St. Augustine famously gave voice to his sins, who asked him, “Are you getting rid of us?” And “From this moment we shall never be with you again, not for ever and ever.” The comfort of our sins is a mystery of human life. In order to turn away from them, to cooperate with God’s grace, we must understand, intellectually but even more deeply spiritually, that the life which God offers to us through Christ surpasses the momentary pleasures of a will turned away from God. The joy of a life lived in Christ not only transcends this temporal reality, but gives depth to its genuine pleasures.
The Gospel of John presents us with a passage that is not found in the earliest manuscripts, but in which the church heard the authentic voice of Jesus. In it, a woman caught in adultery is brought forward to be stoned, and Jesus instructs the gathered crowd to “let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” The crowd went away, “and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’” The passage is powerful, for Jesus asks us to place the weight of condemnation on ourselves, not on the other, and allows the woman, condemned under the law of Moses, to go. Even more powerful than punishment is Jesus’ directive not to sin again.
This directive has at its core the fact that a life with God is more attractive than sin, that even if this woman, or you or I, were to stumble again, Jesus’ message, “From now on do not sin again” remains not as a way to minimize sin, but as a way to maximize grace.
Paul knows the superior attraction of Christ, as he says to the Philippians that he regards “everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” The word translated as “rubbish,” skybala, is actually a little earthier in Greek, too crude today to be found translated directly, but the comparison Paul makes is direct: What keeps me from knowing “Christ and the power of his resurrection” is meaningless in light of this goal toward which Paul presses on.
Paul moves on: “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” As God says to the prophet Isaiah, “do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
In the scrutiny rite for catechumens on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, the goal for which Paul strains, the new thing that springs forth, the resurrection and the life, is foreshadowed in Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus’ illness, Jesus says, “does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” In fact, Jesus delays his journey to see Martha, Mary and Lazarus, “after having heard that Lazarus was ill,” in order to make manifest God’s glory through this “new thing.”
Why then, when Jesus saw Mary and her friends crying, was he “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved”? Why did Jesus weep? John tells us that Jesus was “greatly disturbed” when he came to the tomb, even though it was Jesus’ plan to raise Lazarus.
Jesus here meets the reality of the pain and suffering created by sin, visible in the tears of those who, like Jesus, loved Lazarus. Here he stands before those who make manifest the very reason for which he became human.
The attractions of sin lead us to a fallen world that inexorably leads us to the grave. “From now on, do not sin again” is about turning from what draws us away from God and turning to “the resurrection and the life.” Jesus says, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”