THE NON-NEGOTIABLES – I BELIEVE IN THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS
We are nearing the conclusion of a six-part sermon series on the Apostles’ Creed. This historic confession serves to provide us the big picture of what we believe as Christians, outlining the non-negotiables, the guardrails that help us stay between the ditches of what is vital to our faith. It offers us the essentials of what we are to believe if we are to call ourselves by the unique name Christian.
Last Sunday we explored what it means to affirm “I believe in the holy catholic church.” Today we turn our attention to unpacking the statement, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.”
One of the most polarizing, entertaining figures in American politics today is that bald-headed, Louisiana-drawling, alien-looking Democrat Party political strategist James Carville. Talk about opposites attracting- he’s married to the hyper-Republican, hyper-conservative consultant Mary Matalin. Love him or hate him, you find yourself listening to him. And back in 1992, he played a big part in Bill Clinton’s defeat of incumbent George H.W. Bush when he coined the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid!”
“IT’S THE SIN, STUPID!”
When we look at the headlines around the world today and in our own backyard, we see murder and mayhem evident on many fronts. From a dictator in Syria ordering chemical weapons to be dropped on innocent children to a Harrisonburg restaurant owner involved in human trafficking to one of my wife’s 2nd graders stealing another kid’s lunch money, there are troubling circumstances all around us.
Now, as a somewhat-learned fellow with a degree in a helping profession, I know all the terminology we have come up with to justify what we see around us. We believe in the innate goodness of all people. And so, it’s not their fault they do bad things. It’s the environment they were raised in. The genetic makeup they were predisposed to. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
Well, that’s nothing more than pure politically-correct bull-hockey. As Christian believers we believe in calling a spade a spade. It’s not some osmosis of neurosis or psychosis. To piggyback on a phrase from James Carville, “It’s the sin, stupid!” That’s why we kill and steal and slash and burn and cause harm to God and others and ourselves. It’s the sin!
What is sin? The Greek word used for it in the New Testament is harmartia. It is the image of an archer taking aim at a distant target, pulling back the bow, letting the arrow fly, but the arrow misses the target. Sin, hamartia, is missing the target of what God would have us to be and do.
We miss that target through what we have committed that fall short of God’s intentions for us. And we miss that target through what we have omitted or failed to do that would have proven fruitful to God and to others.
And sometimes such sin- hamartia- missing the target through deeds of commission and omission- can take place in the same WalMart parking lot aisle in the same afternoon—such as the other day when I screamed “You #@#% jerk!” at a fellow who cut me off at a parking space and then I was in such a foul mood I did not stop to help a young mother holding a baby in one arm and struggling to catch up to her runaway shopping cart with the other.
I blamed it on the bad karma of being at WalMart – but in reality it was sin.
Sin is both a symptom and a condition. Like chest pain, shortness of breath and nausea are symptoms of a dangerous heart condition, so it is sinful deeds of commission and omission are the evidence of the nature of sin within our inner self.
I’d like to think I’m a good person, but deep down I’m not. I’m quite capable of doing or thinking self-centered, bad things, malicious things, evil things. And guess what, you are too!
Sin is the root of all malevolent motives and monstrous meanness in the world and in our lives. Plain and simple. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” proclaims someone as seemingly virtuous as the Apostle Paul. (Romans 3:23)
We can seek out all the excuses we want, but at the end of the day, it’s the sin, stupid!
During this most holy of weeks, we discover that…
THE PASSION OF CHRIST REFLECTS THAT…
Some are oblivious to sin…and some are obliterated by sin.
Yes, we can only speculate about two criminals who are spending their final hours on death row in the Antonia Fortress, that building outside the Temple Compound in Jerusalem that functions as headquarters of the Roman government. They are in the dungeon below, chained to the wall, their feet swimming in rats and raw sewage.
Theirs are wasted lives. The Roman authorities do not make it a practice of executing persons for once, twice, even three-time offenses of thievery laws. But these two are hardcore. They have made stealing a lifetime occupation. And thus, they have been sentenced to pay the ultimate penalty.
The thieves last hours are disturbed by a commotion outside. They hear Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, addressing a clamoring mob.
Following the custom of appeasing the Jews at Passover, Pilate presents two criminals to the crowd. One is Barabbas, a very notorious, vile dude who stirred up a riot and murdered a bystander. The other is Jesus of Nazareth. Surely they will release this Jesus of Nazareth, think the thieves. They have heard of Jesus’ kindness to people, even people as lost as them.
But the mob screams, “We want Barabbas!” And when Pilate asks them what he should do with Jesus, a relentless, wretched, hate-filled chant reaches its crescendo, “Crucify him!! Crucify him!!”
