Not too long ago, a preaching buddy moved to a new town and began work with a new congregation. In an email exchange I asked him about his new ministry. He responded in glowing terms. To give me an idea of the nature of his new ministry he told me that one of his wife’s first reactions was to say, in tears, “I think it’s okay to be a sinner here.”
What an incredible observation! Since first reading this almost two months ago, I have thought about it often. My guess is that many members of the body of Christ are struggling with the sense that in the church to which they belong “it’s NOT okay to be a sinner here.”
Against the backdrop of the teachings of Jesus regarding discipleship and the nature of the kingdom, it seems that this just should not be the case. In fact, an excerpt from a book which one of our blogging friends, Mark Wilson, sent me really seems to put this in perspective. Here’s a little something from Henry Cloud’s fine work: Changes That Heal:
Grace and truth together reverse the effects of the fall which were separation from God and others. Grace and truth together invite us out of isolation and into relationship. Grace, when it is combined with truth, invites the true self, the “me” as I really am, warts and all, into relationship. It is one thing to have safety in relationship; it is quite another to be truly known and accepted in this relationship.
With grace alone, we are safe from condemnation, but we cannot experience true intimacy. When the one who offers grace also offers truth (truth about who we are, truth about who he or she is, and truth about the world around us), and we respond with our true self, then real intimacy is possible. Real intimacy always comes in the company of truth.
Jesus’ treatment of the adulterous woman in John 8:3-11 provides a wonderful example of safety and intimacy:
Jesus had gone to the temple at dawn to teach the people. He had just sat down when the teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in an adulterous woman and made her stand before the group.
“Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery,” they said. “In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” The Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus. The Romans did not allow the Jews to carry out the death sentence, so if Jesus said, “Stone her,” he would be in conflict with the Romans. If he said, “Don’t stone her,” he could be accused of undermining Jewish law.
But Jesus refused to fall into their trap. He bent down, and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he stood up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”
When they heard his answer, they began to slink away, one by one. Soon Jesus was left alone with the woman. He asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, Sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
In this one encounter, Jesus shows what it means to know grace and truth in him. He offered this woman grace in the form of forgiveness and acceptance. He said, in effect, that she did not have to die for her sin. She was accepted and did not have to be separated from him. He also showed the power of grace as an agent to end separation from her fellow human beings as well. The Pharisees were no different from her: she was a sinner, and they were sinners. Jesus even invited the Pharisees to commune with her as a member of the human race, an invitation they declined. Grace has the power to bring us together with God and with others, if others will accept it.
But Jesus did not stop with just acceptance. He accepted her with full realization of who she was: an adulteress. He accepted her true self, a woman with sinful desires and actions. He then gives her direction for the future: “Go now and leave your life of sin.” These two ingredients together—acceptance and direction—serve to bring the real self into relationship, the only way that healing ever takes place.
Jesus said it in another way in John 4:23-24: “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth”. We must worship God in relationship and in honesty, or we do not worship him at all.
The sad thing is that many of us come to Christ because we are sinners, and then spend the rest of our lives trying to prove that we are not! We try to hide who we really are.
It’s easy to agree with the Spirit and state that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (cf. Romans 3:23) However, it is more difficult to say, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (cf. Luke 18:13) We are able to do the second when we remember that “grace, when it is combined with truth, invites the true self, the ‘me’ as I really am, warts and all, into relationship.” Only when we are able to do so will we be suitable instruments in the Master’s service in creating faith communities in which it is okay to be a sinner.
I believe the sinner from Tarsus, whom Jesus transformed into the Apostle to the Gentiles, had a handle on this. His words recorded in 1 Timothy 1:12-18 make this clear:
12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. 13 Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. 14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. 17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
— May God help us to appreciate His grace and truth, which are vividly displayed and freely distributed through Jesus Christ.
— May God help us be the kind of people who humbly walk with Him, candidly admitting our flaws and failings with sincere contrition.
— May God help us to do our part in creating a context in which others feel safe in doing the same.
© Bill Williams
June 6, 2007