As I’ve said to many people, I’m in the forgiveness business. Although I don’t ever take it lightly, I don’t always approach my ability to pronounce absolution of sin with as much gravitas as I should. To be honest, it really isn’t that hard at all. As you might imagine, I pretty much just get up in front of the congregation and read the words from the prayer book, often accompanying them with a well-rehearsed, cruciform wave of the hand. Even though I’ve been ordained for more than five years now, I’m still not 100% sure how absolution happens. Sure, I’ve been given the authority to pronounce absolution of sins, but I don’t really understand what role I (as me rather than as a priest of the church standing in the person of Christ) play in that.
Ultimately, I think forgiveness has as much to do with our ability to receive its assurance as it does with God’s desire to forgive. Although we often forget it, we believe in a God who is always forgiving. His nature is to love. And, because God is impassible (see other blog posts on that subject), he isn’t affected by our sin. He just forgives. Always. Without hesitation. In that regard, we are forgiven. That’s where our relationship with God starts. The only variable in the equation is whether we can believe that fact.
So which is easier—to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Get up and walk.” Well, saying either is pretty easy to do, but I have no intention of walking up to people with any sort of physical ailment or disability and saying, “You’re healed. Get up.” Just saying it doesn’t make it happen. But, then again, I’m not in the physical healing business. There may be other priests who are, and I’m eager to pray along with someone for physical healing, but I’m much better at assuring people of God’s love than I am at performing a physical healing. Doctors, surgeons, nurses, physical therapists, and the like are able to do what most of us would identify as miraculous—explicable by modern medicine, perhaps, but jaw-droppingly amazing all the same. For them, I’m guessing it’s easier to say to a paralytic, “Get up and walk,” than it is to say, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Perhaps the real question is which is easier to hear? When I meet with someone whose entire life is burdened by guilt and I say to that person—whether in a sacramental way or a conversational way—“God forgives you,” it doesn’t often make a big difference. Perhaps, after hearing the message of grace and forgiveness over and over someone might yield enough of their heart to God that divine forgiveness might become a reality. But, even before someone internalizes absolution, forgiveness is already given. God didn’t send his son to die for the righteous. God’s forgiveness isn’t for people who don’t need it. The reality, however, is that despite God’s prevenient absolution I may be trapped in my sins until that grace becomes real. Is damnation anything other than living a life uncertain of God’s love?
I am no more able to forgive sins than I am able to restore perambulation to a paralytic. As the crowd in the gospel lesson rightly murmurs, “Who is able to forgive sins but God alone?” But God has given the church and its ministers the authority to assure God’s people that they are forgiven. In my experience, there’s no one magic thing that I can do to make that real in a person’s life. Instead, it breaks into our consciousness and into our souls in different ways—often in small, almost-imperceptible ways.
How, then, can I hear and believe that I am forgiven? Sometimes it may very well be easier for a paralytic to hear, “Get up and walk,” than it is for a person burdened by a life of sin to hear, “You are forgiven.” For me it starts in this gospel lesson with a question: which is easier? It starts with acknowledging that the answer isn’t as easy as I might initially think. I shouldn’t presume that forgiveness is always received without effort. Honestly, sometimes it’s hard to believe that God loves even me. Instead, I should be honest about those things that are making it hard for me to trust God’s forgiveness and see whether God might work through them to make his love real to me.