Archives for posts with tag: Sin

Sermon for Holy Communion for SS Simon and Jude, 28th October 2018

Ephesians 2:19-end; John 15:17-end

Today along with most of the churches in the western world we are commemorating two apostles whom we know very little about, St Simon and St Jude.

There were two Judes, two Judases. We’re not quite sure who this one was, because in the four Gospels he is described as being various things. In St Matthew and St Mark he is not called Judas but Thaddeus, which might be a surname; it is only in Saint Luke and the Acts of the Apostles that he is called Jude. St Jude was not the same as Judas Iscariot, although his name in Greek is the same, Ιουδας. People historically haven’t chosen him to invoke in prayer, because they think he might get mixed up with Judas Iscariot. So he is called the patron saint of lost causes – ‘If all else fails, offer a prayer through St Jude’. The little letter of Jude in the New Testament was not written by this Jude, according to many scholars. In St Luke’s Gospel Jude is described as the son of James the brother of Jesus. ‘Jude the Obscure’, which was the title of one of Thomas Hardy’s novels, is an apt name for him.

Simon – not Simon Peter – had been a terrorist – a real terrorist. He had been a member of the Zealots, who were a Jewish extremist sect that believed that the Jews were supposed to be a free and independent nation; that God alone would be their king, and that any payment of taxes to the Romans or accepting their rule was a blasphemy against God. They were violent. They attacked both Romans and any Jews who they thought were collaborating with the Romans. Simon had been one of them.

So the Apostles were a motley assortment. Humble fishermen; a tax collector; a terrorist (although of course, depending on your point of view, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter); James and John, the ‘Sons of Thunder’, whatever that means. It certainly doesn’t sound meek and mild. And of course, Judas Iscariot; the other Jude. Jesus wasn’t choosing people whom we would think of as saintly.

But there isn’t an awful lot that we know about Simon the Zealot and Jude – Jude-not-that-Jude. So our Bible readings today, the message from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, ‘You are no longer aliens in a foreign land,’ and the message from St John’s Gospel, about Christians not belonging to the world, are not about them, but rather they are a reminder of some of the teaching that Jesus – and after him, St Paul – gave to the Apostles and to the early Christians.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians has a great theme of ‘reconciliation’: St Paul’s great mission was to bring the Gospel to the non-Jews, the Gentiles, so that Christianity wasn’t just a subdivision of Jewishness. ‘You are no longer aliens in a foreign land.’ Perhaps it’s not so topical for us nowadays.

But in Jesus’ own teaching, from St John’s Gospel (chapter 15) that we heard this morning, packed into these few lines there are some really deep meanings which still help us to understand the nature of God.

Jesus said, ’Because you do not belong to the world … For that reason the world hates you.’ In Jesus’ day and in that Roman world, being a Christian was definitely dangerous, simply because Christians didn’t worship the Roman emperor as a god. In the reign of some emperors, for example Diocletian, it meant that large numbers of Christians were fed to the lions.

It’s still to some extent true today, in parts of the Middle East and in Northern Nigeria, that Christians are persecuted. But by and large in our part of Surrey, it’s not really controversial to say that you are a Christian. But I do think that perhaps we still should reflect on what it means ‘not to belong to the world’. You don’t ‘breathe the same air’, as people sometimes say. Are we sometimes tempted to keep our religious belief out of things, for fear of offending people? But Jesus said here, don’t be afraid of being different.

What about the next proposition in this teaching passage, ‘Servants are not greater than their master’? The translation is actually wrong. The word isn’t ‘servant’, but ‘slave’, δουλος in Greek. This word also means what was called a ‘bondsman’, somebody who was indentured, bought. In the Roman empire, bondsmen, indentured slaves, could buy their freedom. Their bonds could be remitted, they could be ransomed.

It seems to me that these words surely have echoes of the idea of redemption, that by Jesus’ sacrifice he has purchased our remission from the slavery of sin. Jesus has bought us out, redeemed us. We are no longer slaves. Earlier on in chapter 15, indeed Jesus does say, ‘I call you slaves no longer’.

