Being Good Doesn’t Make You Free. The Truth Makes You Free.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” John 3
There’s someone who is new here at House for All … actually they are new to church entirely and therefore unfamiliar with liturgy. After coming to House for a few weeks I met them for lunch and asked what stands out for them at church expecting them to say the singing or maybe the community. “You know that part at the beginning where we all say together that we’ve fractured relationships and done things we shouldn’t and stuff?” Uh…I answered…the confession? “Yeah! they said. That’s so amazing.”
There’s a trend in starting new Lutheran churches to actually eliminate the confession and absolution in the liturgy because, well, it just makes people feel bad. And let’s be honest, it’s just a lot more appealing to go to a church that doesn’t make you feel bad.
And I guess there is some logic to that. I mean, if the point of religion is to teach us good from evil and how to choose the good, then who wants to start out each Sunday saying that you didn’t manage to pull that off. Again.
Of course no one can really be that good, which I guess is why there is also a long and rich Christian tradition which in Latin is called “totally faking it.” Also known as pretending to be good and nice and happy and successfully Christian.
Yet while there are so many messages out there that tell us that religion is about knowing the difference between good and evil so that we can choose the good, in our text for today Jesus doesn’t actually contrast good and evil. I mean, if the contrast is between good and evil, I can so easily either be prideful about my ability to be good or I can despair in my failure to be good. Either way it’s not really good news. Pride and despair are both forms of bondage and what Jesus wants for us is freedom. In our text for today Jesus contrasts not good and evil, but truth and evil. We either do what is true or do what is evil.
I know that I myself will go to extraordinary lengths to fight the truth, especially truth about my shortcomings. I can pretend and contort and manipulate to try and avoid the truth till my face goes red like a toddler trying to avoid their nap until you see them stop fighting and fall asleep and receive rest--the very thing they need and the very thing they were fighting.
One of the most common truths we avoid is about our motivations. Like when we’re really gossiping because we care about the person – pawning off malice as compassion, or when we supposedly fudge on our taxes because we are against the wars the taxes pay for pawning off greed as non-violence, or when we supposedly don’t fulfill our obligations to our community because of self-care – pawning narcissism or self-loathing off as a virtue.
And what’s really twisted is when we then try and gauge the loyalty of our friends by how much they go along with our delusions and justifications. I mean, when we really need to believe something false about ourselves, we will spin all kinds messages to our friends about it. And then we’ll know just how good of a friend they are by how much they co-sign on our delusions.
Here’s a little personal story of pretending and truth for you:
I use to commute over an hour each way in seminary. At the time I had a close friend who knew from us both being sober. Let’s call her Nancy. Well, Nancy was an ex-junkie who had found some idiot doctor to prescribe her Oxycotin. Her justifications for this were both endless and creative: her Hepatitis-C caused her so much pain that she needed the drug to even function, she didn’t really want to take the pain meds but her doctor insisted, and … that her pain was so great she wasn’t able to get high off the Oxy. Anyhow, her marriage was ending and the courts had stepped in and I’m deeply loyal to my friends – I mean loyalty is huge to me, so I tried to support her. I was supposedly the only person she could get to supervise her overnight visitations with her kids, so while I was commuting to grad school and had small children of my own, I also kept showing up for her and I was exhausted. One day when driving home from staying at my friend’s so she could have her kids overnight, my sister called and I told her how tired I was but how much my friend needed me. Now, lest you think this story is about how much my friend was staying in the darkness and lies of addiction, wait for the punch line. What my sister spoke to me was truth and it has never left me.
"Nadia," she said, "you have a limited about of time and emotional energy in your life and you are squandering tons of it on this one situation just so you can maintain the idea you like to have of yourself of being a loyal friend.”
I was substituting being good for the Truth.
But truth comes to us and it changes us. It comes in the word of a sister, in the language of scripture spoken in a community, in the prayers of the people.
So, there’s this other person here at House who also doesn’t have a church background who met with me a few weeks ago, the day after what was her first Ash Wednesday. Reflecting on the night before, she said “I just think that It’s really beautiful that a space exists where that much truth can be spoken.”
Truths spoken on Ash Wednesday like, how we fail to live up to even our own values. Truth like, how we turn from God and pursue false promises. Truth like, how I am a little bit broken and can’t seem to fix myself.
Because as it says in 1 John:
"If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
The light of truth is simply the only thing that scatters the darkness in ourselves and in the world because God doesn’t deal in deceit and denial and half-truths. Yes, encounters with Truth are hard and require you to step into something that feels like it might just crush you. But the instant is crushes you it also puts you back together into something real. Only the Gospel can do that.
The good news is not that you can possess the truth, but that the truth can possess you, making you real and making you free ... perhaps for the first time. And as frightening as it might feel, as much as it might feel like it’s going to crush you, the light of the truth is something you can live in because the love of God has freed you and indeed every human being from the need to live in any lies. Step into the light. You’ll be fine. You’ll be real. And you’ll be free.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is the founding Pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado — an urban liturgical community with a progressive yet deeply rooted theological imagination. Learn more at www.houseforall.org. This post originally appeared on Nadia's blog, Sarcastic Lutheran.