Sermon for Mattins at The Chapel of Ease, Westhumble, on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, 10th March 2013

2 Corinthians 5:19 – ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them…’

Today is the fourth Sunday of Lent, sometimes known as Rose Sunday or Refreshment Sunday. More recently it has become Mothering Sunday. The good news is that Refreshment Sunday is a break in the austerity of Lent; a nice time to make a fuss of one’s mother, and to see the children giving Mum a nice day, perhaps a lie in with some tea in bed, or some nice flowers, just something to show that we treasure our mothers.

Unfortunately, however, if we think of motherhood as central to the family, family relations are not in very good shape in the world today. There are too many people whose marriage has broken down, perhaps because a partner has left with somebody else.

There are too many cases of child abuse. We are wrestling, in the church at large, with many problems of human sexuality. Our friends in the Catholic Church are reeling from scandals, most recently involving Cardinal O’Brien. It does seem inappropriate just blithely to celebrate motherhood and the family without engaging with some of the challenges which family life has to face today.

There is something very shocking about cases like Jimmy Saville and Cardinal O’Brien. It is very shocking if public figures, people who set themselves up as examples, or who preach morality, turn out not to be worthy of their fame or respect. Jimmy Saville is supposed to have perpetrated over 200 sex crimes, and although we don’t know what Cardinal O’Brien is supposed to have done in any detail, he admits that he did not do what he preached.

Last week we had the story in St John’s gospel of the woman ‘taken in adultery’. If you just think of the basic scenario: somehow she had been caught in bed with someone who was not her husband; and if you stop at that point, that is a serious matter. If we lament the fact that so many marriages fail, and that so many children and families suffer unhappiness, pain and poverty as a result, we have to pause and say that the woman – and of course the man with her – were doing what causes all that. They were not doing what they should have been doing.

Although it may be rather unfashionable to talk in these terms, it seems to me that all these things – abuse of children, adultery, being a sexual predator, abusing a position of authority, are all species of sin. What makes these things sinful, as opposed to being just bad or criminal or immoral, is that they drive a wedge between us and God. The word for ‘sin’ in Greek is ´αμαρτια, which means literally, ‘missing the mark’. You will remember the famous passage in St Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 7, where Paul expresses his frustration and anger at his sinful nature.

He says, ‘For I know that nothing good lodges in me – in my unspiritual nature, I mean – for though the will to do good is there, the deed is not. The good which I want to do, I fail to do. But what I do is the wrong, which is against my will. And if what I do is against my will, clearly it is no longer I who am the agent, but sin which has its lodging in me.’ [Romans 7:18-20, NEB]

To a greater or lesser extent we do sinful things because of human frailty. We do sinful things, even despite knowing what the right thing to do is. When you see all the evil that is around us, it is very daunting. What does it mean? Are we submerging under a tide of immorality and godlessness?

Let’s read again what St Paul says in his second letter to the Corinthians. ‘God …. hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them…’ [v. 18-19]

‘Not imputing their trespasses unto them.’ No longer blaming them. Contrast with that the story of the Old Testament, say in Jeremiah, for example. The prophets of the Old Testament had to battle with constant tension between God and his chosen people.

Jeremiah says, ‘Hast thou utterly rejected Judah? hath thy soul lothed Zion? why hast thou smitten us, and there is no healing for us? we looked for peace, and there is no good; and for the time of healing, and behold trouble! We acknowledge, O Lord, our wickedness, and the iniquity of our fathers: for we have sinned against thee.’ [Jeremiah 14:19-20]

That’s a very different message from the one that we find in St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. St Paul is all about reconciliation. The interesting thing is that the word in Greek that is translated as ‘reconciliation’ (καταλλαγη) originally meant ‘exchange’, almost ‘a trade’, substituting one thing for another. It is also the word used to translate ‘atonement’, as in the Jewish festival of Atonement.

We say that Jesus’ sacrifice, his death, ‘atoned’, made ‘atonement’ for, our sin, made up for it, paid the price for it, in some way. He ‘redeemed’ us, he paid a ransom for us. I have always found it tough to think in terms of a blood sacrifice, that Jesus’ death on the cross was in some way a blood sacrifice. This passage in 2 Corinthians shows us another way of understanding the idea of atonement. Jesus’ sacrifice, Jesus’ death, reconciles us with God.

Richard Hooker, the great Reformation theologian, said, about this passage, ‘Let it be counted folly or frenzy or whatsoever, it is our wisdom and our comfort. We care for no knowledge in the world but this, that man has sinned and God has suffered; that God has made himself the sin of men and that men are made the righteousness of God.’ Richard Hooker, A Discourse of Justification, http://tinyurl.com/dxfvxzq

It’s a sort of a swap, an exchange: reconciliation. Eugene Peterson, in his translation of the Bible called ‘The Message’, which is perhaps a commentary and a translation rolled into one, expresses this passage in 2 Corinthians as follows. ‘All this comes from God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other. God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins.’

This is the clue to the Christian revolution, that God is not vengeful, he is loving. God knows that we are imperfect, and that we do bad things. The woman taken in adultery didn’t intend to hurt anybody, but was just prey to an animal passion. Even St Paul, doing the things that he hated, was still subject to the influence of sin.

We should remember this when we are confronted by people who have done truly dreadful things – the killers of little Jamie Bulger came into the news again this week, for example; and of course we can think again of Jimmy Saville and others who seem to have allowed their baser instincts to get the better of them.

Jesus said to the woman, ‘Has no-one condemned you? She answered, ‘No-one, sir.’ Jesus said, ‘Nor do I condemn you’. Jesus’ message is, to put it another way, we should hate the sin, but have compassion for the sinner. This is a message of forgiveness, of redemption, the very opposite of hopelessness and bleakness. It is a happy message. It is a message for Refreshment Sunday: Mothering Sunday. There is light at the end of the tunnel. There is a rosy glow. Rose Sunday looks forward to the dawning of the Sun of Righteousness – as Homer put it, ‘rosy-fingered dawn’ – on Easter morning.

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