Archives for posts with tag: substitutionary atonement

Sermon for Evensong on the 3rd Sunday after Easter, 12th May 2019

Psalm 114, In exitu Israel, Isaiah 63:7-14, Luke 24:36-49 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=424470667

The mountains skipped like rams: and the little hills like young sheep’.

Today is a very sheepy day in the church. Lots of sheep. The Roman Catholics call it Good Shepherd Sunday – and we have followed their nice idea this morning here at St Mary’s.This morning in the Gospel of John, Jesus ticked off the Jews who were clamouring to know if he was the Messiah they were expecting; he ticked them off by saying that, even if he was, they wouldn’t realise: because they weren’t from his flock. He said, ‘But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, ..…

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:

And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish’. [John 10]

The other readings prescribed in the Lectionary this morning included the story of Noah’s Ark; ‘The animals went in two by two; the elephant and the kangaroo’. And the sheep, of course. And there is a piece from Revelation which is a vision of a great multitude standing before the throne of God and ‘before the Lamb’. Behold the Lamb of God.

And in other parts of the Bible there is the parable of the lost sheep, and Jesus’ rather enigmatic saying to Peter, when, in response to Peter’s three denials of Jesus earlier, he had asked Peter three times how much he loved him, and, after Peter had assured him he did, Jesus answered each time, ‘Feed my lambs’, or, ‘Tend my sheep’ [John 21:15-18]. And there is the vision of the Last Judgement in Matthew 25, with Jesus separating people into two groups, ‘as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats’.

Sheep are good and goats are bad, according to this. It reflects the Jewish idea of the scapegoat, sacramentally loading the sins of some people on to the back of some poor goat, which is then cut loose to roam in the desert till it dies of hunger and thirst.

I’m sure you can think of other sheep references. The idea of a sacrificial animal, a scapegoat, is a very old one in Judaism. Actually, of course, they seem to have mixed up sheep and goats quite a lot. The ‘lamb of God’, the sacrificial lamb, is effectively a scapegoat, a goat: the idea is that Jesus is that scapegoat, that, as we say, in the Prayer of Consecration in the Communion service (page 255 in your Prayer Books), he ‘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’.

The vision of the New Jerusalem which our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah shows, is in line with this.

‘Surely they are my people, children that will not lie: so he was their Saviour.

In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old’ (Isaiah 63.8-9).

Then the prophet recalls the story of the Exodus from Egypt. God must have been infinitely powerful, in order to part the waters of the Red Sea and let the Israelites pass through on dry land. It is the same thing that our Psalm, Psalm 114, celebrates. ‘When Israel came out of Egypt’. All these miraculous things happened. The sea ‘saw that, and fled’; ‘The mountains skipped like rams: and the little hills like young sheep’.

All this is meant to prepare us for the greatest miracle of all, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. So when he appears to the disciples in Luke’s account, he stresses that what has happened to him is just as it was foretold by the Jewish prophets. The author of the Gospel, Luke, is usually taken to be a doctor – St Paul described him as (Col. 4:14), ‘the beloved physician’. He is a scientist; his Gospel tends to look for objective facts as well as metaphysical theology. So here, in this resurrection appearance, Jesus does a re-run of the Doubting Thomas story. See me, touch me, feel me. I am not a ‘spirit’, not a ghost.

And there’s this rather curious eating ‘broiled’ fish and, if you can believe it, ‘honeycomb’. You remember, the Gospel says, ‘And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them.’ Now the ‘broil’ isn’t some American style of cooking, but just another word for being cooked. American English sometimes preserves much older English words than are now current in English English. The ‘honeycomb’, by the way, isn’t evidence of Jesus liking combinations of flavours which even Heston Blumenthal might find challenging – fish and honey sounds a disgusting combination – but rather it’s a rare example where the Authorised Version of the Bible has been led astray by what was presumably a corrupted manuscript. They translated as if it was μελου – ‘of honey’, as if it had had an ‘L’, instead of the better reading, μερου,’R’, ‘of a piece’, ‘of a piece of fish’. There’s just fish, no honey.

But still, he ate it. So let’s assume we can say that, astonishing as it was to see, it happened. But is it too contrary to ask, ‘So what?’ If we had been there, what would we have made of seeing Jesus brought back to life? Would we have picked up on the idea that he had offered himself as some kind of human sacrifice? And if he had, what was the purpose of the sacrifice?