‘The people who hate you’, Jesus said, ‘do not know the one who sent me’. Again: ‘… the one who sent me.’ This is a reminder of the way that Christians understand God ‘in three persons’, as the Holy Trinity, father, son and Holy Spirit. (Jesus comes to the Holy Spirit later on, when he talks about sending what he calls the ‘Advocate’, the spirit of truth, after he has gone. Here, it’s just him and the One who sent him).

Here we can see what caused some of the controversy in the early church, which ended up in the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century, and in our Nicene Creed. If God ‘sent’ Jesus, the Son, was Jesus also God, or just another creature? And depending on the answer to that question, where did the Holy Spirit come from? God, or God-and-Jesus? And again, was the Spirit, is the Spirit – remember, ‘His Spirit is with us’, we say – is the Spirit made by God, or is it God itself?

If you don’t think of God as a nice old chap with a beard sitting on top of the clouds – and since the sixties, at least, since Bishop John Robinson’s wonderful little book, ‘Honest to God’ [Robinson, J. (1963), Honest to God, London, SCM Press], we mostly don’t – how can we understand the Holy Trinity? Try the logical, a priori, back to logical first principles, way that Professor Richard Swinburne, the great Oxford philosopher of religion, has set out in his book ‘Was Jesus God?’ [Swinburne, R. (2008) Was Jesus God? Oxford, OUP, p.28f]. It goes like this.

There is a ‘divine person’ who is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free and eternal. Let us call that person ‘God’. Because He is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free and eternal, God is perfectly good.

God could exist alone, but being perfectly good means he won’t be selfish; He will have to have a object for His love. Perfect love is love of an equal: a perfectly good person will seek to bring about another such person, an equal, with whom to share all that he has. That other person is the Son.

But the Son didn’t, in fact, come after the Father. As a matter of logic, because they are perfect, ’At each moment of everlasting time the Father must always cause the Son to exist, and so always keep the Son in being.’

But then, Swinburne says, ’A twosome can be selfish’. ‘The love of the Father for the Son must include a wish to cooperate with the Son in further total sharing with an equal; and hence the need for a third member of the Trinity’ And that is the Holy Spirit.

For the same logical reasons, the Spirit isn’t something ‘made’ by God. As we say in the Creed, the Spirit ‘proceeds from’ the Father, or the Father and the Son. (Saying ‘proceeds from’ is perhaps a philosophical cop-out. We can’t say exactly how the Spirit gets here). The Three-in-One are, is, there. The Trinity is in a sense caused by the One, by God. But it is one with God. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Three ways of being God.

One more nugget of theology. Jesus says, at verse 24, about the heathen, the worldly people, ’If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have both seen and hated both me and my Father’. It seems that Jesus has a different concept of guilt or criminal responsibility from the one we’re familiar with. We say that ignorance is no defence. Something is either lawful or it isn’t. You might think that sin worked the same way. Something is either sinful or it isn’t, surely, isn’t it sinful, irrespective whether you know it or not? But Jesus has this different idea – you’ll find it also in St Paul’s letter to the Romans [7:7] – that heathens, who know nothing about sin, are not sinful. What makes someone sinful, or capable of being sinful, is being ‘fixed with knowledge’, as a lawyer would put it. So it looks as though ignorance is a defence, where sin is concerned.

But that is perhaps an indication that to ‘sin’ is not the same thing as to do bad things, to do evil, even. The point about sin is that it is a separation, a turning of your back on, God. And you can’t do that, if you don’t know about God in the first place. Of course, if you are sinful, if you have turned your back on God, you may well do bad things. If you are saved by grace, you will show it by your good works. If you aren’t, if you are lost, you will show it by the bad things you do. St Paul sets it out in Galatians chapter 5.

What a concentrated lesson for his disciples it was from Jesus!

– What it means that the Father is ‘the One who sent me’;

– what it means that because of me, the Son, you are no longer servants, or really slaves; and,

– what it means that Jesus will get the Spirit to come to you. (That is the ‘Advocate’, what the Prayer Book and the Authorised Version of the Bible calls the Comforter, ό παρακλητος).

