Sometimes I think the most revolutionary, unbelievable thing we do each week in worship is the part of the service where we kiss and make up—the prayer of confession, words of forgiveness, and passing of the peace.
Growing up it never seemed very special. We would all recite words together in a monotone. Or, like we’re doing now for Lent at Bethany, we would sit there silently and try to think of things we’d done wrong in the last week. And then someone would get up and say, hear and believe the good news, in Jesus Christ your sins are forgiven. Then everyone would get up, stretch their legs, hug their friends and sit back down.
Combined with the sitting and standing on the opening song, it was like our morning warm-up.
Not every congregation does it quite that way. Some congregations make it a lot shorter. Some don’t do this explicitly—instead it’s part of the opening songs, or part of a larger prayer. Others do it after the sermon and before celebrating the Lord’s Supper. But most gatherings of Christians do some sort of ritual of I’m sorry, let’s be friends again.
And, I think it’s safe to say, most of us, don’t give it a second thought. It’s just part of feeling “churchy.” It’s not new or surprising.
Which is part of what makes our text for today seem strange. Because a lot of people in the story are really worked up about forgiveness.
Audio is below and the text is after the jump:
It’s such an odd story, isn’t it? Here we have a man who is paralyzed. His friends have heard that a new healer is in town, and they are going to do whatever it takes to help their friend—even tear the roof off of a house.
They are like parents of a child with special needs who will camp out in the teacher’s room, the principal’s office, the superintendent’s waiting room—wherever necessary, for as long as it takes, until their child gets the help she needs.
We know nothing about this man on the stretcher. A couple of greek clues tell us he was probably poor. The word for stretcher indicates a poor man’s bedding. His location in the backwoods of Galilee makes it likely too. But otherwise, we don’t know anything.
Has he been paralyzed a long time? Or did he have an accident? Does his family now go hungry because he can no longer work? Was it his idea to go through the roof? Was he even conscious? Was he longing for healing? Or did he think this was a fool’s errand? Or both? Was he a good man? Or a bad one? Or just a mix of good and bad like most of us—at least kind enough to have several dear friends, but far from perfect.
He says nothing throughout this whole drama, even when his friends drop him right in the middle of the crowd at the feet of Jesus.
Jesus takes one look at him, and a long look at the friends peering down from the hole in the roof, another look at the man at his feet, and says, with all the tenderness in the world, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
And everyone starts murmuring. Did he just say your sins are forgiven? Some, the friends, I bet, are saying, isn’t that kind of beside the point? Others, the religious, educated ones in the room, are saying, did I hear that correctly? Tell me I didn’t hear what I think I heard. Did he just say this man’s sins are forgiven. He can’t do that! Who does he think he is? He is way out of line.
Jesus does eventually heal his physical affliction, but it is an afterthought, done only to illustrate his point about the forgiveness of sins.
This story is helpful to remember when we consider what sort of healing to pray for. It’s clear enough from the gospels that Jesus cared about our bodies, and spent time healing people of physical illness. But it was not the main point of his work. If it had been, he might be the patron saint of doctors but he wouldn’t be Lord. As far as we know, everyone Jesus ever healed still went on to live a normal human life; they got sick again, and someday died. This man did. Lazarus did. And everyone in between. So if we think of our faith as something that relieves us of the suffering that is part and parcel of being human, we’ve missed the point. There is inexplicable, miraculous physical healing in this world. But if we are hoping only for that, our vision is too small.
Jesus did not come to bandage up this old kingdom. Jesus came to announce that the new kingdom of God is at hand. There is a new creation, a fresh start. God is doing a new thing.
And essential to this new thing God is doing is forgiveness. Jesus, here, claims that power for himself. And it makes the good, upstanding folks mad enough to spit.
Forgiveness, you see, was God’s and God’s alone. We still think this way about judgment. God’s the judge, we say, not us.
In the faith of Jesus and all his friends, forgiveness was also reserved for God. Sins, wrongdoings, mistakes were all, ultimately, against God, and only God has the power to forgive and make new.
What Jesus does in this story is to demonstrate vividly, that the power to forgive does not reside solely up in heaven. It has been set loose in the world. Jesus has the power to forgive sins.
And not only that, but Jesus has the power to do this unilaterally. The man doesn’t ask for forgiveness. He doesn’t say he’s sorry. He doesn’t make amends. Did he even want to be forgiven? Did he know he was standing in the need of prayer?