If we follow the theology of Isaiah, the mechanism, how it works, is what is called ‘substitutionary atonement’. Greater love hath no man – and here Jesus is showing his love for us by accepting, or even bringing on himself, punishment which we, not he, deserved. He was offering himself to make up for our sins, to atone for them, to propitiate – those two last words you will recognise from services and hymns. Atoning for our sins; for ‘he is the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 2:1; in the ‘Comfortable Words’, p.252 in your Prayer Books). The idea is one of ransom. God’s wrath has been bought off.

Does that square with how you think of God? Do you – do we – seriously think, these days, that God is so threatening? It seems to me that one would have to impute some characteristics to God that I doubt whether we could justify. Granted there are people who claim to have conversations with God, perhaps in the way the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah said they did. God ‘spoke through’ the prophets. But in Jesus, the prophecies were fulfilled: there were no more prophets.

What about the ‘sin’ that we are said to need to ‘propitiate’? What is it? Obviously, some sins are bad actions, breaches of the Ten Commandments – thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal. But we say now that sin is wider than just doing bad things – which could be dealt with as crimes, without bringing God into it, after all.

Sin, we say, is whatever separates us from God. So if God is love, the ultimate positive, hatred is sin. If God commands us to love our neighbour, and we wage war upon him instead, that is sin. But what is God’s reaction? Is there an actual judgement? Do the sheep go up and goats down? And if so, what was Jesus doing?

In the great last judgment at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel, when the sheep and the goats are being separated out, Jesus the Judge Eternal was bringing another angle on God. ‘Inasmuch as ye did it unto the least of these, ye did it unto to me’. You didn’t just turn your back on a starving man; you turned your back on Jesus, on God. Perhaps that’s how he takes our place, in some sense.

The great French philosopher and founder of the network of communities where people with learning difficulties and ‘normal’ people live together, called L’Arche, (in English, the Ark), Jean Vanier,  has just died at the age of 90. On the radio this morning someone quoted him as saying, ‘It doesn’t matter whether you believe in God: just believe in love’. I think that Jean Vanier meant that God is love. God showed that love for mankind by sending Jesus to live as a man here with us. In that he brought us closer to God, in showing us true love, Jesus conquered the power of sin. Perhaps this, rather than the idea of ransom, of human sacrifice, is what it means that Jesus offers ‘propitiation’ for sin.

Which is it? I don’t think that I can give you a neat resolution, a pat explanation, of this. Theologians from the early fathers through Thomas Aquinas and the Reformation scholars to the moderns like Richard Swinburne [Richard Swinburne 1989, Responsibility and Atonement, Oxford, OUP] have all wrestled with the meaning of what Jesus did – or what happened to Jesus, and why. It is, if nothing else, a demonstration of power, infinite power. No wonder that the ‘mountains skipped like rams’. But can we still feel it? We need to keep our eyes open.

Sermon for Mattins on the 10th Sunday after Trinity, 20th August 2017
Jonah 1 – Jonah and the Great Fish

 

There are a surprising amount of really contemporary references in the story of Jonah and the whale: although having said that, the first thing to say is that we now know that a whale, if that is what swallowed Jonah, isn’t a ‘great fish’, of course – a whale is a mammal.

 

The Lord told Jonah to prophesy against Nineveh, ‘that great city’, to make it clear to the people that the Lord was not pleased with them, ‘for their wickedness is come up before me.’ Nineveh is still in the news. It is now called Mosul, and it’s in modern Iraq.

 

Jonah ran away; he disobeyed God. As usual in the Old Testament, the Jews are up against the Gentiles. Nineveh was the great city of the Assyrians, Gentiles. Being told that he should go and criticise their way of life as ‘wicked’ wasn’t likely to end well for Jonah. So he disobeyed, and ran away to sea.

 

The first clue, that this is not just a nice story, is the name of the place where Jonah was heading, Tarshish. No-one really knows where it was. Traditionally it has been identified with Tunis or Carthage; but there are no archaeological remains in either place to bear this out. It seems to be a kind of symbolic place, symbolic as being a great centre of commerce and trade. The little Book of Jonah – only four chapters long – is really a piece of religious teaching, allegorical rather than a factual historical account. So one has to weigh up all the bits of the story in that way. What does each thing really mean, or what does it illustrate?