The common thread, the theme of Jesus’ teaching here, might perhaps be relationships, relationships between people, and with God. And the currency used in those relationships. Hate – ‘the world hates you’; service – Jesus has bought us out, redeemed us, so we are no longer slaves; comfort, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter; and love – love from ‘the one who sent me’. And ‘the greatest of these is love’, as you know. [1 Corinthians 13]

Sometimes it’s good to think about these lessons that Jesus taught, never mind who was listening to him. It could even be you, as well as Simon-not-Peter or Jude-not-Judas.

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Sermon for Holy Communion on the Feast of Christ the King, 26th November 2017, at St John’s, West Hartford, Conn.

[Ezekiel 34.11-16,20-24, Ephesians 1.15-23], Matthew 25.31-46

See http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=378268013 for the readings, and https://sjparish.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Nov-26-Pentecost-25-1030am.pdf for the full service booklet.

It’s really kind of you to welcome me back to St John’s to preach again. Susan, you have been amazingly gracious. Just when you were getting nicely settled in as Rector, Bill and Hope Eakins dropped in the suggestion that you might want to risk having me, this old Brit, to preach at the church – and just after Thanksgiving as well, when you are all celebrating having got rid of us colonial throw-backs. You’re truly kind.

Obviously I have been well briefed. I must stay away from anything too controversial or political. And I can’t really do the ancient Greek orator’s trick of doing a Philippic: you know, saying loudly, ‘I’m not going to say anything about Philip’, and then going on to say what an awful person he is. So no Brexit and Trump, then. Sorry.

Instead I want to get to grips with the sheep and the goats. Are you a sheep, or a goat? It’s a rigid division. On the right side, the Elysian Fields await you; but if you’re Billy Goat Gruff, nothing so nice.

That’s the thing I want to explore, with the sheep and the goats: divisions. People divided: divided, because they disagree. They disagree about what is best to do. And then, perhaps, do they have those divisions confirmed, ratified, by the Judge eternal?

At Thanksgiving you are celebrating independence from the colonial power that we were, the young nation standing on its own feet. It was a journey started by the Pilgrim Fathers, Puritans, who found themselves different from, at odds with, divided from, the society they were leaving in England. So I want to look at that division. It stemmed at least in part from the religious ferment and turmoil of the Reformation.

Apart from those things I’m not talking about, the other thing this year that has been of special note, not in our political, but in our spiritual life, has indeed been the Martin Luther 500th anniversary, 500 years since he is said to have posted up 95 points where he was at odds with the Roman Catholic Church, on the church door at Wittenberg in Saxony, which is the event which started the Reformation.

The Reformation led to civil war and persecution: the particularly ghastly thing about it was that the favourite way of getting rid of opponents was to burn them alive at the stake. We often spend time on Good Friday, during the Three Hours, reflecting on the dreadful mechanics of death by crucifixion. Death by burning seems to me to have been equally dreadful. And the penalty was so arbitrary and undeserved.

Think of Thomas Cranmer, the great scholar and Archbishop who created the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, and gave the new Church of England liturgy, forms of worship, which were for the first time in a language that could be ‘understanded of the people’, as they said, in English instead of Latin, although they were in fact based on, and continued the tradition of, services which in some cases could be traced back to the earliest Church Fathers. But even Cranmer was eventually burned to death, at the hands of the original ‘Bloody Mary’, Queen Mary, who brought back the Catholic faith for the duration of her reign.

This happened because Cranmer was a Protestant, at a time when it was no longer the right thing to be. We don’t know whether he met Martin Luther – some scholars, such as Diarmaid McCulloch, think he might well have done – but he certainly spent time in Zürich with Zwingli and Bucer.

It is fascinating to see how Cranmer reflected the new Reformation ideas, in the way in which he dealt, (in the Book of Common Prayer that he largely authored), with what was happening in the Holy Communion, at the point when the bread and the wine are shared.

The Roman church, the Catholics, believe in what they call ‘Transubstantiation’, the ‘Real Presence’ of Jesus’ body and blood in the bread and wine of the Holy Communion. Many of the Reformers did not believe in Transubstantiation. For them the bread and the wine were just that, bread and wine; just symbols of a greater thing.