But Jesus looks and him, and without any prompting, forgives him.
Perhaps if our worship were to match this story, we would skip the prayer of confession, and just greet each other every Sunday morning with, “Good morning! In Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven!”
At the end of the gospel story, Jesus passes that power of forgiveness on to all of us, his disciples.
And I’m guessing if we were going to choose super powers, this might not be at the top of our list. But maybe the scribes’ outrage can help us reconsider.
Forgiveness was in God’s hands because it is at least as big of a deal as judgment. Maybe even a bigger deal.
Forgiveness is the power to make new, to start over. It is the power of saying, the past does not define you, the things you have done are unforgivable, and yet, let us start again.
Forgiveness challenges all our notions of deserving, and worth, and pride. It is scandalous.
It still makes us mad. There’s a video that went viral this week that publicizes the crimes of Joseph Kony, the leader of a militia in East Africa who has committed horrible atrocities, including kidnapping and brainwashing thousands of children. The video is ostensibly part of a campaign to bring Kony to justice. Can you imagine how outrageous it would be if this video called not just for justice, but also for forgiveness? I’ll admit it makes me mad just to imagine it.
Or closer to home: when someone we love, who has been deeply wronged, chooses to forgive, it rankles. We want justice, recompense, vindication for our friend. Anything less is just not right.
And we turn this same attitude upon ourselves. We refuse forgiveness for wrongs we have done large and small. I don’t deserve it, we say.
It is sometimes easier to leave things broken in our hearts and our relationships than to forgive. It’s all ruined anyway, we think, better just keep moving.
But God, thank goodness, does not operate with this kind of scorched earth policy. God has the power, and even more, is willing, to send rain on that scorched earth, to wash away the poison, enrich the soil, and bring forth new life.
And, in Jesus we learn that this power to wash clean, to start fresh, is set loose in the world. In Jesus, we are forgiven. Seriously.
Whatever it is in you that you have been carrying, that is truly unforgivable—Jesus forgives it. Perhaps it’s something exotic and dramatic. We think of Johnny Cash singing, I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die. Jesus’ forgiveness is big enough for that.
But more likely the parts of our hearts that need forgiveness are ordinary, embarrassing in their plainness: we are judgmental, rude, arrogant, petty, selfish, irritable with those we love. We gossip and lie. We carry grudges around like pets. We care more about ourselves than anyone else. We hate what we don’t know, and let our lives be run by fear more than we’d like to admit.
These broken parts of our selves, these impulses and habits, lead us into temptation. They separate us one from another and strain the bonds of love that tie us one to another. When war breaks out, when unthinkable violence erupts, all too often the cause of the horror is not unparalleled, extraordinary evil, but normal, everyday selfishness, fear, and impatience. This brokenness does real harm in our lives and in the lives of those we love.
And truth be told we are as powerless over them as that man on the stretcher was over his legs. Sure, we can chip away here and there at our bad habits. But how can we ever undo what we’ve already done? How can we ever get ahead of this rising tide within us?
We may not be paralyzed, but we are all the walking wounded, trapped in a web of brokenness.
And Jesus takes one good look at us and says, Child, your sins are forgiven. Child, your sins are forgiven.
You, yes, you—you who didn’t even ask for it, you who definitely doesn’t deserve it, you who haven’t promised to do any better, you, Child, your sins are forgiven.
The mistakes you’ve made, they do not define you. The past you carry, you can set it down. Behold, you, child, are as new as a newborn babe. You are a new creation. You are forgiven.
This is the crazy, ridiculous love Jesus set loose in the world that day in Capernaum. It is nothing less than the power to re-create the world. It is nothing less than the beginning of love, love for our neighbors, in the pews here, and across the globe.
It is still radical. And after showing us how to do it, he asked us to go and do the same. Forgive others, as you have been forgiven.
But first, Jesus forgives us. Each of us. All of us. Every last one of us. The ones who deserve it, who are really truly sorry, and the ones who come kicking and screaming, and the ones who, like this man, never asked for it. All of us. Each of us. Even you. Jesus looks at us with love, sees us, really sees us, and says, Child, your sins are forgiven. Go in peace.by Sarah W. Wiles March 11, 2012 Bethany Presbyterian Church Tacoma, WA