 

An exception, however, is when the ship gets caught in a storm and is being overwhelmed, and the ship’s crew, the ‘mariners’, jettison cargo in order to lighten the ship. In maritime law there is a concept called ‘general average’, defined as an unforeseen, extraordinary sacrifice made in order to preserve the safety of the ‘maritime adventure’ as a whole, that is, the ship, its crew, passengers and cargo, and the cost of the sacrifice is shared among all of them. It’s a very old concept, first mentioned as part of the Lex Rhodia, the law of the island of Rhodes, in about 800BC. The Book of Jonah was written about 400 years later – although it makes out that its context is the rise of Assyria and the defeat of Babylon, also about 800BC. The law of general average is still practised today in London.

 

But even here the straightforward ‘story’ aspect is modified by some philosophical, ethical, material. The ship’s captain and crew had picked up the fact that Jonah has disobeyed ‘his’ God, and the mariners rather oddly drew lots as a way of seeing whom among them to blame for the storm.

 

The logic seems to have been that they – and it seems from the context that they were a mixture of faiths and nationalities – thought that one person on board must somehow have caused the danger that they were in: so if they got rid of that person, they would be saved. Casting lots to find the person was a way of leaving the blame to God to assign, not just luck. Jonah drew the short straw, and the others felt confident that he must be the one who caused it, because not only had the lot fallen on him, but he was known to have done something wrong – he had disobeyed God.

 

And yet the crewmen were very reluctant to throw Jonah overboard, which was what the purpose of drawing lots was – it was like one of those ‘balloon debates’, where at the end of each round, someone has to jump out of the balloon, to keep the balloon in the air. Jonah however accepted his fate, and said the storm would subside if he were tossed over the side. They had asked Jonah what his religious affiliations were – they weren’t Jewish like him.

 

So when Jonah finally got chucked over the side, at his own request, it was another symbolic act. He, the Jew, the member of God’s chosen people, was being sacrificed rather than any of the less-favoured Gentiles, the motley assortment of other races and beliefs among the crew.

 

This week we finally managed to show the new film ‘The Shack’ in our Spiritual Cinema at Church Gate House. There will be another showing on 5th September if you’d like to see it. As we can’t show it on our big screen, we’re doing it in the lounge, to no more than 20 people at a time. It is a very spiritual and moving film.

 

I won’t spoil it for you by telling you much about the plot. I just wanted to mention that, early in the film, one of the characters tells the story of an ‘Indian princess’, (meaning a Native American), who, when when her tribe had fallen ill with some plague, threw herself to her death down a waterfall, on the understanding that her sacrificing her life would give life to others. It sounds very like ‘God so loved the world ..’ [John 3:16f]. And here, Jonah is being sacrificed in order to – in order to do what? Placate an angry God?

 

The idea is called ‘substitutionary atonement’. Taking someone else’s punishment for them, or the Jewish idea of a scapegoat, an animal – poor thing – on whose back all the community’s sins and iniquities was metaphorically loaded, before it was driven out, most likely to starve, in the desert.

 

But where is God in such a process? Granted that He wouldn’t set out to inflict unjust and undeserved punishment on anyone, does He nevertheless accept those sort of sacrifices, and respond to them? I won’t try to give you a ready-made answer: I want you to think about it yourselves. What sort of God would demand, or at least accept, a human sacrifice?

 

Think about the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. God told Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac, whom he loved, as a burnt offering on an altar. Abraham took Isaac up the mountain, tied him up and put him on top of a pile of wood, and then he reached out to pick up a knife, which he had placed where it was easily to hand, to kill Isaac.

 

And all of a sudden God called out from heaven to Abraham, telling him not to harm the boy. The idea was that God was testing Abraham, seeing how obedient to him he was. And the most important thing is that God didn’t want the sacrifice. God isn’t a cruel or hurtful god.

 

So when we say that Jesus ‘died for our sins’, I would suggest that it’s rather more complicated than a substitutionary atonement. I don’t think that God demands human sacrifices.

 

So, spoiler alert! I’m just going to fill in what happens next in the Book of Jonah. He is swallowed up by the great fish, or whale: he is spat out unharmed after three days; he praises God for saving him: this time he obeys his instructions, and willingly goes to Mosul, to Nineveh, and denounces the city. In 40 days it would be sacked, overthrown, he told them. And the inhabitants of Nineveh, far from turning on him as he’d feared, suddenly show signs of remorse, regret and repentance. Jonah had made a prophecy enjoining on them a strict diet and turning away from their wicked ways. (They don’t say what the wicked ways were.) And God spared them the destruction He had threatened.

