Trinity 16 Year A
Sin and forgiveness
Sermons year A
Christopher Harrison home page
It’s interesting how the Church’s perspective on sin has changed over the years. When I was at theological college, we were in a time of reaction against what were seen as many years during which the Church had actively encouraged people to feel not merely sinful, but very guilty. This, it was said, had helped to reinforce the power of the Church and its clergy over people – the clergy being the only people who could forgive sin, on God’s behalf. We can’t deny that there is some truth in this description of how the Church has behaved at certain times in its history. But what this perception of the historical Church did was lead to an over-reaction – to a belief that sin didn’t really matter, as God always loves us whatever we do. The new dominant approach became the idea that if we do stray from his commands it isn’t really our fault anyway, but our parents, our circumstances, even our genes were really responsible. This even led to people in my previous church arguing that we shouldn’t have the confession of sin near the beginning of the communion service, as it was too depressing and made people feel unworthy.
If we face up to the truth about ourselves, and the reality of life in the world today, we have to admit that we fall, we fail, we hurt people, we let God down – which is what is really meant by the unfashionable word ‘sin’. Yes, it is true that we can become over-morbid about it, and that some people are perhaps too preoccupied by feelings of guilt and low self-worth – but the fact of the matter is that few people are as loving as they would like to be or, as other people would like them to be – and most of us are acutely aware of this. Even if things may seem fine on the surface, and we put over an acceptable impression to others, everyone has what some people call a ‘shadow’ side to themselves, which can be much more unsettling to live with than outward appearances. For some people it is even worse – the consequences of things they have done in the past have left them actually broken within, they find it difficult to live with themselves, and there is a constant struggle between the need to carry on with life and the torment, confusion and guilt within.
It is clear from the Gospels that Jesus knew all this. We can see this not just from accounts such as that of his meeting at Jacob’s well with the woman from Samaria, who was astounded that Jesus seemed intuitively to know all about her, including how many husbands she had. The number of times Jesus pronounced to people that their sins were forgiven shows that he was well aware of the inner burdens which many if not most people carry. Of course in his day those burdens were made greater by the oppressive nature of some elements of the Jewish religious law, which was almost impossible to fulfil in all its detail. His repeated pronouncement of forgiveness must have seemed like a liberation to so many – as well as being a direct threat to the religious authorities. But think of Zacchaeus; the woman caught in adultery who was about to be stoned; St. Peter, who disowned Jesus three times; the paralysed man who was lowered through the roof of a house and then healed by Jesus; and the parable of the prodigal son. In each of these cases forgiveness was granted and a fresh start made possible.
Imagine how radical this must have seemed. Only God was supposed to be able to forgive sins; but Jesus was showing not only that he was God on earth, forgiving sins, but that the task of humanity was to follow in his footsteps, forgiving the sins of others as God forgives us, as we say in the Lord’s Prayer. We can imagine the discussions about this which may have taken place among the disciples, when they were trying to work out what this meant, and the problems which might arise. So, for example, Peter wondered whether there were any limits to the number of times you should forgive someone – and Jesus essentially said that no, there weren’t – we are called to forgive not just seven times but seventy times seven times.
But this brings us to today’s gospel reading. This reading is about the problems which arose in the early Christian community, if someone who had sinned refused to admit his fault and didn’t repent. How should this be dealt with? Should he just be forgiven, regardless? The clear implication is ‘no’. There’s a three stage process involved; first the problem should be approached confidentially, on a one-to-one basis; then two or three witnesses should be brought in if necessary, then the matter should be brought before the whole church. If the person concerned still refused to accept the discipline of the church, they should be cast out.
Now this may seem like a very different context from the way churches today tend to be organised – church leaders don’t have the same degree of authority over church members’ lives as they did in the first centuries. But it is an excellent illustration of the way in which condemnation of sin and compassion go hand in hand. The person who has sinned is first of all given a chance to repent privately – enabling him to save face, to limit the shame which would otherwise fall upon him. He is then given the chance to have the matter discussed with a small of others, still keeping the matter from being made completely public. Only after these stages have been gone through do more serious consequences for the one who has sinned arise.
Most churches don’t do things like this now, at least on an everyday basis – although of course one can imagine situations such as fraud, or similar, where similar procedures could apply. The main point, though, is that this little episode gives us an insight as to how Jesus and the church which he established dealt compassionately with sin, and sought ways of enabling the one who had sinned to make a fresh start. What it doesn’t mention is the price that the sinner should pay – and Jesus normally assumed that repentance did involve some form of cost to the one who was being forgiven, some kind of restitution to those who had been hurt – think for example of Zacchaeus’ promise to pay back those he had cheated, and Jesus command to the woman caught in adultery not to sin again.
Of course Jesus’ forgiveness of the sins of humanity came to its climax when he paid the ultimate price for them on the cross. In death as in life, then, he showed compassion on a broken and sinful world; not underestimating the reality of sin, not being soft on those who have done wrong; but showing the world that no-one need be estranged from God for ever, and that however far his sheep may stray, God is always seeking to bring them back to him. And maybe it is no coincidence that the parable immediately before today’s Gospel is that of the lost sheep.
Sermons year A
Christopher Harrison home page