July 10: “Is Forgiveness of Sins Really the Point?

 

One thing I failed to do here was to give a straightforward appreciation of everything going on in the church at Colossae.  The point is that forgiveness of sins seems to be integrated as a small piece in the life of a community rich with love, faith, and hope.  

 

Psalm 82 ; Amos 7:7-17; Colossians 1:1-14

“He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” How important is forgiveness of sins to us? How important should it be? Is it the very substance and summation of the gospel? (A warning to South Hadley folks, as a former professor, I almost never answer a question that I pose with a yes or no.) Forgiveness of sins is associated with Paul’s message in his letters, and in particular the somewhat obscure message about “justification by faith.” If you know your Reformation history, you know that justification by faith became the rallying cry of Marin Luther and the other reformers, as they broke away from the Catholic church in the 16th century. Luther read most deeply in Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians; not so much in Colossians, from which our reading comes. We Protestants were so deeply shaped by this centrality of forgiveness of sins that our view of Christianity sometimes is this: Jesus died on the cross to win for us God’s mercy. So all we need to do is believe in him and we will have forgiveness of sins. What it means to be a Christian is to have peace in your own, personal soul because you know God accepts you despite your failures.

This in a nutshell is what a major portion of our hymnal describes. Try paging through our hymnal sometime, as I do, anxiously, desperately sometimes, every week, searching for some hymn that we know, that is beautiful, and that is fitting to the variety of themes we center on from week to week. If I preached just forgiveness by the death of Jesus, I would have no problem: of the 36 hymns stretching from hymn 302 to 338 in our red hymnal, 27 feature that message, including—not to be gruesome—an uninterrupted string of blood hymns: “There is Power in the Blood,” “Are You Washed in the Blood?,” “His Cleansing Blood,” “I know a Fount [namely, the blood of Calvary],” “O the Blood of Jesus,” “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power,” “Cross of Jesus, Cross of Sorrow [where the blood of Christ was shed],” “There is a Fountain [filled with blood],” and “Nothing but the Blood”—well that’s for sure!

This theme of forgiveness through Jesus’ death and blood is not wrong. But it holds an exaggerated place in traditional theology. Some in the church today find this theme meaningless, because we no longer are gripped by that old-time sense of God judging us, of God being angry. We no longer worry about Martin Luther’s famous question: How will I find a merciful God? / We can agree that it was an important question, once. There were times in the past when people needed to be told about God’s mercy, because the church had oppressed them with the image of a wrathful God, using God’s judgment as a tool to keep people in line. Luther and many of his contemporaries heard in the message about grace through Christ received by faith alone a powerful liberation from oppressive, idolatrous control.

But pretty soon Protestantism became part of the establishment. The message that God forgives us freely became commonplace, and a little boring—partly because it was the same message all the time, for everyone. Protestantism was very democratic. It made us all equal: all have sinned, all can find forgiveness through faith in Jesus. Some preachers struggled, and some today keep trying, to make forgiveness interesting by preaching colorfully about the wrath of God, like Jonathan Edwards famously did; that lends the message of forgiveness some drama, however artificial it is. And it must be said that some, including some of us no doubt, continue to find in the message of God’s forgiveness a great relief as they struggle with guilt over past misdeeds and mistakes.

But preaching that Jesus means just this—all sin and all are forgiven—tends to flatten out the Bible, which has a lot more to say than just that. For instance, it leaves no place for the social conscience of the Bible, most beautifully expressed in the Old Testament. Instead of a God for whom we’re all equally sinners, and all forgiven by Christ’s death, the prophets and singers of the OT, like Amos and the author of our Psalm for today, sometimes bore witness to a God that took sides with some against others. The “plumb line” by which God measures whether Israel is true in Amos is largely concerned with the disdain of the poor by the rich: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying ‘When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will …practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals”—Wall Street has nothing on Amos’ Israel. The Psalmist hears God say, “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” In these Scriptures, we’re not all sinners, just the same. There are those who suffer from the way of the world, and those who benefit from it. God calls on Israel and the nations, and surely that includes us, to establish justice on behalf of those who suffer. But you’ll hardly find that message expressed in our hymnals.

So we have the Bible calling for us to take the side of the poor and weak against the rich and powerful Amaziahs and Jereboams of the world, and we have the old-timey gospel message that God forgives everyone on the cross. Not surprisingly, we find churches latching on to one message, or the other. One camp believes that the point of Christian faith is to find personal forgiveness of sins; they are mostly evangelical. The other camp believes that the point of Christianity is about living out good social values; these are mostly mainline Christians like us, who might identify with at least a mild version of what Amos and Psalm 82 are saying. I often wonder how much this division of Christianity into camps forces both sides into a respectively shallow understanding of the gospel. How much has the church sold out the richness of Scriptures to the simplicity of Red America, Blue America? Could this be the power of darkness that Paul talks about?

 

So: we have Christians who stick by a sometimes stale version of forgiveness of sins as the whole point of our faith. And others who find forgiveness of sins meaningless or not very meaningful, and who feel compelled to look elsewhere for the whole point. What a great time to go back to Paul, and read him afresh! Because he’s the one who got us into this mess, or rather, it was Luther using Paul to start the Protestant breakaway that led to our mess. And I think what we find in Paul is more interesting and important than what many Christians today try to rally around as the whole point of the Christian faith.

Paul always begins his letters with a greeting of “grace and peace from God,” and then goes into his thanksgiving. This is a good example for all of us. Whenever we address each other, we are usually anxious to get to what’s bothering us, or to dispensing our opinions or advice about missions or the building or whatever. Paul always takes time to express thanks / just for having those whom he addresses as his sisters and brothers in Christ. Try it! At least silently to yourself, say that you are thankful to God for your sister or brother, before you get to business. I am going to try it.