 

What happened next is surprising. Far from being pleased about the way that Nineveh had been spared, Jonah was angry. Why? It doesn’t seem to make sense.

 

What was behind Jonah’s anger? Perhaps it reflected a current debate in Judaism about punishment: should it be aimed at rehabilitation or retribution? Jonah thought punishment should be final and merciless. God had condemned the city. Why was He now hanging back from punishing it? But God isn’t vengeful: He is merciful.

 

God had laid on the whale to swallow Jonah – not to eat him, but as a kind of submarine rescue. After three days it puked him up again, unharmed. Clearly it was not actually a whale, or Leviathan, or a great fish, or there would have been bits of him missing. Similarly importantly, God had recognised that the inhabitants of Nineveh had repented, and changed their ways, in response to Jonah’s prophecy.

 

The conclusion seems to be that, whatever things may look like, God does love us – and if we do something wrong, he is willing to forgive us. Hallelujah! But even so, in Jonah’s story there’s quite a lot to think about over lunch. What should our attitude to crime and punishment be? What sort of sacrifices does God ask us to make?

 

Bon appetit!

Sermon for the third Sunday before Lent, 12 February 2017

1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37

‘I am for Paul, … I am for Apollos.’ Sometimes people ‘cast nasturtiums’ (as somebody once said) in the direction of Christians who have a different theology, a different way of ‘doing words about God’, literally. Sometimes I think I have heard those ‘nasturtiums’ aimed at those who call themselves Evangelicals. 

This morning I want to try to give you an example of how these debates can arise, so that perhaps you can think a bit about the principles involved so that, as St Paul says, whoever you think Apollos and Paul are, in our debates, they are simply God’s agents in bringing us to faith. 

You will notice that Paul does not say that Apollos or Paul are right or wrong; that one is right and one is wrong; he simply says that both are working for the same objective. He gives a picturesque example of two gardeners, one planting the seed and the other watering it, but nothing happening until God makes the flowers grow. (I’m not sure whether those flowers were nasturtiums …)

Of course so much of what we say about God has of necessity to be rather tentative. As St Paul himself puts it, we see ‘as through a glass, darkly’ [1 Corinthians 13]. We have our limitations in understanding the greatness, the ineffability, of God: but that does not make him in any way less real.

That said, I’m not going to say very much about the other great piece of teaching which we have heard in the Bible lessons today, that is, Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount: partly because everyone here more or less knows it by heart, and partly because the lesson that I want to draw from it today is a simple one. That is, that the Sermon on the Mount has, and indeed a lot of Jesus’ teaching has, a contrarian flavour. 

One commentator has described it as ‘a whole new way of looking at human behaviour, …. which is totally at odds with what is normally thought reasonable.’ (Brendan Byrne, Lifting the Burden: Reading Matthew’s Gospel in the Church today – quoted in ‘The Measure of Perfection’, by Bridget Nichols, Church Times, 10th February 2017, p.17). 

Totally at odds with what is normally thought reasonable. In other words, if you had been around with the disciples or in the crowds listening to Jesus, you might well have thought that what he was saying was not really very sensible. Turning the other cheek, and going the extra mile, loving your enemy and, in this part of the Sermon, the so-called ‘St Matthew’s exception’ to the rules of divorce. Jesus apparently said that it is all right for a man to divorce his wife for reasons of – the Greek word is πορνεια – the same word which we still have, ‘porn’, sometimes translated as unchastity or adultery.

Certainly today we would have a lot of difficulty literally carrying out what Jesus appears to be teaching. In any case it is teaching which is couched in the society of 2000 years ago; very male dominated; only the man has the right to start divorce proceedings, for example; only the woman can be guilty of adultery. But there are no references to the principles which we bring to bear in dealing with marriage breakdown. Sometimes there is more hurt involved in keeping people together than allowing them to separate. Jesus does not say anything at all about what happens to the children in a divorce. We might go as far as to say that what Jesus says is, in the commentator’s words, ‘at odds with what is normally thought to be reasonable’. 

Well I don’t actually want to go into that today except to point out the fact that what Jesus teaches often may not look very practical, but it is all brought into focus in his great commandments of love, to love God and love your neighbour. 

Sometimes, however, these things end up in a way which we would never expect – and frankly in a not very good way, so that I think it is quite fair for us, when we are doing theology, when we are doing our ‘God talk’, to go back and look critically at some of the principles which we may have thought were correct in understanding God, because after all they seem to lead to consequences which ultimately don’t reflect those commandments of love. 