The words in Cranmer’s Prayer Book changed, from the 1549 original, where the bread and wine are treated in the Catholic way, as actually being Christ’s body and blood, to his revision in 1552, perhaps after he met the other reformers: ‘Take and eate this, in remembraunce that Christ dyed for thee, and feede on him in thy hearte by faythe, with thankesgeving’ , which means they remain just that, bread and wine, just symbols, until, long after Cranmer’s awful death in 1556, in 1662 the final version of the Prayer Book (until the twentieth century revisions, here and in England), the 1662 Book has it all ways: ‘The body of our Lord Jesus Christ, broken for thee: Eat this, in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.’ In the first bit, the body, the actual body: but then a ‘remembrance’, a symbol: feeding, but by faith, not literally. Now, you can be anywhere on the Catholic – Protestant spectrum, and find spiritual resonance somewhere in those words, which we will still use, albeit in a slightly different order, in our service today.

But, the point is that, then, people were dying for those differences. Or feeling so alienated by them, that they opted to make a perilous voyage to a largely unknown land, and make a new life – as the Pilgrim Fathers did. It’s frankly strange – repugnant, even – to us today to think that the State could mete out the ultimate punishment, death, to a learned theologian such as Cranmer. But it did.

Belief, opinion, learned opinion, was a life-or-death affair. Now we can look back 500 years and shake our heads sagely, regretting how brutal life was then: we’re far too rational to let ourselves get into that kind of overreaction.

But I wonder. I promised not to talk about Brexit and Trump. But I will just say that it seems to be true both back home in England, over Brexit, and, dare I say, here, where Pres. Trump is concerned, that a climate has built up recently where people on each side not only feel strongly, very strongly: but they have stopped talking to each other. Certainly at home in the UK, the referendum on Brexit has divided people, divided people in a serious way. Old friends are avoiding each other; families are divided. There’s no sense of the old way of managing differences: so that we would say ‘Old so-and-so thinks such-and-such: I know he’s wrong, but it doesn’t matter. We’re still the best of friends.’ That really doesn’t seem to be working any more.

Time was, even recently, when we could disagree about quite serious things, and still be friends; it really was a case of hating the sin and loving the sinner. So what did Jesus the King do? The sheep and the goats are to be separated out, they are to be divided: but not by what they have thought, but what they have done. Jesus wasn’t requiring the elect, the people who were saved, the sheep, to subscribe to any particular world view. He was looking for acts of kindness, not manifestos.

‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ (Matt.25:35-36).

Hungry; thirsty; a stranger; no clothes; ill; in prison. You can construct all sorts of scenarios, which may well broadly reflect your political outlook, to explain how a person can be in any of those situations – and we might disagree.

Hungry and thirsty because they’ve made bad ‘life choices’, perhaps; a stranger, because they live somewhere that I don’t go to – and perhaps they don’t live the way we do; no clothes, probably not literally, but scruffy, down-at-heel, when – ‘if they cared about their appearance… ‘ You know.

Or they might be refugees, from a poor country. Are they ‘genuine refugees’, or just ‘economic migrants’? That’s a question which I suspect you would answer much more sympathetically than many of us Englishmen have been doing. The USA’s prosperity is built on the labour of economic migrants – but we are now trying to keep them out.

Or what if you are sick, if you are ill? You know one of the differences between us in England and you is that, I think, we have more restrictive rules about when you can fire people. Basically, our law says that an employer has to show that he has a fair reason for terminating someone’s employment, and it is presumed that it was not fair. But a fair reason, in English law, is if you are ill, ill for too long.

That’s one where I expect there might be disagreements. You know, on the one hand, you can’t run a business if you have to pay a salary for someone who’s not there: and on the other, think what it will do to your powers of recovery if, when you are in the depths of illness, you lose your livelihood. What’s your point of view? Which side are you on?

Jesus says, when I was in hospital, you came and visited me. Dare we say, you visited me, and didn’t bring me any bad news? I hope so. Here in the home of the US insurance industry, of The Hartford and the Aetna, let me dare say it – surely long-term sickness might be covered by an employer’s insurance. Or maybe that’s too much. I was ill, and you visited me. That’s what Jesus said.

