Recently I ran into someone whom I had not seen for a long time. As we struck up conversation attempting to reconnect the coordinates of a relationship which was somewhat distant, the old standby emerged…of course, it was church. She knew of me through a leadership role I had in the church we previously attended. In West Michigan, where you go to church, how long you’ve been there, who you know and the role you play are all considered meaningful touch points which somehow coalesce to create a contextual pattern out of seemingly disparate data.
But is this type of connection really indicative of meaning? Or is it simply a formulaic caricature? Having served in various leadership positions in a number of organizations, some of which are religious, I’m have become more intimately aware of the fact that for many individuals, a position of leadership is in some ways a role, similar to one an actor would play on a stage.
For some folks, the role the individual leader performs at the proverbial ‘front of the room’ effectively masks the need to know or be concerned, beyond their performance, about who the individual is. And with that, there comes an assumption that how the person thinks, feels and lives must fit nicely within the narrow confines of a pre-conceived, pre-defined set of expectations.
So, when the conversation morphed into the issue of sin and the fear that grief about sin was not dramatic enough at the church which I now attended, I could see her concern mounting as it became clear that this topic touched a deep core of fear about the spiritual well-being of a loved one who was serving at my current church. I found myself searching for a new set of touch points. What had I heard about sin being OK and perhaps celebrated? Nothing. I wondered how one could confidently expresses clarity about the underlying character of a place which you rarely visit?
But nevertheless, the issue of sin is an important one. Reflecting on what I remember from scripture, I know Jesus talked about it and dealt with sin and sinners alot. But, in a stark departure from the rabbinical religious posture of the day, he seemed to embrace sinners. By example, he asked the hated tax collector Zaccheus, a man known to be a dishonest swindler and traitor to come down from his tree top perch so he could have lunch and an honest conversation with him. (Luke 19: 1-9) Then there was the lady caught in adultery who was brought to him as a precursor to her certain death by stoning. Again, Jesus failed to condemn the sinner but rather asked those who had no sin to do him the favor of casting the first stone. (No one could) When everyone had left, and Jesus was left alone with a frightened and deeply condemned woman, Jesus offered her acceptance and told her to turn away from her life of sin. (John 8:1-11)
His disciples consisted of individuals who struggled with envy and pride, lacked courage and one who was craven enough to betray his Master for some extra cash. And during the agonizing course of his death upon the cross, right next to two absolute heathens who rightly deserved to die, he was asked for pardon by a bonified, certified sinner…Jesus invites the criminal to join him in Paradise.
In fact, the harshest reprimand that Jesus delivers against anyone is towards those who didn’t feel that the issue of sin belonged to them. For the Pharisees, pious prayers and confessionals were the order of the day. Different types of ritual cleansing proclaimed the message of intolerance against any outward manifestation of uncleanliness. It’s interesting to note, that Jesus response to this was that the cleaning of the exterior of the cup was not nearly as important as the cleaning of the interior. A message which by the way was not delivered to the Samaritan women ( living with a lover after five failed marriages) whom he met at the well. To her, he asked her about her life, her loves and spoke to her about the way of truth. He invited her, a foreigner, to participate in the worship of the true Spirit God who was seeking worshipers just like her. (John 4: 4-19)
Reading through the gospels, I am struck by how unorthodox Jesus was. How far outside the confines of religious norms he lived His life. In some ways, I think our struggle to reconcile the life Jesus lived speaks to the root of what’s at stake here. Jesus challenged people to turn away from that which did not serve them and the life God had created them to live. This was how he viewed sin and the practical nature of the process of repentance. He was unapologetic about his methods and the universality of His message. The issue of sin is not merely about outward manifestations nor was it covered by religious piety enscounced within the ‘letter of the law’. All the law, he admonished his followers could be summed up in one sentence: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14)
To the man whose sin seemed related to his illness, Jesus healed him first, then as a parting instruction told the man to ‘discontinue the sin which had created the condition.’ (John 5: 1-15) When faced with betrayal and denial by his own disciples, he refuses to condemn. Rather, he prays for them during what he knows are his final hours and instructs them to love God and each other. Towards the religious crowd, who felt pretty good about their lack of obvious sin, he demonstrates real anger in the synagogue where he over turns tables while shouting about the contamination that religiosity and commerce has created in perverting the true spirit of the House of Prayer.
So back to my conversation about the lack of drama surrounding ‘grief over sin.’ I’m not sure if that is an accurate litmus test. Repentance is not so much an issue of an outward show as it is a continual challenge to turn away from that which erodes the purity of our relationship with our Creator. And it’s not a one time thing either. I think that this challenge is a daily, moment by moment one. One which far from condemning us turns us towards the light and love of God whose presence and powerful grace has the capacity to change the very core of who we are.