Byron C. Bangert

First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana

February 20, 2000

Genesis 50:15-21; II Corinthians 5:16-21; Mark 2:1-12

A pensive Charlie Brown muses to Lucy, "You know what I wonder? Sometimes I wonder if God is pleased with me." Turning to Lucy, he asks, "Do you ever wonder if God is pleased with you?" Lucy smugly replies, "He just has to be!"

Somehow it seems fitting that good ole' Charlie Brown, who wouldn't hurt a flea, is worried about how God feels toward him, while crabby little Lucy seems confident that God approves of her. There are a lot of "good Christians" who seem to share Charlie Brown's apprehension about God. Some of these Christians, in fact, seem to assume that God must be angry with them. Others of them simply have a hard time believing that they are OK in the sight of God.

There are also all kinds of people who, whether they believe in God or not, seem perfectly assured that they are OK. If they feel any sense of inadequacy, they are doing their best to hide it. They refuse to be burdened with low self-esteem. They are not about to admit to major self-doubts, nor are they plagued with guilt. Any God that they are willing to acknowledge had better be pleased with them.

The question of how God feels about us is an extremely important question for Christian theology. Much modern psychology believes that Christian theology has done us a great disservice in leading us to believe that God is not all that happy with the way we human beings act and behave. The result has been a pervasive sense of sin, guilt, and general inadequacy. It is, after all, a familiar Christian prayer of confession that calls us "poor miserable sinners". How can God be pleased with us, when we are so unlike what God desires and demands?

Years ago psychologist Thomas Harris came out with his popular book, I'M OK, YOU'RE OK, in an effort to counter and combat the personal and interpersonal evils that psychology has come to associate with low self-esteem. Truth is, there is much that is valid in the claim that low self-esteem makes for unhealthy persons and unhealthy relationships. People who do not feel good about themselves often do seem to take it out on others. People who are filled with a sense of inadequacy often try to overcome it by casting other people as even more inadequate than themselves. People who are miserable often do manage to make others equally miserable, as if bringing others down to their level will somehow lift them up. Charles Schultz's Lucy is one of those characters who typically behaves this way, putting other people down in order to deal with her own fragile self-esteem. You see, although she insists that God just has to be pleased with her, it is obvious from the way she treats others that she must be even less sure of herself than Charlie Brown.

From a Christian perspective, however, the remedy for how we regard ourselves and others is not to be found in the formula, "I'm OK, you're OK." As I heard William Sloane Coffin put it years ago, the Christian response to this way of stating the matter should be, "I'm not OK, you're not OK, but that's OK!" From the Christian perspective, it is not that I have it all together. It is not that you have it altogether. There is much about us that is not OK. We are very fallible human beings. "But"--and this is a positively crucial observation-- "that's OK!" The bottom line is not whether God is always pleased with us. In fact, Christians are pretty sure that God is often not very pleased with us at all. But the bottom line is that God still loves us. Or, as theologian Paul Tillich would put it, we are accepted by God, even when we are not acceptable. It is ultimately and finally OK that we are not OK.

As Tillich understood, what we need is not so much self-confidence or self-esteem, but self-acceptance. Self-confidence and self-esteem depend upon our ability to perform, or to persuade ourselves of how good we are. The problem is, we are often not able to perform well, and we are not always able to talk ourselves into believing that we are good enough. What we need is to be able to accept ourselves even when we fail, even when we do not measure up, even when we are anything but OK. But, as Christian theology also understands, we can hardly accept ourselves by acts of sheer determination. To be able to accept ourselves seems to require the realization that we are accepted prior to our own self-acceptance. We can hardly accept ourselves unless we know ourselves to be accepted by God.

In Christian theology, there is another word that encompasses this idea of acceptance. That word is reconciliation. Recently, this word "reconciliation" has come up frequently in the life of our church. Last Sunday in my sermon on "the crime of punishment" I mentioned the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program as one way of trying to repair some of the relationships that are torn or broken by crime. When we use the word "reconciliation" we tend to think in terms of relationships that are restored. We tend to think of an overcoming of hostility or estrangement. We may also think of forgiveness being offered and received. The Greek word for "reconciliation" has "change" as a root-meaning. The change is from enmity or alienation to harmony and goodwill.

