Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Your Slate is Clear” (Colossians 2:13-14)
July 28, 2019
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Many years ago when I was a youth minster during the 90’s—the age of Grunge music, Doc Marten boots, Jennifer Aniston haircuts, Adam Sandler movies, and bleached hair—we took high schoolers on an annual fall retreat weekend between the end of high school football season and Thanksgiving. On Saturday night we had a bonfire in the crisp fall weather and we would talk about Jesus’ death on the cross being enough to forgive us for all our sins, no exceptions.
We distributed blank sheets of paper and pens for the kids to write down privately all the sins they felt guilty about, then fold that paper and nail it to an old wooden cross that we used just for that one night every year. Some kids just scribbled down a quick something so they could get back to other things, mostly flirting around the campfire or plotting about sneaking out of their cabins later, as if I were not fully aware of those plans because I too was once one of “those” kids.
Other kids however would write and write and write. We would wait until everyone had finished writing down what they wanted forgiveness for and nailing their folded papers to the old wooden cross. Then corporately we would say the confession from The Book of Common Prayer, “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed…” (360)—the same confession we pray here every Sunday.
Then each kid would take their folded paper of sins off the cross and toss it into the bonfire, and watch them burn into oblivion. Even for the most jaded kids it was often very moving. They knew something good was happening. And we would read these words from today’s passage from the Paul’s Letter to the Colossians:
When you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us, with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2:13-14).
Paul gets right to heart of the gospel in this passage, God’s forgiveness of our sins. That is what Jesus’s death on the cross was all about, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3). Peter said the same thing a slightly different way, “Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18).
Paul does not mince words or beat around the bush in today’s passage. There is nothing oblique or nuanced about it. “When you were dead in trespasses,” Paul wrote, “and the uncircumcision of your flesh”—in other words, when you were so hard in your heart, when you were so callused toward right and wrong, when you did not and could not care any less about God or God’s standards, when you dismissed the gospel and church and all of it as nonsense, a myth, a social narcotic to take the edge off the anxiety of your meaningless and painful existence—“God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses.” This is high octane, turbo powered gospel. This is the actual gospel, which sounds too good to be true, but is true nonetheless, which is why the gospel is such good, good, very good news for sinners and sufferers the world over, including you.
Not only has God forgiven you all your sins, as we read in today’s passage, God has erased “the record that stood against (you), with its legal demands” and “set this aside, nailing it to the cross.” All your sins recorded against you have been folded on a paper and nailed to the old wooden cross and burned to oblivion by the unconditional, forgiving love of God. One of my favorite biblical scholars, the late and prolific F. F. Bruce described this in his commentary on this passage:
Yes, the apostle insists, this is what has happened to you. You were spiritually and morally dead…But now you have been brought to life again—brought to life in Christ, who was himself dead and came to life again…And in giving you this new life with Christ, God has broken you clean away from your past. He has freely forgiven all your sins…Christ has wiped the slate clean and given you a fresh start. He took that signed acknowledgment of indebtedness which stood as a perpetual witness against you and cancelled it by his death (The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians 108-109).
I may have shared this next story in a previous sermon but I honestly do not remember, so if you have already heard it, just pretend otherwise. When I was in eighth grade we had Latin class right after lunch. Every day we conjugated verbs and declined nouns and translated rudimentary Latin sentences while warding off the unavoidable and incessant post lunch drowsiness. This was in the dark ages before cell phones so many kids my age were highly adept and skilled writers and passers of handwritten notes. We would put folded notes in textbooks we would pass to our friends, or place rolled up notes in hollowed out pens that we would hand to one another. The more brazen and bold would simply pass the note itself or wad it up and toss it to the recipient while the teacher’s back was turned. Our Latin teacher had a zero tolerance policy about passing notes, which meant if he caught you passing a note, he would read said note out loud to the whole class. This often produced moments of both hilarity and high anxiety.
