On the Turning Away

Last Sunday’s Scripture lesson was grounded in brokenness – in the rips tearing the fabric of intimate relationship between Jesus and the apostle Peter, the three-time denier of his association with Christ.

During a humble shore lunch of freshly caught fish and bread, Jesus – recently arisen from Good Friday’s grave – makes the first move to mend the broken ties that once tightly bound Jesus and Peter. And so it goes, sometimes: The person who is offended must initiate reconciliation with the offender. No scolding. No judgment. No anger. Only restoration of relationship in support of the Lord’s efforts to redeem the world.

This morning’s lesson reinforces that very-faithful response to the conflicts and divisions plaguing so many of our human relationships.

Unfolding early in Jesus’s earthly ministry, the Pharisees haul before Christ a woman literally caught in the act of adultery. Her illicit partner in carnal knowledge, presumably a man, apparently has escaped accountability for his role in the whole sordid affair. Regardless, before a large crowd – also presumably mostly men, the Jewish religious authorities, who all are men, literally drop the nameless woman at the feet of Jesus and demand he render judgement.

Her attackers remind Jesus about the Old Testament’s Law of Moses, which clearly states that such a person – one found guilty of committing adultery – must be executed by stoning, perversely believing that the offender’s death will purify the community of sin and guilt. Of course, that never happens. Sin and guilt never disappear completely – at least not yet, anyway. Nonetheless, after reminding Jesus of the requirements of the Old Testament Law, the hypocritical leaders, in a failed effort to trick Jesus, ask him, “What say you?”

Maybe that’s a good Lenten question for us all: What do you say?

Ponder that, as well as the other meditations that the Holy Spirit sets upon your heart and mind, as you listen for the Word of the Lord in chapter 8 of John’s Gospel. The blood-thirsty crowd comes to see a woman pay the ultimate price for her sin. But they leave understanding, at least on some level, that the men also deserve to pay the price for their own moral debts and trespasses. May finding your place in the crowd be your Lenten offering of ashy-ness and repentance.

Early in the morning Jesus came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them.

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”

They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.

When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8:2-11)

By all accounts Maddi Runkles had never been a disciplinary problem.

Maddi Runkles

She had a 4.0 GPA at Heritage Academy, the small, private Christian school she attended in Maryland. Maddi played on the soccer team and served as president of the student council. But when her fellow seniors in the Class of 2017 donned their caps and gowns for graduation, Maddi found no place amid all the pomp and circumstance.

Why? She was pregnant!

Because she was “great with child,” school administration decided there’d be no place for Maddi in the line of graduates taking the big walk across the stage to receive their high school diplomas. And she was removed from her leadership position on the student council. And she had to stand before an assembly of the entire student body and confess her decision to have sexual relations before marriage, which was a big no-no in the school’s code of student conduct.

Did I mention that the baby-daddy faced no consequences for his role in the sensuous encounter with Maddi?

The whole awkward situation would have remained private and confidential had Maddi and her family not made the decision to go public. They reached out to an anti-abortion group, “Students for Life,” who maintained that Maddi should be praised, not punished, for her decision to keep her baby. And that argument is not without its merits.

Even so, I still tend to think that school officials fell short in missing a great opportunity – just as that angry crowd in our reading also missed the point. In everyone’s vigor to enforce the letter of the law, what got lost was the holy work of restoration: Returning Maddi to her former standing, welcoming her back to the good graces of the community, remembering in this and so many other potentially embarrassing instances that “there but for the grace of God go I.” As Jesus puts it, “Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!”

Yes, Maddi signed a covenant with her school committing herself to chastity before marriage. But unlike Old Testament Law, which clearly states the punishment for such violations, the covenant Maddi signed was silent about the punishment that awaited a rule-breaker. The school code only mentioned that there would be consequences for behavior that cut against the grain of the school’s morality.

Of course, as always, Jesus embodies the faithful way forward.

Having fulfilled the penalty of Maddi’s poor decision – as well as the myriad trespasses of her administrators, classmates, and teachers, the Lord shows his people that any human consequences for breaking the rules must be grounded in mercy and grace, for the purpose of restoring the offender to the fullness of loving community.

Why make “human consequences” its own subcategory? Because there are natural consequences over which we have no control: Like having to raise a child as a single parent, having to struggle to make financial and career goals, having to walk around for nine months with an ever-expanding baby bump that reveals to the entire Christian community her failure to keep her promise.

The same sorts of natural consequences appear in the story of the woman caught in adultery. The effects of her decisions on her family and herself remain, even after Christ removes the guilt of her sin and delivers her from the punishment of the law.

Refusing to allow Maddi the honor of walking in her graduation is not a natural consequence of her premarital sex nor does the punishment restore her to the community of faith. Quite the opposite: It shuns her presence and removes her from fellowship.

“But pastor,” you might argue, “letting her walk would signal to all the other students that breaking the honor code is OK. When they’re not vaping in the bathroom, they’ll be having sex in the band room!”

Well, maybe.

But if that were the case, then Jesus himself commits the same mistake and fosters the same behavior by pardoning that adulterous woman before a crowd of people and refusing to enforce the biblical requirement that such fornicators be put to death. And remember, this Jewish woman knows – even before sleeping with her lover – that her escapades could result in death, and Jesus still does not enforce the clear command of the covenant by punishing her.

Instead, as with that hapless woman and with you and me, Jesus, on the Cross, lets himself be punished. Which means that the price has already been paid. Forgiveness and grace are ours in Christ, whether we are the guilty fornicator or the repentant legalist. Thus the question remains: Will you and I extend that same mercy to the sinners we know, love, and serve? Or we will stand rigid, stone in hand, screaming for the sinner to pay?

The apostle Paul urges Christ’s disciples to the higher road. I’m reading to you from Paul’s letter to the church at Galatia. As ever, continue listening for the Word of the Lord.

My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.

Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads. Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher.

Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. (Galatians 6:1-10)

The lyrics to a powerful-but-admittedly secular tune by the rock group Pink Floyd well express the spirituality of Paul’s heart as well as mine:

On the turning away/From the pale and downtrodden

And the words they say/Which we won’t understand

Don’t accept that what’s happening/Is just a case of others’ suffering

Or you’ll find that you’re joining in/The turning away

In the bearing of one another’s burdens, in the forgiving of those who sin against us, let there be no more turning away. By the Holy Spirit of gentleness, let there be only restoration of belonging, for Christ’s sake.

Amen, and amen!

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, March 19, 2023, the fourth Sunday of Lent at First Presbyterian Church in Waukon, Iowa. It is the third of his Lenten series, “Called to Repentance: Working on Our Relationships.” Reporting by Sheryl Gay Stolberg and reflection by Ardee Coolidge inform the message.

Leave a Reply