Years ago, I heard a lecture on how the Church handled confession in the Middle Ages. Then, as now, I was nerdy enough to find the whole thing interesting in an abstract kind of way. But interesting though it was to me, the lecture on Medieval penitential systems didn’t particularly touch my heart. I was, therefore, astonished, when one of my classmates suddenly burst into tears. Clearly for her, the different approaches to confession touched her heart powerfully.
The professor was as surprised by her distress as I was. He asked her what was wrong. She responded that it was sad to think of God focusing on our sin, relating to us through our guilt or shame. I don’t remember what the professor said. I hope it was something to ease her burden, and she moved on.
But I have thought about her comment and that moment for the last thirty years. More than once, I have described it from this very spot.
Here is what I would say to my former classmate today. Guilt and shame are our issue, not God’s. What I mean is, God does NOT impose a sense of guilt or shame on us. God is NOT out to get us. As John tells us, “God did NOT send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
All on our own, we feel guilt for the bad things we have done and the good things we have failed to do. We feel shame about our unworthiness before God and before each other. Those feelings are real. Sometimes those feelings are deserved. Sometimes we really do botch it.
But, I say again, God doesn’t impose guilt or shame on us. God is not the problem. God is the solution to the problem.
When we feel guilt or shame, for whatever reason, if we are wise, we bring our guilt and our shame to God. And God, “whose glory it is always to have mercy,” grants us forgiveness. God grants us new life and new possibilities.
We hear the good news of God’s forgiveness all through Scripture. But our readings for this morning are particularly clear on God’s forgiveness and the possibility of new life in Christ.
In our Gospel reading, “a Pharisee named Nicodemus,” visits Jesus. Most Pharisees were hostile to Jesus. Nicodemus wasn’t hostile, but, John tells us, he came by night. Apparently Nicodemus didn’t want to be seen talking to Jesus by any of his fellow Pharisees. We can think of his coming at night more symbolically, too. Nicodemus was in the dark spiritually as well as literally. More on that in a moment.
That Nicodemus wanted to see Jesus is clear enough. But as best I can tell, Nicodemus didn’t really know what he wanted from Jesus. Nicodemus didn’t ask Jesus a question. Nicodemus didn’t request a miracle. When Jesus talks to him, Nicodemus couldn’t understand anything Jesus was saying.
So here is how I picture Nicodemus, stuck as he was in a spiritually dark place.
On the surface, everything seemed good. Nicodemus was learned, respected, committed to following God, a recognized leader among his people.
But inwardly, something was wrong. We can’t know what it was. Nicodemus himself probably didn’t know what it was. But Nicodemus knew something was missing. Something was blocking him from experiencing intimacy with God.
Nicodemus struggled with the gap between how things looked on the outside and how he felt on the inside. Nicodemus struggled with a sense of inadequacy, an imposter complex because he was not in fact what everyone seemed to think he was. Nicodemus was trapped in his guilt and shame, and he did not know what to do with it.
So, Nicodemus decided to seek out Jesus, a desperate step for a first-century Pharisee. Nicodemus went to Jesus in the hope that maybe Jesus could offer him something that would make his internal struggle go away, that Jesus could give him hope, or forgiveness, or love. Nicodemus couldn’t ask for Jesus’ help in that way. Nicodemus didn’t have the words. But Nicodemus presented himself to Jesus in the hope that maybe Jesus could show him a way forward.
So, Jesus talked to Nicodemus about being born again, born from above, born of water and Spirit.
Poor Nicodemus didn’t get it, at least not right away. But Jesus was offering Nicodemus exactly what he needed: a new start. With Christ’s help, with the help of the Holy Spirit, Nicodemus could become like a newborn child. He could let go of the burdens of his past and present. He could let go of his guilt, his shame, his baggage. He could become, and see himself as, a little bundle of belovedness, with a divine parent to look out for him. What a gift!
We see something similar in our Old Testament reading. It is the very beginning of Abraham’s story, Abraham, the great father of his people, the one Paul calls the father of all who believe (Galatians 3:6-7), the one who is therefore our father, too.
God invites Abraham to leave his country and his kindred and his father’s house to enter into a special covenant relationship with God. Leaving everything he knew must have been hard. But it also must have been liberating. Abraham would no longer be defined by his past, with whatever trials and tribulations, failures and wounds, guilt and shame he had faced. God was offering Abraham a new start, a new promise, a chance to get it right, a chance to be defined by right relationship with God.
What I love most about this reading is that Abraham was already ninety years old. New birth is always possible with God.
New birth is our invitation, too. During Lent, our service begins with the confession of sins and the words of absolution. The words are familiar enough that we don’t always pay much attention to what they mean. But I invite you to focus on that part of our service during Lent.
Spend some time before Church reflecting on the particular burdens you carry, your own sense of guilt or shame, whatever weighs you down. In the prayer of confession, hold those burdens in your mind and then offer them up to God.
There is no sense in holding anything back. It’s not like you can hide it from God. And holding it inside yourself just makes it worse.
And if you can’t quite name your burden, then come like Nicodemus. Come before Christ and acknowledge that Christ is Lord. That can be enough. Christ can take it from there.
Whatever your burdens, known or unknown, offer them to God and then hear, really hear, the words of absolution as addressed specifically to you. Your sins are forgiven. You can let go of whatever guilt or shame you may be carrying.
In God’s eyes, one act of confession is enough. In my own experience, it often takes more time than that. Not because God is slow to forgive, but because I am slow to absorb the good news of God’s forgiveness and love. If you, too, are slow to feel forgiven, if you have a hard time letting your burdens go, keep at it. Remember always that Christ continues to invite us to new birth, to new life, to deeper intimacy with God.
On this second Sunday of Lent, I give thanks to God for the good news of new birth in Christ. And I pray that God will help us to experience new birth in this season. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan