Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Shortly after college, I met a guy who worked for Campus Crusade for Christ in Oregon. I was in the midst of questioning my faith, and he seemed to have answers to all my questions. He was quite certain about faith and why he believed what he believed. Actually, he was a bit arrogant about it all—but the certainty was enticing. If I just read enough books and studied enough and learned how to trap those who argued with me into their own faulty logic, I would stand solid. I would stand solid in my own understanding.
One of the things that is a keystone for Christian groups such a Cru is the sinner’s prayer. Once you come to an understanding of your sinfulness and unworthiness, you pray this prayer, accept Christ into your heart, and then you are saved. The prayer goes something like:
Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior. In Your Name. Amen
In essence, you need to admit that you’re a sinner—and then you can be righteous.
This past week in Catechism, we discussed what it means to be totally saint and totally sinner at the same time. Luther used the Latin phrase: simul justus et peccator. And we took a look at this passage that we heard today. Jesus tells the parable about a Pharisee—righteous by all religious standards. He really did do what was expected. He tithed, he fasted, he followed the rules. There’s nothing wrong with that!
But he also knew that he was capable of following all the rules, and trusted in his success rather than trusting in God’s mercy. On the other hand, there was this tax collector—a traitor to his people, he robbed the poor and gave to the rich and kept a bunch for himself, too. When he went to the temple to pray, he also knew exactly where he belonged—on the outside. He knew he had no right to look up to God. He knew what he was, and all he could pray was “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”
Sounds an awful lot like the sinner’s prayer. Know your place and call on God’s mercy. And then you will be justified. And justified, you can enter the Temple. But once you know you belong inside the Temple, there’s the distinct possibility that you end up like the Pharisee—trusting in what you’ve done, the prayer you’ve said, your acceptance of God’s mercy.
It’s a vicious circle—moving from outside to inside and back again—trying to figure out your place. You know, there are two kinds of people in this world, but in the divine mystery of God, we aren’t divided between righteous and sinner. Rather, we are both saint and sinner—equally and completely—at the same time. We both belong in the Temple and belong outside the Temple at the same time.
But it’s so hard for us to believe—to trust. We trust in walls. We trust in locks. We trust in bars—to keep in the people that society considers bad and to keep safe the people we call good. We trust in personal weapons to protect us from ‘those people’, whoever those people are. We trust in religious systems that identify who can come to the table and who can’t based on what we think we know; who can preach from the pulpit and who can’t, based on gender or sexual orientation; who can sit with us in worship and who can’t, based on how they look, where they come from, or what they wear.
Yep, there’s two kinds of people in this world. And the line between them isn’t so clear—we are both. We are both the Pharisee and the tax collector. We are both the self-righteous and the unworthy. We are both the insiders and the outsiders. We are both the beloved and the despised.
But we tend to operate as if we only believe one or the other at a time. When we believe we can only be the sinful tax collector, we live in shame. We hurt other people, trying to make our way up. Or we hurt ourselves out of shame and guilt. We don’t think life can be any different—that we can be any different. It is a place of hopelessness. The good news is, in a place of hopelessness, we can rely solely on God’s mercy for justification.
When we believe we are righteous, we live in the midst of comparisons and disappointments. No one can live up to our standards. No one is good enough. No one is smart enough. No one can accomplish enough—including ourselves, when we are telling the truth. No matter how many rules we follow, we inwardly despise ourselves most of all. But outwardly, we do our level best to be better, to see ourselves as better than others.
We had parent-teacher conferences not long ago, and Seth’s kindergarten teacher chose to gather parents in small groups rather than individually. Together we learned her process for teaching how to sound out words, how to add using 5-groups, and what the kids are learning about sentence structure. We got to see some writing samples that show the large scope of how kids are progressing at different rates. It was affirming and interesting.
Afterwards, a mom who was in our group asked what I thought about that approach. I said it was fine. I mean, Seth is one of the more advanced kids. I’m proud—and relieved. But her daughter has a learning disability and struggles in the class. This mom felt a little ashamed in the group as she looked at the writing samples, recognizing her daughter’s as the least developed.
These are just kids. They develop differently. Their minds are different, their bodies are different, their homes are different. But we compare them, nonetheless. We compare them and use them as symbols of whether or not we are good parents—as indicators of our success. We do this in the Church—thinking that somehow, larger numbers in attendance mean that we’ve achieved something someone else hasn’t. Which means that dwindling numbers must mean we’ve failed.
We do this as a country—automatically assuming that equal rights means equal access; condemning whole communities because of ethnicity, education level, geographic location, or even job descriptions. Do we not hold in higher esteem doctors over coal miners, college graduates over high school drop-outs, city-folks over hill-billies, long-time citizens over immigrants?
These comparisons not only hurt others—but they diminish our own identities. We find ourselves on an unending cycle between being beloved and unlovable, justified and unworthy, saint and sinner. Back and forth, over and over again we go.
That is, until Jesus breaks the cycle. There are two kinds of people in this world—the ones who divide humanity into two kinds of people and the ones who don’t. When Jesus died on the cross, Luke says that the Temple curtain was torn in half. The curtain that separated humanity from the presence of God—that separated righteous from sinful—that curtain was eliminated. The division was taken out, the wall torn down, the doors unlocked, the bars torn out.
Not only is there nothing that separates us from the love of God, but there is truly nothing that separates us from one another. And when we can’t find rest between our identity as saint and sinner, Jesus stops the spinning gerbil wheel we find ourselves on and says simply this:
“You are a Child of God.”
That’s it. That’s all there is. Everything else is our response to this Good News! But remember, the Good News cuts both ways—not only are YOU are Child of God, so is the neighbor you secretly envy and the neighbor you secretly hate. Living as a Child of God, our response is to see one another as completely sinful and completely justified Children of God, as well.
So, as you go about your week, I challenge you. When you find yourself being critical of your own faults and failings, find a mirror and remind yourself: You are a Child of God. And when you find yourself despising another, being critical of their faults and failings, go to them and tell them: You are a Child of God.
We all need to hear it—especially when we’re feeling particularly self-righteous and when we’re feeling particularly unworthy.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church