The thieves next hear the methodical cracking of whips outside in the courtyard. Jesus is being flogged by burly Roman soldiers, each bearing a whip studded with lead and shards of glass. With each lash, strips of flesh are torn off of his rib cage and back. He screams in agony. The two thieves recoil at the horrific sound.
Someone is coming. The door to the their cell is unlocked and clanged open. Two guards unchain them and drag them out into the blinding daylight. Their arms are tied to heavy wooden crossbeams. They are kicked and pushed forward in a gruesome parade up the steepest path in Jerusalem behind this Jesus of Nazareth, who is left hardly recognizable from the flogging he has endured.
The crowds lining the streets jeer and spit. At one point, the procession comes to a sudden halt as Jesus collapses under the weight of his crossbeam. The soldiers force a foreigner from Cyrene in the crowd to carry it the rest of the way.
The destination is a garbage dump outside the city gates—a place called the Skull, Golgatha. It is there, at the intersection of two busy thoroughfares, that these three will be crucified, as an example to all who pass by.
They are brutally thrown to the ground. Iron pierces flesh. Spikes are driven through the wrists of each man, impaling them to the crossbeam. Another spike is driven behind their Achilles heels, attaching their feet to the vertical poles. The agony is beyond excruciation.
Crucifixion is the vilest form of execution known to mankind. You die by slow suffocation. Over time, your body becomes paralyzed by pain and exhaustion. You can no longer lift your diaphragm to breathe. And so, you die, gasping for breath.
The two thieves hang moaning upon their crosses, on either side of Jesus, the one who has a sign displayed above his head, “King of the Jews.” They observe the peculiar panorama of pathos surrounding this Jesus—his mother sobbing in grief, religious leaders raining down vehement spite, soldiers nonchalantly shooting craps below, gambling for his clothing, passing time until he dies.
And then, with disbelief, the thieves hear those words from the lips of Jesus, “Father, forgive them, for do not know what they are doing!”
The one criminal hanging on the opposite cross suddenly blurts out in derogatory insult, “Hey, some Messiah you are! Save yourself and us!” Like many in our society today, his is a life that has been spent totally oblivious to sin.
The other thief, though, realizes that his own life has been obliterated by sin. He explodes in defense of Jesus: “Hey you, shut up!! Have you no fear of God? We’re being punished justly. We’re rotten to the core. But this man has done nothing wrong!”
Like some in our society today, he feels the overwhelming weight of guilt. He knows his life has been destroyed by sin. He deserves his punishment.
With a broken and contrite and faith-filled spirit, this penitent thief has but one prayer, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom!” –Just remember.
Not, “Save me, glorify me, justify me.” He simply says, “Jesus, remember me.”
And Jesus replies, in the last known conversation between Jesus and another human being before he dies, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise!
Yes, at the precise moment Jesus is saving the whole world, he takes time to also save the one. “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise!”
JESUS’ DYING HOPE FOR US
Friends, I don’t know what Jesus can do about folk who are oblivious to sin. Folk who, like the one thief, remain belligerent and defiant toward our Savior.
But for those of us who recognize our sinful nature, who perhaps have even found ourselves obliterated by sin, and who long for a new beginning, Christ stands ready to welcome us and transform us.
“Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing!” is an utterance revealing divine love at its greatest depth. Even the most wasted of lives in this world remains precious to Christ for eternity. Jesus does not give up on us.
And, let us remember that we do not have to waste our lives as the penitent thief did. To be forgiven is to be released from the chains of sin. We do not have to live addicted to lesser things. Jesus empowers us to move beyond sin to sanctity, from grit to grace, from lowliness to holiness.
Jesus is waiting to hear those penitent words from our lips and our hearts, “Jesus, remember me!” And we who have been outlaws from grace can and will find ourselves welcomed home to eternal life. Right here! Right now! We can be forgiven, we can be changed, we can make a new beginning!
Yes, there are many things in life we grow too old for. But it is never too late to turn to Christ. As long as our hearts are beating, the invitation of Christ still stands. Our Lord is the Lord of the second chance.
Adam Hamilton comments, “We do not have to be defined by the worst things we’ve ever done. And we do not have to be tomorrow what we were yesterday.” [Creed, p. 140.]
Are there any among us this day who have not yet asked, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom?”
You still have time. There is still time.
Jesus says, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise!”
“With me,” Jesus says. This is more than a statement of forgiveness—it is the offer of friendship. Jesus becomes our companion throughout our life’s journey. Even if our closest friends and family members should forsake us, Jesus remains firmly and forever at our side.
And even when death shall cast its shadow upon us, his light will cast out the darkness and lead us to our eternal home, to paradise, where we shall know utter wholeness and bliss.
We shall never, ever walk alone! We shall never, ever be forgotten! We shall truly live, now and for eternity!
Do you…can you….will you… believe in the forgiveness of sins?