We were in Rome, and our day was full of perusing the many Catholic churches in the area, churches full of both beauty and history. Many of these churches sparked debate between us in our tour group, whether or not the beauty of portraying the saints in such an artistic way invoked worship of God, or worship of fallible people. What is honoring, and what is beauty? How does one live in the tension, the many areas of grey?
One of our stops was at the Scala Sancta. Here is where church tradition believes that Jesus himself walked on these steps, leading up to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem as he went to his trial, and shortly after, was crucified. Now, people come and kneel on each of these steps, making their way up slowly, praying on the way for those souls in purgatory to be released to Heaven.
The wonderful thing about those steps for those who call themselves “protestants” is that this is where Martin Luther had the beginnings of his breakthrough. As he prayed up those steps on his knees, he continued to hear the words of Romans that he had memorized in his head. He reached the top and remembered these words:
This was also a day I was in some sort of mood. James and I walked around the beautiful city of Rome, clocking ten solid miles as we explored. I had absolutely no reason to feel the way I was feeling, and yet I felt so off. As soon as I felt back to normal, the guilt set in like yet another dark cloud. We were in Rome, and I was the one that had to have a bad attitude and ruin all the fun. I began my normal pattern of atonement as follows:
Apologize every thirty seconds. Sulk. Ask if there is anything I can do. Apologize some more. Maybe cry.
James is a fantastic man, and so while I’m throwing this glorious pity party, he responds the way he had all day long — with great grace. He didn’t need me to fix anything or make it up to him; he loves me because he loves me.
Let me be quite honest with you. I still sulked and apologized until I had felt as if I had made it right, payed for it, made it better. We were even, in my mind. All of it settled between us.
That night at dinner, our debates with our fellow tourists and learners turned into another conversation. A handful of our friends had grown up as Catholics. The back and forth was about the act of confession to a priest, if it was a helpful practice or an unhelpful one.
I chimed in, adding in my point about how confessing my sin aloud to the person I have sinned against is actually a beautiful gift, helping both myself to see rightly and the one I have hurt to see my want to repent, with both of us able to acknowledge aloud the goodness of forgiveness as we have been forgiven first. We agreed together, and then it was taken a step further. James said, “but when you are confessing out loud to a priest, then you get this list of things to do to pay for it, doesn’t that put the power to atone for what is wrong in your hands?”
The conversation went on, but all I could think about was how I had almost done something similar earlier in that very same day with James, and how often I do that in my everyday life. Not only does me wanting to make sure everything is “squared up” a refusal of the grace that I am offered, but it means that I get to be in control. So often, I am found sinning and as the blood of Jesus Christ is offered for me freely, I put my hand up and say, “no, I’ve got this.” It’s as if I am shouting at Christ, saying, “don’t worry, I’ll make your death worth it by making this behavior better on my own.”
What is remarkable about our ability to want to pay our way, earn our stay in good keeping, is that even Martin Luther did a similar thing. Though some Lutherans would disagree with me, one of my issues with Luther is the demand for a particular ordo salutis, needing to be baptized in order to be saved.
How quick we are to forget the grace we have been given. How prideful we are that we refuse to receive that grace upon grace.
Remember who you truly are, simul justus et peccator, simultaneously just and sinner. Remember what you have been saved from, and that you are still in need of being saved from yourself every single day. Remember the awe of His gospel, His great grace flowing freely, and keep re-remembering. This gospel is big enough to cover our forgetfulness. This gospel is big enough to cover even our pride.