It’s wonderful to be here this morning at Washington Street Church. Before I get going with the sermon, I do want to bring greetings from Wesley Theological Seminary. The President of the Seminary, Dr. David McAlister-Wilson, a member of the Virginia Conference, sends his greetings.
I’m the new kid on the block at the Seminary and thus until the end of this month when two new hires begin their tenure, I hold the esteemed honor of being the most junior of all junior faculty members. I joined the faculty just under a year ago and have enjoyed teaching in the areas of church history and Methodist studies. That said, I have to warn you that I lecture for a living and so if this sermon sounds more like a lecture, tough luck. Of course, you won’t be graded on the sermon this morning, even if I reserve the right to give pop quizzes at the door.
I’m one of those odd academics who happen also to be an extrovert. I actually enjoy greeting people. The average professor is anything but an extrovert and so it’s funny when you get a large group of professors together. Every November over 12,000 religion professors gather for our annual meeting and I think about 500 of us actually enjoy it. The rest of the group spends most of their time looking at a book, trying to pretend everyone else isn’t there.
I do enjoy my work. I sort of live with John Wesley. I am a Wesley scholar who teaches Wesley Studies at a seminary named Wesley. It almost seems incestuous. In a conversation I had once with Stanley Hauerwas at Duke, Stanley looked at me and said that a Methodist studying Wesley was “the greatest explication of a Marxist fetish.” I didn’t dare ask him what a Marxist fetish might be, but I don’t think he meant it as a compliment.
Regardless of Stanley’s barbs, I am more than happy to be a Methodist who studies Wesley. As I tell my students, we look to Wesley as he points us to Christ. And I will say this, the more I study Wesley the more I am convinced that he does, in fact, point us to Christ. If there comes a time when Wesley doesn’t point us to Christ, we will be happy to push him aside. In fact, it would be Wesleyan of us to do so.
I’ve entitled my sermon this morning after a contemporary of Mr. Wesley’s, the great revivalist, Jonathan Edwards, who was at the heart of the Evangelical Revival that took place in colonial New England in the 1730s and 40s. He and John Wesley never met, although they were familiar with one another’s work and admired one another despite some glaring theological disagreements.
Edwards, you see, was a staunch Calvinist. He believed that salvation came from God alone, and that if one was saved it was God’s work entirely. You had nothing to do with it. It was a gift. Even one bestowed on you before you were born. In so much of this, Edwards was right. Salvation is from God. We cannot save ourselves. It is a gift. But as Wesleyans, we believe it is a gift that must be received.
Wesley actually created a word to describe this exchange, the word “re-act.” We must re-act to God’s offer of grace. He offers salvation to all, but we (empowered by the offer) must receive the gift.
As I prepared this sermon I remembered the words of one of the great preachers of the 20th century who once said that the task of the preacher is to be in the scripture so much that they almost memorize the passage they’re preaching on. He told a group of us religion students to read the passage we’re going to be preaching on every day; over and over until it became a part of us. I can’t say that I took his advice to the letter, but the more I read the passage about the woman, the sinner as she was called, and about how she came to Jesus, the more I thought of Jonathan Edward’s sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
Edwards was quite famous for this sermon. It is a classic fire and brimstone affair, perhaps the pinnacle of the genre. People shook in their seats as he preached it, calling out to God for help as he described God’s anger at sin and sinners. The sinner was nothing more than a spider, loathed, being held just above the flames of hell and God had the right to let go at anytime. But here’s the difference –and it’s a key difference– I found sinners, yes, in this text, a few of them, in fact, not just the woman who is identified as such, but I never once found an angry God. I read of a God of grace, a God of forgiveness, a God who makes sinners whole.
And here’s what I want you to remember from this sermon. I often give keys in my presentations. I spoke to the Kiwanis Club of High Point, North Carolina a few years ago and just recently bumped into someone who was there, and he said, I remember the key! “The pope really is a Catholic!” Some people, apparently, have wondered lately.
But for you, I have something a bit more complicated and, I think, a bit more life-giving. If you remember nothing else, remember this: When we acknowledge the depth of our sin, if we admit our diseased state, then, we see how much greater still is the awesome, transforming power of God to make us whole.
Acknowledging the disease, however, is the first step toward embracing the cure. The scriptural text this morning, you see, is about all of us.
If you heard the lesson about “forgiven much and therefore love much” and you thought of someone other than yourself, I’m sorry this lesson is about you. It might be more about you than we even imagined. If you heard the lesson and thought the lesson was about you, you’re right. It is about you. It’s really about all of us, and the opportunity we have to encounter Jesus.
And, I know that we read these stories and often try to put ourselves in the text. It’s not the case that we’re Jesus, of course. Don’t try to imagine what it would be like to have someone wash your feet with their tears and hair. No, the lesson is about us because at times we are the woman weeping at the feet of our Savior. At other times, we’re very likely the Pharisee, missing the whole point.
Just the other day, I told one of my classes that the longer I live, the more convinced I am of our sinful state. The depth of sin is hard to ignore. There have been movements to ignore it, however. In the late 19th century and into the first decade of the 20th century there were some theologians who tried to argue that humans were essentially good, even like a good wine, getting better with age, even on their own, but then World War I happened and they were cured of those ideas.
Of course, I wonder why it took a world war for them to realize this. Self-awareness alone should have been enough.
- K. Chesterton, the great British wit, once remarked that sin is the only Christian doctrine verified by the daily news. But we do have this tendency, this propensity to try to ignore reality from time to time. I often see this at the end of academic semesters.