I was in prison. You came to me. I was a criminal. I didn’t deserve anything. I had done something terrible. But surely there are limits? Some criminals are just beyond the pale. At home, the man called the Moors Murderer, Ian Brady, has died, and there was controversy where his remains should be buried. He killed a number of children, in appalling circumstances. Here, Charles Manson has died. Both of them I have heard called ‘evil personified’. But Jesus isn’t judging them. Jesus’ judgement, separating the sheep and the goats, is not about whether someone has been bad, been a sinner. Jesus would have visited them. He sat down and ate with sinners.

That’s the clue. That’s how it is with Jesus. Not what you’d think; perhaps not particularly reasonable. But good.

So I suspect that if we acknowledge Christ as King, and as judge eternal, as we are invited to do today, on this festival of Christ the King at the end of Thanksgiving, we may find a way to deal with our differences: even, dare I say, those real, deep differences over Brexit and Trump. Ultimately those differences may not really be that important. Instead we need to think sheep and goats. Acts of kindness, not manifestos.

Sermon for Evensong on Remembrance Sunday, 9th Nov 2014
John 15:9-17 – Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

I wondered whether tonight I should just read you some of those stories of heroism and self-sacrifice which perhaps we all know, and which Remembrance Sunday reminds us of. They are almost sermons in themselves. For example:

Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest imprisoned in Auschwitz, who volunteered to take another prisoner’s place when the Nazis selected ten men at random to be starved to death after someone had escaped; or

Jack Cornwell, the boy sailor, ‘Boy’ Cornwell, who was only 16 when he was mortally wounded at the battle of Jutland in 1916, who stayed at his post by the ship’s gun which had been hit and put out of action. He stayed there, although all the rest of the gun crew were dead, ‘in case he were needed’, as he said before he died. Or

Robert Leiper Lindsay, the superintendent of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company oil-well compound in ‘the side of Persia that slopes down into Mesopotamia’, as the story in Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia [Arthur Mee, ed., c.1922 (undated), London, The Educational Book Company Limited, vol.9, p.6194] puts it, who died shutting down an oil leak to a furnace and saved 300 colleagues. This was one of my favourite stories when I was about ten, and it still moves and shocks me.

‘The quick mind of Lindsay sees at once that the pumps must be stopped and the supply of oil feeding the furnaces must be cut off; so he calls to his assistant to shut off the pumps, and sets off to cut off the furnace supply. But to get to the furnaces he must pass through the fountain of streaming oil, and arrive at the furnaces with his clothes saturated with petroleum. He knows what the end will be, but he does not shrink. He passes through the oil shower, turns off the oil tap of the furnaces, and then turns away, and falls, a blazing torch.’

Terrible stories. So moving. Would we be so brave, we ask ourselves. The first two stories were from wartime: Father Kolbe in the Second World War, and Jack Cornwell VC in the First. Robert Leiper Lindsay was in 1918. As you will know, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, that he worked for, became BP.

Jesus’ great saying, ‘Greater love hath no man ..’, is about love. He has said, ‘This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you’ [John 15:12]. It isn’t the sort of soft love, companionable love, that Jesus means here. This is sacrifice, violent, painful. Like Lindsay, a ‘blazing torch’.

We can say amen to that. We know what terrible sacrifice Jesus went on to make, how He suffered.

But the mention of Jack Cornwell and Maximilian Kolbe, those wartime martyrs, and the fact that we are remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice in wars, makes me think, what is the point of all that undoubted bravery in war? What was it for?

It is reported that, before Jack Cornwell, Boy Cornwell, died, he was told that the Battle of Jutland had been won; and he was pleased. ‘The strife is o’er, the battle done.’ He had died for his friends.

Similarly Maximilian Kolbe and Robert Lindsay, by their sacrifice of themselves, saved others. They died in order that others might live.

