Sermon 22 February 2015

You may have seen this week that the Bishops of the Church of England issued a long pastoral letter about the current state of politics in Britain and urging everyone not to abstain from voting. One newspaper report quoted them saying that we are all sinners but the word “sinners” was in inverted commas. That is to say, the journalist was assuming “sinner” to be a technical word that the reader is not likely to understand. Our society has very little understanding of the notion of “sin”. In the popular press it refers to activities and people, often of a lustful character and which are really rather attractive. Naughty but very nice. What they are drawing on there is a narrow use of the word by prudish Christians in Victorian times, who could often be obsessed with sins of the flesh. Apart from using the word “sin” in that very superficial and silly way, our society doesn’t really know what to do with it. So when a journalist uses it, it has to be put in inverted commas.

I won’t give an explanation of the notion of sin this morning, because I assume that as Christians all of us here understand the gist of it but here is a little sketch, for you to fill in the gaps. Sin is about the fact that human beings can’t do anything without botching it in some way which hurts other people and ourselves and our relationship with God. That might seem an exaggeration about small matters like making a cup of tea but I assume you know that this profound flaw in humanity is indeed there at work, even in the making of a cup of tea. That is the depressing bit. However, Christ has turned the whole thing on its head, enabling sin to throw us into the arms of God. He did that by undergoing its effects and, most importantly, he did it by means of love.

Society now has different kinds of sense of right and wrong but it has no sense of sin in the Christian sense. This comes out in a variety of ways. Here are two:

Religious communities are asked now and again to take in someone temporarily who might have got into a bit of trouble - perhaps they are on remand or waiting to go to Court. Whatever they are thought to have done, we do our best to give them a welcome and to treat them with respect and kindness. What we never want to be is judgemental – we are all sinners together and all of us are capable of doing bad things. Our society, unfortunately, is very quick to point angry fingers at brothers and sisters who have fallen by the wayside.

Another way in which our society has a weak sense of sin is seen in the way people can proclaim personal opinions vehemently – “I am right, you are wrong”. St Benedict advises Community members always to speak with gentleness and humility and to be prepared to see the truth in what the other person says. In other words we should not have too optimistic a picture of our own grasp of the truth. Being aware of the nature of sin in human beings can help us do that. Being aware of our sinfulness is in fact closely connected with the virtue of humility.

There are also plenty of other ways in which our society has an over-optimistic view of human nature.

If that is our society, what about us? How do Christians cope with the notion of sin? It can be reassuring to talk about other people’s failings but in Lent we are to look at our own sins -  examining ourselves and our lives and the way we relate to other people – and to God. When we do that, we always need to remember that sin goes together with God’s forgiveness. People can be weighed down by the things in their lives which seem to go wrong or by bad habits we can’t change, or the inexplicable way much of what we do has a shadow to it. If we are weighed down by all that, we need to remember the full picture. St Paul tells us: Christ has lifted the weight of sin. When we examine ourselves, we could end up simply looking at ourselves all the time – we need to move on: looking beyond ourselves to Christ. Self-examination should lead us not to be obsessed with ourselves but to go on – beyond – training our eyes on Christ.

In today’s first lesson St Peter tells us that this is connected to our baptism. Baptism, he says, is an appeal to God for a good conscience. That means being at peace with ourselves – not weighed down by sin but at peace with ourselves. This transition from sin to peace and joy is powerfully acted out in confession. Confession is baptismal – it is like a returning to our baptism, being buried with Christ and rising again, made new. There are two things: knowing ourselves and our sin and knowing our peace – they go together. As today’s collect puts it :

“as we know our weakness, so may we know your power to save”.

When we look to our secular society, it is all too plain that this is missing. It comes out in hosts of problems psychological and otherwise which really need the message about sin – that with it comes God’s forgiveness and loving welcome. The word “sin”, then, is like a gate into the promised land. In Lent, our reflection on this gate leads us forward through the cross to the Resurrection.

George Guiver, Superior CR