None of us are Sinners Emeritus

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In his first major interview after being elected pontiff, Pope Francis was asked to introduce himself to his wider audience.  “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” the interviewer asked him directly, and Pope Francis answered –

“The best summary, the one that comes more from the inside and I feel most true is this: I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon… This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

This answer startled the interviewer, and it has startled many of the readers of that interview ever since.

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This just not the kind of admission that we’ve come to expect from Popes and preachers.  It reminds me of when President Carter, a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher and Deacon, talked about the “lust in his heart” (Matthew 5:28) in a magazine interview during his Presidential campaign.  This kind of candor is unusual, not just for people, but for institutions like the church as well.

We’re usually adverse to such honest admissions of our own moral and spiritual failure. It’s not the right image to project, or so we think.  Ordinarily we are so busy preening and posturing, positioning ourselves to give the appearance of perfection and success, that we create unrealistic expectations for ourselves, and become inaccessible to the vast majority of people who struggle and who simply can’t relate to our projected image of perpetual happiness, accomplishment and peace.  Keith Miller got it exactly right when he wrote –

Our churches are filled with people who outwardly look contented and at peace but inwardly are crying out for someone to love them … just as they are – confused, frustrated, often frightened, guilty, and often unable to communicate even within their own families. But the other people in the church look so happy and contented that one seldom has the courage to admit his own deep needs before such a self-sufficient group as the average church meeting appears to be.

This is why I welcome Lent each year.

Spiritually, Lent is the season when our illusions get shattered, when our pedestals get toppled and when our masks come off.  Jan Richardson, the prayer poet (http://paintedprayerbook.com), offers a re-visioned Ash Wednesday –

So let us be marked not for sorrow.
And let us be marked not for shame.
Let us be marked not for false humility
or for thinking we are less than we are
but for claiming what God can do within the dust,
within the dirt, within the stuff of which the world is made,
and the stars that blaze in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral inside the smudge we bear

And there are certainly days and seasons when I need to hear this, but I find that day is not Ash Wednesday, and that season is not Lent.  No, with the ashes of repentance on our foreheads, and more importantly, in our hearts, Lent forces us to admit that our common spiritual denominator as Christians is that we are sinners who are in desperate and constant need of God’s great grace in Jesus Christ.  It was the church of my childhood and youth that first taught me this spiritual reflex.

Every Sunday when I was growing up, I would get down on my knees in church with all of my family and friends in that community of faith to pray out loud this no nonsense prayer of confession –

3.13.17_image3Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against thy Divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us; Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, forgive us all that is past and grant that we may ever hereafter serve and please thee in newness of life, to the honor and glory of thy Name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Now, that’s a mouthful of a prayer isn’t it, and a “heart-full.” You simply can’t pray words like these every week without them leaving a mark on you.  Their rhythm and cadence provided me with the conceptual frame that I needed to be able to think about my own condition as a human being, and with the vocabulary that I needed to be able to talk about the dissonance that was becoming increasingly apparent in my life – the gap between who I wanted to be and who I actually was – with each passing day.

I found that the real power of these words were that we prayed them in community.  They weren’t words that were used to isolate me, to cull me from the heard of the righteous where I could be isolated and vilified.  No, they were words that the people I knew best and loved most prayed with me.  These words gave me a comforting sense that we were in this thing together, that there was a solidarity in guilt and grace.  I heard my father pray them.  I heard my mother pray them. I heard my sisters pray them.  I heard my Sunday school teacher pray them.  And I even heard my priest pray them.  These words drew a circle that took all of us in, and not a wall that separated the righteous from the unrighteous, the good from the bad, the saints from the sinners.

In fact, it was seeing my minister get down on his knees to pray this prayer right beside us each Sunday morning that made the most powerful impression on me as a kid.  Hearing my pastor “bewail his own manifold sins and wickedness” each week reassured me that my moral and spiritual failures were not my problem alone, as well as disabusing me early on of any illusion that might have been developing in me about some kind of imagined perfection of preachers and priests.  It was praying this prayer that prepared me for Pope Francis’ honest admission of being a sinner at the outset of his ministry of the spiritual oversight of his Church, the Roman Catholic Church.  What he said in his interview didn’t startle me in the least. And the fact that it startled others exposes a truth about the church that we’ve got to name, and then confront.  Christians are not different from anybody else, we are not better than anybody else.  All we’ve got is grace.  Forgiveness is our only asset.

