Preaching Amidst a Denial of Sin
In this post I want to address a major issue with preparing people for the Sacrament of Reconciliation in a culture that does not accept personal sin by showing how preaching the basic gospel message is the only remedy. Central to each gospel is the understanding of Jesus as Savior. Humanity has a poor track record listening to wise men and sages, or in following through with their exhortations, which directly points to our need for a savior, for someone who is more than a moralist, intellectual guide, or guru.
For some Jesus as Savior is offensive because they recoil at the need to be saved. In more progressive areas of the country there is a hesitancy or denial of the reality of personal sin. I find that no one flat out rejects it, though many need assistance in seeing its destructive reality in their own lives. This is crucial for forming people for the sacrament of Reconciliation. After all, how can someone make a good confession without acknowledging the personal reality of his/her own sins?
When in this situation for sacrament preparation, I always use John's narrative of the Samaritan woman at the well in chapter 4. We talk about the social sins of racism (4:9), gender discrimination and – if the audience is right for it – even slut shaming (4:19). Why? Because though they may reject personal sin, as Sherry Weddell points out in her landmark book Forming Intentional Disciples, they accept the existence of social and structural sin, like racism, sexism and the like. This becomes a bridge. You start where your audience is, like Paul preaching in Athens or Pope Francis in the United States. If you wish to win people to Christ, you start with common ground and bring them from there to the cross.
When working with such an audience I emphasize how Jesus Christ broke through the “dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14) that kept people apart in order to bring this woman the gift of mercy, love, dignity and restoration. Look at how Jesus approaches this woman in defiance of the walls human sinfulness has put up in order to give her His grace- walls like women were not allowed to talk to men who aren’t kin, like Jews and Samaritans hating one another, like her sexual/marital past that made her an outcast of her own people (hence drawing water alone at noon instead with the other women at dawn).
Jesus sent away his Apostles to get food so that this conversation could happen. He did not ignore her sin, her pain, her shame, but was going to her directly because of these (Cf. John 4:4), because He is her Savior. Jesus embraced her messiness, the same ones her neighbors shamed her for.
This is where the Gospel message hits such an audience: the Samaritan woman found freedom from sin and shame because of the saving action of Christ. He went to her, as He comes to you now, not in spite of your sin, but because of it. He wants to save you from your sins just as much as he wants to tear down these dividing walls of hostility our sinfulness keeps putting up in the world. This is the freedom we find in the Confessional. This freedom is meant to radiate outwards into the cities in which we live.
People in the pews might be in denial, but in their heart of hearts the Holy Spirit can still convict them of their sin. It’s just that they have never had a strong reason to let Him do it, until they clearly see the Savior’s mercy for them as individuals. I move them from social sin to personal sin to the mercy of Christ who already conquered sin by His death and resurrection. All that is left is for them to do is to leave their sin behind, like Samaritan did (4:29).
Everyone wants redemption, even paradoxically those who deny personal sin. It is only the proclamation of the Gospel that can break through these obstacles in order to bring the reconciliation of the Church to these hungry souls. Though their social ideologies might deny personal sin and thereby escape blame and guilt, the kerygma has the power to break in and challenge these presuppositions.
God love you!