I had one of those seminal moments when I defined something theologically for myself in trying to reach someone else. Neil Stafford, PsyD., had invited me to speak to his psychology of religion class at Grand Canyon University, our shared alma mater. Neil got two degrees to my one while we were in school together. One student, a sincere fundamentalist who loved God, was distressed by everything I said and stayed after to talk about faith. (Or to convince me of my sin, it was hard to tell.) I walked him out to the front doors of the classroom building, still arguing, and pointed across the campus at a girl walking between buildings and asked, “Do you know her?”
“No. I have no idea who she is.”
“Is she a child of God?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know her.”
“Yes, neither do I. But, is she a child of God? What do you believe?”
He was stuck, and truthfully so was I. We had gone round and round about theology and human experience, but this was as close to the core issue as I could get. Is the total stranger a child of God? Are they, whoever they are, precious to God? We say in our theology that they are. That “while we were still sinners” Jesus died for us. John 3:16 begins “for God so loved the world.”
This is not meant to be a trick question. Neil accused me of trying to break the student. But I really think this is essential to understand Jesus and the God he calls Abba. God loves his people. God has saved his people from their sins. [I am using he for grammatical reasons, but God is no more he than she, though I am following Jesus who called God, Daddy or Father.] If you are going to follow Jesus and proclaim the Gospel of God, you must begin with “God loves you.” There is an anthropological statement of faith in that. “You are precious to God.” Right now, while still a sinner.
That is not what we often proclaim. But it is what Jesus proclaimed. It is vital to understanding the signs of Jesus’ healing miracles: he healed first then forgave. The order is important because the Pharisees and others of his day, religious people like us, could not accept that someone who was broken, sick, infirm, or otherwise formed poorly or wrong could be a part of the people of God. Jesus puts his response in the form of forgiveness. “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Mark 2. The scribes, keepers of the law, are offended. Only God can forgive sins, and God did so through the temple and priests and sacrifices. But it was God who forgave sins.
The important thing is to say, What sins? If we were in a certain kind of church I would say, Turn to your neighbor and say, What sins? And you would.
Is being a paralytic a sin? It is if your bar for being a part of the family of God, the people of God, is physical perfection. The blind, the lame, the unclean are not included in the life of a holy God. This was part of the law, and it was not being applied cruelly, but rather as accepted religious truth. Only God could make a person right with the community, and some permanent conditions meant that was not ever going to happen. It was a permanent sin to be born with a missing hand, or blind. The painful reality of your life was that you were out. For ever.
So when Jesus says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” He was bringing this paralytic, still on the cot, back into the family of God. This means one of two things: either God as revealed in Jesus doesn’t care about sins or that the religious understanding of the sins was wrong. I don’t think you can look at the whole ministry and teaching of Jesus and say that he doesn’t care about sin. He denies divorce for anything except infidelity and remarriage while the spouse is still alive. He takes commands about murder and adultery and raises the bar to anger and looking with lust. Jesus clearly takes a moral life seriously, more seriously than the religious of his day.
In our day, how do we understand and apply these teachings and example of Jesus about God? I think it is important to say that our healing, love, and even profound forgiveness and inclusion has to be as freely offered as Jesus’s offering of forgiveness and healing. This is how we are to approach the world. We are to approach the world with open hands, wallets, with generosity and love overflowing. This inclusion of others into the family of God is essential to following the example of Jesus, ethos of Jesus, the explicit teachings of Jesus.
What then of judgement, morality, and holiness? Good question. Once we become disciples, it is just as essential that we take on the yoke of Jesus. We must take on the self-reflection, ethics, and holiness of Jesus. One of the cornerstone teachings of that moral square is non-judging. This is requisite to the discipled community. We must be able to hold ourselves to a high, sometimes impossibly high standard, while not entering into judgement of others.
The early church clearly struggled with this, as Paul’s and Peter’s letters bear out. If someone doesn’t hold themselves to a high standard the church must respond in order to maintain the integrity of the community. We have indications of how to respond in Jesus’s teachings as well as the letters.
These become hard issues and difficult conversations within communities that are supposed to be defined by love. I am not going to pretend to get this all right, but in our Rule of Grace we must try to set some cairns out for the journey.
One. Everyone is welcome to be a part of the family of God here.
Two. If you join the family of God, we have to begin to reflect the love of God to others, welcoming with the same forgiveness and grace that we have been welcomed with. We do not have the option to join and then turn our judgement and harm against others.
Three. We have to hold each other accountable without devolving into judgement. Accountability can only be as deep as the relationship. You cannot effectively hold another follower accountable without relationship.
Four. Failure is normal. We are all sinners; it just doesn’t define our relationship with God and should not define our relationship to each other.
Confrontation is bound to happen in any community. I can bear a lot of witness to this. But we must continue to hold ourselves and others up as children of God. When we are still strangers, when we are friends, and when we have to hold each other accountable.
Yes, some will reject that definition of themselves. Yes, many will reject us, even if we do our best and love them unconditionally, but then our witness is real. And yes, this will pinch, sometimes within close relationships and horribly as we enter into larger worlds and levels of demands, but we are not first and foremost anything, if we are not first and foremost followers of Jesus, a people of Grace.
All of that to say that everyone deserves a good cup of coffee.