I don't know if you've been following the story of the Costa Concordia disaster off the coast of Italy. It's one of those stories that has a kind of morbid fascination for many. At the heart of it is the captain, Francesco Schettino. It seems that he told the coastguard he would be the last person to leave the ship, but that he left 4 hours before some of the other survivors, then claimed that he had “tripped and fallen into a lifeboat” and refused to go back onto the ship.
Perhaps what is most striking about Schettino are his pathetic attempts at self-justification. It seems fairly clear that it is his fault the ship was too close to the island, his fault that they were so slow to start the evacuation of the ship, and his fault that he left the ship before that evacuation was complete. And yet he keeps trying to find excuses and shift the blame. Or maybe that's just the way the media presents it...
We criticise Schettino for his behaviour, and rightly so, but it seems that so often we do the same things. We say “I'm sorry I'm late – I got stuck behind a really slow driver” or “The food's burnt because you distracted me while I was meant to be cooking.” We shift the blame because we don't like the reality that we are guilty, and we'd rather make it sound like someone else's fault. Or is that just me?
The Gospel, however, paints a very different picture. Jesus died for us so that we could be forgiven. Or, to put it another way: We as individuals are so guilty that the only way we can be forgiven is for the Son of God himself to die for us. I am so guilty that I needed Jesus to die for me, and you are just as guilty as I am. There is no room for self-justification; there is nowhere left to hide.
What does self-justification say about us? It actually says that we don't like the gospel. We don't want to admit that we are so guilty that Jesus had to die so we could be forgiven. We would rather try to cling to the dirty rags of our own self-righteousness than accept the new clothes that Jesus offers us.
The gospel is good news. It is the news that God loved us so much that he gave his only son to die and be raised again so that we can be forgiven; that we can have a righteousness that is from God by grace through faith because our own self-righteousness can be never be good enough; that we can know God and need never be ashamed because he offers us a new life.
So let's feel free to be guilty! When we mess up, which we do and will go on doing, let's be honest about it. Let's not try to find any more pathetic excuses, but be honest with one another, repent genuinely and forgive one another from the heart. Let's trust that we are righteous because of God's righteousness given to us rather than because of our own attempts to be good. If we rely on our own goodness, we will fail. But if we rely on God's goodness to us in accepting us, forgiving us and transforming us, then he can never fail.
Then maybe we will learn not to look a fool like Captain Schettino, and will have more of the open, honest and forgiving community that God calls us to be.
(first published in church magazine)