[The sermon began with a clip from the BBC film version of ‘Cold Comfort Farm’, the comic novel by Stella Gibbons. It featured Ian McKellen as a particularly fiery evangelical preacher warning his trembling congregation of the hellfire that awaited them because of their sinfulness.]
Now, I don’t think that is really the kind of “old time religion” that we wish to revive – or at least I certainly hope we don’t! But it does remind us, perhaps somewhat uncomfortably, about some of the subjects that we choose not to dwell upon very often in church today: judgment, heaven and hell, and sin. And it’s the last one I would like to talk about a little today.
Both of our passages today really concern sin, and sinners. There is a danger of making the passage from Luke, in particular, too ‘fluffy’: just a meaningless story about woolly sheep and a kindly shepherd. The image of Jesus as a shepherd is one of the most powerful and important in the gospels, and it was how he was most often pictured in early Christian iconography. The passages, however, are fundamentally about sin. In Luke it is about the sin that causes the sheep to stray and be lost: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7) And in the letter to Timothy, the writer makes clear that it is his awareness of his own sin that prompts him to write: “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.” (I Tim. 1:15).
That is clear but it leaves open the fundamental question, “what is sin?”. Two dictionary definitions render the answer thus: “The purposeful disobedience of a creature to the known will of God” (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church). Or alternatively, “any human activity or stance opposed to God’s purposes, separating humans from God” (Cambridge Dictionary of the Christian Church). These are both good dictionary definitions but what does that actually mean in practice?
Well, although that story was probably apocryphal, it arguably spoke of an age of seemingly greater certainties when, as I am often told, we knew what was what and everyone knew their place. In that day and age, we may believe, sin was very clear-cut and easy to spot, with perhaps drinking alcohol being the best example. Treating the consumption of alcohol as a sin is certainly something that Methodists know a lot about, and we continue to celebrate communion with non-alcoholic grape juice as a result. But is alcohol itself really sinful? Would any of us here truly consider it be sinful by its very nature? Or is it rather that sin may result from consuming alcohol: violence, dependency, anger, hatred, destitution.
Let us take another example. In the Bible, including the passage from Luke, tax collectors are equated directly with sinners. Are taxes inherently sinful? As someone who is currently trying to complete his tax return, I am inclined to answer ‘yes’. (It certainly has led to a lot of swearing!) This is a hot political topic but I would say generally not: they fund our police, schools and hospitals, among other things. Is it rather when taxes are collected, as they were in Jesus’s day, not because of need but because of greed – by wicked men who wanted to oppress and exploit their fellow citizens – that taxes become sinful?
Today, the Church sadly seems obsessed by sex and sin. If you asked many people on the street today what Christians considered a sin, I would predict that the one of the first answers would be something to do with sex, be it cohabitation (or ‘living in sin’), homosexuality or something else. Again, as we all know, sex can lead to terrible sins that separate us from God: pornography, sexual exploitation and abuse, adultery, etc. Yet, sex is also integral to all human life and a fundamental, and indeed joyful and life-giving, part of the story of God’s people, as we know from our Bibles. One of the key recommendations in the recent Marriage & Relationships report is actually that we get better about speaking about sex: its potential to lead to sin and its joys as part of loving, committed relationships. Once again, it is not the God-given gift of sex that is inherently sinful, it is how we choose to use or abuse it.
What about exercise? Surely that can’t be sinful? At the gym I (far too infrequently) attend some of the men present seem to spend half the time lifting weights and the other half looking at themselves in the mirror! If exercise encourages either narcissism – self-love – or even worse, self-loathing, as people fret about their body image, then it too can is arguably sinful.
And what about the church? Surely God’s representative on earth cannot be sinful? Sadly, we know only too well that churches can be breeding grounds for power politics, sexual abuse, in-fighting and racism. Is nothing left? Probably not. Politics, computers, new cars, and a thousand other things can lead to sin. And we could go on citing examples all day.
Sin is essentially that which separates us from God and from his creation. I hope by now you see the drift of my argument: that very few things in God’s world are inherently sinful. It is how we choose to use or abuse them that determines whether or not they are sinful. For everyone in this church, and community, and world, the nature and causes of sin will be different – but the results will be the same.
In a few moments, we shall celebrate communion together and whenever I come to the table, I am reminded of the cross-like nature of the sacrament we are going to celebrate. We are signalling our communion, or our desire to be united, with both God (the vertical bar of the cross) and with each other (the horizontal bar). Sin is essentially that which breaks the cross. It creates a barrier between us and God. Instead, sin makes idols of other things to be worshipped: the body beautiful, the wonderful new car, the demagogic leader, even ourselves. Vitally, it also creates a barrier with between us and our fellow humans. It denies the truth that all are made in the image of God, and says that some people – especially ourselves, usually – are better than they are, are more God-like than they. It places us in competition with humanity. It teaches us to fear, and to hate, and to despise that which God has made: be that single mothers, black people, Jews, or whomever.
To each one of us today, I say that you cannot understand sin by looking the word up in the dictionary. We all need to examine our own hearts, our own consciences, as the author of the letter to Timothy did. We need to read and study the scriptures together; spend time in prayer and meditation; reflect honestly on our deepest fears and prejudices; come together in mutual fellowship and discern for ourselves what it is that is causing us to stray from God. What is it that is separating us from our Creator and from our fellow creatures?
The good news, though, is that sin does not have to have the final word. The good news, contained in the letter to Timothy and in all the gospels, is that Jesus Christ came not to tell us that we were all “miserable sinners” but to break the chains of sin. To tear down the curtain of sin that separates us from God and from his humanity. To go to the darkest places of the world and of our very souls to tell us how wonderful and important we are to him. To pursue us with the vigour of that shepherd or the determination of that woman sweeping out her house. For how much more valuable to God are we than a sheep or even a gold coin? Valuable enough to sacrifice his own Son for our sakes, so that barriers may be broken, the world may live in harmony and we may know the depths and height and breadth of God’s love in our lives. A love that will always triumph over the power of sin. Amen.