It is often mistakenly assumed, however, that reconciliation involves a symmetry of change. That is, it is often assumed that there must be mutual concession, or mutual forgiveness, or mutual compromise, in order for reconciliation to occur. In the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program this is hardly the case. The Victim and the Offender do not stand in a symmetrical relationship to one another. What is required of the one is not what is required of the other. They must both be willing for reconciliation to occur, but what is demanded of the one is very different from what is demanded of the other. The victim must be willing to offer forgiveness and accept restitution. The offender must be willing to offer remorse and to make amends.

Likewise, reconciliation with God should not be understood in terms of a symmetry of relationship. Strangely, it is not God who needs to be reconciled to us. It is we who need to be reconciled to God. When Paul wrote to the Christians at Corinth, he did not say, "God was in Christ reconciling himself to the world." Why not? Because God was, and is, already reconciled to the world? Or because God does not need to be reconciled to the world? I think we have to say that it is fundamental to God's being to be reconciled to the world. God accepts the world, because God loves the world. This hardly means that God is pleased with everything in the world. It means that even when God is not pleased with what goes on in the world, God is not at odds with the world. We are accepted and loved, unconditionally, by God.

The problem for us, and thus for God, is that the knowledge of our own failure and sin puts us at odds with God. Like Adam and Eve wanting to hide from God--because they were ashamed, because they were afraid and defenseless against God's judgment upon their disobedience, because they knew that they were guilty--so it seems that we human beings distance ourselves from the One who loves us when we realize that we have fallen short of the glory of God. Who wants to hang around God after doing something that is not OK?

What the apostle Paul says to the Corinthians is that "In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself." We are the ones who need to be reconciled, not God. We are the ones who are filled with shame, fear, anger, guilt, and whatever else it is that we feel when we know that we have erred and failed. We are the ones who want to flee from the Divine Perfection because of our own imperfection. We wish to avoid the judgment of God, which surely we deserve. So, as the apostle Paul understands, God had to find a way to let us know that God loves us in spite of all that we have done amiss and all that we have failed to do aright. In Christ, God's love has been revealed to us. In Christ, we can see that we do not need to keep our distance from God. In Christ, we can experience God's acceptance of us, God's OK even though we are not OK. In Christ we are thus reconciled to God.

Being reconciled to God involves being reconciled to our own failure and sin. It means being reconciled to ourselves as fallible, finite, flawed, and fallen human creatures. It means coming to terms with the fact that we are not OK. We are not OK, but that's OK. We are accepted, we are loved, we can be reconciled to God. We need to be able to forgive ourselves, as we are forgiven.

We must try to be clear what reconciliation is by being clear what it is not. Reconciliation does not mean letting bygones be bygones. It is not a whitewashing of the past. Reconciliation does not mean the obliteration of differences. It does not mean the reaching of agreement. It does not mean the working out of a mutually acceptable compromise. There may be points of agreement in our reconciliation with one another. There may be elements of compromise. But at heart reconciliation involves a coming to terms with the other as other. It means the acceptance of the other. It involves the transcending of alienation and enmity and disagreement. It means a restoration of relationships in spite of whatever has caused the separation.

In human communities reconciliation can be a very painful process, and one that is never really complete. This is because conflict and separation, difference and disagreement, are not problems to be solved so much as conditions to be lived with in community. There are always matters that threaten to estrange us, so there is always reconciling to be done. When Paul writes to the Corinthians about his ministry of reconciliation, and their ministry of reconciliation, he is speaking of a permanent task, an on-going ministry, an activity integral to the Christian calling.

Reconciliation also involves coming to terms with ourselves as we are. It means self-acceptance, even though we are not acceptable. If we are to be reconciled with God, we must come to terms with the fact that as finite, fallible, flawed, and fallen human creatures we are not God. But then we must be able to make peace with ourselves. We may need to be able to forgive ourselves. It is one of the most important insights of Christianity that we cannot forgive ourselves--that is to say, we cannot experience forgiveness--except as we forgive. As we pray to God every Sunday, "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." Forgiving and the experience of being forgiven go hand in hand.

There are lots of feelings that get in the way of seeking reconciliation. I have already mentioned shame, fear, anger, guilt. In our Old Testament text from Genesis the brothers of Joseph come to him in spite of their fear. They ask his forgiveness for all the injury they have done to him. Joseph assures them that he bears no grudge against them. They have nothing to fear from him, for he will provide for them. Reconciliation occurs because they are willing, in spite of their fears, to seek forgiveness, and Joseph is willing, in spite of the injury done to him, to deal kindly with them. In fact, in all that has happened to them Joseph sees the providential hand of God.

