s119e03 Lockleys 23/2/2003 Sunday 7
"God ... has anointed us ... and given us his Spirit" 2 Cor 1.22
Some time ago, when I preached on the two accounts of creation, I commented that it was a result of a request from a parishioner. Someone said - I bet no one asks you to talk about sin! To which I, of course, replied, such a request would be a waste of time - everyone realises that I wouldn't know anything about sin! ;-) But, here goes, here is a sermon about sin. Who was it who said "timing is everything"? :-)
God isn't interested in our sins. You don't have to believe me or Jesus - this is what the Lord says, and says in the Old Testament. The affirmation "I am He who blots out your transgressions ... I will not remember your sins" is quite clear. It is humanity who wearies God with sacrifices for sins, when the sins are essentially all done away with. As I said, this is the word of the Lord in the Old Testament!
But humanity and especially religious authorities still spend time thinking that God is interested in our sins. "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" they say to Jesus. But the reality of this world is that God forgiving us our sins is not really going to change the world one little iota. It might calm our consciences for a little while. It might make us a bit happier for a time. But in reality, if this doesn't spill over into our relationships one with another, what earthly good does us being forgiven by God do?
Is the Lord Almighty really interested whether we spend our lives eternally berating ourselves that we have done something wrong? I still have times when one or other particularly silly thing I have done in times past comes back into my consciousness, and I spend ANOTHER sleepless night worrying about it. I mean I can't do anything whatsoever to change matters or make things better - if there was, of course I would do it, and I could really forget about it for ever!
Of course, I suspect that God is cunning enough to realise that if we in fact forgot about our own misdemeanours, we would be most likely to become intolerant of other people's peccadilloes - so while the Almighty certainly forgives and forgets - God wouldn't dare allow us to forget :-)
Is the Lord Almighty really interested in how frequently we have been in Church, how often we are on our knees, or how much we put into the collection plate? The God I worship is not interested in these things at all. What I think God is interested in - is in how we accept that other people's offerings are as accepted as our own. And here is the fatal error when it comes to thinking about sins. If God is actually somewhat reticent about forgiveness, the religious authorities can claim that God doesn't accept someone else's offerings because they, as people, somehow don't measure up in some way.
The importance of this then becomes clear, for suddenly the offerings that women make might be viewed as less than acceptable - the offerings of people who worship in ways different to ourselves less than acceptable - the acceptability of the offerings of lots of other people become dubious to say the least.
I confess that the book of Psalms is not my favourite. My search of the words "enemy" and "enemies" in the Bible totalled 408 of which 104 were in the book of Psalms. One of my Bibles has a total of 1217 pages of which 116 are the book of Psalms. So in less than 10% of the Bible there are over a 25% of the references to enemies of the author. Nearly 40% of the 150 psalms make reference to the enemy or enemies! Time and again, the psalmist wants God to take his or her own side against someone else. This God steadfastly refuses to do. Even that most used of psalms - 23 - has a picture of the ultimate retribution. Verse 5 says: "You spread a table before me in the face of those who trouble me: you have anointed my head with oil and my cup shall be full." This clearly does nothing to repair a relationship as I suspect God would have us try to do.
No sermon on sin could ever claim to be complete without some reference to the woman caught in adultery, and Jesus' famous last words to the woman: "Do not sin again". It is important to say that the time Jesus spent talking about how we relate intimately to one another is miniscule. He never talks about intimacy before marriage or relationships between people of the same gender. So the amount of time that the Church talks about these things should also be minimal. One has only to look at the Jerry Springer show to realise that "liberated" people do not necessarily "live happily ever after" :-) There seems little point in further complicating young people's lives by bringing in the idea of eternal damnation for misplaced, unwise or premature intimacy, when Jesus was silent about all such matters. In the first century people did not have to attain the age of 16 before they could get a driver's licence or leave school, or 18 before they could drink alcohol publicly or get married. Ordinary people in those days had little idea what day they were born on, let alone the year. And it is salutary to realise that there is no "age of consent" in the Bible, indeed the issue is never discussed.