In my mind, nobody ever said it clearer than did the late pastor/author Bruce Larson –

The church, unfortunately, has become a museum to display the victorious life.  We keep spotlighting people who say, “I’ve got it made.  I used to be terrible, but then I met Jesus, got zapped by the Spirit, got into a small group, got the gifts and the fruit of the Holy Spirit…” and the implication is that they are sinners emeritus.  But that’s just not true.

What we need in the church are models who fail, because most of us fail more than we succeed.  We find success once in a while, and we praise God.   But much of what we do is flop.  Every parent knows that.  So does every spouse.  We all fail our cities, our world.  We need to admit this. Even the Biblical heroes failed.  Abraham had one puny kid; where was the great nation he dreamed of? Moses never entered the Promised Land.  Jesus died saying, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”  Neither Peter nor Paul saw the full flowering of the church.

In the East Africa revival of the past forty years, the church has flourished because people have freely confessed their failures and sin.   When we pretend that we once sinned but don’t now, we produce a church where loneliness is rampant, a place where I know I’m not making it but I assume that everyone else is.  But the church is not a museum for finished products.  It is a hospital for the sick.  (Leadership/84 – Fall Quarter – p. 15)

One of the ways that I try to keep this truth in mind and at heart is to frequently mull over 3.13.17_image4one of the more colorful and controversial things that the Protestant Reformer of the 16th century Martin Luther ever said.  In a letter to his temperamentally more cautious associate Philip Melanchthon, Luther counseled him to go out and “sin boldly!”  Needless to say, this piece of advice has been pilloried by Luther’s detractors and immortalized by his fans ever since.  But what did he really mean by it?  Well, to properly understand it, it’s probably best to read them in context, and in their entirety.  So, this is what Luther actually said to his friend and associate –

If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [or sin boldly], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2 Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. It suffices that through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day. Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard for you are quite a sinner.

In other words, it’s by taking sin seriously that we will begin to take the cross seriously. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian from Martin Luther’s very own spiritual family, may have the clearest understanding of what Luther meant –

If Luther’s statement is used as a presupposition [the first word] for a theology of grace, then it proclaims cheap grace. But Luther’s statement is to be understood correctly not as a beginning, but exclusively as an end, a conclusion, a last stone, as the very last word. …”Sin boldly” – that could be for Luther only the very last bit of pastoral advice, of consolation for those who along the path of discipleship have come to know that they cannot become sin-free, who out of fear of sin despair of God’s grace. For them, “sin boldly” is not an affirmation of their disobedient lives. Rather, it is the gospel of God’s grace, in the presence of which we are sinners always and at every place. This gospel seeks us and justifies us exactly as sinners. [So] admit your sin boldly; do not try to flee from it, but “believe much more boldly.”

Theologian Fred Sanders explains –

Bonhoeffer’s exposition is perfect, but note the change he has slyly introduced: “Admit your sin boldly.” Pecca fortiter” [“sin boldly”] is not a plan of action; it’s a script for a prayer of confession. When confessing sins to God, don’t excuse your sins, minimize them, or treat them as fictitious. Things like that don’t need forgiveness, or at least not very much. Instead, identify your sins and state them boldly. Face the fact that you are not sin-free, and that, in yourself, you never will be. Keeping a perfect conscience is just not a realistic part of the Christian plan. Learning how to get daily forgiveness from God — That’s the plan. (http://scriptoriumdaily.com/sin-boldly/)

Christians and churches who with Pope Francis can say – “I am a sinner” – will have the kind of authenticity that can speak to the world, and more importantly, those kinds of Christians and churches will actually have something worth saying.  In Jesus Christ we are forgiven, and this where a penitential season like Lent on the church calendar is designed to deliver us — into the embrace of the Crucified and Risen Savior.  DBS +

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