Friday, October 16, 2015
Which is easier?
Surely every pastor has faced people knocking on the church door for help. They need food or gas or money -- mostly money. They all have a story to tell of tragedy and injustice and usually about how cold-hearted pastors and hypocritical churches have done nothing for them. It tugs at a pastor's heart strings. Every pastor I know wants to help. Most of the pastors I know have dug into their own pockets and against their own better judgment given cash or filled a gas tank or gotten on the phone to find somebody to help the people in need. None of us wants to send them away empty handed or to feel a failure because we had nothing to give. But neither do we think of the forgiveness of sins as much more than a consolation prize for failing to give them what they really needed.
If pastors act this way, then we know why the people in our pews and the world around us thinks this way, too. If you cannot first help the person with their physical need, what good is the spiritual help you provide? What good is the forgiveness of sins if they are still hungry, hurting, broken, or needy? If the church cannot feed the poor or help the needy or sort out the mentally ill or house the homeless or fix broken marriages or fix broken kids, what the heck do we have to offer at all?
A paralytic and his friends might have wondered the same thing when, a long time ago, they brought to Jesus their friend lying on his bed. This man would not work or walk or provide for his basic needs of life. He was utterly dependent upon the kindness of friends and strangers. They brought him to Jesus because they heard Jesus could really do something to help. Imagine how disappointed they were when Jesus said, "Take heart, my son, your sins are forgiven." Who cares? If you are still paralyzed, broken, helpless, and hurting -- what good is the forgiveness of sins?
Scripture records that they grumbled in their hearts. We understand it. They came for something that could really help the man and all they got was forgiveness. And the Pharisees were grumbling because they did not believe Jesus had the right or the power to forgive sins.
Jesus knew the evil in their hearts -- but which one? The evil that dismissed forgiveness as no big deal or the evil the resented Jesus for doing what only God can do? So Jesus asked them, "Which is easier -- to say rise up and walk or your sins are forgiven?" We all know the answer to that. It is much harder to fix a paralytic so he can walk than it is to forgive sins. Right? But Jesus insists we are wrong. The hard thing is to forgive sins and the easier thing is to repair lifeless limbs.
So what do you think about this? We instinctively tend to agree with Jesus' critics. Why any pastor can forgive sins and we all know you don't have to be that smart or skilled or even holy to hide behind a clerical collar and say "I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." At least that is what most folks tend to think. But to fix the broken body, well that takes some skill and ability. Or is it just that we are convinced that sin is a less urgent problem than illness?
Jesus says we are wrong. Sin is the big problem. Now the whole world jumps for joy when the church has a food pantry or opens a soup kitchen or houses the homeless and we think we are really making a difference, too. But if we forgive the sins of the sinner everyone is angry. The world is angry because we called the person a sinner and wants to know who we are so holier than thou that we have the audacity to forgive sins. How foolish are we?
The most urgent need of humanity is forgiveness. Without forgiveness hell will claim the sinner for all eternity. What good is it to go to hell seeing perfectly or having all your working limbs? Without forgiveness death will be multiplied without release and the sinner left to suffer apart from God's mercy. But the paralytic would not be paralyzed forever -- only for this brief mortal life until a glorious body released him from all his limitations.
Helping people with their needs is not a bad thing. Don't get me wrong. But we have got to stop acting life offering people forgiveness is no big deal, that before we can speak the Gospel of the cross, we must fix their broken circumstances here on earth, or that eternity is a poor consolation prize for not getting what you want today.
Anyone can fix a broken body -- doctors do it all the time and not a few faith healers claim to do it as well. But to forgive sins required Jesus to empty Himself into our suffering and carry in His body all the guilt, shame, and death of our sins, and then to die in our place to bestow upon us His life.
The crowds were terrified by what Jesus did but was it the terror of seeing the sick healed or the terror of realizing that sin destroys, cripples the body and life, and kills and that this is the big deal for which Jesus and only Jesus can offer us a remedy? Now, I believe that we can and ought to help those in need as best we can but we cannot discount what we offer them when we speak to them the Gospel of the cross, when we show to them the fully measure of God's mercy, when we forgive their sins, when we wash them in His blood in baptism, and when we feed them His flesh and blood in the Eucharist. This is the hard thing that only Jesus can do for us and this is the unique gift and message we have to bring to the world. So don't you dare act as if forgiveness were something common or ordinary. It is the most profound gift of God's love and it cost Jesus His all -- all for us. Amen.