Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
Jesus met a lot of people during his three-year ministry, and you and I would think of many of them as exceptional cases. He healed a man born blind, for example, and raised Lazarus from the dead. He cast out demons – a much different affliction, by the way, than mental illness – and then there was the woman in this morning’s gospel, who expressed her gratitude and her love for Jesus in a dramatic and emotional way. She’d lived a hard life, full of sin. Her neighbors held her at a distance; a guilty conscience tormented her. She expected her life to be an everlasting round of sin, guilt, and shame – though she might not have used those words to describe her plight – until she met Jesus. Maybe she heard him speak that very day. He taught her about the joys that would come to her if she repented of her sins and accepted God’s pardon. She followed his command and welcomed him into her heart. He freed her from the low opinion she had of herself; her mind and soul were no longer tortured. Jesus brought her into his kingdom and she knew that he was her friend. He encouraged her to keep on trusting him and to hope for a better life – of forgiveness, love, and faith.
Martin Luther once pointed out that the Pharisee was wrong to have called her a sinner. It would have been more accurate to say that she once lived an openly sinful life, but now she is a believer, a Christian, someone who loves God and other people and who know looks ahead to blessedness and well-being in her present life and in eternity. Jesus has given her a new understanding. She has moved from the realm of sin and death into Christ’s kingdom of life.
Her case is extreme, as we said, but it is an illustration of the way God works to build up faith and love. The Holy Spirit uses God’s laws to make us aware of our failings and some of the ways we have displeased him. We are sorry for our misdeeds. The Spirit uses our understanding of our weakness and error to awake in us a desire for rescue, a craving for a savior. God then leads us to trust in the Savior that he sent. He invites us to cling to Jesus for the salvation we need. Then by a movement of our souls that God creates and that he alone understands, we receive Christ and his offer of deliverance. We welcome Jesus as our friend and Savior. We rejoice that forgiveness, faith, and love have come to us. We are new people, born again. We don’t hunger for the world but want what God wants for us. We become faithful and loving, eager to perform works of love.
This process can take place in a very short space of time, as was the case with the woman in this morning’s gospel. She saw Jesus; she was filled with sorrow for her sins; she understood that she needed a Savior and that Jesus offered her salvation. She accepted him joyfully, with tears of gratitude. She looked ahead to a life of loving relationships, beginning with the Lord, that would last forever.
Luke’s account of this brief episode in her life holds our attention. There aren’t many people in her situation, with her past. We’re all sinners, though, and the point is that Jesus offers everyone the kind of relationship he offered her, one of forgiveness, faith, and love. St. Peter’s people accept the Lord’s offer. We believe in him and welcome his love and return it and spread it. We’re not perfect, of course, but we do bring Christian love to other people – in our families, in the community, and in the church. We forgive our neighbors; we encourage them; we help them carry their burdens. Jesus has built up among us the kind of love that John described in his first letter: “We love and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him...this commandment we have from God – that he who loves God should love his brother also.” So God has given us the kind of community that others want to be part of.
The church is different from the set-up the Pharisees in this morning’s gospel had in mind. The Pharisees were among the spiritual leaders of Jesus’ time – admirable people in many ways, pious and devout, who worked as hard as they could to live within the framework of their many laws. As far as conduct and behavior went, the Pharisees were far above other people of their day. What’s more, they made their guidelines available to others so that they, too, could escape, supposedly, the corruption of the world. In the Pharisee’s opinion, the woman who came to Jesus should be avoided, because she hadn’t done her best to lift herself out of the corruption of the world. She was – according to him – a sinner. He judged her because he believed in a religion of works, which teaches that we win God’s favor by trying to live by laws, and the better we do, the more favor we receive. One outcome of this kind of religion is not repentance and faith and joy in the Lord and loving relationships with others but self-righteousness: “I’m better than you are.” This sort of attitude turns people off and turns God off, too. Even Jesus, who had a right to, never spoke like that. He came as a servant, who wanted to heal, to deliver lost people from the clutches of sin, death, and the devil, and to make the kingdom of God’s love available to everyone. “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy-laden,” he said, “and I will give you rest.” So he forgave the woman’s sins and praised her behavior toward him because it proved she’d received him in her heart. She’s full of enthusiasm for her Savior and rightly so. It was a high point in her life.
But what about her situation a few a few years later? Was she still on fire for the Lord? The Bible doesn’t tell us but we can use our imaginations.
Let’s say she faced many challenges and temptations, like everyone else, and that she endured moments of anguish, but because Jesus offered her the healing of pardon, and because she welcomed him as her friend, she never sank back into the hopelessness that was once the hall- mark of her life. Jesus claimed her; he rescued her; he set his seal on her. He made it possible for her to move ahead boldly and confidently and take up the works of love that he had planned for her.
The same is true for us. Jesus strengthens us to cope with life. We have our challenges and temptations, and some of them may have the potential to discourage us – illness, unemployment, losses of various kinds. Jesus doesn’t expect us to repeat again a process that we have already passed through. He asks us instead to call on his help and build on the gifts of pardon and friendship he has already given us. And as we call on him, he helps us overcome the obstacles that get in our. We don’t slip back. We move forward. We run with confidence, as Paul says, the race that is put before us. Whatever happens, we have the assurance that God has called us, that we are his chosen people, his elect.
We turn to Jesus again and again for guidance, for building up, and for absolution. There are moments when we struggle with temptation; we sometimes wrestle with God in prayer. All the while we trust that he’s building us up, that he uses our trials and tribulations for our good and his glory and that he will answer our prayers and meet our needs. We don’t let discouragement get the best of us for long.
The woman in this morning’s gospel sets an example. Forgiven and uplifted, she ignores everything that works to discourage her and lead her to sin and focuses entirely on Jesus. The eagerness that springs from single-hearted faithfulness shows us that she is born again to new life. As we keep hold of forgiveness and eternal life in Jesus, we ourselves will have our share of eagerness. We pray, then, that the Lord keep on lifting us up with his never failing gospel so that the our zest for Jesus won’t stay still but flourish and grow. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.