Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners
May I speak …
An anglican died and went straight to heaven. When she arrived at the pearly gates St Peter was there to meet her with a whole choir of angels, and as he guided her through the doors into paradise, he warned her that first she would have to go through a final section of purification and atonement for sins committed. There were people who had committed all the usual ones – the sins of gluttony, laziness, greed and sloth… but as they walked on further they came to a section marked … ‘individual churches’. What’s that? she said. Ah, said St Peter – this is the special section for Christians who have committed sins that are only considered sins in their own church. Over there you have the baptists and the primitive methodists – these are the ones who broke the rules and went dancing on a sabbath, and over there you have the catholics who ate steak on a Friday, and over there you have Jehovah’s witnesses who had blood transfusions….. and then there you have the anglicans.
The newly arrived anglican thought hard .. what rule did the anglicans break? Perhaps they hadn’t given enough money on the collection plate, or perhaps they had fallen out with their bishop? So eventually she plucked up her courage and ask asked. So what did the anglicans do wrong? Anglicans – said St Peter? ahh! – they served the wrong jam at tea!
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
We Christians have an odd relationship to sin …. we love it and we hate it but we can’t do without it! But what exactly is it? what is a sin? We’ve just confessed our sins to God this morning as we do every Sunday but what were we thinking about when we said : ‘we are heartily sorry?’
bad thoughts? bad deeds? greed, selfishness, anger, a bit of sex? – all of the above?
And actually does God really care if you had a third slice of chocolate cake? or if you skipped church and went dancing on the sabbath or eat a T-bone steak on Friday or even serve the wrong Jam at a St Andrew’s afternoon tea?
And more seriously – does God really care if you have impure thoughts looking at the person sitting in the tube opposite you –isn’t that just chemistry?
Does God really care if you tell someone off for bad behaviour and make them cry – or is that just speaking the truth in love? And anyway – is sin really all about ‘you’?
Is that God’s main concern?
We all think we know what sin is – disobeying God’s law … but that’s just a neat and fairly modern soundbite. The Bible is more varied. Sin in the Old Testament is not quite the same as sin in the New Testament – and there are reasons for that.
Sin in the Old Testament ‘chata’ – is getting it wrong, or making a mistake on purpose. The word ‘chata’ – means shooting an arrow but missing the target …. knowing what you ought to be doing – but then missing the target and doing what you ought not to do.
And most sins in the Old Testament – although not all – are failing to follow the 613 commandments – the mizvot. So – for example – failing to study Torah is a sin – because everyone should study Torah. Not putting a mezuzah on your doorway is a sin – an intentional mistake done on purpose. Not resting but doing work on a feast days is a sin – and of course, gossipping and murder and theft are all sins too.
And how we deal with sin in the Old Testament is different too. God can forgive you – but that doesn’t always put it right.. As one rabbi said. Sinning is like dropping a bottle of milk. Once it’s done, it’s done – but what matters is that you pick up all the bits of glass, wash away the milk and clean the floor – and if the milk didn’t belong to you in the first place, that you replace it in the fridge.
But sinning against the 613 commandments means more than that in the Old Testament – it means that you are choosing to separate yourself from your Jewish brothers and sisters. If you don’t eat kosher then that separates you from what it means to be a Jew. If you don’t read the Torah, then that separates you from what it means to be a Jew .. and on and on the list goes. The real question I think a rabbi would ask is not did you do this or that little thing – but why did you do it? Do you want to be jewish – or not? and that’s more serious. … are you drifting away.
Now that’s interesting because the Gospel reading is about being saved but it’s not a list of sins – it’s about being lost. .. drifiting away. In fact the New Testament Greek word for sin – hamartia – means ‘not playing your part’ – ‘not measuring up’…. Jesus is not concerned about telling the sheep off because it has behaved badly – Jesus is concerned in find the sheep and the coin and bringing them safely home.
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners
not to condemn the world – not to punish the world for being very very naughty – not even to tell us off for getting it wrong … for missing the mark …. but to bring us back home where we belong – where we ought to be, and where in our hearts we want to be :
And so after 2000 years the time has come finally for us to ditch the idea of God as the rather strict headteacher in Tom Brown’s Schooldays where we will all be sent for punishment for all the rules that we have broken during our lives. … and we even have to ditch the idea that once God the heavenly headmaster has sentenced us to the heavenly equivalent of six of the best for misbehaving behind the bike sheds, Jesus, the head boy will step and say ‘beat me instead’ and somehow the headmaster will say OK and then think that that is fair. This is a parody of Christianity and a mockery – if not a blasphemy against God and even a sin against the Holy Spirit . It is not what the Bible says, it is a misrepresentation of the Bible by St. Anselm and others in the 11th century and then finely tuned in the 16th Century at the Reformation.
Sin is more like the bottle of milk smashed on the floor. .. and we do a lot it. We smash up our relationships with other people – with family and friends, neighbours and strangers, widows, orphans and refugees …. we do not do the right thing and we make a dangerous mess on the floor.
And we smash up our world and our environment – destroying and abusing and killing … so that the mess – extinction, climate change, desertification cannot be put right. In fact we have got so used to dropping the milk bottle and wading through the broken glass and the milk that we don’t remember anything else. .. that is now what life looks like.
But …. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners
and saving us – I believe – does not mean beaming up the chosen few out of the earthly mess into the heavenly Star Ship Enterprise where they can be safe… it means getting on his hands and knees and showing us how to clean up the glass and the milk and the mess and the sin. The theology of this is Philippians 2 where Christ emptied himself and took the nature of a servant. It is Hebrews 12 where Jesus is the pioneer and perfector of our faith. It is Acts 3 and the final restoration of all things. It is Colossians 1 and the reconciliation of all things in Christ. And above all it is the last battle in the Book of Revelation when in chapter 21 the new Jerusalem comes from heaven to earth – not the other way round – and there is no more death nor sorrow nor crying. The Lost sheep – and with it all living and breathing things – and the lost coin – and with all inanimate elements of creation are found and brought safely home at last.
And what of Hell and punishment and the second death? Well Pope Francis said that he thought about 97% of church leadership were buring in Hell right now … but more seriously Hell is choosing to stay in the broken glass and the spilt milk even when God comes to clean it up. It is the sheep preferring to go it alone on the mountain side even when the Shepherd calls and the coin staying lost even when the woman sweeps. It is stubborness or the pride to refuse to come home even when you know you should.
Try reading the Confessions of St Augustine if you want the classic version –
Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new,
… You called, you shouted, you broke through my deafness;
I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst;
you touched me, and I burned for your peace.
or in the words of our offertory hymn : I once was lost but now am found, .. and grace will lead me home.
As the late Rabbi Lionel Blue once said ; Heaven and Hell are very close; the Devil’s in the detail!