Following Jesus looks more like, “My chains are gone; I’ve been set free” than, “Oh, no, what if I get caught!” And yet. We are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. So which is it? What’s the deal?
Would you please turn to your Service and see the name of the ritual with which we begin our time together: “The Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness.” Never mind. Go ahead and skip that. I’m sure we don’t need that anymore. Sin in such an Old Testament concept, don’t you think? Outdated. Old-fashioned. It’s obvious that the earliest followers of God were sinning all over the place. Look here, in Exodus chapter 32, when the people decided that Moses had deserted them and asked Aaron to make them a golden calf to worship.
Clearly, these people must have been first-class sinners. Olympic gold-medal winners. But we’re beyond all that now. We know so much better. Moving on. Sin has no power over us, no hold on our souls, we’re good. We’ve never worshiped a golden calf, or figured that maybe when we yield to temptation, we’re just giving Jesus another chance to forgive us. And … um …
Oh, wait. Sin is not, in fact, outdated. We come together, virtually and in person, each week as the people of God and say out loud, before God and before one another, that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. This is something that still has a significant hold on you and on me. And yet. Following Jesus is, “My chains are gone; I’ve been set free,” not, “Oh no! What if I get caught?”
So which is it?
Who here has ever worshiped a golden calf? Raise your hand. Yeah, me neither.
But I know there have been times when I have let my desire for something else come first. What about the times that I’ve closed my eyes and pretended to be sleeping because the person next to me on the plane looked like someone who was going to talk my ear off all the way to Atlanta? That was certainly not putting Christ first. It was not living out my relationship with God by being as Christ to my neighbor.
And neither were the times I’ve pretended not to be home to avoid the Jehovah’s Witnesses at my door.
The letters of John are sometimes called the “Little Johns” to distinguish them from the Holy Gospel according to Saint John. As best as we can tell, Saint John the Evangelist, who wrote the gospel, also wrote these letters.
For most of us, the only time we hear from First John is at a wedding: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God.”
And that’s wisdom that we each of us can never hear too often. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God.”
But if you’re Lutheran – specifically, if you’re part of the great Body of Christ known as the ELCA Lutheran Church – you know a passage from First John chapter one:
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sin, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Once Martin Luther and his contemporaries had begun to find a new way of being the church, they looked at the Roman Catholic Church, which listed seven actions as being sacraments, and retained just two: the Sacrament of Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar, better known as Holy Communion.
They kept confession and forgiveness.
They did not classify it as a sacrament. The debates and discussions about whether to do that were long and, uh, vigorous.
But they kept confession and forgiveness. Only, instead of making it private, a conversation between priest and confessor, they brought it into the community of the church, the great Body of Christ, into the priesthood of all believers.
And that transforms it.
I appreciate both the straightforwardness of this order and the primacy of it: We begin worship with it. It’s our first act of our time together. You and I confess our sins before God and before one another.
We say that we are captive to sin: bound, hand, foot, and heart. Sin has power over you and me. It has control over our deeds and our words and our thoughts. Sin is not an outdated and abstract concept but a very real force and power. Not just for them, our ancestors, other people, but for us, all of us, joined in the Body of Christ, joined in the great cloud of witnesses. And yet: Following Jesus feels more like, “My chains are gone; I’ve been set free,” not, “Oh, no! What if I get caught?” So which is it?
John was writing to believers in Ephesus (as in, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians) sometime around the turn of the second century. By now, some people could have been third-generation Christians – and some could have been baptized just that week. And he wanted to make sure that each of them, and each of us, down through the centuries, hears this wisdom:
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
Bingo. There it is. The answer to why following Jesus is more like, “My chains are gone; I’ve been set free” and not like, “Oh, no! What if I get caught!” The answer to: Wait a second. Which one is it? The answer is: YES. The answer is: both, and.
Each week I look forward to the opportunity to confess, before God and in the presence of one another, my siblings in Christ, that I have sinned – and that God forgives me all my sins.
When Saint Paul, a generation after Jesus, writes about sin, he says: “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors” also sinned. Our ancestors. The people of Abraham, in covenant relationship with God, they are on our family tree – as are the Ephesians who received a letter from Paul and whose descendants received letters from John the Evangelist.
The Israelites worshiping the golden calf, their story is our story. The Romans, to whom Paul wrote before he even met, their story is our story. The ones who complained, the ones who strayed – that’s our story too. We are captive to sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. AND: “My chains are gone; I’ve been set free.”
Roughly ten years ago, a singer and songwriter named Chris Tomlin composed a variation on the old, favorite hymn “Amazing Grace.” He leaves the verses intact. He sings them as we sing them.
But here’s the chorus:
My chains are gone/I’ve been set free. My God, my Savior has ransomed me/ And like a flood His mercy rains/ Unending love/ Amazing grace.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. AND! If we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Unending love. Amazing grace.