by Pastor Doug Kings
In my Reformation sermon last Sunday, I talked about what it would mean for the church to finally take seriously the Reformation’s central teaching of justification by grace through faith. What would it mean if we really believed that our life and existence is the pure gift of God’s love? I singled out two worship elements that were especially in need of reform: the Confession and the Creed. This week and next I’m going to say more about each of these, starting with the Confession.
“Confession is good for the soul” popular wisdom says. Most of realize the value of being honest about our limitations in general and honest about specific faults we have committed, especially to people we may have hurt. But that is not what the confession in the church’s liturgy is about, formally known as the Order for Confession and Forgiveness.
It’s that last part, “and forgiveness,” that gives the game away. For it shows that the point of our confession is to receive God’s forgiveness. That many of you may be thinking, “Well, of course. What else could it be for?” shows what a problem the church has. For God doesn’t forgive us since God isn’t hurt or offended by what we do.
Ancient and medieval religion was centered on systems of sacrifice and offering made in exchange for forgiveness of sins. One of the things that outraged religious authorities about Jesus was how he “gave away” forgiveness. Everybody gets it! He’s like Oprah when she gave away prizes on her show: “You’re forgiven! And you’re forgiven! And you’re forgiven! And you’re forgiven!”
One of my favorite gospel stories is in Mark when a paralyzed man is lowered through the roof of the house where Jesus is teaching. Without the man saying anything or Jesus knowing anything about him, Jesus declares his sins forgiven. Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ indignation about announcement is to heal the man of his paralysis.
Later in Mark is the only occasion where someone doesn’t get forgiveness but that’s because he doesn’t ask for it. A rich man asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus accepts the man’s assumption that a) he doesn’t have it already and b) there is something he must do to get it. Jesus gives the standard answer of obey the commandments and piles them up to an impossible height (“sell what you own, and give the money to the poor”). The man walks sadly away. But to the confounded disciples, Jesus simply says: Don’t worry about it. What’s humanly impossible is easy for God.
For centuries the church maintained the notion that salvation was about forgiveness of sins. It believed it had been given “the keys of the kingdom,” a dubious notion based on one obscure verse in Matthew. In other words, salvation was a “thing” that the church had been given by Christ to dispense. This happened primarily in the sacraments and in the absolution declared following confession. What was never made clear was why, if salvation was conveyed in baptism, it kept needing to be “renewed” over and over again.
After the Reformation, Protestant churches revised their liturgy so that forgiveness wasn’t given but rather “announced.” But it was a distinction without a difference, since people still felt they were “getting” forgiveness at that moment and clergy hardly challenged the idea. This is made clear in the traditional liturgical language (which in my sermon I said ought to be banned): “As a called and ordained minister of Christ and by his authority, I declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins.”
Let me repeat here a quote of Richard Rohr I used a few weeks ago:
Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity. It didn’t need changing. God has organically, inherently loved what God created from the moment God created it. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.
If we are “saved” from anything, it isn’t God’s wrath but our own ignorance. Jesus was first and foremost a rabbi, a teacher. Using common imagery of the ancient world, he shows again and again how God’s presence, which he calls “the kingdom of God,” is everywhere: all around us, among us, and within us. As the Psalmist says, there is no place we can go and not be with God.
This is a reiteration of the creation stories of Genesis. They teach the goodness of all creation and the “very goodness” of humanity, fill with God’s own Spirit. And Genesis 3’s teaching is that our greatest problem is not recognizing that we are already “like God” (no apple required) for we are all made in God’s image—a verse we take for granted yet ought to be staggered by. Where is God? Look at your neighbor, or even better, look in the mirror.
Do we do bad things? Of course. Do we need forgiveness for them? If we’ve hurt someone, probably so. Should we feel guilty? In some cases yes, in others no. It depends. But if we are feeling chronically guilty, hearing a clerical pronouncement of forgiveness won’t help. More likely, we need to find a good therapist to be freed of a psychological condition that has entrapped us. And that can be as much an experience of God’s grace as any other.
Unfortunately, many of us who grew up in the church were instilled with the notion that God’s wrath lurked around every corner. And millions have left the church for just that reason. But for we who remain, many have become dependent on hearing a proclamation of forgiveness to assuage our anxiety or guilt.
We need to realize that dependency was the whole point. It’s time to go cold turkey and break the dependency. It’s time to realize that God’s love and our goodness have never been in doubt and that the sin-guilt-forgiveness cycle has always been a clergy supported fraud. Jesus knew it. Now, so do you.
Blessings in your life and ministry.