What do we mean when we talk about sin?
This is the theme for the service today: what do we mean when we talk about sin in a church service? Hopefully the theme is that the church is not about some kind of spiritual self help but rather being open to God’s extraordinary promises.
I had a conversation with someone who said that they found the Christian faith interesting and they liked going to church but they just could not cope with all the emphasis on sin. There is a book called Life Events about church services and there is part of a Baptism when the parents and godparents are asked ‘Do you repent of your sins?’ The book describes some of the responses from families:
‘It’s the wrong terminology: ‘Repenting sins’ is not appropriate as they’re just been born.’
‘It’s meant to be such a nice day and they’re so negative.’
Maybe one way to start the book suggests is to think about in preparation for a baptism about mistakes we have made in our own lives and the potential for harm in the world. Yet self honesty can be difficult.
One of my daughters was driving the car and came back with a bollard shaped dent on the front. Her first words were ‘it wasn’t my fault.’ (the bollard was not there last time she parked).
By way of contrast I was listening to a Katie Melua song in the car and it has he words: ‘I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m bad....’ (beautiful voice though).
My favourite singer is Bruce Springsteen and his songs have quite a few references to driving to the sea or rivers and ‘and washing these sins from our hands.’ Self honesty is hard as quite possibly we can tell ourselves we are not that bad. Not the best not the worst and periodically we can feel that we make a bit of spiritual progress.
The reading we are going to have is from Genesis 3. Genesis has been described ‘as a love story that has gone wrong.’
There are two stories of creation in chapters 1 and 2 but by chapter 3 the perfection of Eden has been ruined by snakes, apples and disobedience.
There were at the time different creation stories and some of these are interesting in that they put the blame on what has gone wrong on an argument between the Gods or some fallen angel.
Genesis is very clear: we are responsible and the consequences are severe.
We are having a housegroup that is looking at the Old Testament.
The writers are describing the history of the nation: you might think that they would want to describe everyone in the best possible light, but they don’t.
The writers of the Old Testament don’t have any illusions about human beings, but rather focus on a God who loves us and forgives the worst in us.
Possibly there are two approaches to sin that can be avoided: I think one is to suggest that it is bound up with the idea of low self esteem. If we say that we are sinful then we are saying that we are worthless. It is a term that only makes us feel bad about ourselves so best not to use it.
I don’t think it means that. In the Old Testament ‘men and women’ are made in God’s image and have a unique value. The consequences of messing up are taken seriously because they cause so much harm, but God never stops loving his people.
The second approach not to use in thinking about sin is simply focus on being a good person, in fact be the best that you can possibly be. Sin then becomes doing immoral things and the way to sidestep this is to do good things and avoid bad things.
The problems with this are numerous: anxiety over whether you are doing enough, intolerance of others, potentially becoming judgemental, a tendency to think you might be better than others, and how do you reconcile in yourself when you fail? Even if you do make progress what about the world we live in?
There is good news in all of this:
Think about the day’s headlines in the newspapers or even think about ourselves in a moment of honesty it is possible we are going to be overwhelmed, defeated by guilt and shame. One option is simply to avoid doing this or pretend it is not that bad. I know that I am far from perfect and I have said and done things I wish that hadn’t. But the people I care and love are not perfect either, but I still love them. We love and are loved not because we are perfect, but somehow in spite of our flaws and absurdities.
The Christian message is that in Jesus Christ we see a God who loves embraces and forgives sinners.
It goes further in fact by saying in the Gospels that Christ came to save sinners. The great German theologian Karl Barth once said that ‘only Christian sin.’ I think that he meant that Christians know the joy of a God who forgives and thus can be truly honest about sin.
I sense that awareness of God’s grace comes before repentance, not after, as once you know that you are loved and accepted ‘in spite of’ then you can be open.
An American theologian called William Willimon wrote a book called “Sinning Like a Christian,” and here is a brief extract.
‘In our lamenting of our sins, there is also room for joy. In the gospel reading for Ash Wednesday, Matthew 6:16-17, Jesus instructs us (strangely) that when we fast, when we repent of our sin, we are not to show sad, remorseful faces and make a big deal of our mournful repentance. Jesus tells us that we are to prepare ourselves as if for a party. We are to rejoice that the God whom we presumed to be our enemy is really our best friend.’