We had assigned seats in that class and I had a crazy crush on the beautiful brunette who sat right in front of me, so you know where this is going. One particular hot spring afternoon I just could not decline or conjugate or translate any longer, I had to write a note to the girl who sat in front of me. I was actually rather skilled in the art of passing notes so I was not worried about getting caught. The problem was that as I was writing this note I got “into the zone” and completely checked out as I waxed on and on about how beautiful and smart and wonderful this girl was. The next thing I knew there was an awkward snickering in the class that snapped me out of my writer’s trance. To my dismay I saw the Latin teacher standing right next to me. He had his hand held out, “You know how this works,” he said. I turned purple with embarrassment and with trembling fingers handed him my masterpiece in progress. Then I sat there waiting for the axe to fall.
The teacher walked to the front of the classroom and silently read that note to himself for a moment. The waiting was unbearable for me, as I was thinking, “Just get it over with and put me out of my misery already.” Then that teacher did something I will never forget. “Dave,” he said, “this is pretty good stuff, but it’s not Latin. Please pay attention.” Then instead of reading that note out loud, he folded it and put it in his pocket. Some the students who never dared write or pass notes pleaded, “Come on, read the note! You’re supposed to read it out loud! This isn’t fair!” But he would not do it, and he never did. I cannot describe the relief I felt in that moment. I would have conjugated a thousand verbs for that teacher.
That kind of forgiveness was always at the heart of Jesus’ earthly ministry. One of his first healing miracles occurred when a paralytic was carried by a few friends to the house where Jesus was healing people. The house was so crowded there was no way to make it to Jesus. And yet that did not stop the paralytic’s friends, who hauled him onto the roof, cut a hole in that same roof, and lowered the stunned paralytic down all the way Jesus. And when Jesus saw how much faith the paralytic’s friends had, he looked at the helpless man on the mat, the helpless man who had literally just been along for the ride and told him something completely unexpected. Do you remember what Jesus told him?
Jesus gently said, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:1-5). Neither the paralytic’s friends nor the paralytic himself had asked for forgiveness, and yet Jesus knew that the need of the paralytic to know he was forgiven was even more important than his need to walk. There were some in the crowd who did not like this at all, who stated indignantly, “It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7)—“Come on, read the note! You’re supposed to read it out loud! This isn’t fair!”—but Jesus forgave him anyway, and never read the note.
And as you know, Jesus also healed him physically, commanding, “Stand up, and take your mat, and go to your house (Mark 2:10-11). Most of you here have no problem walking around, although some of you may do so with your joints creaking a bit in protest, but do you know that you are forgiven by God? Do you know God has erased the record against you, set it aside, nailed to the cross?
In his Grammy nominated song “Square One” one of my favorite theologians, the late rock ‘n roll icon Tom Petty, put it this way:
Last time through I hid my tracks
So well I could not get back
My way was hard to find
Can’t sell your soul for peace of mind
Square one, my slate is clear
Rest your head on me, my dear
It took a world of trouble, it took a world of tears
It took a long time to get back here
(From his 2006 album Highway Companion).
And that is the gospel. When you were dead in trespasses, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave you all your trespasses, erasing the record that stood against you, with its legal demands. God set it aside, nailing it to the cross. God’s words to you today are the same words Jesus spoke to the paralytic many years ago, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
On Good Friday the Roman soldiers told Jesus, “You know how this works,” and Jesus held out his hands—the same hands he had used to heal lepers, and comfort mourners, and reassure doubters, and forgive sinners—and those hands were nailed to the cross. And even then Jesus prayed for them, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing”, and Jesus prayed for you, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
On Good Friday Jesus folded up your note, the one you were writing, and put it in his pocket.
As Jesus was nailed to the cross the record against you was nailed to it as well. As Jesus’ life was erased, the record against you was erased as well. As Jesus was set aside by an unforgiving world, the record against you was set aside. Jesus wiped your slate clean and gave you a brand new start.
If you were a high school kid at a bonfire on a fall retreat on a crisp November night, with the opportunity to write down the sins you still feel guilty about and fold that paper and nail it to an old wooden cross, perhaps some of you would quickly scribble something and get on to other things, but I suspect others of you would “write and write and write.” But no matter how much you would write, God’s forgiveness written with the blood of Christ still covers it, all of it, always.
Even though you may not have asked for it, God has still forgiven you. That is the good news of the gospel.
Today may the Holy Spirit assure you anew of God’s forgiveness for you, and whisper in your heart, “Square one, your slate is clear; rest your head on me, my dear.”