Where to begin...
I don’t have an inspiring letter to write you, or some poetic verse that will stir your soul. I’m sad and I’m tired. I’m sad when I look at the pictures of the capitol building from yesterday. I’m tired of coronavirus restrictions and the news of increased lockdown measures yesterday. And frankly I don’t really know what to say.
Perhaps better than to try to speak, we should begin asking ourselves questions. Scripture says “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). What then are we reaping as a nation? What have we sown? I’ll bet that each of us has a ready answer with someone else to blame. But God calls us to examine ourselves, first, doesn’t he? Jesus said, “First take the log out of your own eye” (Matthew 7:1-5). And if the Apostle Paul can say, “I am the worst sinner there is” (see 1 Timothy 1:15), then we should be wary of using Scripture to condemn others before we’ve given ourselves a thorough examination. That’s part of what it means to take responsibility for something communal. Where have you sown to the flesh that from the flesh we now reap corruption?
Let’s expand on that question. What are the sins of the flesh? Paul, before talking about the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians, lists a series of anti-fruit, as it were. “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Galatians 6:19-21). The sensitive and humble soul will see himself in that list somewhere. And if you don’t see yourself somewhere in that list, then I must say, you may be in big trouble. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).
And really, what we’re talking about here is the very beginning of the gospel message. You see, one cannot receive the good news about Jesus until one has recognized the bad news about ourselves. The first step in the process of receiving the gospel is that we take responsibility for our sin, our part to play, the seeds of unrighteousness that we’ve sown in our lives, in our families, in our church, in the wider community. Personal responsibility. That’s where the gospel begins. And we should always begin with the gospel.
And by the way, if you’re worried about your rights, then please remember that it’s the same image-bearing quality of your humanity—the thing that gives you all those rights—that also demands an account from you over your sin. In other words, the very thing that gives you your rights is the same thing that enables you to be held accountable for your actions. Or you might say, rights never come without responsibilities. And the reason why this is significant here—why it fits right here in this essay—is because taking responsibility for yourself is the way that you live up to the rights that God has bestowed upon you—individually and communally. It’s the responsibility of the image-bearer to confess and repent, to take ownership of our choices. Indeed, after the Fall, all meaningful life must begin in repentance. And only the humble repent.
And if you’re still resisting the idea that you may have had a part to play, look at Jesus. You know, I’ve always puzzled over Jesus’ baptism. Why would the only truly innocent person submit to a baptism of repentance, one such that John was conducting? Jesus said is was “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15), but what exactly does that mean? I’ve come to understand that this was Jesus identifying with sinners. “He was numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12). More specifically, he was standing in the place of God’s people, repenting in their behalf, as it were. Much like Daniel who prayed corporate prayers of repentance for the nation of Israel while he was in exile, Jesus so identifies himself with fallen humanity that he undergoes a baptism of repentance. Of course, the fullness of this identification would come at the crucifixion, where he literally bore our sins before God. But it seems, that even our repentance is imperfect, that Jesus had to do even that for us.
This brings us back to our shyness over corporate responsibility and the issue of communal sins. Why are we so unwilling to identify with other people and their sins when Jesus was so willing to identify with ours? Why are we so concerned that not a scrap of blame falls on us that is not justified when Jesus bore only unjustified blame? In his case, the individual bore the sins of the whole community, the whole of the people of God. Surely we can say, then, “our guilt; our responsibility.” To circle back, we need to repent not just of our personal, individual sins. We need to repent of our corporate sins. When asked, “Who did this?” we have to be humble enough to say, “We did.” Indeed, we are reaping what we’ve sown. And let me caution you in this way, you who would object: to deny your share in the fault is to deny yourself a share in the forgiveness, as well. God help you if you would find yourself innocent but Jesus find you guilty. “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:10).
So I propose then that as a church we don’t waste our energy getting fired up and angry about these things. And let us not spend ourselves on self-justification, nor to say “I told you so” or “You wait and see." Instead, I propose that we search our hearts and attitudes in concert with a humble reading of the scriptures and in view of the life of Jesus, and we ask ourselves where we need to repent, where we need to take responsibility for the mess. Because “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20) but “godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Cor 7:10).