We’ve been talking about singleness and marriage in their most godly, healthiest forms. But that’s not where we live. What do you do when something goes wrong in your singleness or in your marriage? How should the church treat those who haven’t done things perfectly?
When People Sin: John 7:1-11
Good morning, church. Please go with me to John, chapter 7.
We’ve been in a sermon series for the past several weeks on marriage and singleness, and—I’ll speak for myself at least as we wrap up this series this week and next—this series has changed the way I look at marriage and singleness, both and for the better.
Singleness is a gift. It’s a gift, not just to you, but to the people around you, in your church and community; a gift of being able to prioritize the needs of the community, of not having to be home by one and by eight, and some of the single people don’t even immediately know why those times are significant, but all the parents in the room feel seen right now.
And we’ve talked about how our culture is more than willing to shape your idea marriage if you will not. Our culture views marriage as a means of self-improvement, a goal to be accomplished; a means of fulfilling longing, a contract between two people to accomplish mutual goals. But none of that is what marriage was meant to be, “it wasn’t so from the beginning.”
I’ve been focused a lot on the ideal of marriage and singleness: single people recognizing their singleness as an incredible gift of God, and using it for the glory of God and the good of the people around them. The ideal of married couples fully knowing each other and fully loving each other lifelong—not out of obligation or pride, but our of love for God and for each other, stabilizing families, churches, communities.
Today I want to talk about the in-ideal. I want to talk about what we’re supposed to do when things go wrong with marriage and singleness. How we, as a church, are supposed to respond when, among us, problems arise with marriage and singleness. How we should feel and react; how God feels and reacts to us when our lives and relationships don’t go quite to his plan.
As always, God, himself, is our example. Read with me, John 7, verses 1-11. […] this is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
There are only two other times I know of when the God who spoke the universe into existence and who by his word upholds it, writes instead of speaks. Each time, he uses his finger. First, he writes the ten commandments with his own finger on stone. Then, he writes on the wall to proclaim the sinfulness of a nation convinced of its own righteousness. Then there’s this passage.
Jesus, God the Son, writing in the dirt should be seen as the giving, again, of a new law and a new covenant. We in our sin, like Moses, broke the old law and covenant, and God in his mercy writes it anew. It should also be seen as the proclamation of sin common to humanity that we’ve managed to forget, put away, sweep under the rug.
If you’re reading in your own Bible this morning, or if you’ve read this passage before on your own, which are both practices I would encourage, you probably noticed brackets around this text or a note, depending in the translation you use. The section we just read isn’t in the earliest manuscripts we have of the Bible. Usually, if that’s the case, we wouldn’t have the passage in the text, but this passage, I think wisely, is included. I’m not going to go too deeply into why, but I will say, this is a passage we can trust as true. You can feel comfortable treating it as holy, with the same weight you would give to other passages in the Bible, and if you want to talk more about these kinds of things, bring it up in small group.
This passage is in a larger section where John is explaining to his readers why the Pharisees wanted to kill Jesus. What was it that was so unacceptable about Jesus that his own people would want him crucified? In the end, the ecclesial court condemned him to death, if you remember, on a charge of blasphemy. They said he insulted and belittled the laws of God, that he refused to follow the law and taught against it, and this is one of those moments which brought him, in the end, to the cross. Christ dies in the place of this woman; in our place.
It’s the feast of booths, which means thousands of people in the streets of Jerusalem, especially near the temple, where Jesus goes to teach. And Jesus, at this point, is well-known. He would have drawn a crowd, so imagine people everyone, like Jackson Square. Some of them paying attention because they’ve heard Jesus can perform miracles, others begging, others stopping just to see what the crowd was about. Imagine yourself in the crowd, a tourist in the main square stopped to see whatever there is to see.
The Pharisees see the crowd, too, with Jesus at the center. They’ve been waiting for this moment. They’ve planned for it. What to Jesus was a church service, for them is a chance for a political power move. I imagine when they walk up, Jesus continues teaching, because that’s why he’s there, to teach the truths of God, not to argue with the scribes. But I also imagine him pausing when he sees the woman. They’ve come to ask him questions before, but this time they’ve brought a person, a woman, with them. To them, she’s a prop; to Christ, she’s a sister and daughter. The text says they placed her directly in front of Jesus, so imagine a circle of people, and the pharisees push through it, and they shove this woman into the center—her and Jesus and the crowd surrounds.
