a spiritual pyramid scheme of forgiveness

but like, in a good way

When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him, and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. And Saul approved of their killing him.

Acts 7

A few years ago I was on a solo silent retreat and had been fasting for a couple of days when, I felt God’s spirit tell me something. Now, before you start thinking I am some sort of spiritual giant I should assure you that I am not. In fact, most so-called spiritual practices prove very difficult for someone with my personality. As some of you may know, I get what can only be described as road rage when stuck behind someone walking slowly in a prayer labyrinth. Look, no one is impressed by how into this you are. Speed up. There are people trying to pray behind you.

I would give up on spiritual practices all together were I not desperate for their benefits, so I persist.

So, there I am in the mountains of Colorado, two days into fasting and silence and trying to pray. But my mind was busy. Even after two full days of it, I was not filled with a warm feeling of good will toward humanity or union with the divine. I was filled with regret and self-incrimination. I sat on that mountain perseverating on my mistakes and sins and misdemeanors – sure that those things outweighed all else about me. All the ill spoken words and secretly selfish motives, all the friendships lost and betrayals large and small.

And that’s when I heard it.

11 words came to me from – would it be a form of spiritual self-flattery if I said – from God?

11 words, because I’m pretty sure I could not be trusted with more…

The 11 words I heard on that mountain were these “but what if you have already been forgiven of all that?”

I mean, The audacity of God.

My cheeks were streaming with tears before I was even aware I was crying.

What is it about forgiveness that just breaks us down like that?

Because if you remember, the one thing that enraged most people about Jesus of Nazareth was that he had the gall to tell people that their sins were forgiven when clearly there were systems of civic and religious power that were set up to make sure people got what they deserved. And so when this son of God fella comes along and interrupts the balance of rewards and punishments that everyone “deserves” well, we just can’t have a thing like that.

But Jesus was pretty insistent that we must have a thing just like that. He was pretty insistent on this whole forgiveness of sins thing even though it was terrible branding for a messiah.

I mean, if I was Jesus’ coach, I’d for sure be like, look man, that’s a terrible idea. People are never gonna go for that because it’s just not fair. I mean, think of how upset people got about forgiveness of student loan debt – and taking out a loan for college isn’t even a sin. Try maybe offering them a lifestyle they can keep leveling up at or even maybe just a good elimination diet – we usually will fall for that. But no.

Repentance and forgiveness of sins was his deal.

Because our Lord had so much sympathy for sinners but (and here’s the point) not a lot for mobs of sinners with rocks in their hands.

Remember the one that gathered in John chapter 8, who were just about to stone a woman who was caught in the act of committing adultery all by herself (if you remember no man was mentioned as having been a part of her “sin”, but that’s another story for another day…) anyhow… Jesus says to them let you who is without sin cast the first stone…and one by one those rocks slipped from the hands of the guilty, that, of course, being all of them. That, of course, being all of us.

It must have been infuriating, to have a perfectly good scapegoating interrupted like that. I wonder what went on in their heads when they walked home  that night– having their evening suddenly freed up in that way. Surely some started to plan Jesus’ demise, offended as they were that he’d suggest they themselves were sinners, but I imagine that some of them were less offended and more convicted by the honesty of that moment. They finally heard someone speak the honest truth and maybe the truth set them free, and for my money, there’s just nothing better than a freed sinner.

Then when Jesus was arrested and beaten and mocked and spat upon by yet another mob, before he died he said forgive them father they know not what they are doing. And I bet it offended some who heard him say it– sure that they had absolutely scaped the correct goat that day, but to others, the truth of it converted them, and they found themselves saying surely this was the son of God. And the repentance and forgiveness of sins movement grew.

Then, in Jesus’ Easter days of resurrection he came to the guilty who had betrayed him and denied him and said peace be with you –please go tell people of all nations that they too are forgiven. And again, the repentance and forgiveness of sins movement grew, one forgiven and freed sinner at a time.

Which brings us to today’s text, when another mob, angry at what they had just heard from Stephen who in all fairness did just preach an unnecessarily cruel and offensively long sermon at them. Angry at what they had heard, they picked up stones.

And as the rocks were leaving the hands of the crowd and arriving at his chest, his legs, his head, he asked Jesus to not hold his murderers’ sins against them. Why? We think him so pure and good and innocent, Stephen the first of our martyrs, but I am convinced that this kind of compassion doesn’t come from being a saint, it comes from being a fellow sinner.  Only a forgiven sinner could have quite that much compassion. I read a Camino memoir last week from Kevin Codd, a Catholic priest and my very favorite passage was this: “A man humbled daily by the knowledge of his own failing will treat another sinner with a care that heals rather than with a heavy-handed arrogance and superiority that intimidates and shames. (he continues) For me, there is nothing in my life as a priest that has been more moving then to say God’s best words to humanity: You are forgiven”

Stephen is stoned to death by an angry mob and still he says God’s best words to humanity, you are forgiven… And as a result,  I imagine some in that crowd went home and prayed for mercy for what they had done…and again the repentance and forgiveness of sins movement grew, one forgiven and freed sinner at a time.

But Acts tells us that one person, the coat check guy at Stephen’s execution was none other than our own saint Paul – then still known as Saul. Saul didn’t leave Stephen’s stoning praying for mercy, he left there and continued to persecute the early Christians – hunting them down and binding them for arrest. The text says he left Stephen’s stoning still breathing threats and murder.

 But then, as you may remember, on the road to Damascus he is blinded by a vision of Jesus who told him to go find a guy named Ananias – literally one of the guys he was headed to arrest. Ananias and the other Jesus followers in Damascus, had been warned that Saul was coming and they were understandably terrified.

But Ananias still laid hands on Saul, the same man who had been breathing threats and murder against him and call him  “brother”, that alone was perhaps the perfect one-word sermon. My brother. This act of forgiveness and reconciliation was so powerful that the scales on Saul’s eyes could not help but fall.  Only someone who themselves had experienced the terrible mercy of God could do a thing like that. And then Paul went about planting churches and preaching the Gospel because the repentance and forgiveness of sins movement had grown, one forgiven and freed sinner at a time.

What I am trying to say is that Christianity is basically a spiritual pyramid scheme of forgiveness. It’s bonkers. It’s not fair. It’s not what we would likely come up with, but it’s the most true, most beautiful thing in the world.

That day as I sat on that hill, tears running down my face at the relief of being reminded that I am forgiven, I left with the simple hope that God make me into just one more forgiven sinner who forgives others and maybe even herself.

So in closing, I just want to say, as one forgiven sinner to another, that whatever you might be still punishing yourself or someone else for, whatever habit, or mistake, or character defect. Whatever misspoken word or hurtful action or squandered opportunity in the past. Whatever it is you are punishing yourself or someone else for, the punishment isn’t working. It’s just making you feel like you’re doing something.

You may put the rock down and walk away now.

Because you’ve already been forgiven and so has everyone who has ever harmed or offended you. No, it’s not fair. It’s just the most true and beautiful thing in the world. 


If you’d like to hear this sermon (highly suggested), it starts at 28:22.

Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastor, Author, and Public Theologian. Her online blog, The Corners, may be accessed:  corners.substack.com.