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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Five words Jesus never said

"Receive the Holy Spirit.
Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them.
Whose sins you shall retain, they are retained."
I've been speaking at our parish's GIFT (intergenerational faith formation) sessions this past week on the topic of the Holy Spirit, the last presentation on the Creed this year. As I spoke, I used the phrase, "here are five words Jesus never said," following up on the Easter 2 gospel. I was specifically thinking of these five: Your sins are not forgiven.

On the contrary, Jesus says several variations, several times, of “your sins are forgiven.” To me, this is a revelation of a different kind of God than the one often mediated through shamans and sacrifice. And good people and smarter ones than I think that Jesus said this to show that he was God, which would be a way of keeping the God of power and sacrifice in place, not to mention job security for the shaman. It may be possible that both points of view are right; that the concept of what God is like is fundamentally changed by Jesus's announcement unmediated by the priestly caste that “your sins are forgiven,” and that it is a statement of power, as long as we see that it is Jesus the servant who, as the self-revelation of Abba, reveals the unseen God to us. Thus, the statement "Your sins are forgiven" is a revelation of God’s agape. Rather than being interested in human justice (retribution and expiation), God unilaterally recognizes the human condition and offers love before any request for forgiveness. God puts the “fore” in “fore-giving.”

Seen this way, forgiveness is not a reward for a human activity, but is God's invitation, the God whose life-breath creates and sustains the universe, to participate in the life-giving activity that God is. Forgiveness is an act of divine love that enables and empowers human love. Human forgiveness, sharing in the divine agape through the incarnation and paschal mystery of Christ, does the same. Love follows upon love.

But we can’t respond if we don’t know. Forgiveness withheld or placed on the end of a retribution-stick isn’t forgiveness at all. Religion often wants to withhold forgiveness until certain criteria are met: is the person really sorry? Is there a firm purpose of amendment? Will restitution be made? There are no such conditions placed in the gospel proclamation. “Your sins are forgiven.” Jesus’s actions in the street, touching the unclean, eating with whores and collaborators, healing on the Sabbath, all of these and more are signs that God’s love and forgiveness of the human family are egalitarian and universal, there is free access to God throughout the world. This is good news to anyone who hasn’t heard it yet, or who thinks God and agape are only accessible through shamanism and sacrifice, through elitism and blood and wealth. It is bad news, of course, to the shamans and to the elite who are their managers and patrons. This begins to explain the outrage of the Pharisees and scribes and ultimately of the Romans, and the crossward trajectory of Jesus’s public ministry.

There is an ironic if tragic strain in Catholic preaching that goes something like this: if people would just start going to confession again, all would be well with the Catholic church. But the fact is that, as much as people are broken, the sacrament is broken as well. The church (meaning you and I) in the nearly fifty years since the Second Vatican Council, has rediscovered the world as a place of great diversity, of immense and diverse good as much as it is full of suffering and evil. It seems to me that there is a huge disconnect between the private world of the confessional and the world of the twenty-first century which is connected, communal, and self-aware. The teaspoon of sacramental sugar isn’t helping the medicine of global violence, neglect, and inequality to go down. What’s wrong with the sacrament of penance is that its God and its world are too small. No one is connecting the world of war, genocide, racial profiling, banking abuse, pollution, and economic exploitation of the world with the “sins of humanity.” The good undone, the evil overlooked, are part of the church’s complicity in the maintaining of the status quo. The huge opportunity for good, the invitation to respond to the forgiveness of God already showered upon the good and bad alike, is privatized, shrunken, and constricted into a sacrament too small for our own good.

Much has been made of the fact, too, that the Eucharist has been rediscovered as the “ordinary sacrament” of reconciliation, and I think that the empirical evidence of this is remarkably clear. The trouble is that many of those who are charged with liturgically preaching the gospel in the Catholic church, that is, the ordained, have forgotten to use the word “sin” in their preaching, and when they do it’s generally an anemic little blot and not the global elephant in the room of which we’re all aware. When was the last time anyone in church mentioned the economic crisis as a sinful situation, as the result of bad choices we all made for our own self-aggrandizement? When was the last time you heard a priest say “Kyrie eleison” about American involvement in Abu Ghraib, or Guantanamo Bay, or Afghanistan? Pick your political poison, you don’t hear much about it. Modern life is somehow disconnected from the gospel, and no one is talking about it, except maybe Jim Wallis and the Sojourner community, and well, they’re Protestants. What do they know?

Finally, the sacrament of penance itself affirms that the reconciliation of God is mediated not solely through the priest, though he speaks the words of absolution in the sacrament, but through the ministry of the Church. That is, as St. Paul says in 2nd Corinthians, “the good news of reconciliation has been entrusted to us.” All of us: the Church. But to connect with that good news of reconciliation, we have to be aware that we need it. We have to call sin by its real name, even when murder masquerades as patriotism, or greed as prosperity, or slavery as investment.

In the famous story of Jesus at the house of Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7, Jesus explains to Simon that the woman “with a bad reputation” who has publicly demonstrated both her shame at Simon’s inhospitality and her immense love for Jesus, have been forgiven. "Do you see this woman? ...I tell you, her sins, many though they may be, have been forgiven. Hence she has shown such great love." Only the fore-giveness of agape can empower acts of great love. The awareness of God’s love and forgiveness overcomes our self-hatred and lack of self-esteem, and allows us to transcend our limitations and enter into the world-making love that is the God-agape. Our good is enabled by forgiveness, by the unconditional divine love.

It is this love that has to be preached and re-discovered by the Church, no doubt. But at the same time, we need our eyes opened again to our sins of negligence and omission, all the good we’re not doing because we choose not to look at the evil. As the forgiven woman in Luke 7 saw the inhospitality of Simon and took it upon herself to welcome Jesus to the meal with kisses and washing his feet, the Church today, simul justa et peccator, might see the hypocrisy in which we have too long participated, and learn to love the world again as it truly is, and wash its hot and painful feet.

So we hear the words of Jesus in the upper room now, "Whose sins you forgive are forgiven; whose sins you retain are retained," and hear them as an explication of what came immediately before it. "As the Father sent me, so I send you." The Father sent Jesus to "preach the forgiveness of sins," a task he handed on to the disciples. There is no record of him saying, "Your sins are not forgiven," with the possible exception of the implication in the story of the Man Born Blind that those who claim sight but cannot see God at work in the healing of the world are unable to accept the forgiveness being offered, "and so your sin remains." It's not that sin is not forgiven. It's that the sinner, in this case, doesn't recognize his own sin, so can't accept forgiveness! But back to the upper room, those words of his suggest to me that his meaning is would be carried better if we understood the implication like this:
Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them.
Whose sins you shall retain, they are retained."
Our mission is forgiveness, so for God's sake, forgive them!
What we say and do matters! The Holy Spirit has given us the Father's mission: to announce the forgiveness of sin. For most of us, that means preaching by our actions. We have the invocation of the Lord's Prayer, "Forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors," to remind us that Jesus is completely serious about this forgiveness business, that it's concrete, ordinary, day-to-day, and matters both to earth and to heaven.