The forgiving church

Good morning, Friends!

I’ve got something a little unusual for you this morning.

For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been talking about the nature and the purpose of the church. We talked one Sunday about how nice it would be, if people felt free to speak up and try some new things here. A lot of people spoke up in response, and we’re actually putting a lot of those ideas to work already.

Then one Sunday, we talked about how Springfield needs to be an encouraging church – a place where people feel lifted up and helped. Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. . .”

Then last Sunday, we talked about being a light-bringing church, a place where people come here because they feel God’s light and love just streaming out from every door and window.

Do you see what I’m trying to do here? I want us to be a special kind of church. I want us to be the best church we can possibly be, and I want us to be based on the things that Jesus taught and that Jesus calls us to.

A free and open-minded church, a church where change can happen. An encouraging church. A light-bringing church. Today, I want to look at what it would really be like for us to be a church where forgiveness and mercy are at the center of who we are.

We know we’re supposed to forgive people. But we may not know how hard that can be.

Our scripture this morning is from the gospel of John. And it’s one which was incredibly controversial back then, and it still is. Today’s reading is so controversial, that it was completely left out of many editions of the Bible.

I remember standing up one Sunday, the first year I was a pastor. I opened the big pulpit Bible, opened it up to John chapter 8, and it wasn’t there. I mean, the whole chapter literally wasn’t there! I quickly turned the pages back and forth. Everyone was looking at me like I was crazy. It wasn’t there!

I thought I was going to have to run back to my study and bring the Bible from my desk, and show people that their Scripture for that day really was in the Bible.

Then I looked down at the bottom of the page, and there it was, in teeny print, down in the footnotes, and it said: “This passage is not included in all editions of the gospel.” If you look at your pew Bibles today, at John chapter 8, there’s a warning that many Bibles don’t have this section we’re about to read.

It was too scandalous for a lot of people in the early church. It’s still too scandalous for a lot of people today. But I guess we’d better read it, and find out what all the fuss is about.

Early in the morning Jesus came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them.

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”

They said this to test Jesus, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground the sins of each of them.

When they kept on questioning him, Jesus straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground the sins of each one of them.

When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
She said, “No one, Lord.”

And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

John 8:2-11

The very first question people always ask me is, every time I tell this story is,“Where’s the man? What about the man – wasn’t he caught, too?” I mean, it takes two to tango. The woman was caught in the act, but why wasn’t the man also brought to Jesus for judgment?

The short answer is, we don’t know. But not bringing the guy in does seem to indicate there’s something else going on here. They weren’t looking for justice – they were trying to test Jesus.

Jesus was against adultery. Adultery wasn’t something Jesus condoned. In one of the other gospels, Jesus said that you could commit adultery in our heart, even without doing anything physical, and he said that adultery in our heart was just as bad as the real thing.

There’s no mention of the circumstances – did it happen in town or out in the country side, did she struggle, did she cry out for someone to come help. Almost certainly, the woman didn’t have a whole lot of power in the situation.

The penalty for adultery was death under Jewish law. It probably wasn’t enforced all that often, or stonings would have been a lot more common. The penalty probably would have been pretty one-sided, with the woman being thrown out of the house, cut off from her family, shamed and made to live on the street, while the man probably got away with no punishment at all.

There’s a very real possibility they were trying to trap Jesus, by forcing him to choose a harsh penalty and show him up for a fake – all that talk about “love one another” and “forgive seventy times seven” really wouldn’t hold up when you had a woman who couldn’t fight back and a mob that was willing to kill her and call it God’s justice.

A lot of people today would say that Jesus “hated sin, but loved the sinner”. In a way this story is an example of that.

But the story really changes when it says that Jesus “bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground the sins of each of them”. Notice that he didn’t say a word the whole time. It doesn’t say that he even looked anyone in the face.

But it’s clear that Jesus either knew these people by reputation, or else he saw straight into their hearts, and he saw the things that each of them had done.

