s035g99 Sunday 2 17/1/99

If I was preaching this morning I would say something like this:

"Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29).

We are all familiar with this particular statement of John the Baptist, in that it forms the core of the "Agnus Dei" "O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace" (slipping for a moment into the language of the BCP).

Because we say or sing this right at the time of receiving the Holy Communion each service, and being so familiar with it, it blinds us to the strangeness of it all - for the concept of a lamb being sacrificed to take away sins - has no precise Old Testament precedent. The purpose of the passover lamb was not to take away sins. It was sacrificed to get the blood to put on the lintel of the house that the Lord would pass over the houses of the Israelites and kill only the Egyptian firstborn. The "scapegoat" indeed took away the sins of the community, but was a goat rather than a sheep, and it was not killed but driven into the wilderness.

Be that as it may, this statement began a long tradition that the primary purpose of the Cross was the forgiveness of sins. To my knowledge the only time when Jesus spoke about forgiveness and the Cross, is actually at the last supper, in the words of institution: "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." (Mat 26:28). So it is the elements of the Holy Communion which are about forgiveness, and it is only as we associate the elements with the sacrifice on the Cross that the death of Jesus might be linked to forgiveness (and that only in the recollection of Matthew). Certainly St Paul speaks about being "justified by .. a sacrifice of atonement by his blood effective through faith" (Ro 3.21) and that he "died for our sins" (1 Co 15.3). 1 Peter and Hebrews talk about forgiveness of sins through the blood of the Cross (1 Pet 2.24,3.24, Heb 9.22). So I have no doubt that we receive forgiveness through the blood of the Cross of Jesus - but I want to affirm that Jesus himself wasn't actually much interested in sin and forgiveness.

In fact I think about half of the references to forgiveness refer to us forgiving those who sin against us rather than we obtaining God's forgiveness - but I haven't done an accurate analysis.

This points to the fact that it is humanity who are so often worried about sin and forgiveness, and think God and Jesus to be so, when the evidence does not bear this out at all.

We have made the cornerstone of our faith - acceptance of personal forgiveness through the sacrifice of the Cross of Jesus - when personal sinfulness was the aspect of life which least concerned Jesus himself.

Let me reiterate, I am not saying I am without sin or without need of the Lord's forgiveness. But all that needs to be done about my sin has been done already - and that by Jesus. Nothing stands between God and me or God and anyone else.

Last Sunday I spoke about God coming primarily in acceptance and affirmation. It we go down the track of spending our time concerned about whether God has forgiven us or not, we ourselves, in the name of faith, disbelieve the acceptance and affirmation of God. It is our choice - to spend our time on our knees worrying about the times when we have failed to live up to our own expectations; or something else more positive. Heavens above, I spent enough time on my knees myself. And God allowed me, and God will continue to allow anyone else to do so. But spending a lifetime worrying about our sins and calling it a life of faith, is to me a contradiction in terms. It seems to me to rather more a life of doubt - and I wouldn't commend it to anyone.

Jesus came to take away the sin of the world, and the question is how he did this.

We move, in the gospel reading to the calling of the first disciples, and we have not the slightest skerrick of evidence that Jesus examined any of the persons he called to account for past succumbing to temptation, evidence of true repentance, or details of the circumstances of their present lifestyle. Jesus simply didn't go around expressing forgiveness for each and every sin, the various people who believed in him may have committed.

Jesus is not, as perhaps I have taken the words to mean, the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of believers.

So I highlight that the word is sin - it is singular, not sins, plural.

So Jesus has dealt with the whole preoccupation with sins that we as humanity think God is about. However Jesus has done it, we no longer have to worry about the things we have done wrong. All have been dealt with, they no longer are of any relevance.

For we can make a virtue of beating our breasts as if God desires this. Given a choice of us beating our breasts or accepting our neighbour, I have no doubt that it is the second which scripture most consistently bears witness is the more important.

And the difficulty comes in at least two ways.

Firstly, such beating our breasts looks religious but it leads to absurdities like "I'm more humble than you ..."

Secondly, the world quickly realises that if we as Christians don't accept ourselves as we are, we inevitably accept no-one else as they are. We are seen to be condemned to a fruitless exercise in trying to change people, which is neither good news to us or to anyone else.

Now I find this as difficult to believe and act on as anyone else. I have spent years beating my breast over things I have done in the past. I haven't spent my life doing this because I've ever particularly thought it would please God; I have done this because the pain of self recrimination is so acute and difficult to heal. Somewhere along the line I have to make a choice to live my life differently from that. All the evidence is there that God does not want me to live my life in endless self - recrimination.

But also I want to highlight, it is also that Jesus, the lamb of God, takes away the sin of the world - all the world - not just the believers. It is all done away with. The same freedom that I need to choose for myself is offered to all. That is how life is.

It is not that I or anyone else will not do the wrong thing again; indeed I will continue to fall short of the mark, again and again, just as others will. I and I guess others will need God's forgiveness again and again. And the forgiveness will be there each and every time.

It is considerations like these that I think need to be born in mind when we read of Jesus saying to the woman caught in adultery: "Do not sin again." (John 8:11). I think I've always read this as if Jesus was here saying to the woman: "Do not commit adultery again". Now that is probably a reasonable request - it is possible to live one's life without committing adultery, but Jesus doesn't say this. Adultery is but one of quite a number of sins. Jesus cannot be inviting her to attempt to live a morally pure life from that time forward and forevermore - which I couldn't live up to - let alone expect anyone else to live up to either. Jesus does invite the woman to live her life knowing that sins past, present and future, do not separate her from God. I will fail, and we will all fail to live up to our own expectations of ourselves, let alone other people's expectations and God's supposed expectations. The word tells us that nothing we do separates us from God, and nothing anyone else does separates us from God.

St Paul (Ro 12.8) exhorts us when we show mercy, to do this with cheerfulness; and so if we as imperfect creatures are bidden to do this, God will always do it better than us. As I have had occasion to say before - the word for "cheerfulness" is, in Greek, the same one from which we get the word "hilarity". So, of course God forgives, and it is done not begrudgingly, God lamenting when we will ever learn ... but generously, whole heartedly and willingly.

I suspect it is when we too are accepting of other people as they are - that we are most accurately doing what God does and want us to do too, that we can follow the advise of Luther who said: "Sin boldly!"

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