The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s046e08 Sunday 13 29/6/08
'you have been freed from sin' Romans 6.22
What an audacious statement! The possibility of never making a faux-par again is too good to be true. The need and the desire to do the wrong thing - gone for ever. Would that I could be as confident that this was true in my life as St Paul seems to think I should be. Perhaps I don't have enough faith?
Yet St Paul says this twice and indeed the whole passage is about our freedom from sin. Perhaps St Paul's idea of sin and mine are different.
Perhaps the classic text is the prayer of Solomon: 'If they (the people of Israel) sin against you for there is no one who does not sin and you are angry with them .. if they come to their senses .. and repent .. with all their heart and soul .. hear from heaven .. and forgive ..' (2 Chronicles 6.37) Sin here is mainly conceived as personal wrongdoing, from which no one is ever free. This sin is conceived as something against the Almighty (2 Chron 6.24) it is all about my relationship with God and whether *I* will get into heaven.
Each and every time I go to Church on Sundays, within the Anglican / Episcopal tradition, invariably there is some form of general confession. It is all about me getting my sins forgiven. It is all very personal, all about my relationship with God and whether *I* will get into heaven.
But St Paul's admonitions conceive as sin surreptitiously yet powerfully 'leading us into temptation'. Sin wants us to 'obey their passions', it has 'dominion' over some people, something that enslaves people. Now I don't know about anyone else, but I do not think of my life as a battle between sin and the Lord. I do not want to do the wrong thing and I don't know that I've met anyone who does. Most people want to do the right thing.
The battle for me is not about me doing or not doing the right thing, but how widely I conceive of God's mercy.
My family might demand of me that I obey and support the family no matter what. My theology might demand that I consign 'unbelievers' to eternal damnation. My friends might say: 'don't dob in your mate!' My nation might call me to participate in an unjust war. The church might encourage me to alienate gay and lesbian persons or to marginalise those of the female gender. These are the temptations I have faced and not always successfully I might add!
I reflect that the alternative to this personal religion is often social and political activism where developments within our society are (most often) criticised. There seems to be little reflection on the sins of the Church. I am indebted to a correspondent (thanks Jim!) who talked about Sarah and Abraham's lack of faith and Abraham's inability to resist Sarah's wish to send her rival Hagar and her son away. Fortunately scripture does not let us forget that even the patriarchs had 'feet of clay'. It is difficult to criticise someone one loves. As I reflected on this there seems some real parallel between Abraham's inability to rebuke Sarah and God's willingness to forgive us and to accept all people.
If God loves us and hence overlooks our misdemeanours, why do we in the church spend so much time criticising what we perceive to be the misdemeanours of others?
When we come to Church and confess our sins and then have a theology that casts all persons who are not Anglicans, or not Christians, or who express their intimate affections to someone of their same gender to eternal damnation, or marginalize women, what earthly or heavenly use is it if God forgives us?
If there is anyone who knows the great cost of our forgiveness it ought to be Christians, for we know that it cost God the ignominious death of his son. We are therefore the servant who is forgiven the debt of 10,000 talents. (Matthew 18.24f). If we as Christians don't forgive others who owe us little or nothing simply because they call on God by a different name, live differently to us, or are of the female gender - guess what will happen to us we too will be made to pay all we owe the Lord.
The possibility of living a sin-free life is no invention of St Paul. God spoke to Abraham and said: 'I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.' (Genesis 17.1).
The flip-side of sin is repentance, and just as Jesus has a different idea of sin, he also expresses a different idea about repentance. In the classic text on repentance, directed squarely at the Pharisees and the scribes, Jesus tells three parables about things lost and found. The punch-line in each is: 'Rejoice with me, for I have found .. that I had lost'. (Luke 15:1-2; 6, 9, 23)
Sin therefore is primarily about how wide our theology expresses the love of God for other people - how we rejoice that God accepts people other than ourselves.
This gives new meaning to those words of Jesus to the woman caught in adultery: 'Go and sin no more'. (John 8.11). If sin doesn't mean this, it is the cruellest of sayings. Instead of being enabled to live life to the full, she would have spent the rest of her existence in fear.
I want to return to the problem of the Church pretending to dispense forgiveness to those who are dutiful members of the congregation; for this has the implicit implication that this is withheld for all who are not dutiful members of the congregation. How does this square with Jesus' words in Matthew I quoted earlier? (Matthew 18.24f) If the Church does not forgive others then any forgiveness the Church purports to dispense is illusory indeed!
When I was a boy, I grew up with a version of the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 which had the Agnus Dei sung just before receiving the Holy Communion. The words were: 'O Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. O Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. O Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, grant us thy peace.' But then soon after receiving the sacrament we sang the Gloria in Excelsis which said in part: 'O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. Thou that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. Thou that takest away the sin of the world, receive our prayer.' Perhaps we haven't taken these words to heart?
Are Jesus words to the woman caught in adultery cruel or life giving?
I thought that I would look up who said: 'you have to be cruel to be kind' only to find these two quotations: 'Toward no crime have men shown themselves so cold-bloodedly cruel as in punishing differences of belief.' James Russell Lowell (1819 - 1891) And: 'I must be cruel only to be kind; Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind.' William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616)
An exclusive Church is a cruel delusion and just as cruel to those inside as out. But there is a real alternative to this cruelty, and that is by accepting ourselves and others, and in doing so we are all and forever free of sin.
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