Sermon for Mattins on the 16th Sunday after Trinity, 15th September 2013
1 Timothy 1:12-17

‘Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all who truly turn to him: …
This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.’

I’m sure the passage in the Holy Communion service in the Prayer Book (p. 252), called the ‘Comfortable Words,’ is very familiar. In it come these words, which I want to look at this morning, and which were in our first lesson. For completeness, I ought to remind you of the words which come immediately after these Comfortable Words in the Bible, namely, ‘… sinners, of whom I am the foremost’, literally in the Greek, ‘of whom I am the first’ – number one. So all together, the quotation, in the NRSV translation, is, ‘The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost’.

Scholars have said that this letter to Timothy, St Paul’s constant companion, isn’t really by St Paul, but is a letter in the style of St Paul, ‘pseudonymous’, written by an early church leader. Anyway, most of it is consistent with things that St Paul clearly did write in his other letters. But what do these ‘comfortable words’ really mean?

They’re deceptively simple. They describe the work that Jesus came among mankind to do. Not what He was, but what He did. The objective, the purpose, for Jesus coming among us. To save sinners. Among whom, the writer of the letter in the guise of St Paul claimed to be No 1, the No 1 sinner. That means that, if St Paul, or someone who writes in the guise of St Paul, says he’s in it up to his neck, so are all of us.

We need to understand first what a ‘sinner’ is. Is it just a bad person? It is not just badness, but knowing that it is against God. The writer says that although he was ‘a blasphemer, a persecutor and a man of violence’, he ‘received mercy because [he] acted ignorantly in unbelief.’ He didn’t know. But if you know you are doing wrong, and still do it, that is sinful. Remember St Paul wrestling with this in Romans chapter 7: ‘For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate. … But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.’ (Romans 7:15,17)

So St Paul suggests that someone who doesn’t know what they are doing, who has no conscience about it, may be doing wrong, but it isn’t sinful. Sin is a crime against God. Idolatry – ranking something other than God higher than God – is perhaps the quintessential sin. Just saying that makes us realise that this is still very relevant today. We can all think of instances where it has been more important, we thought, to do something, something where God didn’t come into it, rather than to take time for God or to follow His commandments. We are still prone to worshipping idols.

To put it another way, sin is something which pushes us away from God, which separates us from Him. What utter bleakness, if there is in fact nothing higher, nothing greater, no ultimate heart of Being; if life is nasty, brutish and short, and there is no purpose in it.

But we are told that Jesus came amongst us to ‘save sinners’. How did He do it? What is this ‘saving’ process? How does it work? (Unfortunately, we might be tempted to ask if it works at all, seeing that dreadful things, sins surely, are still all around us.) Is it true that ‘Love’s redeeming work is done’, as we sing in Charles Wesley’s great hymn?

In simpler times perhaps, people might have been content, might indeed have been ‘comforted’, by the thought that somehow Jesus had ‘paid a ransom for our souls’, that by his death on the cross He had paid a price of our sins – a ‘full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world’, as the Prayer Book puts it.

But I would hope that we couldn’t really believe in a God who, on the one hand, is a loving creator, but on the other, must countenance human sacrifice if His terrible vengeance is to be bought off. But Jesus’ work isn’t some kind of a ‘transaction’, some crude and brutal trade-off. Even back in the time of Abraham, God would not let Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac to him. (Genesis 22)

Nevertheless there is an element of costliness, of sacrifice, in what Jesus did. ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13, AV). This is still the greatest love.

There is a calendar of ‘holy days’ which the church celebrates. Various saints and holy people are commemorated throughout the year. A few weeks ago, on 14th August, our church remembered, commemorated, a modern saint, Father Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan monk who was in Auschwitz. At morning prayers on 14th August every year we listen to his story.

It was believed, wrongly, as it turned out, that someone had escaped from the part of the prison, Auschwitz, where Father Maximilian was held. The SS seized ten men at random to be executed, horribly, by starvation, as a deterrent to others who might try to escape. Father Maximilian asked to take the place of one of them, so that that man might see his wife and children again. He gave his life in that man’s place. It is a very terrible and moving story.

That story, I think, gives us a better understanding of how Jesus ‘saves’ sinners. It wasn’t just a question of Father Maximilian making the ultimate sacrifice or being inspired by Jesus’ willingness to die on the cross, not just a question of his trying to follow Jesus’ faithfulness, wrestling with temptation in the garden of Gethsemane: ‘Father, … take this cup away from me’, but eventually accepting the Father’s will.

If that was how salvation works, by inspiring us to follow Jesus so closely that we never sin again, not many of us would make it, not many of us would qualify. Just as St Paul pointed out in Romans, we are sinful. We can’t help it. Jesus’s death on the cross hasn’t put an end to our still being challenged by sin. So salvation doesn’t just work by inspiring us not to be sinful any more – although again, there’s an element of truth. What Jesus did does inspire us – and it may well make us better people. But that in itself wouldn’t justify saying that He ‘saved’ us.

By his supreme expression of love, Father Maximilian triumphed over the evil of Auschwitz. He has never been forgotten. Even the guards were astonished at what he was willing to suffer. The reaction of the SS guards was very reminiscent of what the Roman centurion said at the foot of the cross. The Holy Spirit was definitely at work, in 1941, in Maximilian Kolbe. It wasn’t annihilation. It was a victory. Father Maximilian Kolbe won a victory.

Jesus won a victory. Not a blood sacrifice. Not just a wonderful example – but something extra, over and beyond sacrificial love and inspiration. It was a triumph – Christ the Victor. Christ had conquered death. In so doing, Christ revealed the power of God at work. That revelation is that God cares for us, even though we may be cut off from Him – or though we may cut ourselves off: even though we may be sinners.

The idea is that we are like the lost sheep, the lost coin or the prodigal son. The prodigal son acknowledged that he had messed up, he had missed the mark in life – and ‘missing the mark’ is the literal meaning of the word we translate as ‘sinning’. But his father welcomed him back, no questions asked. The fatted calf – if it had happened today, that would be roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, using Kobe beef – was his father’s free gift, his ‘grace’, in religious language. He sinned: he repented: he was welcomed home.

This still works. Maximilian Kolbe proved it in 1941, and I’m sure that, if we only knew about them, there are lots of saints at work today, also making colossal sacrifices, sustained to do it by their faith.

You might still think that all this talk of ‘sinners’ doesn’t mean you. But let me remind you of one of the ‘sentences of scripture’ which I read before the service: it’s from the first letter of St John, chapter 1:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us; but if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

So reflect on these comfortable words in the week ahead. They still mean something significant, they still offer real comfort, even for you.

Advertisements