John 12:20-33

Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine, if you can, a world without religion; and not only that, but a world where no one speaks of spiritual realities. The word God is not heard, nor the word sin. Of course, both would be present. After all, gravity operated in the days before anyone knew its name or understood the concept. So here we are, oblivious to any higher or greater purpose for our lives, other than getting and spending; and at the same time prisoners of our own sins and the sins of others. I say prisoners, because sin works on us the way cowboys work to brand a calf: in effect, it throws us to the ground and ties us hand and foot.  Can you imagine a more mired existence?   We would have to invent tremendous distractions, just to keep ourselves from reflecting.

Now let’s ask ourselves: what would it take to turn this hell-on-earth into heaven-on-earth – and not only heaven on earth, but beyond this life into eternity? It would take an awareness of the spiritual dimension of life. Actually, only two spiritual insights are required. First we would need to be aware of God and the true nature of God. Second we would need to be aware of the true nature of ourselves. I have spoken before about the true nature of God, how God can only love – how God desires and plans only one thing for us, that we should experience heaven-on-earth and beyond. Just to be aware of that much gives us a leg up out of the mire. This morning I want to focus on the other spiritual insight, the awareness of our own true nature.

Our truth is this. We stand, as it were, with our left foot in one reality and our right foot in another. We can readily describe the right foot reality. John’s Gospel calls it the world. Paul in his epistles calls it the flesh. Jesus calls it this generation. It contains all sense data, all thoughts and memories, all desires, ambitions and intentions, all our interactions and emotions – in short, the whole world of contingencies, of cause and effect – the world in which we spend our days.

We describe the left foot reality less easily, because we human beings spend so little time there. John’s Gospel calls it the world of believing. He does not mean by this a set of propositions that we accept on faith; believing means a way of living based on love. Paul uses various expressions, such as putting on the mind of Christ, or living the new life in the Spirit. Jesus called it eternal life. Probably all of us here have experienced it at one time or another. For instance, we might suddenly find ourselves completely centered the the present moment, experiencing a profound peace. Without any evidence – or more to the point, with all evidence to the contrary – a conviction sweeps over us that all will be well. We sense that we do not exist as isolated individuals, but we live creatively as interdependent cells of a great organic whole. Above all, we feel how we are loved, not as a faceless unit in a great assembly, but individually, intimately, uniquely. This left-foot reality, so to speak, comes not as a thought, but as an awareness too deep for words. Only afterwards can we try to describe it.

If we want to live in heaven-on-earth, we need to bring these two realities together. Most of us human beings live as if we had to stand on one foot or the other; when in fact, we need to walk on both feet. What stands in the way of our walking? Simply put, sin. Sin takes away our freedom to move. That is why we speak of forgiveness. If we look at the Greek origin of the word, forgive, we discover that it means to release, to allow to run free. Sin binds, forgiveness liberates.  Think about it. Recall a time when you injured someone. Doesn’t an inward paralysis follow, a sense of constriction, or as if a burden had been laid on our spirits? Sin can diminish even our physical freedom of movement. Whether we believe in sin or not, it operates on us like a ball and chain.

Sin’s most insidious effect lies at the deepest level, usually unacknowledged. Have you ever dropped a pebble into the center of a sea anemone? There it sits with all its tentacles open in the sun’s filtered light, waving to the rhythm of the sea, then the pebble lands and all at once the tentacles close up, and the anemone become tight, hard, closed. Sin works on us like that. Even God’s love cannot get in. That is sin’s most insidious effect; because if God’s love and God’s forgiveness cannot get in, then no love can get in, not even our own.

Our condition goes by different names: low self-esteem, a feeling of inferiority, a lack of self-worth, defensiveness, but it all stems from sin’s paralyzing grip that keeps us from accepting ourselves and loving ourselves just as we are, just as God loves and accepts us. We cannot forgive ourselves. Sin’s most insidious effect amounts to a longing and a loneliness that nothing that the right foot reality – what we might call ‘this world’ – can meet or fill.

What about the left foot reality? Here lies our hope. Where right-foot reality seeks a good reputation, and goes after it with good behavior, left-foot reality seeks relationship, especially relationship with God, even communion with God. Where, for right-foot reality, sin tarnishes, terribly; for left-foot reality sin holds open the door to that intimate relationship with God for which we long. Right-foot reality abhors sin, tries to deny it, and refuses to face it. Left-foot reality steels itself and faces and feels the pain of sin.

This would be a masochistic exercise, except for the crucifixion and the resurrection. When Jesus said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” he meant the glory of this twin event. The crucifixion would make real and graphic the suffering that follows from sin; and the resurrection would make equally real God’s complete forgiveness of sin – our complete release from blame or judgment. This twin event can be called the provision God has made to save us from ourselves.

As long as we remain in our right-foot reality, we cannot take that forgiveness on board. Why? Because we cannot bear to face the terrible tarnishing our sins entail. I just look too bad, too weak, too much of a failure. If what I care about most is the judgment of the world, then I cannot bear to look at my sins. I cannot receive the forgiveness. I cannot go forth into the light, released and free. I cannot accept salvation.

A grim paradox operates here. Those who have done the greatest wrong are potentially those who can draw closest to God. Should this encourage sin? Hardly. If we look full in the face of Jesus on the cross, which is to say, face the full impact of even those sins we consider trivial, we will discover that no sin is trivial. Our gratitude for God’s release can go just as deep as that of the greatest sinner. Think of John Newton, a classic example of this. The film, “Amazing Grace,” accurately depicts him as a older man, full of joy and peace, working at menial jobs in a monastery; yet he had spent most of his adult life as a slave trader, responsible for countless deaths and suffering beyond measure. Even a past such as his cannot prevent us from living in the bliss of God’s forgiveness and love. But the point to be made is this: we have to open ourselves to it. It is there in God’s outstretched hand. It is there in God’s yearning eyes; but the action of receiving it must come from us.

The action of receiving it can only come from what I am calling our left-foot reality. To access that reality we go through our prayer closet, to use Jesus’ expression. However I define or practice prayer, I must spend significant time alone with God, as Jesus did, every day. As our practice develops, we shall find ourselves living more and more out of that right-foot reality, more and more able to face the consequences of our sins; and in the great paradox of the spiritual life, find ourselves more and more able to love and accept ourselves as God loves and accepts us, just as we are.

As our practice develops and we become more familiar with the left foot’s territory, we discover that the other territory has changed as well. We become less reactive and more responsive. We are free to make different choices. We are free to act on behalf of others, helping them to become free in turn, not just from the bondage of sin, but from the bondage of poverty, injustice, disease. This is what it means to walk on both feet.

Let me sum up what I have been saying. Sin can be a blessing or a curse. It is up to us. If we want to reap its blessings, then a daily practice of prayer and meditation is the only way to go. This daily practice brings our left-foot reality into balance and harmony with our right foot, so that we step out joyfully, free at last to ‘walk the talk’. Amen.

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