God’s invitation: Your decision – 3
Sin and forgiveness
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Sin is an unfashionable word, with negative overtones. People don’t like to be made to feel guilty. But I suspect that most people, if you press them, want to lead a good life, and they want to know what is right and what is wrong. Sin is simply another word for ‘those things that are wrong’ – and in particular, wrong in the eyes of God, and not just what we decide is right and what is wrong.
This is the third sermon in the series “God’s invitation: your decision”. I have given it the title: “Sin and forgiveness”. These are two words which are central to the Christian faith, and to any attempt to live a Christian life. It is, of course, impossible to do justice to a subject as huge as this in a sermon which I hope will not go much beyond ten minutes – but I will at least make a beginning.
I’m not sure if you have yet seen my article in the April parish magazine, but in that article I say that we should not be afraid of starting with the Ten Commandments, if we are to seek to know what the word ‘sin’ means. You may be fairly familiar with the Ten Commandments as they are set out in the Bible – but they do, admittedly, sound rather archaic in the way in which they are traditionally formulated. (covet one’s neighbour’s ox, or ass, or maid …) In more modern terms, they can be summarised like this:
- to put God first and not to show lack of reverence to Him, or to worship any other God;
- to make sure that we make enough space for God in our lives, and not fill them with work at the expense of worship, prayer and rest;
- to show respect to our parents, to remain faithful to our wife or husband, and avoid giving false evidence about other people;
- to avoid stealing, seeking to possess things that belong to others, or committing murder.
Some people say that the Ten Commandments are all about “don’t …” and that we should be more positive in our attempts to avoid sin. That may be so, but we can’t escape the fact that sometimes we simply have to be firm with ourselves and be determined to avoid being tempted to do those things which we know aren’t right – sometimes it’s simply a question of ‘just saying no’ to ourselves, or to somebody else. There are times when we have to be tough with ourselves - we are deceiving ourselves if we believe otherwise.
But what about Jesus’ attitude towards sin? Some people believe that his teaching superseded the Ten Commandments, and that all you need to do to live a Christian life is to love God and your neighbour. Would that it were so simple! In the first place, Jesus specifically said that he did not come to abolish the Jewish religious Law – which included the Ten Commandments - but had come to fulfil it. It is true that he summarised his teaching about how to live your life by what is sometimes known as the Golden Rule – to love God with all your heart and mind, soul and strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself. But in many cases he went far beyond the teachings of his contemporaries, and required a much higher standard of behaviour than his fellow Rabbis. Remember, for example, what he said about loving not just friends but enemies as well. How he said you should not seek revenge, and how he said that the old Jewish “eye for an eye” mentality was wrong. Or how often he rebuked those around him for their greed, their pride, their self-righteousness and hypocrisy – pretending that they were holy and good people, when in fact they were inwardly corrupt. How he regularly warned against the perils of being too attached to money, possessions, or status. Remember that he taught his disciples to show no limit to their forgiveness of others – we’ll come back to this shortly. And remember how often he rebuked those who showed no compassion to the lepers, the beggars, the crippled, and those who were classified as ‘unclean’. (If you go to countries like India, or most countries in Africa, you can see the sort of people who had largely been abandoned by Jewish society – those who have nowhere to live, who survive by begging, living in doorways, maybe disfigured or unable to walk or see …)
Jesus was very serious about how we should treat people like this. He saw it as something that would affect our eternal destiny: we would be judged, after this life, according to whether we fed the hungry, gave a drink to the thirsty, clothed those in need of clothing, visited the sick, and those in prison (Matthew 25).
We cannot get away from the fact – and the Church has tended to play this down in recent years – that how we live our life on earth does affect our eternal destiny. Jesus was very clear about this. Sin, therefore, matters – as does the way in which we deal with the things that tempt us into sinful behaviour.
How do we reconcile this with our belief that God is a God of love and forgiveness? Not by pretending that what we do with our lives doesn’t matter, that God turns a blind eye. What God does do, however, is always offer a fresh start, a new beginning – in other words forgiveness of sins – to those who genuinely and sincerely turn away from wrong doing and want to begin again. It is not for us to judge whether someone else’s repentance is genuine – that is between them and God. But three passages in the Bible which help us to understand this are:
- the parable of the lost sheep: God doesn’t want anyone to be lost forever, and will keep trying to bring them back into his fold;
- the parable of the Prodigal Son
- the words on the cross .. (i) “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (ii) to the penitent criminal – “today you will be with me in paradise” (it is never too late to repent).
So all is not hopeless. We do not need to be weighed down with guilt and a belief that we can never live a Christian life successfully. You don’t have to be holy to come to Church or be a Christian – indeed the Church is especially for those who know their need of God and his forgiveness.
I haven’t gone into some of the more difficult areas about where we should draw the boundary lines between what is sinful and what isn’t. There are some very difficult and contentious areas of morality today, and one of the main areas for debate is about how the teachings of Jesus are to be interpreted when modern knowledge seems to question what we find in the Bible.
I have tackled some of them in other sermons, and will continue to do so. What is most important, though, is for us to remember that it does matter how we respond to Jesus’ teachings about how to lead our lives. We should not find excuses for avoiding the more difficult teachings. God’s invitation to us, then, is to take Jesus’ teachings on sin seriously, not to skirt around them. We know that we will fall short and fail, but we also know that when we do, God grants a fresh start to all those who genuinely and truly repent and try to lead a new life. What will your decision be?
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