The pharisees announce to everyone, she’s an adulteress. Through the passage, they call her “adulteress” and “such a one.” According to the law of Moses, which is supposed to be the law of the land, she should be stoned, they recite. Moses explains in the law, the point of this law is “to purge the evil from your midst.” So she’s evil, according to the law. They placed her in front of a crowd and announced to everyone that she’s the worst kind of sinner, what you warn your daughter against, what you pray never befalls your family, the person whose name would no longer be spoken by her family. Try to feel this from her perspective. That many people wanting you to not exist, to never have existed, makes you feel very small. That kind of public shame makes you almost agree with them, makes you want yourself not to exist.
The pharisees would have exposed her hair to shame her, so it’s loose in public for the first time in her life, and she probably feels like she’s walking in front of the crowd without a shirt on. I imagine her head down, hair covering her face as she weeps silently, even if someone in the crowd knew her, now they don’t recognize her. They don’t know if she has children, or if she’s a good cook. All anyone knows about her is the one thing she most hoped no one would ever find out, and every now and then accidentally, uncontrollably she makes a noise in her weeping.
The trial is over, the sentence passed, all that’s left is the execution, stoning. Stoning would have looked and felt just like this scene. They drag her out into the crowd, announce her crimes, and one of the pharisees would have thrown the first stone as a signal, a permission to the crowd to begin the execution. So they place her in front of Jesus and in the midst of the crowd asking him to throw the first stone, and the text tells us Jesus bent down. Can you imagine the reaction of the crowd to that movement? Watching him bend down. Gasps, held breath, complete silence, maybe a few of the more eager among them bow, too, to up a stone. I imagine the woman closing her eyes and bracing for pain. But Jesus doesn’t come up with a stone, he stays prostrate, writing.
Verse 7, the pharisees continue to ask him, “what do you say?” Forcing the issue. This is a very awkward, very tense moment. And Jesus stands up and says loudly, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” Silence, it says Jesus bent back down and began writing again. The pharisees stop asking him what do you say, he’s given his answer.
I wonder how long it took for the crowd to walk away. I wonder how long it took for the woman actually to look up, push her hair back, stop crying. I imagine her waiting, looking at Jesus on the ground, waiting for him to say more, some kind of answer, some sort of penance or atonement, and the crowd waiting with her. It says the elders, the pharisees, left first, probably in a huff because they had thought to kill two people that day, and they lost even the one they had already convicted.
Then the crowd walked away one by one, it says—some of them disappointed, others feeling convicted of their own sin—until it was just Jesus left with the woman. Notice, she stays. Everyone else is gone, but she stays right where she is for that whole time it took the crowd to wander off. And the whole time, she’s silent.
Then it says Jesus stood up again, and instead of calling her “adulteress” or “such a one,” he calls her “woman,” which was a term of endearment. It’s what he calls his mom. Then he cracks a joke. “Where’d everyone go?” Like he hasn’t been waiting there with her the whole time, like he zoned out and just now noticed they left. An hour ago, she thought he wanted to kill her, and now, the first thing he says is a joke. I imagine her laughing, crying, at the same time, wiping her face, confused and grateful. She’s never met a man like this, or had a rabbi like this.
And what does he ask in return? What favor or penance in exchange for this forgiveness which gives her life and laughter in the place of death and shame? Nothing. He says, “Go, and stop sinning.” I wonder where she went after that—she can’t go home anymore, ever again, her husband would have been the one to bring the charges against her in the first place. I wonder what she did after this. I wonder if she was in the square again a few weeks later when this same man who forgives her, again drew a crowd, but this time he was the one sentenced to die; if she followed him through the streets and out of the gate; if she was there, again, at Pentecost to hear Peter’s sermon, and if she joined a church after that, and if she did, how that church treated her, the adulteress, the divorced woman, one who had no family and no prospects.
I wonder how we would treat her in our church. What should we do when things go wrong in marriage and singleness, when we or the people around us make mistakes, sin, fail, fall apart, do the wrong thing? This. Of course, this.
Notice, Jesus does not excuse her sin. He doesn’t tell her, “It’s fine,” or “It’s no big deal.” He calls it sin in v.11, and so should we. Adultery is sinful. It’s not fine, and it is a big deal. I’ve seen it ruin marriages, ruin people emotionally and professionally. I once saw adultery nearly close a school, I’ve seen it actually close several churches. Adultery is sin, the pharisees are right. That’s not their mistake. Jesus sees the sin and tells her to sin no more. We should do the same.
