Standing on Holy Ground
[PULLED UP SHORT]
Over the past several communion Sundays, I have entered the nave as part of the procession; then I have gone to my place near the pulpit. Early in the service we pray the Prayer of Confession from the Hymnal, then continue with the Words of Assurance. Those words near the bottom of the page end with a proclamation by the pastor and then a response by the congregation. Most often, this has been one of our other pastors, so it is their voices that ring in my brain whenever I recall this moment.
**Hear the good news:
Christ died for us while we were yet sinners;
That proves God’s love toward us.**
[THE KICKER] (Now, these are the words that pull me up short:)
**In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!**
Then, the congregation responds in the same way, except this time every voice in the house addresses that one pastor with that same proclamation:
“In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!”
Do you realize what a *fearsome thing* we proclaim each time we say those words to one another? This is the forgiveness of God we offer one another. Who are we to handle holy things with unholy hands?
For starters, what does that pastor know about our readiness to stand before God forgiven?
1. A new pastor, standing before the congregation, cannot know the lives that members of the congregation live.
+What people do behind closed doors is closed to us.
+No one has had time to brag about or confess what happened last night.
+Is the pastor making some kind of claim to know that everyone has gotten busy over the weekend so that every life has been cleaned up and ready for God’s inspection? Such a claim would be absurd.
+No pastors, when they are new, can know. So, how can the pastors or the congregation make such a claim on the forgiveness of God?
2. A long-time pastor stands in a different relationship with the same congregation. I’m not sure when we pass from “newly arrived” to “well established,” but the day does come. It comes when we have been some places together:
+places of decision,
+places of success and accomplishment,
+places of bone-tired weariness;
+places where our best intentions turned into the dust of failure;
+We have faced truths about ourselves and each other which no one else was supposed to see;
+We have experienced revelations that leave us frighteningly vulnerable.
Of course, I am not singling you out; I am talking about all of us; I am talking about us in private and us as a large community. A new pastor prays pretty prayers that bounce along the surface; a long-time pastor prays deeply, yearning to offer each breaking family or life to God’s care.
The long-time pastor speaks the words: “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven” praying that this is the truth, and knowing the greatness required of Christ to make it possible.
[WRAP-UP] So, maybe the reason these words of absolution pull me up short is that I know the depth of the mercy required to wrap us in forgiveness. That’s the reason I pray that it just might be possible.
II. What is this forgiveness that is spoken over us at the Lord’s Table?
Pamela Tinnen told one of her Kentucky stories that she called: “Knowing your Name.”
**It was the story of an abused youngster named Robert George who landed in Youth Detention. He was caught stealing a blanket and some clothes. The owner wasn’t going to press charges, but the county took Robert George up to Youth Detention, to keep him until he was 18. Pamela’s daddy started going up to see him. At first, Robert George wouldn’t come to the visitors’ room—said he didn’t have no use for some bleeding heart, Bible spouting Christian. He got lonely, apparently, because finally one time when her Daddy showed up, there he was, waiting behind that screen.
Feeling kind of jealous, she asked her daddy what they talked about. “What in the world have you got to say to him, Daddy?”
“The same thing your mama and me been saying to you since the day you were born,” said her Daddy. “You are a beloved child of God. He has claimed you, and you are his forever.”
“And just what good is that going to do?” she asked, sounding snippy even to herself.
“Well, child,” he said, his voice easy and gentle, “You can’t really know who you are until someone tells you. You can’t really know you’re loved until someone claims you.”**
That work of forgiveness certainly rings true.
[B.] Sometimes I fear that we misunderstand God’s forgiveness. Americans love to think about the world in legal terms or perhaps in the language of illness. Our *language* shapes the way we look at the world.
1. We love to look at the world in legal terms; it shows in the TV programs we watch:
+Law and Order
+Law and Order S.V.U.
+CSI: Miami, and all their kin.
The basic question of American life is this: Have we have broken the law, or we are innocent of the charges?
