Sunday we will continue our worship series, Credo: What Christians Believe and Why. It’s Mother’s Day, so we will turn our attention to how the nature of God’s love is mirrored for us in the unconditional love of a truly loving parent. As part of the Apostles’ Creed, we say, “We believe in the forgiveness of sins,” but what does that really mean?
The forgiveness of sins has much more to do with God’s nature than it does with ours. As the psalmist expresses so eloquently in Psalms 108:4, “. . . your steadfast love is higher than the heavens, and your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.”
This not to say, however, that we have no part to play. We do.
So we say, “We believe in the forgiveness of sins” — and sometimes we even mean it — but at its deepest level, how does our belief in the forgiveness of sins really play out in our lives?
When we repeat this affirmation, which is possibly one of the most powerful, transforming aspects of our faith, how does that belief impact us personally? How do we live into this belief?
Once in Jesus’ ministry, when he was teaching in a house in Capernaum, so many people had gathered that there wasn’t room for one more person. No one, in fact, could even get near the door.
Then four more people arrived, and they were carrying a friend who was paralyzed. They immediately realized that they weren’t going to be able to get through the crowd and into the house where Jesus was, so, undeterred, they climbed up onto the roof and tore a hole in it. Then they dragged the mat that held their paralyzed friend up onto the roof with them and lowered him and his mat down into the room below.
When Jesus saw their faith and determination, he said to the man, “Child, your sins are forgiven. Take up your mat and walk.”
And then the man got up and walked, right out in front of everyone who was gathered there. Someone standing nearby, quick to criticize, said that Jesus was insulting God, because only God can forgive sins.
So, what does this story have to do with forgiveness — and the nature of God?
It seems that the man who was paralyzed was actually paralyzed by his own feelings of guilt. Over what, we don’t know, but somehow Jesus knew that forgiving the man’s sins would allow him to get up and to move forward — both literally and metaphorically.
Now of course, while there have been extremely rare cases (5 in 100,000 people) of something called “conversion disorder,” where actual, physical paralysis occurs due to guilt, much more common is becoming emotionally paralyzed by feelings of guilt. This is when we find ourselves stuck in the past, burdened by guilt that has morphed into shame to the point that we are completely unable to move forward. We are stuck. Paralyzed by guilt.
There is a story I heard once about a young man, a soldier during World War II. Hal Boyle, who was a war reporter at the time, wrote in the New York Times of a visit to an army field hospital where doctors pointed Hal toward their “most interesting case at the moment.” Lying there on a cot in a room filled with wounded soldiers, each with a different story, and most with blood-stained white bandages, was the soldier the doctors found “interesting.” Boyle described the patient as “a thin young dark-eyed private,” who “looked more like a violin student than a soldier.” He wore no bandages, but was unmistakably wounded in some way. After a brief introductory chat with Boyle, the young man told his story.
He had been doing the routine nightly patrol with several other American soldiers when they were surprised by Nazi troops. A skirmish ensued, and some members of the American patrol were killed while others scattered. When the young private found himself alone, face to face with two German soldiers, closing in fast. With no time to take aim and fire his rifle, the young American soldier did what he had been trained to do in such rare and dire situations. He lunged forward, killing the first Nazi soldier instantly with the bayonet on the end of his gun. Then he whirled around and just as the second Nazi was about to fire his gun, he thrust the bayonet yet again, burying it to the hilt. “I’ll never forget his face,” the young soldier told Boyle. “He lay there on the ground, crying and calling for his mother until he died.”
The young private, although not visibly injured at all in this exchange, was there in the hospital because his right arm, the one that had controlled the bayonet, “wouldn’t work.” The doctors told Boyle that the boy, who came from a strong religious upbringing, was suffering from what they called “hysterical paralysis.” Because he had violated one of the strongest commandments, “Thou shalt not kill,” his mind had transferred the blame to his offending right arm, literally paralyzing it with his feelings of guilt.”
While the circumstances of the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof to encounter Jesus is unclear — Perhaps Jesus knew something of his situation. Capernaum was, after all, Jesus’ home base in Galilee. Maybe he knew the young man or something of his situation. Regardless, this story illustrates the power of forgiveness to heal, “to reconcile and make new,” in the words from the United Church of Canada that expands this statement of belief a little differently.
When we proclaim our belief in the forgiveness of sins, we are saying that because of God’s grace no matter who we are or what we’ve done, new beginnings, new life, fresh starts, and second chances are always there for us, even when we think these things are impossible.
Is there something in your own life that you think might be unforgiveable? Has guilt over something ever kept you from moving forward?
I look forward to exploring these questions — and the meaning of this forgiveness of sins — with you this Sunday in the Sanctuary.
Grace and Peace,
Dr. Tim Bruster