And the Pharisees aren’t mistaken about the law, either. It’s Deuteronomy 22. Paul quotes the verse in 1 Corinthians 5. What she has done is against the old and new covenants, and it’s against the heart of God. We don’t like this law, it’s wildly countercultural in America today, but the witness of Scripture is consistent and unambiguous that sex is meant to remain within the bounds of Christian marriage.
That’s not the pharisees’ mistake. Their mistake, the core of it, is believing they have kept the law of God, and this mistake is running rampant in churches today. Believing you have kept the law of God, or that your sins are entirely in your past, is to misunderstand and misuse the whole of the law. They believe they can execute sinners without killing themselves. That’s their mistake.
In our church, if we start killing or kicking out the sinners, we’re going to have to start with me. I have doubts about God, and I’ve failed. I’m a real sinner, not the churchy kind, where we say, “well, but he’s a good guy.” I’ve committed the same sin as this woman in my heart according to the teachings of Christ, himself. Which means I deserve for my wife to leave me. I don’t deserve to be the pastor here. I don’t deserve to be alive.
We like to think there are good and bad people in the world, but those aren’t categories the Bible has. The Bible’s two categories are persistent or repentant sinners. Christ desires mercy, not sacrifice. Look at this story, for instance. Let me ask this, who should we want to be in this story? If you have to place yourself as one of the people in this story, who should we want to be?
If you’re looking at the passage, there’s four groups here—the pharisees, the crowd, Jesus, and the woman. Usually, we like to think of ourselves as one of the crowd, right? We’re just like everyone else. We’ve made mistakes, but we were listening to the sermon before the pharisees walked up, so that’s probably a check in the Christian column. There’s nothing really we should be ashamed of, just normal people. If you were to put my deeds in a scale, the good would outweigh the bad, and we convince ourselves if something is common, if everyone’s guilty of it, we can’t be condemned for it. This is how we think.
But I would argue the crowd, in our passage, are condemned. In the end, they walk away from Christ. They don’t want to be a part of his work, and they don’t want to hear his word. They were fine listening until Jesus told them that they’re just as bad as the adulteress. You don’t want to be a part of the crowd, and I don’t want you to walk out of here today thinking you’re basically good, because there’s only two people who walk away from the event in our passage justified before God—Jesus, himself, and the woman he forgives. If you ask me who I want to be in the passage, I would say I want to be Jesus, the forgiver, and the woman, because she is forgiven.
This is part of the basic belief of Christianity. You have to confess yourself as a sinner if you’re going to be saved, and repent of your sin, over and again. Until we can learn to see ourselves as people who have really sinned, really done evil in the world, we can’t be forgiven. “He who has been forgiven much loves much.”
Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt:  ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (ESV)
The law of God is meant to teach us our inability to be good people. We’re supposed to look at the law and say, not “thank you, God, that I am not like other men,” we’re meant to look at the law and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” I am the one we need to expel from our midst. I am the one who should run to your altar and grab hold of it to beg for forgiveness.
Only then, when you see your own part in shaping your life as tragic, are you able to see the gospel as good news. You are wretched and beloved, both at the same time, and both more than you could ever imagine.
So what should we do, how should we respond when people walk through our doors, and they’ve not done marriage or singleness quite right? When they’re a mess, and maybe they don’t even see it yet? It’s complicated. Sometimes people don’t recognize that what they’re doing is wrong, and the damage is such to the community that you need to send someone out, enact church discipline.
But most of the time, I see Christ sitting with them, looking into the law of God together. Admitting no one’s perfect, but not using that as an excuse to keep on sinning. Sitting through the shame of confession and recognizing that you’ve done wrong and it’s messed up your life in some ways. Cracking jokes. Showing her he loves her in a couple of different ways. Drawing her into repentance and a changed life.
My invitation to you this morning is also complicated. I would invite you to see yourself as this woman, to find your story in her own. To confess you’re a sinner and see the gospel as good news. Good news that Jesus sits with sinners and loves them. He turns our shame into joy and corrects us when we’re doing something that’s going to make a mess of things. He speaks to us like we’re family because, unimaginably, that’s what he makes us.
Pray with me.