Monday, March 12, 2007

We're Not Worthy

During the opening confession yesterday, I took pause at the words "We are not worthy to be called your children." A friend had joined us for worship, and I knew from past discussions that she takes issue with this sort of theology. Doesn't God love us as we are? And if God loves us, who is it who thinks we're not worthy?

But I've also been reading Anthony Bloom's Living Prayer in which he suggests that we must always approach prayer as a sort of Last Judgment and, as such, should always come before God with this sort of attitude of unworthiness.

And so for much of the worship service, my mind was occupied by this question. Two stories from the desert fathers came to mind.

The first is a story of two monks who went into town to sell the baskets they had weaved and to buy bread. Once in town they separated. One monk sold his baskets, bought some bread and waited for his friend. When they met again, the second monk said to the first, "You return to the monastery without me, for I have fallen into temptation with a woman and am no longer worthy to live in the community." But the first monk replied, "Not so brother, for I also have fallen into temptation. Let us go back together and confess our sin and receive whatever discipline is necessary." So the two monks returned to the monastery and together confessed and remained in the community as penitents.

From this story I considered the corporate nature of confession. Some of us have surely committed graver sins than others. Some of us are more aware of our sins than others. But in confessing together, we stand together. Together, we are not worthy to be called children of God. And so we bear one another's burdens.

The second story that came to mind is a story of Bessarion. A man was being sent out of the church because of some moral offense. But Bessarion arose and left with him saying, "I also am a sinful man."

This story is like the first in that it also contains an element of standing together in sin and bearing one another's burdens. It also contains a bit of the theological point that if we are to be judged on sin, none of us can stand, though I don't think this is really the point of the story.

The phrase "we are not worthy to be called your children" is clearly taken from the story of the prodigal son. If the father's reaction to this claim tells us anything, it's that he couldn't care less whether or not the son merits acceptance. We can only speculate what would have happened if the son had come strutting home saying, "Hey dad, let's party." I suspect the father would have grieved knowing that he would soon lose his son again.

And so I think this sense of unworthiness is for us and not for God. It is the condition in which we are capable of accepting reconciliation with God. Many of us these days, and I suspect it's nothing new, have trouble seeing ourselves in need of such a state. We're cool with God, right? But it's a shallow cool.

Bessarion's action was a prophetic act. It showed the church that was sending away the sinful man what true spirituality must look like.

Confession of sin -- real sin, systemic sin, far-reaching sin -- is a prized part of our spiritual heritage, but in many places I fear it is in danger of becoming a gaudy show piece more than a deep part of our spirituality. Those with different aesthetic sensibilities might need some help understanding the beauty of it.

5 comments:

Only Look said...

Wasn't it Martin Luther that said, "Man swings on a pendulum from pride to despair" ?

Yes we are to admit our depravity but he doesn't leave us there as he offers such hope:

"But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees saying, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord."....

...."And Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men." Luke 5:8&10

"And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, "Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?" And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, "Weep no more: behold the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals." Revelation 5:2-5

The God/Man Jesus, the firstborn and only perfect representative among us is worthy as he has met the demand for justice and gives life to us in Him.

Andy said...

Hi ol, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Theologically, we're told that we are made worthy through the merits of Christ (and hence the form of confession I noted is used only during Lent).

But pastorally and spiritually, I can't help but wonder if the theology doesn't just obscure the point. Even theologically, I'm not sure it isn't a right answer to a wrong question.

Tom in Ontario said...

Thanks for those thoughts. I think I might just go along those lines for Sunday's sermon.

Andy said...

Tom,

I'd be interested in seeing how you develop this, if you do go in this direction.

Only Look said...

Wesley was once asked by his teacher if he believed God forgave his sins. He replied by telling him God died for the sins of the world but the teacher said, "No I asked if he died for your sins."

Wesley was a missionary and very devoted spending his whole life in penance trying to gain the favor of God fully undersanding he wasn't worthy but never resting on the fact personally. It wasn't until he went to minister and be a missionary to the Moravian Indians did he see the joy on their faces and desired to have what they had. Faith in Christ. So yes the theological facts are dead in the water if one does not believe. If that is what you were saying. Perhaps..perhaps not. Heres a good little article from over at>The Stumbling Block