There is no hiding from it: We are authentic sinners.
While we give lip service to our love for God, our lives display a different story. This is seen, among other ways, in how we turn a blind eye to the needs of those around us. These three realities are among the first we speak when we are gathered by the power of the Holy Spirit around the word and sacraments in “Confession and Forgiveness”:
“ we confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” (“Evangelical Lutheran Worship,” p. 95)
We do not speak of these things privately; we speak them as the church and in the company of fellow sinners. We speak publicly of these things because we live them out for everyone to see, whether inside the church or out. We are sinners.
Yet, there is another reality about us as well, one from which we cannot run: We are forgiven for the sake of Jesus Christ.
It is Jesus Christ who takes upon himself the fullness of our sin, dies and is raised from death for us. Because of Jesus Christ, we are set free from our sin; we are washed clean as the newly driven snow.
This news about our identity isn’t private, either, although it always comes as something of a surprise. Seeping into our ears, we hear of our new identity on account of Jesus Christ. “As a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all of your sins.” We are forgiven.
Sinful and forgiven simultaneously, the church lives out its vocation to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ in the midst of conflict when we do two things: confess our sin and proclaim (and hear!) the forgiveness of sin that comes only from God who is revealed in Jesus Christ.
Some will think this to be deeply naive in its view of the church or the world. Others will see it as grossly negligent. What might the legal ramifications be if the church actually does confess its sin?
These concerns are important, for each in its own way raises significant concerns about the way the world will respond to the church living out its vocation in the midst of conflict.
Both concerns seem to wonder, at one level or another, whether others in the world will both hear and speak out about their own identity as those who are also sinful and forgiven simultaneously.
The truth is that perhaps neither the church nor the world can or wil* be able to hear or speak out of their dual identities, especially if left to their own devices.
Yet in the call for the church to confess, proclaim and hear the forgiveness of sin, neither the church nor the world is the fulcrum around which these things take place.
God makes things new
When sin is forgiven, conflict resolved and broken relationships restored, it is God — not us — who makes all things new. While God making things new can be welcome news, it can also be quite scandalous.
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus encounters a paralytic who is dropped through the roof and almost lands on Jesus’ head.
At a glance, Jesus’ first word to the paralytic is as we might imagine it to be: “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
In forgiving his sins, Jesus both exposes and destroys the power of sin that leaves the man paralyzed; yet these words also expose and destroy the sin that binds up everyone gathered around the paralytic as well.
This includes the scribes, who hear and see Jesus’ utterance of forgiveness as nothing but scandal, because their sin is exposed and destroyed as well. They are paralyzed by fear, and it’s palpable. And so they ask, “Who can forgive sin but God alone?”
There is a lot at stake in the scribes’ question and its answer. The paralytic cannot forgive sins. The crowd cannot forgive sins. As for the scribes, the very question they ask suggests their answer: “We can’t forgive sins, either.”
Only God forgives sins.
Only God makes forgiving possible.
Only God embodies forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
What’s important is the scribes’ question: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” This is the question upon which the church is called to reflect in those situations — both in and outside of itself — in which conflict runs rampant.
It is not a private question, but one that should be reflected on publicly, out in the open, among the company of sinners for whom Jesus Christ died and was raised. This question should haunt us in conflict, around the table, in the fellowship hall, at meetings, in confirmation classes, at the font and at the graveside.
When we meet around this question, whatever the occasion, our first words as the church are these: “We are sinners forgiven for the sake of Jesus Christ.”