I sometimes wonder what the birth-rate would fall to if we all acted wisely for our whole lives :-)
However, had Jesus not said "Do not sin again" there can be no doubt that he would be taken by many as removing infidelity from the list of things "not done". There is a point to fidelity, as even Jerry Springer argues. Others are hurt by infidelity, but it is not the only thing that hurts others. Infidelity is a sin, but like all other sins, it is forgiven. It certainly does not earn anyone condemnation, let alone eternal condemnation.
I think that as the Church we need also to be careful that we do not suggest that infidelity (or premature intimacy) might lead to diminished self esteem. It could, but there are plenty of marriages where one or other of the partners are treated less than humanely - and where I could not counsel the victim to remain in that relationship. Everyone deserves to be happy. We find our happiness from within ourselves and then with someone else. Jesus does not say to the woman - return to your husband! People may well have good reasons for infidelity. Folk law has it that men need less excuses to be unfaithful, but much of the severest condemnation it seems has ever fallen on women. Indeed the old term "fallen woman" never had the phrase "fallen man" as a counterpart.
I started this sermon with the text: "God ... has anointed us ... and given us his Spirit". I want, for a time to confuse spirit and Spirit. The Spirit God gives us is the spirit of generosity quite opposite to that of the religious authorities who complained when someone else's sins were forgiven. Why on earth would they do that? The scribes would hardly have admitted that they had any sins at all, so forgiveness was of little or no use to them. The answer is, of course, that if God forgave other people's sins, then they would have to accept them on equal terms as they readily accepted people of similar station in life to themselves! That was not on!
The Spirit of God is contrasted because where the scribes saw someone getting ahead of them, Jesus saw people's faith. So we too are to have a spirit where we see and proclaim the faith we see in others. So much of what the world sees the Church doing, is trying to get other people to become like us.
And Jesus sees faith in the friends of this paralytic and pronounces absolution on the paralytic. What an amazing scene! Whatever possessed these four persons to think to do this for their friend - what could they hope to achieve by what they did? I mean - to dig a hole in a roof - probably to the consternation of the people below, as no doubt, bits of the roof fell down on their heads! I bet most of those below were praying that the man and his friends didn't all fall right through on top of them! And then Jesus forgives them!
Jesus sees faith in people who do something practical for someone else. This person who was paralysed obviously had good relationships with those around him. One can go to any nursing home and you will find people for whom the staff are just delighted to help, and those who the staff are less than anxious to help. It's all in the attitude of the person in need. Someone who expresses their thanks finds helpers ready to return. The person who grumbles finds helpers less ready to return. Despite being paralysed, this person clearly has people around him who are ready to help! Good friends, yes, but something in the paralysed person inspired his friends too. In an instant Jesus sees all this and says: "Yes!"
And I point out that Jesus didn't say to the man, or his friends, now sit down here and listen to what I am teaching. He said: "Stand up, take your mat and go to your home". The ministry of the man who had been paralysed was not listening to Jesus but among his family. My words in the previous paragraph show he already had a wonderful ministry. In another incident the cured demoniac pleaded to be allowed to follow Jesus - but he too was told to minister to his own family. Our ministry too is "out there" as we accept other people, as we too help others and are grateful for such assistance others render to us. These are indeed marks of the Holy Spirit of God, who enables us to see the good in others and the good in ourselves.
So this is why I personally have the confession and absolution at the beginning of the service - it's a necessary evil, and good to get it out of the way. God does not forgive your sins or my sins when the priest waves the magic hand in the sign of the Cross saying the words of absolution. This is when we hear again that the Lord has already forgiven us - now it is time to do other things, to take up our mats and go into the world, with God's spirit of compassion, forgiveness and generosity. For if this doesn't happen - others are not edified and the world will grind interminably on, like it has for centuries - people terrified of others and terrified of God. It does not have to be so and the Almighty has done everything in God's power to try to change this and get this message across.
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