I know this with my whole heart and soul.
(For the full audio of this sermon click here.)
The dominant Christian tradition says I’m wrong. It says that we are sinners and God holds us in that sin (despite the fact that Jesus supposedly died for our sins) until we jump through the right hoops to be forgiven. Let me trace that a little bit.
As always, it begins with Adam and Eve, who broke the rules causing humanity to be born inherently sinful ever since. God, in this worldview, is seen as the lawgiver and judge. Humanity was judged sinful and, as judges do, must be sentenced with punishment in order to be redeemed. But, humanity, being inherently sinful, wasn’t good enough to meet God’s requirements for redemption. So, God sent a perfect human, Jesus, to die as a sacrifice for our sins. Whew. We were saved. Oh no, wait! Then the church decided that in order to receive that forgiveness, each person needed to believe that Jesus died for their sins. And that wasn’t all, then that person had to ask forgiveness, which only lasted until they messed up again, or went to church and confessed.
It’s exhausting, honestly, this circle of sin, guilt, confession and forgiveness. In most Catholic and Protestant churches this cycle is repeated each week as people go to worship, confess their sinful nature, and ask for forgiveness as part of the order of worship.
Given the way we’ve been taught that God holds us in our sin, constantly reminding us of our miserable, guilty nature, is it any wonder that we do the same thing to others? Humanity is great at judging and then holding that person in a place of guilt. We are apt to constantly remind others of how they have wronged us, constantly throw their weaknesses and unworthiness at them, and refuse to forgive them… ever.
What if we knew God in a different way? What if we understood that God’s forgiveness does not have to be earned? What if we really knew that grace – God’s unconditional love and forgiveness – was real? Could we stop beating ourselves up so much? Could we stop holding ourselves and others in our sin (if you will)?
In the story of Jesus and the woman with the alabaster jar (Luke 7:36-50), the author of Luke develops the relationship between forgiveness and love. Jesus is invited to the house of Simon the Pharisee. A woman shows up, one described as having a low reputation in town – defined by many scholars as a prostitute. If that wasn’t enough to label her as a sinner, her actions would have clinched it: she cries and lets her tears fall on Jesus’ feet, she lets down her hair and wipes his feet dry and then anoints them with oil. Women were not permitted to touch a Jewish man (much less on his feet, which had sexual overtones, as did letting down her hair). She had caused Jesus to be unclean in the eyes of the Pharisee. His honor and Jesus’ honor were both at stake here.
What the Pharisee didn’t understand, and what Jesus points out to him, is that this woman is already forgiven. And we know that BECAUSE of the love she is showing. Jesus’ comment that her sins were forgiven was merely confirmation of what had already taken place. Her openness to God’s forgiveness transformed her. As she experienced that Love, she then turned around and shared that love. The Pharisee, being rather pious and self-righteous, had no idea what it meant to be forgiven, nor did he even have any clue that he was in need of forgiveness. He loved little because he had experienced so little of God’s love.
What this story reinforces is that Jesus doesn’t hold this woman in her sin. She was forgiven and it didn’t require death on a cross, confessing to a priest or any other requirement. Jesus essentially says, “You are loved. You are forgiven. Your openness and experience of the Divine – your faith – has saved you from the pain of guilt and shame. You may go in peace.”
The dominant model of forgiveness has kept us running around in circles, unable to truly grow and express our gratitude and love. It is time to give it up and embrace the model that Jesus provides for us. Forgiveness from God is always and already there for us. When we realize that, it can have a transformational effect on our lives and our spiritual journey. Instead of being thrown back into our old places of guilt and sinfulness week after week, we can find ourselves in a new places of love, compassion, and understanding. From here we can go forth in peace.
Love & light,