He is particularly thankful because he has heard from his partner Epaphras, whom we later learn is with Paul as he is writing, that the Colossians have “faith in Christ Jesus” and “love for all the saints,” or “love in the Spirit,” as he puts it later. Now, what does faith in Christ mean? That’s a sermon or two in itself; but try this: when we tell the story about who we are, we put God revealed in Jesus at the center of that story. But that’s all I am going to say about faith in Jesus, because you will notice that Paul doesn’t mention Jesus again until the end of our passage. Paul is also thankful that they have love for all the saints. They love each other and love everyone else in this new movement, this new community, this new family. So here’s one way Paul belies the old-time gospel message about forgiveness of sins: he’s generally more interested in love than faith; he puts more emphasis on the love that makes the community a participant in God’s love, than on everyone’s individual faith journey through guilt. For what that’s worth.

The Colossians have this faith and love “because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.” We usually think of hope as grounded in faith, but here faith and love are grounded in hope; Paul means that their faith in Jesus, the way they identify themselves with Jesus, and the love that binds them to each other and to all the members of Christ everywhere, is only possible because they see the future resting in God. On a week like this one, if our only perspective on the future was, ‘Here comes more of the same,’ that the future is just going to be a replay of all the pasts we have known, we wouldn’t have much to hope for.

“You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you.” It was the gospel as preached by Ephaphas that gave the Colossians hope. Paul says that the gospel has been doing in Colossae what it is doing everywhere, bearing fruit and growing. The gospel certainly includes the message about God’s love for sinners, or God’s grace, as Paul puts it here. In the gospel we do learn about our forgiveness by God. But the gospel is not just a message. It is alive, like a vine, growing and fruiting. Something’s not right if the gospel is not producing the fruit of love and a new identity in Christ. If you don’t have that community of love that Paul was so excited to hear about at Colossae, then you probably have not really heard the gospel, have not “truly comprehended it” as he says they have. The gospel is not just a message, something communicated, a piece of dead data; it is a living power.

Now, that already sounds like the Colossians have a lot to be thankful for: faith, love, hope, the gospel. I don’t know if we want to compare ourselves to them. I don’t know whether, if Paul were writing to the church at Granby or South Hadley, he would have quite so much to effuse over. (It’s a happy coincidence that Paul intended Colossians to be shared also with the church at Laodicea. Lori and I are following in his footsteps by preaching two-for-one sermons this summer.) I don’t know whether we have hit their mark of love and faith grounded in hope, all received from the gospel. Maybe we have. Of course, we have it a lot easier than the Colossians, who had embraced a new, suspected religion, not the religion that most ‘respectable’ Americans embrace./

Regardless, he does not end the letter with just thanksgiving for all they have from the gospel. Like all the churches to which Paul writes, like all churches today, the church at Colossae still has far to go. So Paul next tells them that he is praying for them “ceaselessly”—obviously, he is concerned about them—that they may be “filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” Wow, that sounds like some heavy knowledge. He is praying so that they will be “fully pleasing to the Lord.”

For Paul, being thankful for what God has given us—above all faith, love, and hope—does not lead to quiet satisfaction, to a feeling of contentment and self-congratulations, to serenity—no more than forgiveness of sins leads us to feel satisfied that our journey is over, that we’ve got what we came for, now we can go home. Rather, every gift of God, received with thanksgiving, awakens a higher desire, a greater awareness of what yet is lacking, of how much more we have yet to receive from God, of just how exalted is the life that God is calling us to. / What would it mean for us to be “filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding?” To be “made strong with the strength that comes from God’s glorious power?” I don’t think we’re there yet, are we? Can you imagine what the Colossians felt when they heard Paul’s prayer? “Hey, I thought we were doing pretty well for a new church and all. But this Paul wants us to comprehend God’s will in all spiritual things!” That’s big. Have we made that the goal of our Christian Education programs? “To be filled with the knowledge if God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding?” We would need to do a lot more prayerful work in Christian Education beyond just confirmation, in that case. Can you hear them say, “He wants us to be as strong as God! Not just faithful, loving, welcoming, but powerful, like God’s own power in our world!” We might need to adjust our goals in Christian formation, and in missions. This is where we might aspire to be the agents of justice that Amos and the psalmist are looking for. But Paul is not trying to overwhelm us, to make us feel inadequate, to get us down; this all grows out of thanksgiving, not judgment. He is awakening in us a desire that is proportional to being God’s own people.

And so his concluding mention of “forgiveness of sins” in this passage makes it sound rather small. It sounds like our work is not finished when we confess our sins and hear the words of assurance; that is only the beginning. Only then can we begin to work properly, to work as God’s people, to see the grandeur of our task. Only then do we realize that we are not working to impress God, so that God will give us a reward. We are working for God, as God’s own people and representatives.

And so when he mentions forgiveness of sins at the end, he emphasizes the drama of what that means: “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of is beloved son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Forgiveness of sins does not mean just peace of mind. Not just a clear conscience, a relief from guilt. It is what plucks us up from being under the control of dismal and stormy forces—and we can all relate to that, right?; and installs us as the very kingdom of God’s son. This church, both of you as one, is God’s kingdom. You are to have the knowledge of God’s will in all things spiritual, you are to be God’s own strength in the world. You are certainly to love one another and love all Christians as you would your own family. If that, and nothing less, is what we mean by forgiveness of sins, then we are really on to something.

 

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