‘Okay, my brain hurts!’ you might say. ‘This is all rather too theoretical’. Let’s look at something specific, to illustrate what I am going on about. I think most of us will have been rather moved, and perhaps saddened, by what Bishop Andrew has had to say about having suffered abuse at the hands of an ostensibly Christian leader at a summer camp he attended when he was a teenager. The Archbishop of Canterbury has also talked about these same camps, although he did not suffer any abuse. Poor Bishop Andrew has told us that he was beaten, caned, by one of the leaders, a man called John Smyth, who is currently living in South Africa. 

Apparently the summer camps involved a lot of beatings in a garden shed. And indeed the camps were set up by a man whose nickname was ‘Bash’. They seem to have been inspired by the idea of so-called ‘muscular Christianity’, which seems to have arisen in Victorian times, possibly as a reaction against the rather romantic and perhaps somewhat effete ideas of the Anglo-Catholic revival, the Tractarians, the so-called Oxford Movement: John Henry Newman, Pusey, Keble, Froude and the others, mostly gathered in the senior common room at Oriel College Oxford. 

We all used to laugh at Billy Bunter – ‘six of the best’ were always administered at some stage or another all in all the stories. ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ painted a picture of Rugby School where there was an awful lot of ‘six of the best’. Underpinning all this was the idea that it was conducive to spiritual improvement to undergo physical suffering, especially vicarious suffering, instead of or on behalf of somebody else. 

This was regarded as having a religious significance. It is bound up with the idea of sacrifice. People pointed to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac his son: to the suffering in Isaiah chapter 53, ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities… and with his stripes we are healed.’ Think of the aria in Handel’s Messiah, 

‘He was despised and rejected of men, 

A man of sorrow and acquainted with grief..’

The word ‘stripes’ in this means ‘beatings’, lashes. Of course there are all these references in the epistles in the New Testament – 1 Corinthians 15, for example, ‘Christ died for our sins’: Hebrews chapter 5, ‘Even though Jesus was God’s son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered’: Hebrews chapter 9, ‘Christ died once for all as a sacrifice to take away the sins of the people’. 1 Peter chapter 2, ‘By his wounds you are healed.’

The idea is what is called ‘substitutionary atonement’, or ‘penal substitution’. It is one of the things that distinguishes the theology of the Evangelicals in Christianity. You might have thought, from some of the things that have been affectionately said in the past, that these dreaded Evangelicals were distinguished by their colourful behaviour in church, waving their arms around, and by their ability to conjure up guitars in inappropriate places in the service: but really a much more important difference is their belief in this idea of substitutionary atonement. ‘Greater love hath no man…’, and so on. 

The idea is that, through Jesus’ suffering, we are made right with God, justified: that we have been brought back like a lost sheep, and this has been made possible because one of the other sheep has been hurt, even though it did not deserve to be. It was the Lamb of God, the scapegoat. It is a very old Jewish idea, from the Book of Leviticus, chapter 16, celebrated even today in the Day of Atonement in Judaism.  

As Giles Fraser has pointed out in a recent article [http://tinyurl.com/jrncff8], the muscular Christians of the Victorian age, and indeed more recently in ‘Bash’s’ camps and in the public schools until very recently, the idea was that regular beatings were character-forming. 

It may be that some of you have suffered this, and your determination not to show weakness, to be brave in the face of what is, frankly, bestial behaviour and cruelty, you might say has made you a better person. 

But I think, although we admire the bravery of people who have suffered, we know better. I think that it is at least arguable that it is a very odd picture of God, that he would countenance the causing of terrible hurt and pain intentionally. Not only that, but that he would intentionally inflict that pain and suffering on his own son. 

This is surely not the picture of a loving God. Liberal theologians, like the great John Macquarrie, once upon a time Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity and Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, for example, reject the idea of substitutionary atonement, because, when you follow the idea to its logical conclusion, the pain would seem to be the product of a God of hate rather than of a God of love. [See John Macquarrie, 1966, Principles of Christian Theology, revised 1977, 5th impression 1984: London, SCM Press, p.315]

In so many ways we realise that God is not a god of hate or a God who wishes to cause hurt – ‘They shall not hurt and destroy on God’s holy mountain’, a vision of heaven, in Isaiah again. We have to have a better understanding of God than ‘six of the best’ for Billy Bunter; except that it is not a laughing matter, as poor Bishop Andrew so bravely pointed out.

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.