Now there are two other sacrifices which we have to consider today. First, our forces – now in harm’s way again in Iraq. Who will their sacrifices save? It is very difficult to be sure. We have seemingly moved a long way from the Ten Commandments and ‘Thou shalt not kill’. Even back in the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas restated the ancient Roman doctrine of the ‘Just War’. He suggested three criteria (Summa Theologiae vol 35, 40(1)):

war must be waged by the ‘due authorities’;
The cause must be just; and
Those waging war must intend to promote good, and avoid evil.

Right authority, just cause, right intention. Even so, Thomas must have reflected that his concept of a ‘just war’ didn’t sit very easily with what Jesus had said, notably in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also’ (Matt. 5:39).

Thomas wrote, ‘The Lord’s words, “I say to you, offer the wicked man no resistance”, must always be borne in mind, and we must be ready to abandon resistance and self-defence if the situation calls for that.’ That begs the question when ‘the situation’ would call for resistance to be abandoned. What could be such a situation?

Why would one make war in the first place, why would one feel justified in going against Jesus’ command of peace and non-violence: His commands, not only ‘thou shalt not kill’, but also ‘turn the other cheek’?

St Augustine, Augustine of Hippo, writing, in the fourth century, much earlier than Thomas, identified another reason for which a Christian might be justified in using force, which I think is perhaps the only really good reason – as a matter of charity: to go to the aid of his neighbour who was being attacked.

This is clearly a really difficult area; when it isn’t a case of going to the aid of Poland, when it isn’t a case of a threat to our own independence, but a bloody dispute between governments whose legitimacy is in some cases questionable, and who have shown brutality and a contempt for the rule of law, on the one side, as, say, may be argued to be the case in Syria and Iraq, and opposing factions upholding a particularly vicious and intolerant type of militant Islam – who are killing Christians and other non-Moslems simply for not being Moslems, unlike their opponents, the dubious governments, so unsatisfactory in so many ways, but who at least allow freedom of religion. Where is the ‘just war’ in this context?

But I have left to the end the biggest self-sacrifice, Jesus himself. Greater love hath no man. ‘This is my blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins’ (The Communion, at p.256 in the Book of Common Prayer). Greater love hath no man, than that he die for his friends. Is it, die instead of his friends? That was Maximilian Kolbe. Or was it to help his friends? That would be like Jack Cornwell or Robert Leiper Lindsay.

The idea is said to be like taking someone else’s punishment for them – again like Maximilian Kolbe. We are sinful; instead of punishing us, as He could, God put up His own son, and punished him instead. ‘Who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world’: that’s what the Prayer Book says, in the Prayer of Consecration on p. 255.

I hope that God isn’t really like that. The language of human sacrifice – or of blood feuds: having ‘satisfaction’ is the language of D’Artagnan, the language of duels – ‘redemption’, paying the price, the price of sin, does not really square with the idea of a loving God. The idea of ‘substitutionary atonement’, as it’s called, seems to me to be very barbaric.

We may be fallen people. We may indeed be sinful. But what does that really mean? It surely doesn’t mean that we have a price on our heads, which has to be paid, or else we go into the fires of Hell.

‘Sin’ isn’t a question of persistent badness, or criminality, or just plain evil. All those things might be signs of sin, but they aren’t sin itself. In the New Testament, ‘sin’ is the translation of the Greek ‘αμαρτία, from the verb ‘αμαρτάνω, I ‘miss the mark’, I don’t hit the target. It has a connotation of distance, separation from the goal. So sin is separation, distancing, from God’s kingdom. ‘Remission’ of sins is forgiveness, release from prison.

I would like to emphasise not only the sacrifice, Jesus’ greater love, on the Cross, but also the Resurrection. God is assuring us that not only are we grateful for Jesus’ taking upon himself the punishment that perhaps we might have deserved, but also that it isn’t a story with a sad and pointless end – like the story of so many wars.

Here ‘The strife is o’er, the battle won’; but instead of a posthumous VC, we have a living God, who raised Jesus from the dead. What a sign! Let us indeed remember them: let us remember those who gave their lives in order that we might be free. But let us always remember that biggest, that most meaningful, sacrifice. Greater love hath no man – Jesus had that love, and it was for us.

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.

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.