In John 8, Jesus encounters a woman caught in adultery. Trapped in the enormous difficulties of being human.
Her accusers want to execute her.
Jesus forgives her.
And then he sends her off with those words:
Go and sin no more…
As I struggle to continually discover truth and meaning in scripture, trying to navigate the waters of church and theology and culture, I find lots and lots of people who seem to want to hang everything on those five little words…not by seeing them for what they are, but for what they think those words imply.
It’s as if they subconsciously add a couple of extra words to what Jesus says:
“Go and sin no more…OR ELSE!”
Yes, they say, God is love. Yes, they say, God forgives. “BUT…”
BUT God’s love must be balanced by God’s wrath/judgment.
BUT God’s forgiveness demands something of us.
BUT we must repent to receive God’s grace.
There HAS to be an “OR ELSE!”
I keep looking. I keep reading. I keep studying. I keep praying.
And for the life of me, I can’t find the “OR ELSE.”
It’s as if Jesus meant it was enough to simply say “Go and sin no more.” It’s as if by saying just those five words, Jesus was assured that his command would be carried out.
It’s as if Jesus didn’t think it was necessary to add an “OR ELSE.”
The more I look and read and study and pray and interact with the scriptures and with people, the more convinced I become that the “OR ELSE” voice comes from those for whom the command itself is not enough. It comes from those who feel compelled to read the Bible as a rulebook rather than as a love story, and who feel justified in assuming the role of enforcer.
Sorry, but I’m perfectly comfortable with Jesus as the enforcer of his own words. And if he didn’t need an “OR ELSE,” neither do I. And neither do you.
Yes, God gives people commands and rules within the broad sweep of the scriptural narrative.
But nowhere are those commands and rules intended to be a standard by which God measures our worthiness for his love and affection and forgiveness.
From the Genesis story, to the Exodus account of Moses bringing the 10 Commandments down from the mountain, to the Deuteronomical laws, to the pronouncements of the prophets, to the parables and sayings of Jesus, to Paul’s instructions to the early church, the commands and rules God gives are never intended to curry his favor.
They are intended to maximize human thriving.
When John the Baptist and Jesus tell the people of 1st Century Israel to “repent and believe,” it is not meant as some kind of sequential system by which one’s disembodied soul “goes to heaven” after they die.
It is to tell them how they can experience the most that life has to offer. Both here and now AND for eternity.
To repent is not a condition for receiving God’s blessing.
It is a response to experiencing it.
And that’s why Jesus doesn’t need an “OR ELSE.” When those people he encountered in the margins of society experienced him in person, the encounter was enough.
Genuine, authentic encounters with Jesus are transformative. If you’ve encountered Jesus for real, you don’t need an “OR ELSE.”
Now, before you go accusing me of throwing out the moral code of Christianity, or of that bane of modern-day reformed theology, “going easy on sin,” let me clarify things a bit.
First, I think we make a mistake when we talk about “sin” as a particular behavior or set of behaviors. At its deepest essence, “sin” is chronic self-centeredness. It is believing we can be our own God, making choices that benefit our individual desires over and above the good of others in particular or humanity in general.
In his famous 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, the late author David Foster Wallace called that kind of self-centeredness our “default setting.” Because we experience everything about life through our own unique perspective, we really have no choice but to put our own thoughts and wants and needs and desires first.
That’s really what’s at the heart of what we might call “original sin.”
Because at its core, “sin” is the absence of love.
And so when Jesus says, “Go and sin no more…” what he’s saying is, “Go and love. Love people extravagantly and unconditionally. Love other people’s needs and desires more than your own. Love my sisters and brothers and sons and daughters and everything I’ve created JUST LIKE I LOVE YOU!”
Let’s be honest. That’s hard. Much harder than saying, “follow this list of rules…OR ELSE!”
If sin is the absence of love, then morality is what happens when love abounds. It doesn’t need an “OR ELSE!”
My prayer for us all is that we have those daily genuine encounters with Jesus.
Those encounters that transform us.
Those encounters where Jesus loves us and forgives us.
Where he tells us, “Go and sin no more.”
And that’s enough.