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Prophesy, Second Chances, and the Scandal of God’s Pardon

I’ve been taking a class on spiritual gifts: what are they, what is their purpose, and which one/s are mine. We squeeze into an ameba-shaped circle around desks and filing cabinets in the church office, most of us perched on metal folding chairs, awkwardly balancing muffins, coffee, and handouts on our laps.

holy spirit dove in stained glass

It is exactly the kind of real life, warts-and-all gathering I enjoy. People let their hair down in atmospheres like this. We laugh and we share stories, and we whisper snarky comments to one another. When we talked about the gift of service, the woman next to me leaned over and whispered, “It should say ‘moms’ next to it.”

“Right?” I grinned back. “Except some days I feel more gifted than others.”

It’s fascinating to watch the conversation shift and turn. When we discussed prophesy,  (the teacher believes the gift of prophesy has shifted from Old Testament prophets ordained with a binding and authoritative Word from God to New Testament prophets with non-binding and fallible words of wisdom), the conversation turned to prophetic words from flawed people.

“What about people who learn and grow from an eloquent leader who falls in a big way?” one person asked.

The pastor kicked it back to the group. “What do you all think? What do we do with someone who uses their gifts hypocritically, like a pastor who has a powerful preaching ministry and an immoral relationship on the side or who is skimming money off the church coffers?”

I listened and tried not to explode into a sermon of my own on forgiveness and second chances. When the discussion lulled for a second, I jumped in.

“We are all hypocrites. We all use our gifts hypocritically. I sin every day. If we can’t use our gifts until we are perfect, we won’t ever use them.”

I bit my tongue, knowing it wasn’t my class to teach. But this topic, failing and asking forgiveness and granting it and second chances the same way God does for us, this gets me fired up.

We all will “fall” (as we like to say in Christianese) at some point. Some (perhaps all) will break the vows made during their wedding, either in thought, word, or action. Others will violate a code of ethics or break a contract. I suspect that everyone over-indulges in something to escape pain, and as a result some of us will cause damage to property, ourselves, or someone else. We might steal something or lie to cover another mistake or just to make ourselves look good. Especially in the first world, we often allow ourselves to be consumed with getting more and better things to feed our insatiable appetites, hoarding everything good and turning a blind eye to the needs around us.

We have all broken God’s laws — we’ve all lied, cheated, stolen, used God’s name to our own advantage, coveted someone else’s things or spouse, and dishonored our parents. Right? Right.

We’re all guilty. You and I, we both need second chances. Many second chances.

This is the good news Jesus came to deliver. Our God? He is the King of second chances. This means we, as God’s children, are people of second chances too. We abandon the one-strike-your-out policy within our churches and faith communities. We find help, healing, and fresh starts for those who wish to try again.

But, you ask, what about the pastor who commits adultery? What about the charity president who steals money? Shouldn’t they be punished?

That’s exactly it, isn’t it? We want sinners to be punished. We want vengeance. We want them to pay. But punishment is exactly what Jesus spares us! He grants us a pardon. Note the dictionary definition: a pardon is a remission of the legal consequences of an offense or conviction, to pardon is to release (an offender) from the legal consequences of an offense or conviction, and often implicitly from blame.

A pardon is not an acquittal, in which a person is declared not guilty. Pardons grant forgiveness and removal of the consequences, but they do not change the fact that we’ve sinned.

I hear and read a lot of confusing language about what Jesus did and how God handles our sin. I’ve heard forgiveness described as “just as if I’d never sinned” which sounds like we are declared innocent. I don’t think this is helpful because it makes God out to be an unjust judge, one who declares the guilty to be innocent.

God’s forgiveness is scandalous, but it isn’t unjust. God is just. God is also loving and merciful. God pardons us, forgiving us and releasing us from some of the consequences (usually consider to be eternal consequences, since many of us still experience consequences for our poor choices in this life).

As people who want to see sinners punished, these pardons that God grants are scandalous. That is true. God’s grace is vulgar. That’s what makes it Good News. I leave you with these words, written by Brennan Manning in “All Is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir.”

My hope, as always, is to point to the God too good to be true, my Abba. …My message, unchanged for more than fifty years, is this: God loves you unconditionally, as you are and not as you should be, because nobody is as they should be. It is a message of grace. … Some have labeled my message one of ‘cheap grace.’ I have come across another [label] I would like to leave you with. I found it in the writings of the Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon. He calls it vulgar grace.

“In Jesus, God has put up a “Gone Fishing” sign on the religion shop. He has done the whole job in Jesus once and for all and simply invited us to believe it – to trust the bizarre, unprovable proposition that in him, every last person on earth is already home free without a single religious exertion: no fasting till your knees fold, no prayers you have to get right or else, no standing on your head with your right thumb in your left ear and reciting the correct creed – no nothing…. The entire show has been set to rights in the Mystery of Christ – even though nobody can see a single improvement. Yes, it’s crazy. And yes, it’s wild, and outrageous, and vulgar. And any God who would do such a thing is a God who has no taste. And worst of all, it doesn’t sell worth beans. But it is Good News – the only permanently good news there is – and therefore I find it absolutely captivating.” [italics Brennan’s]

I am fallible woman, desperately in need of second chances every day. But I have a prophetic word for you today: Your God is a God of second chances. You, be people of second chances.

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