We are a guilt/innocence society, and it shapes the way we talk with God. What if church operated like the courts with…
+plaintiffs proffering their injuries in public,
+witnesses for and against us,
+of course, we would be the defendants
Thus, when the pastor proclaims, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven,” we are very relieved that in God’s courtroom that we will declared innocent. But, we are vaguely uneasy; maybe we really did something that we shouldn’t have; God has just forgiven us so we don’t have to go through all the trouble of a trial. The problem with seeing forgiveness as an American legal process is that we are freed from punishment but not restored to a joyful relationship with one another or with God.
The church is not a courtroom where the guilty are charged and the innocent are exonerated. If the courtroom is the model, then we just walk away when the sentence is read out. There isn’t anything more. But, I assure you that God is not through with us just because the verdict has been read.
2. The other way we like to look at the problems of the world is *illness*. Sin is a sickness that can be and must be cured. You might have to take some bad-tasting medicine, but you know that it will make you feel better.
Churches in the illness model would be like clinics where sinners and those infected with their sin could get treatment. Soon enough, everything will be cured and everyone will be healthy again.
Just the same, the church is not a hospital where sin is only a sickness that needs to be cured. If illness is the model, then sin is just something we need to get over. And once we are over it, then we are free to go out with no further restraint beyond a tender, *“Be careful out there!”* But, God is not finished when sin is cured.
3. The whole reason for speaking of sin and forgiveness is to give voice to the invitation of God. God’s invitation is that we return and live before God again:
+as a prodigal, useless son to his father, is welcomed home;
+as a self-righteous older brother is invited inside to join the welcome home party;
+as a woman reaching out for relief from the bleeding that has sapped her strength for 12 years finds healing;
+as a disciple who denied his loyalty to Jesus at the moment of his greatest need, is restored and given a great new commission;
+as a woman caught in the act of adultery is set free to live and sent out to sin no more.
To hear Jesus say, “You are forgiven is to be invited to walk with Jesus on the road of life as a companion and friend.
4. Clearly, this authority is given to the church in the scripture that we read this morning from John 20. Jesus has returned to his disciples on the day of Resurrection. As he speaks to them, he bestows the Holy Spirit on them. Then, he gives them this amazing authority:
23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them;
if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
This is clearly a task reserved for God. And in this remarkable passage, Jesus has presented this authority to his disciples and now to us.
5. That this is *authority* is shown in the second part: “**If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.**” In other words, you and I, or *we as the congregation*, do not have this forgiveness dragged out of us. No one can mug us for it. We have the authority to offer it or withhold it; it is ours to give or deny. To get specific:
+The battered wife is not required by God to forgive her abusive husband and go back to be beaten again.
+The victim of abuse is not denied the right to protect himself or herself.
+Society has the authority to require restitution or even punishment of criminals as the path to restoration.
We have been given the authority to offer or withhold forgiveness.
The point here is that we are given the authority to restore wrong-doers of every kind *back to the community*. This has many forms.
+It may be as simple as a tearful apology and the acceptance of that apology.
+It may be as complicated as working with our insurance company to fix the other guy’s car in that fender-bender we had last week.
+It may be as serious as legal charges, court, and even jail-time.
The purpose of each of these is *restoration* as much as possible to relationship and community.
[IV.] III. But, now that we have talked about sin and forgiveness, there is one further matter that we must consider. Who are we to proclaim the forgiveness of God? In the act of confession and absolution in communion, the pastor pronounces forgiveness in the name of Jesus Christ; then, the congregation responds by pronouncing that same forgiveness. This is the moment that has pulled me up short in our communion services over the past several months. We have taken into our human hands the forgiveness of God. Who are we to make such a holy claim? I am struck that at the moment of absolution, when we pronounce Christ’s forgiveness to one another, we stand on holy ground.
[Exodus 3:1-6] Remember the day Moses met God at the burning bush:
**1 Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Median; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.
3 Then Moses said, "I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up."
4 When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!"
And he said, "Here I am."
5 Then he said, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." 6 He said further, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob."
And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God**.
Like Moses encountering God at the burning bush, we stand on holy ground when we pronounce the forgiveness of Christ at the breaking of the bread. We take holy things into our ordinary hands; it is the honor from God which we cannot possibly deserve. //
The Savior Jesus sent me to tell you: “The table is set; come on to dinner.”
1. Tinnen, Pamela, “Knowing Your Name,”
2. Taylor, Barbara Brown. Speaking of Sin, p. 77.