Towards a Whole-Hearted Faith, Part 4

Imagine the scene in Governor Pilate’s courtroom where Jesus has been brought by the chief priests and religious leaders to be tried for blasphemy and treason. One after another accuses Jesus, but Pilate is not convinced. His own questioning of Jesus yields nothing.  He tries to deflect the murderous intent of the crowd by offering to release Jesus, a tradition at Passover.  But the crowd, urged on by their leaders, cries out for another prisoner instead.   What about Jesus?  Pilate is desperate to find a way out.  Crucify him!   Crucify him!  With the risk of a riot forming, Pilate caves.  And then he does a remarkable thing: he calls for water and washes his hands before the crowd, saying I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves. 

Water –the main ingredient for cleansing the body—has forever been a symbol for spiritual cleansing.  Ancient Judaism specified washing rituals for purification of conditions and actions deemed “unclean.” Christian baptism is meant to invoke the cleansing of new birth, awash in the nourishing waters of life.  When water shows up prominently in movies, plays, or book plots, it’s a sure sign that some kind of transformation is afoot.   Pilate performed this ritual purification act in full view of Jesus and his accusers in hopes of absolution.  I can’t help wondering if it brought him any relief or peace.

Cleansing metaphors for forgiveness are found throughout Scripture, including the morning text.  It’s a Psalm attributed to King David, after he was confronted with the truth of his adultery with Bathsheba and his responsibility in the death of her soldier husband Uriah.  The text is a prayer for cleansing, forgiveness of David’s acknowledged guilt, and the restoration of his relationship with God.  It always appears as one of the suggested readings during the season of Lent, designed I’m sure to prompt our confession of sin and the ways we personally have turned away from God.   A reading from the fifty-first Psalm, verses 1 through 12.  Listen for God’s Word through the penitent words of a sinner, and how they can possibly convey good news.   [Psalm 51:1-12]

Sometimes God’s Word is challenging and I find it difficult to respond automatically  …Thanks be to God!  This is not one of those times.  You can almost hear King David’s sigh of relief as he is released from the guilt he’s carried.  Mine too as I pray this prayer and am invited to relinquish past failures, betrayals and debts to the mercy and steadfast love of God.   Here the image of cleansing is the work of repair, to restore the person not to innocence but to wholeness. Forgiveness that mends broken relationship and stokes the intention to do better.  I invite us right now to respond not with words but a deep sigh of sheer relief. [deep breath]

Good news, right?

In every church I’ve served as pastor, someone (usually more than one) has asked why there is a prayer of confession in every worship service.  Week after week we cry out (as the late, great Jimmy Buffett memorably expressed in song) Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!  And it’s kind of off- putting and a bit judge-y. I suppose it’s clear from Central’s practice that they never convinced me to get rid of it . . .

. . . But their objections have helped me come to a different understanding of its role in the development of a wholehearted faith.

I think we’ve got it backwards.   If confession and cleansing are the necessary pre-requisites for relationship with God, then we’re likely to center humanity’s fallen nature, that we are stained and dirty and incapable of doing good.  We may conclude we’re not worthy of God’s attention and care until we “get right with God,” by being cleansed through Jesus’ sacrificial death and rising.  No wonder it’s so hard for many of us to trust in the unconditional love of God, that love is God’s entire essence, that God IS love.  As those created in God’s image, love is our essence too.  We are love.

There is much debate over the notion of “original sin” that describes the human condition from birth or “original blessing.”  In the Psalm David seems to accept the one  (I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me), but many Biblical scholars attribute this less to a theological view than to the literary device of exaggeration for effect.  David decries his present woeful state while admitting he can’t promise he’ll never sin again.

It’s just human nature.   Theologian, author and pastor Danielle Shroyer offers insight that neither cancels our accountability for sin nor the Divine love that is our essence.  We are not born innocent, she writes, since we are born into a conflicted world.   But we are not born sinful, either.  We are born human and within us lies the potential for both creation and destruction, both blessing and curse.  To be human is to be capable of both incredible good and terrifying evil.  If we deny either side of that potential, we’re living unaware. [quoted by Rachel Held Evans, Wholehearted Faith, p. 85]

So let’s start with awareness.   We are God’s good and beloved creation.  We are worthy of love no matter our sins and failures.  When that constitutes the core of our faith, we are able to understand that the stains, guilt, and dirtiness from which we need cleansing are not part of our nature.

Instead, they are evidence of the ways we have acted, participated in, and reinforced suffering, violence, and destruction that separates us from God and God’s intentions for us. It’s not just about our mistakes and imperfections, but any act that breaks the relationships that from the beginning God declared good.   God doesn’t move away from us; we move away from God.

David’s passionate confession was possible only because he trusted God’s predisposition toward forgiveness, God’s abundant mercy, and God’s ability to restore wholeness in him, despite David’s selfish and hurtful choices.  (I take issue with David’s claim that against God alone he sinned, since there were a number of human people against whom he sinned who deserved acknowledgement and reparations as well. T

he unconditional nature of God’s love preserves us from shame by affirming we all have the capacity to be changed.  Yet it doesn’t remove us from human accountability for making those changes and repairing the harm done to individuals and communities).   But the point remains that confession, cleansing, and restoration emerge from a context of love; they do not create conditions for it.

Which is why, finally, Pilate’s handwashing was an empty gesture.  There was no love initiating it, only self-serving denial.  Contrast that scene with one just the day before.  Jesus and the disciples, gathered in a room to celebrate the Passover meal.  The vibe is tense and apprehensive; Jesus has been warned about staying out of the volatile City where both religious leaders and government officials have threatened action against him.

Jesus rises from the table, picks up a towel and basin and bends down to wash the feet of his disciples.  Think of it.  Judas, who would betray him.  Peter, who hours later would deny even knowing him.  Matthew and James and all the rest who would flee from his side, fearing for their lives, abandoning him at the hour when he most needed them.   With strong and compassionate hands he pours water over their chapped and dusty feet, massaging gently and toweling dry.  Love one another as I have loved you.  Cleansing, both to free them from guilt and to commission them for the transforming work ahead.

Friends, it is Jesus’ love that enables us to hold the paradox of goodness and sin.   In these waters, we are washed with God’s immense and transforming love.     Here we experience complete acceptance as beloveds, and the welcome relief of knowing that nothing can separate us from that love.  And here we experience the Divine love that strengthens us for human forgiveness, moving us toward reconciliation; not judgment, but mercy.

It is in this context, that I invite us to write our confessions on this dissolving paper and place in fonts around the sanctuary (here in front, and at the back on both sides) .

We are loved.  We are forgiven.  We are free.

Thanks be to God!