Mercy Minutes #22

A reflection on question 9 from the pastoral letter by Tim Welch, Diocesan Education Media/Technology Consultant.

Q. What does it mean to say that the Church welcomes sinners?

The section in Bishop Don Kettler’s Pastoral Letter on Church speaks of the Church as being:

… a sacrament of mercy. Rooted in the Incarnation, sacrament refers to a material reality that makes present — really present — the immaterial reality of God’s grace, the Spirit of God with us.

That means that we, the community called Church, have the honor and vocation of pointing to and making present the reign of God. We are the sacrament, the embodiment, of God’s desire to make God’s love real.

As a youngster growing up in a tradition that has formalized our Sacraments of initiation, community, forgiveness, service, healing and love, I had a bit of a magical understanding of sacrament. We performed a ritual, and God would respond with a grace. Part of my formation as an adult Catholic came from reading Avery Dulles’ Models of the Church where he includes Church as sacrament as one of the models. Imagine! We are a sacrament! We are a sign of God’s active love in the world! We are to make that love truly real, truly present.

And Yikes! That was a heavy insight with a heavy responsibility. No longer was sacrament a magical way of getting grace, it was a “material reality that makes present … the immaterial reality.” And that opened my eyes to a wider view of the world, and a wider sense of responsibility.

Bishop Kettler reminds us, too, that the Church is a sacrament. And, since we are the Church, it is up to us to remember that:

We are to be a living and effective sign of God’s love in the world, a sign that does not just point to the love of God but makes it really present among us.

So, how do we, the Church, welcome sinners?

Who are sinners? (If you are like me, you have already answered that question … we all are). One concept of sin, as developed in the Hebrew Scriptures, is to “miss the mark.” The ‘mark’, of course, is a strong love relationship with God.

One time a couple of high school friends were talking about moral issues, and they asked a parent if it was a ‘sin’ to do such and such. The dad replied, “That’s the wrong question. The right question is, ‘Will we grow closer to God if we do such and such’.”

If we think of sin not so much as bad things we do, but as a state of ‘missing the mark’, it is easier to see how we are all sinners, and how much we all need community to support each other in the struggle to keep on the mark. Viewing sin in this way, I suppose it could be said that someone may be able to go through life without doing naughty things, but still be a sinner if he/she never grew in their love with God. Being a ‘sinner’ in this sense is less about a person who commits bad acts, and more about being part of the human condition. (It is a comforting part of God’s mercy to know that the starting point isn’t condemnation, Jesus showed us that on the cross 2000 years ago. The starting point is how do we respond to the fact that we are loved and are call to grow in that love, which is “the mark”.)

So how do we welcome sinners, especially if we are counted among ‘them’? I wonder if it boils down to building a community of hospitality. A community that recognizes that:

  • bad people need a place to turn to for forgiveness
  • good people need to find a community for support as they seek a deeper relationship with God
  • lonely people need a place of belonging
  • conservative people and liberal people need to join together in ways that put less emphasis on being right and more emphasis on right loving
  • sick people need a community of healing
  • [add your own need for a hospitable community here]

In other words, creating a community that will be a sacrament of mercy.

One commentator wrote about the following video, “While the video itself is a bit cheesy the message couldn’t be anymore powerful. Wow!”

I like it because it shows how one man encounters “sinners” (in the broader sense of people in their human condition) and responds to it in a very specific way. He became a sacrament of God’s love. Can we too give everyone a deep benefit of the doubt, work on our credibility as a welcoming People of God, and be that sacrament of God’s mercy that we are called to be?