The woman who is at the center of the text is not identified by name, except as a woman of the city and a sinner. Somehow she hears that Jesus is in the home of one of the Pharisees, a religious leader, a zealous, pious follower of God, and what does she do? She goes directly to Jesus.
It doesn’t say that she called ahead. It doesn’t say that she knocked at the door. It doesn’t even say how she found out where Jesus was, only that she knew. She knew where to find Jesus. Something told her where to find salvation, and so she went to him. She was following Jesus. We might say she was acting the part of a disciple. Will Willimon once remarked that a Christian is someone who follows Jesus around.
And here she is, this Jesus-follower simply known as “sinner”, weeping at Jesus’ feet, cleansing his dirty feet, and pouring expensive perfume on them.
I find the scene that Luke draws fascinating. The woman known as sinner is bucking social convention. We’re talking about a culture with distinct lines between the righteous and the unrighteous and its obvious that everyone in the text knows who goes where. This was a society where women were not seen apart from their husbands, and yet where was her husband? She barged in! We’re not talking about a Southern belle here. She obviously wasn’t concerned what Miss Manners might say about being an uninvited guest at a dinner party. It appears that she just didn’t care. She had to find Jesus.
But the scene is also one full of humility. While ignoring the social conventions of the time, she was showing complete faith in Jesus. You’ll note from the text that as she cleansed his feet, she stood behind him. She wouldn’t even stand before him, until he turned to her.
She went in that house, however, as unrighteous, and left having received the forgiveness of God. Forgiveness is key to this text. It’s just as key as any part about sin.
Forgiveness is a radical thing. The biblical imagery for forgiveness of often tied to the idea of a law court, and the sinner, i.e., us, stand condemned for our crimes. It’s not a law court, however, with an innocent defendant. The dean of the seminary I attended used to talk about the sins we have grown to love, that which we cling to, even identify with. And so the whole process of repentance and forgiveness, as beautiful as the outcome, is not an easy task. At it’s core is a sure trust that God’s ways are, in fact, better than our own. And that the promise of freedom is, in fact, real.
Note that Jesus doesn’t tell the woman that her sins were forgiven because of what she was doing. She wasn’t forgiven because of her tears or the how she washed Jesus’s feet. It wasn’t he perfume. Rather, what she was doing was a sign of her forgiveness, the forgiveness that she already had. The text doesn’t tell us how she knew this, and yet I don’t think it needs to. The forgiveness of God, the restorative grace of God, is life-giving water. You don’t need to be told about it, you’re standing under it even now.
Wesley would say that God’s Spirit communicates to our own spirits that we are a child of God and that we’ll know it. We’ll feel it! And we’ll then be able to cry out to God, calling him our Father. It was out of the Father’s goodness that forgiveness came. St. John, in one of his letters to the church, wrote, “See what love has the Father bestowed on us in his goodness, that we should be called the children of God.” Jesus is the manifestation of that love. Jesus is the one through whom that love can be known. The death and resurrection of Jesus was an exploding flood of forgiveness. And what is forgiveness if not freedom?
Jesus’ love for us is infinitely greater than the love we have for our sins. This isn’t a story about a Pharisee vs. a sinner. In fact, they were both sinners. The only person in the story who wasn’t a sinner was Jesus himself. The Pharisee had as much opportunity to encounter the forgiveness of God as did the woman. In fact the Pharisee had the very means of his forgiveness and wholeness reclining there at his own table, in his own house, but he missed it.
I often worry that we as Christians miss the wholeness God promises. Wesley had the same concern. We have Jesus right in front of us. We’re walking with him, talking to him. Listening to his voice. Partaking of him in the meal he commanded us to continue. But we hold back.
When I lived in North Carolina, I attended a weekly bible study with a wonderful group of believers. I was the only Methodist in the group. It was a group of about 20 people and we’d have dinner beforehand, everyone bringing something to share, a number of them good cooks, which is always important for bible study. After dinner we’d spend time in the scriptures together. For the most part, the teaching was solid, but I still remember one evening when we came across a passage of scripture that talked of freedom from sin, the group just couldn’t imagine it. It must be something that happens after death. This can’t be something that God meant for us now. I wanted to shake them. Wake up! God’s promises are no tease. Anemic Christianity isn’t a religion worth having.
Jesus looked at the woman and said, “Go in peace.” How can peace and rebellion coincide? We shouldn’t read His words as though they were simply a nice way to sign off of an email. Theodore Jennings once wrote that, “to say that justification (God’s pardon) leaves sinners still in the grasp of sin as before is like saying that resurrection leaves the dead in their graves.”
You have been washed. You have been cleansed. You have been empowered with grace. Grace is not simply God’s unmerited favor, although it is that. Grace is the empowerment of God, made possible by His presence. Jesus’s words to the woman are words to us also, You are forgiven. Your faith has made you whole. You’ve been given grace. Go in peace.
I don’t think it’s a question of who is, or who isn’t a sinner, but of who has brought their sins to Jesus, who, by faith, have sought out Jesus. No one can be forgiven little unless they repent of little.
Oh that we might be like the woman known simply as sinner, to run to Jesus wholeheartedly, busting into places where we’re not necessarily invited, to fall at His feet, to accept His forgiveness and to really be made whole. Because Jesus is already here. Jesus has been on Washington Street for a long time. He’s in this place. He’s at the table.
The words of Charles Wesley, as is so often the case, are so appropriate:
Come, sinners, to the Gospel feast,
Let every soul be Jesus’ guest,
Ye need not one be left behind,
For God hath bid all humankind.
The woman in the text found wholeness because she knew where Jesus was. You know where he is. I know where he is. But someone needs to tell the other sinners of Old Town that Jesus is here. Amen.