Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. Luke 15:10
Is anyone ever truly lost? I know at times it might very well feel so. When one’s life is complicated by the consequences of a series of poor decisions, it can often seem as if there is no way back. To be honest, our society doesn’t make it easy for folks to start over…or even to change course from a previously chosen path. While I firmly believe that God forgives us for any sin of which repent, society has a long and harsh memory. Now with the internet and social networking that collective memory has gotten longer. Nothing on the internet goes away….not a bad photograph, a word spoken hastily in anger, a miscalculated action that results in an embarrassing failure. All of it is enshrined in binary code accessible by anyone who knows how to operate a search engine.
As troubling as our societal appetite for drama is our concern for today is not those relatively benign actions that cause us embarrassment but rather the soul damaging tendency to sin. The Apostle Paul has declared that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The Psalmist has bemoaned that fact that there is “none who does good….no not one.” Is it then true that we are all sinful messes unable to do those good things we know God has asked us to do? There is a long line of theological thought that would support this idea. In fact, the doctrine of Original sin states it outright….that humanity is born into sin, and it is only the mercy of God that stands between us and eternal damnation.
While this was exactly the theology in which my first understanding of Christianity was formed, I have always had difficulty accepting that humanity is this pitiful depraved bunch of sinners unworthy of the love that God so graciously gives us. In my understanding, this directly contradicts the holy text which tells us that we were created good. The Genesis accounts reveal a God who looked upon his creation, which included us and saw it to be “very good.”
Ah, but what about the Fall…ah yes, the original sin of Eve and by association Adam. Literal interpretation aside if the temptation story teaches us anything it is that humanity does have a tendency to be disobedient, but at the same time I believe we also have a desire to please God. All beings seek approval from those they love.
So, what makes one person fall into a life of sin and disobedience, and another follow the path of righteousness seeking to please God in all things? Of course, there are many factors that contribute to our behavior… upbringing, opportunity, the ability to think for oneself, social indoctrination, fear of consequence. Each of us is shaped by the events that happen to us….for better or for worse.
If you want to create a torturer, you torture a child, and when they are big enough, you give them someone else to abuse. The same is true for those raised with love and mercy…in many cases they too become loving and merciful. But there are exceptions….what about the exceptions? Those who rise above every circumstance to become saints of distinction and those who seem to have everything going for them…the best of parents and every available resource to become good people and yet choose to follow after the evil one.
We can never make assumptions about the potential for transformation. Humans are incredibly resilient creatures and can overcome many things…. sometimes. While we can see patterns, there are no universals. Each of us must walk his or her own way making decisions as best we can, given the situations in which we find ourselves. If I have learned anything in this life, it is that nothing is certain.
So, what is the point of this rambling discussion…it is only this. Nothing is set in stone, and no one is outside of the reach of the grace of God. Jesus uses the parable of the good shepherd to remind his followers that no matter how far they stray from the path of righteousness….no matter how sinful they become… God is always searching for them…wandering through the wilderness to meet them wherever they are when they finally realize their need for love and turn back. Even if in turning, they find themselves caught in the brambles and unable to find their way out, God will seek them and bring them home… safely to the fold once more. There are no sins that cannot be forgiven…. There are no mistakes so great that God will turn away forever.
But what about those who do not realize that they need to repent….or those who are content to follow the path of darkness? To be honest, I am still unsure about these. I believe that God loves us all unconditionally. At the same time, I know that God is both merciful and just. Where is the justice if there is no accountability for the evil one does in this life? I also believe that God has given us free will, which means the will to refuse God. Does that then mean that God will punish those who disobey or turn away? Holy scripture seems to tell us that this is indeed the case. And yet Jesus did say that he came to the world not to condemn it but to save it…that the sacrifice of the Cross was for all people once for all time. Yet, we do have agency….we get to decide.
In The Great Divorce, his allegory of heaven and hell, C.S. Lewis suggests that those who are in Hell are there because they were unable or unwilling to choose heaven. But even in eternity, God continues to offer them the option to change their status. Perhaps that is part of the hope of eternity…that life and development do not end at death but that there is still the possibility of God’s grace effecting change even in eternity….that no one is really lost because God continues to offer the opportunity to repent and be welcomed into God’s love until the last one has overcome his or her past and found renewal and resurrection.
The truth is no one really knows what comes next or how God’s transforming love operates in eternity. All we really have is the certainty of the moment in which we now find ourselves. So the question becomes….what are we to do with this time we are given?
Last week in the lesson from Deuteronomy, the Lord said…I have set before you life and death…choose life. God always gives us a choice…to follow him into life or to follow the evil one into death. God does not force us to live a holy life and will love us even if we choose not to…but there are always consequences both here and in eternity. God’s desire for us is to be for one another what he is is to us…loving and kind…merciful and compassionate. In this life, we are the agents of God’s grace…the heralds of the Gospel. In our baptism, we have been raised as new creatures, and in the power of Christ’s love, we become both sheep and shepherd to one another. We are the ones who go out into the wilderness to carry our broken and lost brothers and sisters home. And at times we are also that lost sheep in need of rescuing. This is the wonder and the mystery of our life in Christ.
I do not know what the future holds, and I cannot say how God will move and act in your life any more than I can predict that for myself. But I trust that God is indeed moving and acting in our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit. I trust that God has a purpose for my life and yours and that purpose extends into eternity. While I cannot understand many things about God or even human behavior, I do believe that we are loved and that no matter what God is with us…rejoicing in our repentance and loving us into the good and beautiful beings he created us to be.