I have a good friend who is in federal prison.
Sometimes I speak that out loud, and the reality is still hard to believe. We attended the same college, where I met him, and throughout my time there, we ran around with the same circle of friends. After college, we ended up attending the same seminary. He was a year ahead of me, so when I showed up on that seminary campus one sunny August day with all my worldly possessions crammed in my Corolla, he helped me to settle in and to find a job where he worked. I was a thousand of miles from home, and he was the only person that I knew. He has always been a good friend to me.
Fast forward several years. After we finished our Master's degrees, I still remember the night I heard the news that he had been arrested. All of us who knew him sat in shock and grief as details unfolded. We all wrestled with the same questions: Is it true? He would never do such a thing! Will our friend really be found guilty for these crimes? Show us the evidence! I still do not believe everything published in the news. Much of it is often based on little fact or spun to sound worse than reality. If only you knew my friend. He is kind-hearted, loving, and peacemaking. These are characteristics that shine in him even today.
My friend was arrested nearly two years ago. He has since been sentenced to a double-digit prison term. The punishment is harsh and excessive, as the judge chose to make an example out of him.
My husband and I have stayed in contact with my friend over that last couple years via written communication. Other than us and his family, he recently told me that only one other couple from seminary writes to him. That is it! So many in the body of Christ have chosen to write him off, to cast him aside, or to simply forget about our friend who suffers deeply. He, a man who once had many friends, feels the rejection and condemnation from those he loves.
It makes me think of another story. There was this woman, caught up in sin, caught up in heinous deeds of darkness, and eventually, caught in the very act of adultery. I cannot imagine a more humiliating way to be "found out" than to be discovered committing adultery in the very act of it. Naked, vulnerable, and unequivocally condemned. Her shame, her crime, was broadcasted for all to see through her nudity. This woman's humiliation knew no end, for the callous and self-righteous men who hunted her went on to display her shame in public. Ripped from the bed, they dragged her into the streets and dumped her in a piled heap of worthlessness before Jesus (John 8:1-3). She was only a pawn in their game as they chose to make an example out of her.
They challenged Jesus: “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?" (8:4) It was a duel of words, of religion. They smiled smugly, believing they had Him trapped. Standing before the Temple, they dared Jesus to defy the law of Moses, for according to Jewish law, this woman's crimes meant her death. She was to be stoned.
At first, He offered no answer. Jesus bent down, and He began to write with His finger in the sand (8:6). What did He write? John did not record those details when he wrote his Gospel. We can wonder, though. Stooped low, sun beating down on Him and all the others, I imagine the Temple courtyard was initially quiet as everyone awaited Christ's response. Did He begin listing the Ten Commandments in the sand, one at a time, slowly, meticulously, methodically? Or did He write specific sins, including details only those who committed these sins would know?
The angry men, ever impatient and thirsty for blood, continued again to question Jesus, ready for His answer, ready to condemn Him as well. Perhaps they were so busy accusing this woman that they did not even take time to read what Jesus wrote. At last, He stood and spoke to them, calmly gesturing toward the unruly crowd of men: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (8:7). He then bent back down, drawing their attention to His words in the sand. He continued to write, and this time, those religious leaders read what He wrote.
How much time elapsed as the men considered Jesus' words, His writings in the sand? What a marvelous sight it must have been as they quietly took in their meaning. Slowly, this woman's accusers went away, beginning with the oldest ones first, until it was only Jesus and the woman caught in adultery standing there.
“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” He swept His arms around the Temple courtyard, indicating her lack of accusers (8:10). The woman likely trembled still. Would Jesus, then, be the one to cast the first stone at her? He had every right to do so, and she knew it.
“No one, Lord,” she answered, keeping her eyes low, filled with shame and guilt. Did she shield her body protectively, still awaiting the inevitable death by stoning?
Jesus spoke to her again, His gentle words healing the brokenness of her soul: “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more" (8:11).
Neither do I condemn you...
No more is recorded about this woman, yet we can hope that she obeyed Jesus' command to "go and sin no more." Undoubtedly she left that encounter with Jesus changed, freed, even if life did not get easier for her. She was transformed that day as she went from death to life, freed from sin through the powerful work of Jesus Christ.
How are we doing at loving those sinners in our midst? Do we offer grace and mercy, as Jesus did? Or do we keep a ledger of sins, drawing a line at the point where we will offer no more grace?
Do we so quickly forget that we, too, are sinners in others' midst?
My friend in prison is not the only one who feels the sting of condemnation from the body of Christ, even after he has repented of his sins. There are many others. There is the woman who became pregnant out of wedlock, now free in Christ, but still she is still seen as wearing a scarlet letter amongst her peers. There is the man who was addicted to drugs and alcohol for the majority of his life, but has since given his life to Christ. He sits in our pews as one of us, but he still feels he is an outsider. There is the divorced man; the woman whose children all have different fathers; the recovering anorexic. There are many more. If any of these surrenders to the healing freedom of Christ's blood, we should have no other recourse than to celebrate with them.
How many like these pass through our midst daily, weekly? How many do we hold in contempt, declaring them guilty for sins they have committed against us, others, or just the Lord? I do not argue against church discipline, for that is another matter entirely, nor am I advocating for tolerance toward sinful deeds. Instead, I speak of those who are repentant of their sins, broken, forgiven. I speak of those who have been washed and made pure by Christ's blood.
I speak of all of us.
Today, for my friend in prison, I agree with Jesus that his sins are forgiven. I do not dare cast a stone at one for whom Jesus died, at one who has called on Jesus for His healing grace. I do not dare hold in contempt one who faces earthly consequences for his sins with humility, repentance, and brokenness. It is not my place; it is not my duty. I watch with joy as I see the Lord use my friend, even in his suffering. I rejoice because we serve a God who makes beauty out of our ugliness.
Today, I appeal to the Church, the body of Christ, and I ask us all to reflect: Are we loving one another well? Do we edify each another with our words, our actions, our prayers?
Let us no longer draw a line in the sand. Let us stand by one another, and may our support and Christ-like love change one another. I ask that we all choose to ignore unfounded gossip and release those who have repented of specific sins from our judgment. I petition each of you to decide in your hearts that the cause of Christ is better than this.
May it be so.