On 12 July 1174 King Henry II confessed his involvement in the brutal murder of St Thomas-a-Becket. He entered Canterbury Cathedral dressed only in sackcloth, barefoot and silent. He made a pilgrimage to the saint’s grave where he was whipped with rods by 80 monks while he lay prostrate and naked. It was a glorious and public humiliation of the King, and it’s a far cry from the modern trend of merely admitting that mistakes have been made and that lessons need to be learnt.
Now I don’t think going around whipping ourselves or whipping others is a good idea – either physically or just metaphorically – but today’s three readings are about sin and sinners – so we have to deal with it..
Isaiah tells us that he is a sinner – ‘a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.’
St Paul tells us that he is a sinner – ‘the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because he persecuted the church of God’
And St Peter tells us that he is a sinner – ‘‘Go away from me, Lord, – he says – for I am a sinful man!’
Three of the Bible’s greatest – and yet three sinners. What are we to make of it?
Well the first thing to point out is that they are not alone – No-one in the Bible is perfect – except of course Jesus himself. Adam and Eve get it wrong right at the beginning, and it’s downhill ever since.
Abel kills his brother, Jacob deceives his father, David murders Bathsheba’s husband so that he sleep with her , … and on it goes.
The disciples are dim. Peter is a sinful man. Paul persecuted the church. If you’re looking for the perfect disciple, don’t read the Bible. God calls sinners, because that’s all there is.. people, like you and me. People who not only make mistakes and learn lessons, but people who actually commit sins.
We do the things we ought not to do, and we do not do the things we ought to do. It’s a mess.
So how do we deal with it?
Well, we can deal with sin in different ways.
Some people beat themselves up. …. or they get other people to beat them up instead, like King Henry. Modern ways of beating ourselves up are more subtle than being beaten by 80 monks with rods – but just as harmful…. physical self-harm, low self-esteem, addictive and destructive behaviour, always putting ourselves down, or perhaps simply keeping a low profile and thinking that we’re not as good as everyone else. …. It’s a harmful and a destructive way of dealing with sin and sinfulness – given and received. For many people low self-esteem is a power which is so strong that they need professional help and therapy to be set free – but low self-esteem is eventually a route which gives sin not God the victory – because God loves us and values us.
Some people, however, do the very opposite – they have too much self-esteem and eventually they can become entitled and selfish. They refuse to accept their own sins, given and received, and they pass the blame onto someone else .. ‘it was the snake made me do it’, or ‘it was Eve made me do it’. ‘It wasn’t me, it wasn’t my fault’ – the moral equivalent of someone dropped me on my head when I was a child and now I’m not responsible for anything thing I do … Now of course sometimes we are not repsonsible for the sins and sinfulness around us – but sometimes we are … we don’t personally cause starvation in the sweatshops of Bangladesh or in the war-torn streets of Afghanistan and the Yemen, – but in a way we do … because we are all complicit in the way the world is. .. it is not just the problem of Prime Ministers, Presidents and the United Nations. So this way, the way of esteeming ourselves too highly, is an irresponsible and unaccountable way of dealing with sin and sinfulness – pretending that Sin doesn’t exist, or is not ours and it too gives sin not God the victory, because it has no need of God at all.
But there is another way
There is another way of dealing with sin and sinfulness in us and around us.
For tens of thousands of years, since stoneage men and women could draw pictures on their walls, humans have been dealing with sin in a different way – religiously – making confession, offering sacrifices, and hoping for blessing. In all ages and in all cultures, people have come together to confess their sins and the sinfulness which makes the gods angry, makes the storms come or the droughts afflict their harvests.
They have offered sacrifices of food and grain and fruit, of animals and in some dreadful circumstances sacrifices of other human beings. And in all cases they have hoped that their sacrifices would be accepted, that they would wake up the next day, and the storm would be gone, the famine over, the war won.
But we have come a long way from Stonehenge men and women, from Roman and Greek temples, and from the Aztecs and Inca sacrifices.
Our Christian way is different. It is still confession, gift, transformation – but the gift and the transformation are very different.
The prophet Isaiah stands in the Holy of Holies in the Temple and in a mighty vision he sees God. Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts – the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven are singing.
So Isaiah confesses his sin – ‘Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.’ Isaiah doesn’t hide or cover up his sin or the sinfulness of his world – he confesses both – Woe is me. It is honest, true and full.
But then something strange happens. Something new. Isaiah does not offer a sacrifice of an animal, or the first fruits of the harvest – the action is not a gift from a human towards God – rather it is the other way round – a gift from God to the human … an angel takes a burning coal from the altar of sacrifice and touches Isaiah’s lips and forgives him all his guilt and sin.
It should not be too hard to see how this passage has been read by the Church Fathers to mean the Eucharist – We sing Holy, Holy, Holy with Angels and Archangels, and then a wafer is taken from the altar and touches our lips to forgive all our sins.
But then transformation – not a miraculous end to storm, famine and war – but a demand that Isaiah must change – he is commissioned to go out bravely and proclaim the message of God. He is to be neither embarrassed nor feel unworthy, but nor is he to feel arrogant and proud – rather, he is to be confident in the power God has given him.
And so on to our next sinner – St Paul. He was challenged directly by Jesus on the Damascus Road – Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? As he says here in this passage he has cruelly persecuted the Church and he oversaw the bloody murder of Stephen and other Christians. He fully acknowledges his own sinfulness .. he confesses – and yet ‘by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain’ Like the burning coal from the Altar in Isaiah 6, it is the power of God from heaven to humans – the gift of grace – which transforms St Paul and frees him from his guilt and sin. … and so on he goes, to become the greatest evangelist and missionary of the New Testament.
And then there is St Peter. ‘‘Go away from me, Lord, – he says – for I am a sinful man!’
St Peter has not had a vision of the Lord of Hosts, high and lifted up in the Temple, nor has he had a Damascus Road experience, instead he has met Jesus face to face. He has failed to make a catch of fish all night long, but now he makes so great a catch that the fish fill two boats and almost make them sink.
St Peter realises and confesses that he is a sinner, in a sinful world. I am a sinful man
But this time the fiery coal, the gift from God – the grace – are just two words from the mouth of Jesus himself ‘Fear not’ ‘μή ϕοβου’ תירא אל
But this time the fiery coal, the gift from God – the grace – are just two words from the mouth of Jesus himself ‘Fear not’ μή ϕοβου אל תירא – and then comes the transformation to service – from now on you will be catching people and, as we know, St Peter went on to be a preacher, leader and martyr for Jesus – the first Bishop of Rome.
So what can we learn from all this? Can still learn – Confession, free gift, and transformation?
I think we can ..The Christian way is first of all, honest and fearless repentance, secondly the powerful loving free-gift of God’s grace to us, and then thirdly. God’s call to be transformed and live the rest of our lives, fully, abundantly and in God’s service. It worked for St Peter and St Paul – and it can work for us too. *
Lord of the hosts of heaven, you are our salvation and our strength, guard us from all that harms or hurts us, and raise us when we fall.
The Very Rev’d Paul Kennington
* Yes I do know that Isaiah was not a Christian! But I still think that Isaiah has a great deal to teach us.