Rev. Katherine Todd
Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.
All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.
In this precious last moment the disciples have with Jesus, Jesus says “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed.” And I am curious about this word repentance.
Repentance has a long history in America and all over the world. I associate it with big tent revivals. I think about preachers who preached how we are just worms, how we are full of sin and evil. I think of frenzied preachers scaring flocks of folks to repentance.
I think of confessionals. I think of the sense some are given that one must identify and name every sin in order to be forgiven.
Repentance has been part of movements of fear and manipulation. It has been used to shame and to control.
But setting aside those negative connotations, I want to invite you into a more biblical understanding of repentance. For Isaiah calls to us from the past, with the message from God, that “In repentance and rest you shall be saved. In quietness and trust shall be your strength.”
The Hebrew word for repentance literally means “to return.” It acknowledges that to sin is to stray from the presence of God and that repentance is a returning.
Repentance is not an earning of forgiveness by feeling bad or sorry enough.
Repentance is not a groveling in order to gain sympathies and mercies of our God.
These are the tactics we’ve learned work with one another. But this is not what God is asking of us.
Biblical repentance is a returning. Repentance is the way back.
And this is why Presbyterians keep this prayer of confession.
Will the confession always speak to you? No.
Will it exactly convey your personal sins that week? Probably not.
What it is meant to do is invite us to posture ourselves once again with an attitude of honesty and humility before God and one another.
And so we come together, all in this same boat of having missed the mark, all in this same boat of sin in the things we have done and left undone, in words we have said and words we have left unsaid, in disobedience to the Spirit of God, in wanting to control and direct our own lives, in the ways we have treated one another and ourselves. We come together, not alone. We hold one another up to the light – not as different than ourselves, but as similar to us; for even though our particular sins vary, our sinful state does not. As Paul makes pains to communicate in his letter to the Romans, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
This statement from Paul comes quite suddenly and unexpectedly. Paul begins in Romans chapter one by talking about “them.” We can imagine the whole crowd nodding in agreement. Certainly God condemns those people who we all agree are clearly sinners.
But then in a most striking turn, he says,
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.
Paul has set them up. Knowing the secret judgements of our hearts, Paul gets us all in the judgement seat, as he lists sinner after sinner, talking about how wrong “they” are.
And then, when no one expects it, out of the blue, Paul concludes saying, “YOU are without excuse, whoever you are…” YOU.
Everyone thought they were just agreeing with Paul about other peoples’ sins. Why has Paul turned this on them? As though THEY are sinners.
Paul is making the point that ALL are sinners. Paul is making the point that none of us can rightly stand in the judgement seat. Paul is teaching what Jesus taught that day he drew in the sand while accuser after accuser dropped their stones and left the woman they had dragged out to be stoned for adultery. None among them were without sin. So as Jesus said, “let he among you without sin throw the first stone” and all fell away, except Jesus, the only one without sin.
Paul is catching us all red handed as we judge and condemn one another, saying,
“You are no different.”
That is a bold and risky thing to say. Perhaps it was good Paul’s message was delivered by letter and not in person… This may explain part of why he was beaten within an inch of his life on more than one occasion. To equate known sinners with those society deemed good and upright people?! It is offensive. It feels presumptive. It could make the best of us want to lash back out at this one who thinks he knows something about us!
So I invite you today to imagine yourself in the crowd that day, listening to Paul’s letter. Imagine Paul listing out all the commonly agreed upon sinners. We nod in agreement. Clearly these folks are wrong.
Then think how do you feel when he then says, “Therefore YOU are without excuse.”
I would feel like saying, “Who? Me?” I think I would have been looking around, wondering who he thought he was talking to. I am the one showing up. I am the one listening to his letter in the first place. I am seeking knowledge and understanding. I AM seeking God.
YOU? That must be a typo.
But no, it isn’t a typo.
The whole point of listing out all “those people” was to show these people, to show US,
that WE are no different than the folks we all agree are sinners.
The folks we incarcerate.
The folks we sentence to death.
The folks we ignore and isolate.
The folks we do not like and avoid.
WE are no different.
I cannot express how offensive this must have felt – if you let it sink in, you may well feel offended – but Paul says it anyway. Paul echoes Jesus in saying that any among us without sin can throw the first stone at another. Paul, who himself had zealously followed after God all his life, knew that even among “the best” of them, lived sin and evil and brokenness.
And Paul needed to get their attentions OFF their neighbors and back onto THEMSELVES.
As long as they were busy comparing their sins to others, they could feel better about themselves. But Paul makes the point that this is NOT how God measures our righteousness.
OUR righteousness is measured by God’s righteousness. Our righteousness is measured beside Christ’s. And WE ALL fall short of the glory of GOD. WE ALL miss the mark.
We can no longer take comfort in the ranking ourselves beside what we see as sin in one another. There is not truth in thinking we are better than others. For we are all alike before God.
And this is why we confess our sins each Sunday together.
This is why we take a moment to be still before God and ask God to reveal to our hearts the ways we have fallen short. This is why we humble ourselves, day after day – not because we are not beautiful and amazing people, made and loved by God – but because we also continue to miss the mark, continue to fall short,…and we continue to compare ourselves to one another, labeling one another, and justifying ourselves.
This must stop.
As long as we are focused on others, we will not see the truth about ourselves.
The truth that we are beautifully and intentionally created, by the God of Heaven and Earth and that God called us good…
The truth that we have been blessed to overflowing, in more ways that we can count…
The trust that we are loved and cherished by God….
AND the truth that no one of us is deserving of this love.
The truth that on our own, we are full of darkness too.
The truth that we sin and screw up time and again, and that it doesn’t matter if someone else’s screw-up seems bigger. Next to God, they are all screw-ups, sin is sin, and we have missed the mark.
And so when we hear Jesus say to his followers that they are called to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins,…
It is NOT that folks have to REPENT in order to EARN forgiveness of sins
That is much the way of the world. But it is not God’s way.
It is rather that
In our honesty
In the humbling of ourselves
In our returning our gaze OFF others and back onto ourselves…
We enable the eyes of our hearts to see and to face,
Without endless justifications
Judgements of our neighbors
Defenses or rationalizations…
That we need help.
We need help.
And knowing that we need help – that we fall dreadfully short of the light and wholeness we yearn for and are indeed made for – we come before God in repentance.
NOT a frenzied, fearful repentance,
but repentance and rest, quietness and trust.
Why? Because we have heard and we believe that the Maker of all that is knows us, inside and out, just as we are; remembers we are made us dust; and loves us anyway. And this One went to hell and back that we might know, down in the darkest depths of our sinful ways and scary hells,… that God loves us.
And so we repent.
Day after day, we return to the One who made us and loves us and wouldn’t stop until we knew how very precious and beloved we are.
May our lives shine with the light that only comes when we know we have been forgiven.
And may we extend that light to everyone.
that even those in the deepest darkest depths of cycles of sin and pain
may be able to look themselves squarely in the mirror and there know,
in the depth of their hearts and minds and souls,
just how much they are loved
by the God of heaven and earth!
May it be.