As you know I am currently walking with a couple of people towards what they know will be their end. Terminal illness can be pretty awful for some people, but at least it gives us time to put our houses in order before we die.
One of the questions that is often asked in times like this and is born out of a fear of dying is this: “What about the judgement? – will I make it? – will I be good enough?”
There is a long and image-filled tradition in Christianity that causes many of us to fear the judgement that we believe is facing us – at the “pearly gates” or when we meet our maker.
One possible explanation for this is our pondering about the sins we commit after we are baptised. The Church has struggled with this a lot and I see two significant expressions of it.
In the Roman church they have a theology of Purgatory which is a place you go after you die, but before you are ushered into Heaven. The purpose of this time in Purgatory is to wash away the stains of those sins you may have committed after you were baptised. The worse the sins the deeper the stains and the longer you need in the big washing machine of Purgatory.
But churches from the puritan traditions also tried to deal with this problem of sins we commit after our baptism. They developed something like the Jewish purity code which meant that after you did a bad thing, you had to clean it up by some ritual. That might involve public confession in church, or coming to the Mercy Seat, as they do in the Salvation Army.
Maybe each of these have their value, but it seems to me that they miss the mark when put alongside the words we read from John’s Gospel today.
Images from the book of Revelation and elsewhere, of Jesus sitting in Heaven on a Judgement Seat, seem to contradict this wonderful affirmation of John in verse 17:
For God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its saviour.
John then goes on to explain that those who believe in the Son will not be judged, and that the judgement of those who do not believe in the Son is not something being held off till a future time, but is simply a consequence of their decision not to believe.
If we are to rightly understand the idea of God’s grace, then this is the only way it can be. Paul affirms this idea again and again, as he does in Ephesians 2:
God's mercy is so abundant, and his love for us is so great, that while we were spiritually dead in our disobedience he brought us to life with Christ. It is by God's grace that you have been saved.
And this “being saved” business is not something that can be given up lightly. When we baptise people we anoint them with Chrism oil and we say these words:
“I sign you with the sign of the cross to show that you are marked as Christ’s forever.” I can’t say these words without believing them. Do you?
Paul goes on to say in Ephesians:
“It is by God's grace that you have been saved through faith. It is not the result of your own efforts, but God's gift, so that no one can boast about it.
There are no good things we can do to get us “in” and in fact there are no bad things we can do once we have declared our faith in Jesus that can cause us to miss out. God knows that none of us is good enough – and never can be. This is what Paul means when he goes on to say:
God has made us what we are, and in our union with Christ Jesus he has created us for a life of good deeds, which he has already prepared for us to do.”
So, “Why,” you might ask me, “do we say the Confession every time we come to church?”
My understanding of this is that it is not about clearing the slate of the bad things we have done since we last said the confession – although that is probably something of a consequence of it. Our repetition of the Confession each week is more importantly a reminder to us all every time we gather together that we are not perfect, but we are forgiven.
And when we do this we can enthusiastically take up the life we were created to live – a life of good deeds, not so that we might be save, but because we are saved.
In this reflective season of Lent we have a perfect opportunity to take time to consider what it is that God would have us do in order to live that life. What are the things God has prepared for you to do? Sometimes the answer to this is very obvious. There are good things right in front of you, so to speak, that you could be doing. Other times you may have to give some good thing a lot of thought before you say to yourself – “Yes, that is what God wants me to do.” But either way, we are called to be doing good things.
God is good – All the time!
All the time – God is good!