“It doesn’t matter where you have been…,” the speaker said. “It doesn’t matter what you have done.” On he went. “God loves you, right where you are, and for who you are!”
It was “cry night” at camp, and I was hooked by a modern retelling of the Prodigal Son. I wanted to be immersed in the grace being advertised that night. No more masks. No more pretending to be someone I wasn’t. No more being ashamed to come to God for fear of what I had or might have done. I could simply be me.
Then I went home.
To waiting expectations. Adults in the congregation wanted to hear testimonies of how God moved at camp. I was quickly made aware a decision made for God came with new expectations:
– Read the bible, and oh yeah, read it every day.
– Pray daily, even better if you can do it without ceasing whatever that might mean.
– Attend church weekly.
– Listen predominantly, if not only, to Christian music.
– Avoid parties because parties can “only” have drugs and alcohol.
– No R-rated movies.
Want to be a Christian? This was it. I was handed a blueprint of expectations by which I was to achieve discipleship. For a mature disciple is one who can, as quoted from the Bible, “go, and sin no more!”
Gone was the grace I had experienced at camp. Gone was the God who met me where I was in life. God had been replaced by one of those advertisers who acts innocent as he or she asks, “What’s the matter? You didn’t read the fine print?”
How was I to add all these expectations to an already overcrowded schedule of school, homework, soccer practices, and other activities they expect to see on a college scholarship application? It didn’t take long to come off the mountain from camp, to question whether the experience was real or all imagined in my head.
In over fifteen years of youth ministry, I know my experience isn’t unique. I have seen many young people go through the same experience. They encounter this God who, in the midst of grace, encounters them right where they are. And then they lose sight of God in the midst of the expectations of grace.
Is it any wonder young people are often confused by what we mean by grace?
The phrase “go and sin no more” comes from Jesus’ face-off with the religious leaders in the gospel of John. Jesus writes in the dirt as they bring in a woman who was “caught in act of adultery.” The leaders think they have Jesus cornered. Jesus is slow to respond. Perhaps he wants to buy some time to think about his response. Maybe he stalled for dramatic effect. Either way, when Jesus responds, he stuns the crowd. One-by-one they drop their rocks and leave. The story closes with Jesus telling the woman that he will not condemn her either. Or maybe he does.
I am convinced this popular refrain of “go, and sin no more” is one of the most narrowly interpreted passages in all of Scripture. In the church tradition I grew up in, this was seen as the sign of a mature Christian. To walk with God and sin no more. This was the apex of Christian discipleship. No more cursing. No more lewd thoughts. No more selfishness. No more sin.
The problem with this interpretation of sin and the idea that grace sets us free to sin no more is it leaves the woman standing at the end of the story condemned—not by the religious leaders—but by Jesus.
Still don’t buy it?
Rewind and think about this unique story found only in the gospel of John—a story not even found in the earliest manuscripts of John.
Before Jesus told this woman to go and sin no more. Before Jesus and this woman were left alone in the middle of the street. They were surrounded by a group of people who were prepared to stone this woman. That is, until Jesus reminded them of their hypocrisy. There wasn’t one person in the crowd who hadn’t sinned—rephrase: there is not one person in the crowd who won’t sin.
So if Jesus knows this, and the crowd knows this, then there has to be more to what Jesus means at the end of the story when he tells this woman to go and sin no more. Otherwise, this story doesn’t end in grace and redemption. It ends with Jesus casting the stone himself.
So what does Jesus mean when he tells her to go and sin no more?
Theologian Rowan Williams offers an understanding of sin which perhaps gets us closer to what Jesus intended at the end of this story. William writes, “To say alleluia for sinners is to say alleluia for the beginnings of honesty.” As Williams goes on to describe, sin isn’t limited to being disobedient or being immoral, it’s better understood as going against our nature—the nature God created. So in effect, with this larger understanding of sin, Jesus isn’t telling the woman to go and never make another mistake. Jesus is inviting her to embrace grace, to embrace herself, to see the value of who she is—fractured self and all.
After one walks into the front doors of a church, it only takes about five minutes to hear grace defined as an underserved gift. I can’t help but wonder if we like to put that tagline on it because we are uncomfortable with what grace’s invitation is really about. Because when I think about what grace really means, it makes me uncomfortable, and really, I want to push it away.
Grace invites me to see myself as I truly am, with all my imperfections. It’s hard in our culture to embrace grace because it means admitting I am less than perfect. I might not be the success story everyone idolizes. Or the success story which looks good on a college application.
This is grace, it takes the blinders off and encourages me to see the world as it really is and to see myself as I really am—faults and all.
This is the invitation Jesus offered this woman. Jesus was inviting her to see herself as he saw her—a woman of value who didn’t need to sell herself short or let her life’s story be defined by a crowd. A crowd full of imperfect people who were probably thankful grace was not bringing their imperfections into the spotlight that day.
To help flesh this out a little more, I close with a quote from one of my favorite authors— who I am convinced is secretly a theologian—Brené Brown. She writes, “Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.” In churches, too often grace falls into the former category and never gets to the latter.
Ministries and our faith practices are designed to help young people fit in. To be a part of the Church. To be a Christian, you have to read the Bible, pray daily, and sin no more. This is how the Church knows grace has impacted your life.
What if we did the opposite?
Rather than advertise grace as a way to fit in, what if we created ministries that invited young people to see how grace shows them who they are?
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Rev. Seth Vopat is a writer and American Baptist ordained member of the clergy who currently works as an associate pastor in the Kansas City area. He is an M.Div. graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary and has a certificate in Youth & Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary.