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Saturday, March 17, 2012

What Christians Believe – and Why: Can I Be Forgiven?

Ephesians 2:1-10

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Luke 23:32-43

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”


When we were getting ready to build the new addition at Franktown Church – a project that we knew was going to be bigger and more expensive than anything the church had ever done before – I invited Peter Vaughn, then the Director of Development for all the United Methodist Churches in Virginia, to come and talk to us about how to do such a thing. One of the first things we needed to do, Peter told us, was conduct a strategic analysis of the giving patterns of the congregation, so we’d know how much money we could raise. As Peter explained how to do this, he talked about how, on the average, American churches give according to a consistent formula – such and such a percentage of the congregation gives the top twenty percent of money, another percentage gives the next twenty percent, and so on. After peter had laid out the pattern, the chair of the church Trustees, who was also the retired Superintendent of the County Schools, literally snorted and said, “Well, Reverend, that might be the average elsewhere, but that’s not what’s it’s like on the Eastern Shore, and it’s certainly not the percentages in this church.” Peter, without blinking, said, “Well, maybe not, but that’s pretty consistent pattern across all churches in this country.” We turned to the Financial Secretary and asked him to do an analysis of the giving patterns of our church. A few weeks later he brought us the report, and it was, to the decimal, exactly what Peter had told us the national average was.

As a part of that process, I also took the church leadership to two workshops, featuring nationally famous church consultants, about how to grow from a small church to a middle sized church. The consultants talked about the struggles involved in changing the thinking and patterns and culture of a small church, and how church members react to the stresses of that change. During the first break, my church leaders turned en masse to me and said, “Did you talk to him before this meeting? Everything he’s said that people in the church say is exactly what we’ve heard our church members say. You talked to him, didn’t you?” I answered, “You keep thinking you’re unlike everyone else in the world, but I keep trying to tell you that what we’re going through is what every church in our situation goes through. So, if we have the same issues as other churches, do you think that the way they solved their issues might work for us, too?” That was a breakthrough for Franktown Church. The Eastern Shore thinks it’s unlike anywhere else in the world, and the rules elsewhere don’t apply to them. But the Shore has the same issues every rural area has. Small churches have similar issues, middle size churches have similar issues, big churches have similar issues. We all thing we’re exceptional – that no one else in the world is just like us. But the hard truth is that when we get down to talking about what’s really going on in the depths of our lives and our hearts, we’re not exceptional at all. Our hurts, our shames, our fears, our hopes, our loves aren’t exceptional – we share far more than we differ.

One of those phony exceptions we cherish about ourselves is our ability to be forgiven. Every one of us here believes that, in theory and principle, God forgives. That’s God’s job, after all. God forgives you and you and you and you. And God forgives a whole lot of the rotten stuff I’ve done, too. Except. Except that – well, you know. That’s different. I’ve asked God to forgive me, and I guess God has, But I really can’t forgive myself. Because it’s – well, you know. It’s – different. And that’s just something I have to live – and die – with. I guess I’ll just have to settle that with God when I die, because, well, that’s different.

That’s not the way God works, says the writer to the Ephesians. You were all once dead because of our selfishness. We were cut off from God. But even when we were dead because of our self-centeredness, God did an amazing thing: he made us alive with Christ. When Christ died, he entered into our deaths from sin and selfishness. But God took that sin-death, and, just as God did at Creation, made life out of nothing. So, when Jesus rose from the death of sin on Easter morning, he carried us with him. This has absolutely nothing to do with your own goodness or anything else we do, Ephesians says. It has nothing to do with our ability to forgive ourselves for – you know. This is God’s action, and we are saved by God’s gracious gift. All we have to do is receive it, trusting that God can do something we can’t do for ourselves.

Yes, I heard someone just say, that’s true for everything except – you know. I’m exceptional. Really? Look at the gospel lesson. Jesus is dying on the cross, bracketed by two criminals. The religious folks have framed him, the Romans have crucified him out of expediency to placate the mobs, his disciples have deserted him, and the crowd is mocking him. And what is Jesus’ response to this horrible thing that all these people are doing to him? Father forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing. This horrible, excruciating, unjust murder is taking place, and the victim forgives everyone involved, and even offers redemption to the criminal at his side.

Now, I don’t know what you’ve done. I don’t know what eats at your soul. I don’t know what anger you hold against someone else, what terrible thing you did to someone else or to yourself, I don’t know what failure of nerve or character or faith or life you’ve committed that makes you say, Yes, I know God forgives, except . . .

Is there anything you have ever done, or could ever do, that tops killing the Son of God? Tell me your big bad secret that trumps that one. You’re Adolph Hitler or Josef Stalin or Pol Pot and you killed millions of people. You cheated on your spouse. You betrayed your friend. You cursed God. You had an abortion no one knew about. You have an addiction. You stole. Tell me, great criminal of the universe, what have you done that’s worse than killing Jesus? What is the monstrous thing you’ve said or been or done or not said or been or done that is so terrible that Jesus’ prayer, Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing doesn’t apply to you? Who do you think you are?

We’re not exceptional, no matter what Mommy told us. Our sins are not exceptional, and neither is our ability to be healed and reborn and forgiven. If you can’t be forgiven, then your sin is bigger than God. And not only is that impossible, it’s just stupid. Get over yourself.

By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. Your sin is not exceptional. Neither is God’s grace.

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