To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” – Luke 18:9-14
On my way to church this morning, I was contemplating my sinfulness, and contemplating how I seem to do this regularly as I drive to church. It’s not intentional, I just can’t seem to avoid it. It is an interesting phenomenon – by the time I’m half-way there (my drive is usually about 20 minutes), I have become aware of a number of my weaknesses, shortfalls, issues and, yes, sins. I’m sure I’m not aware of all of them, but that would probably be too much for me to handle.
I’m not talking about dealing with guilt feelings; this is not a necessarily emotional experience. No matter what state of mind I am in when I leave the house, by the time I arrive at the church, I am totally in touch with the fact that I am indeed a sinner, and that I depend wholly on grace.
Prior to the last few months, I don’t recall ever having this frame of mind while going to church. In the past, if I thought about it at all, I went to church as a “saint saved by grace” rather than a “sinner saved by grace.” I would walk in knowing everything was cool, I would groove to the worship, sit through the sermon, talk to friends and go home often not remembering what the sermon was about. In other words, I would leave as unaware as I went in, perhaps not that much unlike the Pharisee in the parable.
The Church as Creation of the Gospel
Over the last year or two, I have come to believe that the church does not exist as merely a gathering of the saints – a “King’s kids” family reunion, as it were. The Church is truly created by the Gospel: It is first and foremost a gathering of sinners – those who are “being saved” (1 Cor. 1:18). We are attracted not by the music or the preaching or the aesthetics of the building but as sinners we are attracted by the Gospel; for without the centrality of the Cross the rest is without substance.
Without an awareness of my need for grace, the proclamation by the Priest that
“Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins
through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all
goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you
in eternal life” (Book of Common Prayer)
or its equivalent would not have any meaning, and neither would the Eucharist (communion).
So, this was what I was thinking about as I drove to church this morning. Whether my recent Sunday morning sin-awareness is a gift from God, an attack from Satan or perhaps due to the fact I am now knowledgeable about the liturgy, it serves the same purpose, to prepare me to worship. Definitely counter-intuitive.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the sermon (based on 2 Samuel 11, the David & Bathsheba incident) was about sin and the Gospel; specifically, our need for a personal awareness of our sinfulness. It was the first sermon I’ve taken notes on in years. Here are some of the key quotes:
- The Gospel is never about someone else; the Gospel is always about you (me). Yes, it’s about God, but what he meant was that a non-personal Gospel is no gospel at all.
- David’s admission, “I have sinned before God” is full of hope, because it is full of God. Again, awareness of our sin brings hope for forgiveness. Without a personal awareness of our sin, the Gospel doesn’t become personal, either. An intellectual awareness that “all have sinned” does us no good.
- Sin doesn’t take much imagination. No one’s sin is all that interesting- there’s nothing new under the sun. However, forgiveness – God’s mercy – is new every morning. Whatever we think about our sin, it’s not all that exciting to God. However, God is very creative in showing ways to forgive us and bring redemption. (Romans 5:20)
As I began this post, I was aware that a commentary on Luke 18 has the potential of putting me in the Pharisee’s role; conceivably even an awareness of sin can make oneself proud. Hopefully I’ve avoided doing this. I have just started meditating on this issue, so my thoughts are kind of random. However, this seems to fit in with Luther’s teaching on Law and Gospel, which very few non-Lutherans (or Lutherans, for that matter – seeing as I was raised Lutheran) understand, as well as his concept of “simultaneously saint and sinner.”
All I know is, I’m very, very appreciative of the Gospel.
Edwards of the Angry God? How so?
Be careful, gentlemen. You’re beginning to sound a bit like Jonathan Edwards.
“It’s better to walk into church feeling sinful and walk out forgiven than the other way around…”
As you say, Steve, it is a great thing… although I hadn’t really seen it that way until today.
It’s better to walk into church feeling sinful and walk out forgiven than the other way around, which is how some fundamentalist churches I’ve been to function!
Terrific post, Alden.
What a great thing to do, thinking of your sinfulness as you drive to church.
I usually do it when I’m in bed thinking about…everything.
We always get a good dose on Sunday morning, as well. In the scripture readings and in the sermon.
Nobody is left standing but Jesus. But then the sweet sound of the gospel and the life giving body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament raises us to new life again. And we are whole again. Refreshed and made new once again, by the one who is fully comitted to sinners.