He might have written down things like:

  • Hmm. Cheated his neighbor in the market place
  • Didn’t leave any grain uncut in the corners of his field, so that the poor widows could have something to eat
  • Pretended to give sacrificially to God, but in reality gave as little as possible
  • Committed adultery themselves but didn’t get caught

Whatever it was that Jesus wrote, Jesus knew what each of them had done, and they knew that he knew. Without saying one word out loud, Jesus wrote those crimes in the dirt where everyone there could see them. In effect, he was saying, “I KNOW what YOU have done. And yet you’re here, expecting this woman to be punished for what she did?”

It wasn’t just “hate the sin, love the sinner”, but “hate the sin, hate the hypocrisy”. Neither hate the sinner, nor excuse the sinner – but show that God knew what every one of them had done, and stop pretending that only she was bad and all the rest of them were good.

As I said, this story was left out of a lot of copies of the gospel, and it’s still not printed in some copies of the Bible to this day.

Even though this story tells a hard truth about how human beings treat each other, and even though this story tells an awesome and glorious truth about how Jesus treats us, a lot of Christian leaders couldn’t stand the thought that this story might be publicly shared and held up as a permanent and eternal truth that all Christians need to follow.

Jesus didn’t punish the woman himself. And he didn’t let the crowd to punish her. It’s very likely that if it came to violence, Jesus might have physically shielded her with his own body.

We always say that Jesus “carried our sins” and “died for our sins” and that he “took on himself the punishment that the whole human race deserved”. But do we think about that that means? It means that Jesus would have died for the sake of this woman, even if she was completely guilty, even if legally she deserved to be punished.

We can’t get it through our heads that what Jesus really wants is for people to be healed, and for sinners to be completely restored. We want to be the judge and the jury, rather than looking into our own hearts and seeing our own hypocrisy. We want to be right, not righteous. We want God’s mercy for ourselves, and we want to decide what other people deserve.

Do you remember what happens at the end of the story? It says that Jesus looked up from the dirt, and he saw that the crowd had all left – “they all went home, beginning with the eldest”. Then he turned and said to the woman, “Go, and sin no more.”

You get the feeling that everybody there that day was stunned, when they really understood what God’s mercy and love were all about. You kind of wonder if people there were ashamed, or did people leave that place and go out and tell everyone they knew what had happened?

Did people say for the rest of their lives, “I can’t judge or punish anybody any more”? Can you imagine other people coming to that place as pilgrims and asking “Were you there that day, when Jesus saw right into everyone’s hearts, and refused to punish that woman? What can you tell me about it? How has it changed your life?”

Could our church be that kind of a place of forgiveness and mercy, where we could celebrate a story like this? You’ve heard people say that “it takes a village to raise a child.” It also takes a village, or a whole church, to raise a Christian.

Could we be the kind of a church that lets God’s love and mercy shine out like a light to the rest of the city, to the rest of the world? Can we say, “This is how God really works, this is how God worked with us, with me, with everyone here?”

Do we dare to keep this story in our Bible? Do we dare to be the people in today’s good news? I don’t know. But I hope so. I want this story in my Bible. I don’t want to hide it or tear it out.

Remember, this story doesn’t say that sin isn’t wrong. It doesn’t say that good is bad, or that bad is good.

It says that Jesus knows our hearts. It says that God’s mercy is even greater than God’s justice. If we want to be Christians, our job isn’t to point the finger or throw the first stone. Our job is to say, “Go home, and sin no more.”

I don’t want our church to be a place where people are scolded or punished. I want our church to be a place where people are healed, where we welcome people who have been healed and found that they’re forgiven.

When we go home today, are we going to dare to tell this story again to other people? Are we going to say, “This is my faith, this story is part of my Bible”? Are we going to say, “This story makes me embarrassed,” or are we going to say, “This story makes me feel humble, but I’m glad that I heard it, and I want to live this way?”

I don’t want our church to be a place that lifts up sin, and says that anything we do is all right. But I do want our church to be a place that lifts up mercy, a place where we know that Jesus sees all our hearts, and forgives us, where Jesus sends us out to share that mercy with everyone we meet.

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