God’s grace is something that all of us struggle with sooner or later. Either we can’t fully believe that God has forgiven us for that porn binge we had last night, every night of the week or we struggle with the idea that God loves people who carry out some of the worst atrocities in the world….and Arsenal supporters.
We like the idea of justice and for those who deserve it, to get their just desserts. Yet, sometimes when we focus so much on other people, we fail to see the own ways we reach the depths of pain and hurt in how we treat other people. Maybe not as public as some, and maybe not as illegal but in many ways more personal and more damaging.
At the crux of this is our inability to understand how God can be so forgiving and yet people who are forgiven can carry on and on to cause pain in the lives of themselves and others. Our human understanding of justice is that you can have a few chances but after a while, enough is enough.
Otherwise you are just abusing God’s love right?
In Romans 6, Paul answers this question quite firmly. If you continue to screw up over and over, just because you know you can get a cosmic get out of jail free card immediately after, you have missed the point of Grace.
But, I would argue that the same goes if you don’t keep accepting God’s grace. You keep fucking things up but yet no matter how often you do, or how worse it gets or how much chaos you create, there is always Grace for you.
God’s ways our truly beyond our understanding.
Is doing crap on purpose because we know there is a safety cushion under us, a healthy and hopeful place for you to live in and for others? Hell no. Fortunately for us though, it doesn’t make it any less true.
There is a story in the Bible that perfectly sums up all this in a nice neat nutshell. Kind of.
The story goes that Jesus was out and about, minding his own business like He did (ehh), when a group of Pharisees brought to Him a woman who had been caught in adultery.
This group of overtly religious folk were so disgusted at the woman that they were ready to carry out the normal punishment of stoning by death (which by the way, is right there in the Bible along with a whole load of other ‘that’s a tad of an overreaction ain’t it?’ punishments. And we are the first to question what the Qur’an has to say about some stuff…worth thinking about).
They asked Jesus what the appropriate response should be, knowing full well that anything short of Jesus yelling, “Stone her, STONE HER” would have been blasphemous and would have caught Jesus out. Who let’s not forget made some pretty big claims about being better than the Law.
And this, was the Pharisees first mistake.
Jesus had been causing all sorts of trouble for the Pharisees by this point and they were worried and scared and this “Jewish Rabbi” had appeared, contradicting everything they had trusted their power and control in.
He had to be stopped. So they made several attempts to catch him out. Each one failing more spectacularly than the last (A bit like the Transformer movies).
The Pharisees downfall wasn’t that they were overly concerned with how people lived. It was that in their pious attempts they exposed their own weaknesses and fuck ups. They weren’t particularly interested in whether this woman was guilty or not. They were just interested in whether they could use her to trip Jesus up.
(Think of how a lot of media took exception to Obama’s latte salute last week. They weren’t really outraged for any ‘disrespect’ shown to the US military, they just hate the President’s guts. A point spectacularly made by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show).
So Jesus does what anyone would do in this situation and starts writing in the dirt on the ground. (Funnily enough, later Jesus uses the dirt from the ground to heal a man’s blindness. Just a coincidence or is Jesus showing us something beautiful about his willingness to get a bit messy and meet us in our grimiest places?)
No one knows for sure what He wrote but some think that maybe he began writing the sins of the men who had accused the woman. This might make sense as his writing on the ground coincided with his invitation to the men who had never sinned to take the first shot.
But…each of them began to slowly walk away. They were left embarrassed and defeated.
Can I get a Booyah?!
Now at this point in the story my guess is that many of you will be like me and have imagined Jesus words to the woman of “Go now, and leave your life of sin” as sounding more like, “As for you, scram and don’t let me catch you fornicating here again alright?!”
The reason for this is because generally we ignore the part before, where Jesus reminds the woman that since the other guys have ran off and there is no one left to condemn her. There was probably a bunch of people around who had observed the whole spectacle but despite that, Jesus did what He does best and makes the woman feel like there are only two people left in the world. Her and Jesus.
And then He speak the words that will transform her and our lives- “I do not condemn you”.
No sinner’s prayer, no “as long as you don’t sin again”, no conditions.
Jesus doesn’t even seem to care about whether the woman is guilty or not. He doesn’t address what she did or didn’t do at all. It’s almost as if there is something bigger and far more radical going on here than simply making sure we don’t sin anymore. Jesus seems to be saying that there is more to forgiveness than what you do. Jesus doesn’t require the woman to give him a detailed plan on how she is going to get her life together. Against everything we know about justice, Jesus says, it doesn’t matter what you do, it will never matter.
This goes in the face of everything that was commonly known in the Jewish world (and a lot of our churches too if we’re honest) about how you were made right with God. You get your life sorted then maybe we can talk.
But not this woman. Not her or us.
How often though do we act as if the order of Jesus words were reversed?
This is why this particular passage is so often read in a way that makes it extremely difficult to offer forgiveness to ourselves and others.
Do our actions have consequences? Every single day. But never enough for our story to be finished. This is the new life that Jesus invites the woman and consequently each of us to carry on every day.
Radical, life transforming and liberating ideas about what our lives can look like as long as we get the order correct. Putting forgiveness and restoration in it’s place.
Because trying not to sin causes us to worry, to constantly wonder whether we have done enough.
But Grace and forgiveness, that’s something else entirely. That offers peace, hope, and a new way of thinking about ourselves.
It’s why, even two thousand odd years later these words and ideas continue to liberate and breathe life back into our bones.
Because when we’re full of the life and peace that Jesus offers us here, nothing can break them.
Not even rocks.