October 25, 2020 /Reformation Sunday / Richard Holmer
1st Reading Jeremiah 31:31-34/ 2nd Reading Romans 3:19-28/ Gospel John 8:31-36
These days it can be difficult to find common ground. American society is fractured by all kinds of divisions and suspicions and resentments. We separate into different tribes and camps on the basis of political ideology, social status, race, education and values. There is very little sense of unity, a common purpose, a shared identity. Early on, some thought that the pandemic might serve to bring people together. Having a common enemy can cause people to unite in a shared struggle. However, in many ways the coronavirus has only amplified and exposed the divisions already in place. People can’t agree on the severity of the threat – or the best ways to overcome it. And some segments of our society have suffered more serious consequences than others. The elderly, minorities and the working poor have borne the brunt of suffering.
Amid all the tensions generated by these divisions, people have overlooked something we all truly do have in common. We forget the identity we all share. In the words of St. Paul: “there is no distinction – all have sinned, all fall short of the glory of God.” Every one of us has a lifetime membership in the club for sinners – no one is excluded or exempt. We may be quick to point out all the sinful flaws and imperfections of others – but we are far from guiltless ourselves. Some may chafe at being called a sinner, but we can all agree that nobody’s perfect. (In fact, no one is even close.)
Of course, nobody appreciates being reminded of their imperfections. No one wants to be told that they are no better than anyone else. In today’s Gospel, the Jews to whom Jesus was speaking resented the suggestion that they were slaves. They protested: “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” They felt they were in no need of being set free. Jesus then said to them: “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Sin is a kind of spiritual and moral bondage that is a universal feature of the human condition. Nobody likes it when someone else points out their failures and shortcomings – even when it’s true.
So instead of waiting for someone else to do it, as Christians, we call ourselves out, we own it, we speak the truth about who we are (pretty amazing when you stop to consider). We call it the Confession of Sins. We begin our worship with a reality check. We tell it like it is. We are reminded that if we claim to have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves – and the truth is not in us. So we proceed to tell the truth:
We are captive to sin (or slaves to sin, as Jesus says).
We turn from God’s loving embrace and go our own way (it’s the heart’s original sin: not thy will, Lord, by my will be done. We call it “doing my own thing”.)
We pass judgment on one another before examining ourselves (There’s a whole lot of this going on these days. We’re so quick to judge and condemn – so slow to reflect on our own faults. We are like the man in the parable who needs to remove the log from his own eye before trying to remove a speck from his neighbor’s eye).
We place our own needs before those of our neighbors (failure to show love and compassion is a serious omission).
We keep your gift of salvation to ourselves (imagine the vanity of presuming that God’s grace is something you and I can hoard!).
We ask God to make us humble (facing the truth about ourselves can be quite humbling).
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Honest and open confession puts us on common ground. Instead of judging and pointing fingers, we can acknowledge our shared lot in life. We all fall short, all the time. In a world that praises over achievers, all of us are under-achievers when it comes to goodness, to selflessness, to showing compassion. It’s said: Misery loves company. Well, we have lots of company! We are all miserable sinners – we make ourselves and others miserable by doing what we know we should not, failing to do what we know we should.
To say that we are sinners is not the only thing that can be said about humanity. Yet it can truly be said of us all. Two days before he died, Martin Luther wrote this: “We are all beggars. That is true.” As Jesus said, “No one is good but God.” So what is the point of all our efforts to establish some kind of hierarchy of virtue, some pecking order of worthiness, if we all fall short of a passing grade? Being honest about our limitations and imperfections can put us on common ground. We may not be one in our politics, our opinions, our lifestyles. But we are surely one in SIN. It’s a truth we can all acknowledge.
To recognize the validity of these words from Isaiah gives a starting point for unity:
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities like the wind, take us away. (Isaiah 64:6)
Those are not easy words to hear – but they have the ring of truth. That’s the way it is, for you and for me. When we open our eyes, we can see that we’re all in the same boat. And there’s good news: Jesus offers us all a most encouraging promise: “You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Until we recognize the truth of our sinfulness, we cannot appreciate the greater and more wonderful truth of God’s grace. The gospel is only an answer to someone who is asking the question implied by our human condition. Grace is only amazing to those who realize they need it, who recognize they are lost without it.
In the parable Jesus tells about two men who go to the temple to pray. The pharisee thinks grace is for losers – like the tax collector. The pharisee thinks he doesn’t need grace. He’s got it together. He’s not a sinner. He trusts in his own goodness. We call that self-righteousness. The tax collector simply prays for mercy for all his sins. He depends not on his own goodness, but on the goodness of God. God is righteous. God makes sinners like us righteous by the grace of forgiveness – and our trust in that grace.
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There is level ground at the foot of Christ’s cross. That is our common ground with all humanity, despite all our differences. We are one in our sin – and one in the mercy of God