Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Sickness and Guilt

If you weren't at Divine Service this past Sunday at St. John you missed something special. We had a guest preacher. Dr. Martin Luther (of blessed memory) preached to us a sermon which he once preached to his own parish some five hundred years ago. I am told that it was well received, both then and now.

Of course, this visit from the past was somewhat unplanned. I can only imagine the chagrin our Head Deacon, Steve Howarth, must have felt upon receiving a call from Meridith a little after 8 am to say those somewhat ostentatious words, “Pastor's sick.”

Yes. I do get sick...and apparently it can happen on weekends. And I'm still sick. The doctor believes it is a viral infection. It's located in my throat which has therein caused an “ulcer” (a fancy way of saying that it hurts like the dickens). He's got me on two types of medication (for what good it will do) as the only thing to do with viral infections is stay hydrated and wait them out. The good news is, it looks like I'm turning the corner. So says he: a viral infection takes about two weeks, including both build up and recovery, concentrating on about four days of intensely “not feeling good,” after which one is most likely no longer contagious. (It all seems very imprecise to me.) Nevertheless, what seemed a light sore throat last Thursday had blossomed into feverless fever pains Saturday night and was a raging “I'd feel better dead” Sunday morning should by now be “about” be on its way out. And though it still truly hurts, I do feel better today.

So...there you go. “The scoop.”

Perhaps the most amazing thing to me in this experience has been the amount of guilt I'm still able to bring to the plate. Like any good Lutheran, I carry a firm amount of guilt in general. If I haven't actually done anything to feel guilty about, you can bet I'll find a way to convince myself that I should feel guilty anyway. This in itself is a little bit ironic as, being a Lutheran, I also believe I have the purest and most free source of “anit-guilt” in the universe. I have Holy Absolution, the forgiveness of sins given for Christ's sake, both in Word and in the Sacraments. Why then the guilt? How do I manage to actually feel ashamed of not distributing Holy Communion when I know full well that to do so would almost certainly have passed on my virus to the rest of you? What a strange and flustering predicament!

There is not enough time in this little letter to delve into the great depths of “Justification,” but the long and short of it is that Christianity is simply too good to be true. And by Christianity I don't mean those moral realities we share with most other religions – I don't even mean the Ten Commandments. I mean the Gospel – that Jesus died for you – is too good to be true. It's downright hard to believe, even if you believe it! That Christianity is true and that you and I are Christians because (to some extent) we do believe doesn't make it any easier to believe. Quite technically, it's just not in our nature.

So, like the good sinners we are, we latch onto what is our preferred method of “justifying” ourselves. Having seen what sinners we are, we get hard to work trying to stop it. After all, that's only what Jesus would want, isn't it? But sure as the sun will shine, it doesn't take long before our newly awakened conscience pauses to take a survey of our progress, and, with a newly awakened honestly, is forced to admit that it looks pretty dismal. Whereas before we were Christians we were always failures at justifying ourselves, now that we are Christians the only thing that has changed is that we know it too.

We're not going to stop trying to justify ourselves. The “old Adam” in us clings to us and will never let our selfish tendencies go. But even that won't stop Jesus. Every time we hear about him – every time we receive Holy Absolution of the Sacrament of the Altar – all that guilt we carry around day by day, looking for someplace to dump it – all of it is taken away, again. It's too good to be true. It's unbelievable. The miracle of our salvation in Christ is that we're here because we believe it, not by our own reason or strength, but by the Holy Spirit who has called us by this very, unbelievable Gospel.

We will always have a long way to go in getting comfortable with our justification by grace alone – a whole lifetime. Yet the promise is that this justification is good enough, free enough, perfect enough, so great that even our own guilt and inability to believe it won't stop it from making believers out of us after all. Yes, I should have been at Church on Sunday, because, yes, I should have been healthy. The fact that I get sick is only one more proof that I am, after all, a sinner. But the reason I'm also a Christian is because no matter how great a sinner I might be, Jesus is an even greater Savior. He even pulled in a vacancy Pastor who'd been dead for five hundred years just to make sure you weren't asleep in the pews.

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