Over the last decade of being both in the church in a real sense (like actually going there and worshiping God and stuff) and being online, I’ve noticed a phenomenon that is bothersome and upsetting, and which, strangely enough, the lections this morning answered for me in words I had lacked. The phenomenon of which I speak is basically that Sin Begets Sin.
You know how it goes. Someone does something really bad to someone else. A man, for example, cheats on his wife and the two end up getting divorced. If you are looking to affix blame, there is a clear person you can point to—the man. He went out on purpose and slept with a woman who wasn’t his wife. He was unrepentant, and so his marriage came to an end. His wife is the victim of his wicked behavior and she is rightly devastated. Not only is there the treachery of adultery and betrayal, now she is also alone and maybe even financially in a bad way.
And here the matter rests. Because if this played out online this is basically all anyone knows unless they scroll back through someone’s feed trying to get more information out of morbid and ungodly (but I repeat myself) curiosity. One party is wicked, and the other party is innocent. In Jesus Name Amen.
Except that, and this is literally why Jesus came to earth the first time and will come again in a short while, this is not the end of the story. Suppose the woman who was betrayed and then abandoned is a church lady. She goes every Sunday. She tries to put her life back together. Lots of people help her and pray for her. They involve her in their lives. They stretch out their hands because they know she is in ongoing pain. And she does believe in God and so there she is, trying her best. But, and this is the part that none of us want to think about because it is too jarring, she is a sinner too, just like the man she was once married to. And so, even though she does go to church, because of her pain, she doesn’t listen very well. She doesn’t forgive very easily, and after a while, not at all. The first grief of betrayal begins to grow, rather than shrink, and to encompass other griefs and some imagined betrayals. She backs herself into a corner. She comes to be more in pain. And finally, she alienates herself from the church and from everyone.
Now, I’m not describing any particular occasion. This is really an amalgamation of the kind of thing I have seen over and over. Wives cheat on and leave their husbands, husbands cheat on their wives. Young people aren’t chaste before marriage and end up leaving the church out of guilt and shame instead of confessing their sins and receiving the grace, comfort, and forgiveness of the Holy Spirit. The common thread is that when one person injures another, the injured party very often does not open up the wound to God and accept the help of the church to forgive the offender, and then after a while, because forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian life, they end up adding their own offense into the heap of ruin. Sin begets sin.
Add in the internet, and the whole thing takes on a new and more ugly kind of virulence. In the era where being the victim carries social status, the Christian call to forgive those who have injured and offended you is loudly drowned out by a cacophony of voices who know better, who will give you tweeting reasons why you are not obligated to do that. You can find a pseudo Christian cyber community to insulate yourself from the painful truth of God’s holy word, that, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
That was his answer when James and John came sidling up to him, hoping to put themselves in a more secure and exalted position than all their fellow disciples. They were part of the inner circle, after all, but Jesus seemed to have time and attention for everyone, and so when he came into his kingdom, which they probably imagined was going to be the comfortable, if initially bloody, throne in Jerusalem because Jesus was taking them there, they wanted to be right next to him, his trusted, noble, honored, and probably very well paid advisors. All their fellow disciples, of course, hearing that James and John had got in their bid before anyone else had had time to think of it, were outraged, wounded even, betrayed.
It’s hard to enter in, emotionally, to this volatile scene because none of us are there on that path with that lot. Our hopes and dreams do not probably amount to more than just keeping our boring mediocre jobs, or getting our kids through one more day. There is no kingdom on the horizon. All we can expect is less stuff at Christmas because of the shipping crisis. But we do live in a world full up of the same kind of treachery, the same anxieties and worries that every age has suffered. Terrors by night, political unrest and upheaval, unsettling cultural shifts, financial worries—all these are immediate and real, the drumbeat under the interpersonal trouble that we each have to navigate online and in person. To want the warm comfort of having Jesus on your side, in your corner, ready to receive you into his kingdom where you will be safe and get to have what you need is not bad, not on its face.
But James and John wanted to come in without dealing with their own treachery against their brothers. And many of us want to sit in the pew and not think about the peculiar sharp pain that would be required to forgive someone who has inflicted a grievous wrong. If that is you, the entrance into Jesus’ warm and gracious kingdom is through the bloody curtain of his own flesh—he takes up your transgressions and goes to death for them, instead of you—and because that’s so, he has the right to say how you will live, and who you will forgive. He has the right to take up his own sword, his own Word, and cut out the ugly wound of sin, both those of your own invention and those given to you. And you have to let him do it, if you want to be in his kingdom. You have to put down your rights and your unforgiveness and all your expectations and enter as someone who has nothing to offer.
Going online to collect a community to help you justify yourself won’t help you get into the kingdom of God. Silently sitting in your pew refusing to say the confession prayer is also not a way in. Leaving your local church because you don’t think Jesus’ command to forgive your enemy, the one who injured you, applies to you is also not a way to come into the kingdom of God.
But notice, sandwiched between the alarming work of Jesus on the cross, seen beforetime by Isaiah, and Jesus’ hard words to his disciples in the Gospel, is the Psalm. For the one who takes refuge in the Most High, who makes God her habitation, there no evil will come. It may look like evil is about to destroy everything. The fearful arrows, the night terrors, the armies of enemies who mock and threaten—they come near, but they are hindered from destroying you by the strong hand of God. And, tracing your way back and forth across the readings, you might include the very ugly things inside yourself. The arrows that threaten you from without are no more ruinous than the poison of unforgiveness inside. The refuge of the Almighty includes deliverance from that even more than it does anything else.
It is horrible to complicate, of course, because it is your own life. Swallowing down hurt, betrayal, and humiliation is impossible to do. That is why Jesus had to go himself to do it. That is why he walks with you, carries you even, drags you along by his own almighty arm to bring you into his kingdom. And what a gracious and unlikely kingdom it is. Anyone who sins, anyone who hurts another person can be forgiven. Here is no howling, alienated wilderness. No, it is the Land of the Living, the place where all grief is comforted and healed, where God himself not only sits on the throne ruling over and blessing his people, but offers up his very flesh to join you to himself and give you life forever. Hope to see you there!