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Sermon – May 8, 2011 – The Sins of Any

Sermon for May 8, 2011                             The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg
The Sins of Any                                            Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1: 3-9, John 20: 19-31
If you shove somebody, there is a fair chance that the person will shove you back. If you spend more money than you have, there is an even better chance that you will run into trouble with your creditors, or even with the courts, and a certainty that you will damage your credit. The world doesnʼt always work by a process of cause and effect– human nature isnʼt as predictable as physics. Still, what people consider bad judgment is called that largely due to consequences; and it is partly because potentially offensive or irresponsible behavior is risky to the person engaging in it that parents cajole and threaten and find ways to punish their children when they do wrong. The parents know that later in life, outside the loving embrace of family, aggressive or dishonest actions may invite terrible outcomes, and thatʼs part of what their discipline is intended to spare their offspring.
Something like this reasoning holds in every relationship of unequal power. Bosses will set rules for employees and enforce them with the carrot of recognition and the stick of discipline or dismissal. The state will establish boundaries for its members and punish some of those who stray, in order to reinforce the conscience of the many.
When we speak of spoiled children, we mean children who have not been made to conform their behavior to social expectations, and so are spoiled in the sense that they have been made less able to succeed in the wider society than they might have been. Every prominent family, the sort which shows up in the newspaper, sooner or later has a member who has been indulged and had indiscretions covered up, who finally goes so far that the familyʼs influence no longer can shield him or her from legal trouble.
This is the case for being tough on people. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” is well remembered both because exasperated adults probably had an easier conscience about striking a distressing child when they could quote scripture to support it, and because there is some truth in the idea that unless one is willing to overpower a child in some way– and insisting on the “time-out chair” is bending a child to oneʼs own power, also–that one runs the risk of the childʼs untamed, selfish and perhaps reckless instincts dooming the child to bad choices and unsuccessful strategies for living.

There is something right about this way of thinking and there is something wrong with it. Christianity should have an especially difficult time with this presumption of the merit of punishment to prevent worse consequences later, because Jesus of Nazareth was such a successful and consistent advocate of forgiving people. Forgiveness is only optional for the practicing Christian to the extent that the practicing Christian is willing to agree that God need not forgive him or her.    Thatʼs the understanding we repeat every time we pray The Lordʼs Prayer, that we want God to show the forgiveness and mercy to us that we ourselves show to people who have wronged us.

A small minority of you are able to listen to this now, because some of you have
such an urgent inner voice saying “But you do have to punish to do good!” and some of you have been having an urgent inner voice saying “All you do when you coerce others is encourage a cycle of coercion!” I have been talking about this business of hoping to help persons become responsible members of society by molding their behavior–negative reinforcement, positive reinforcement, leading by example, trusting their instincts and their ability to learn from mistakes– all the different ways to do that–Iʼve been talking about this to lead into the churchʼs responsibility to help people do right.
This is really very complicated. With children you never know if the right approach to a particular child and a particular undesirable behavior is to be soft or hard until youʼve taken one of those tacks and seen what results. Some people are helped by gentleness and vulnerability, and some people are helped by strictness and rigidity. The church always is in the position of preaching righteousness and judgment, and mercy and forgiveness, and trusting somehow that the spirit of God and the integrity of the individual soul will lead each person appropriately when dealing with wrongdoing. What we don’t want we sometimes achieve, which is to have mild, well meaning souls living in an agony of guilt and anxiety, and to have shameless, selfish individuals presuming on the grace of God.
This comes up in todayʼs scripture because the gospel of John has a different account of the origins of two features of life in the early church–the belief that the disciples were given the Holy Spirit to lead them after Jesusʼ departure from them, and the belief that the church authorities had the power to convict persons in their sinfulness or release them from their sinfulness. In the other tradition, represented in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Peterʼs confession of Jesus as Christ leads him to be recognized as Jesusʼ special lieutenant and the rock upon which the church will be built, and as part of that Peter is given the keys to heaven and hell. In that tradition the gift of the Holy Spirit comes later, at Pentecost, after Jesus already has ascended into heaven.
In Johnʼs gospel Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit onto the disciples and says it gives them the power to stick people permanently with their sins–to keep them out of heaven, effectively–or to release people from their sins– to get them into heaven. Thatʼs an oversimplification but thatʼs close enough to what binding sins and loosing sins means, and the big point is this huge responsibility with which the church is entrusted to address human sinners in the here-and-now with what amounts to eternal consequences.
See, we Baptists are apt to think, “whatʼs with those Catholics confessing to a priest?” as though there were nothing more self-evident than the fact that each believer is his or her own priest and can confess directly to God and be forgiven. This is the bit of the gospels which is behind the ancient church practices. It is connected to the whole idea of excommunication, which the Roman church has practiced to try to keep people in line, and itʼs connected with what often is regarded as a suspect and notorious provision in Roman Catholic life, back when divorce was impermissible, to get marriages annulled by going through Church law, sometimes at high expense.
What I want you to notice is that mercy, forgiveness, and releasing anybody from the status of sinner is equally a power given to the church, alongside identifying a sinner as a sinner and acting like he or she is stuck with that. Sometimes it seems that the church is so intimidated by being in the position to pronounce or withhold forgiveness that itʼs afraid to forgive, to be too lenient, to take the chance of making life too easy.
Too, we are born with a sense of justice, and we ourselves resist the idea of forgiveness if it seems too generously offered. It seems to me the Jesus who bid forgiveness upon his unjust judges and brutal torturers and executioners would err in the direction of mercy, but it is a vexed question. It requires prayer, and it requires seeking both the mind and presence of Christ.
Which leads me to how I want to look at the Doubting Thomas story. I want to see it as part of the story of the disciples being given authority over those who are not right, to convict them in it or to release them from it. Thomas, in a sense, is not right, because he lacks faith in the resurrection and canʼt go along with his fellow disciples. Itʼs not his fault, because for some reason he was absent when the evidence convinced them, but being not right in this world often has to do with extenuating circumstances, and people are stuck with it nevertheless.
Two things could have happened for Thomas. One would have been for him never to have had any encounter with anything capable of convincing him that Jesus was raised from the dead. He himself set the conditions for that acceptance very high. The other thing which could have happened would have been for Jesus to appear to him and convince him and give him a hug and apologize that he missed him earlier and leave Thomas feeling rosy.
Neither of those happens. Jesus does come and meet Thomasʼs conditions, and makes him believe. Jesus, however, is a little tough on Thomas– not as tough as heʼll be on Peter in the end of the gospel, when he puts him in the right–but hard enough. Thomas is favored, accepted, let off the hook–but not without a lecture, not without being reminded that lots of others will do better than he has done.
Thomasʼs resistance to faith and Peterʼs record of having denied his Lord set both of them up for needing to be made right, and both are. Johnʼs gospel presents Jesus handling both instances of restoring damaged souls with a combination of concession and confrontation, and with an emphasis on communication. That gives us a model of forgiveness which is not easy on either the person offering or the person receiving forgiveness, not unconcerned about either the wrong or the person being made right. Pray that we ourselves learn to forgive as constructively, and that our hearts ever are ready to forgive honestly and sincerely, for our own sake and for the sake of others.

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