In our text from the Gospel of Mark, on the other hand, we are provided a more complex and ambiguous portrayal of the dynamics of reconciliation. The story tells of Jesus' healing of a paralytic. At the most basic level, it is simply a healing story. The Gospels tell so many stories of Jesus healing that we can hardly doubt his power to heal. But this story is unique in the way it links healing and forgiveness and the actions of the paralytic's friends.

Mark says that Jesus was at home in Capernaum. Whether this was his home, or the home of one of his disciples, we do not know. In any event, when the locals hear about it, they come to him and fill up the house and crowd the door so that there is no way for anyone else to get in to him. The circumstances are such that anyone who really wants to make contact with Jesus must go to great lengths. Then appears this paralyzed man, who is unable to go anywhere on his own. A group of people have brought him, four of whom are carrying him. The man needs help, he is unable to seek it for himself, but he seems to have a community of friends who are willing to seek it for him.

Why do you suppose this man is paralyzed? Mark does not tell us, but the way the story unfolds, we must allow for the possibility that he is paralyzed by the traumas of his life. Whatever Mark intended, this story speaks most powerfully if we imagine that here is a man who is, in effect, paralyzed from the neck up! Something about his life that is so out of kilter that it has immobilized him. He has become powerless to move. He does not even speak. There is not even an indication of any willingness or desire on his part to be healed. All this leaves open the possibility that this man is so burdened by fear or guilt, so weighed down by whatever he has done, that he is no longer able even to ask or seek for help.

So it is entirely up to his friends and companions to seek help for him. And they are a determined and resourceful lot. Unable to get to Jesus through the door, they take the man to the roof, dig a hole, and let him down on a pallet into the room below. Note what Mark says next: "When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, 'Son, your sins are forgiven.'" It is not the man whose faith Jesus sees. Jesus is not even said to look at the man. What Jesus sees is the faith of his companions. It is as if their faith is necessary for this man to be healed. But then Jesus does not say to the man, "You are healed." He says, "your sins are forgiven." It is as if this is what the man needs to hear and know. It is as if Jesus can read this man's forgiveness in the faces of his companions.

Many interpreters assume that this is a story about Jesus' power to forgive. There is no consensus about the relationship between the forgiveness and the healing. But if the point of the story is only to focus on Jesus' power, then what about the paralyzed man? If what this man needs is not forgiveness, then Jesus' declaration of his forgiveness would seem to be only for show. Rather, it seems to me that Jesus is saying much the same thing that Paul is saying: You are accepted by God; you are loved by God; your sins are forgiven by God. Some of the lawyers in the crowd do not hear it that way, however. As they hear it, Jesus is making a claim for himself. "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" they protest. Jesus rejoins, "Why do you raise such questions in your hearts?"

At the end of the story the man is healed, the people are amazed, and we are left with the question of who has the authority to forgive sins. Is this authority unique to Jesus? Or is it an authority that is also present within the community of faith, the body of Christ? Or is it an authority that belongs to any "son of Adam," any child of God? Surely forgiveness comes ultimately from God, but surely we receive it through the ministrations and forgiveness of others.

What does this story of Jesus' healing the paralyzed man add to our understanding of the work of reconciliation? The circumstances of the story suggest that there are individuals who lack the power or the ability to seek the help they need. Perhaps they are unable to recognize, or articulate, what is wrong in their lives. Perhaps they are immobilized by fear or guilt. Perhaps their own faith and hope have vanished. Perhaps they cannot believe in an ultimate source of goodness and love. Whatever it is that constrains them, they are so at odds with themselves, and perhaps so at odds with others and with God, that they cannot move. They would be lost without the supportive community of faith. They need the supportive community of faith to act on their behalf, to carry them to Jesus, to accomplish the work of forgiveness and healing and reconciliation in their lives. They need the experience of being accepted and forgiven in order to forgive themselves, in order to move beyond the paralysis of their own self-rejection.

Reconciliation is not about the elimination of differences or disagreements. It is not about ignoring the injuries and failures and sins that separate and estrange us. It is about coming to terms with ourselves, and with others, and with God. Reconciliation may require some form of restitution, some making of amends. It surely demands forgiveness. Sometimes human relationships are so badly broken that they cannot be restored. But where restoration is possible, reconciliation involves a transcending of the circumstances that separate us, a coming together in spite of all our faults and failures. Above all, reconciliation is about acceptance of ourselves and others, not because we are acceptable, not because there is nothing wrong with us, not because we are OK, but because we have been and are accepted by God. Because we are loved unconditionally with a love that will not let us go. AMEN.