Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Romans 7:13-25a:
Hi. My name is John and I’m a sinner. (You’ve obviously not spent a lot of time around 12 step programs, because the answer to that is you saying “Hi john.”) Today we continue in our sermon series on what Christians believe, and as you might guess from the passage we just heard from Paul’s letter to the Romans, it is about sin. We spent the first two weeks looking at the sacraments of the church, and of the two protestant sacraments, which are baptism and communion; sin obviously plays a role in them.
One of the things that happens in baptism is that we are washed clean of our sins, and in communion normally before we enter into the main liturgy, called the great thanksgiving, we pray a prayer of confession and then during the liturgy we raise up the cup we remember Jesus as he said “this is the blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” The first words that Jesus utters to begin his ministry, after John the Baptist has been arrested, is “repent for the kingdom of God has come near.” Sin plays a role in what we believe as Christians, but we in the mainline churches tend to shy away for the topic.
Scott Sharp, who is the minister at Central United Methodist in Albuquerque recounts growing up in a very small, very conservative rural church in Oklahoma. He said that they didn’t receive communion very often, but when they did it was always memorable. First the bread would be passed out, but rather than being a nice soft loaf like we use, it would instead be a hard bread that could crack.
After everyone had received the bread, the minister would have everyone raise the bread up over their heads and he would say “this is Christ’s body which was broken” and then he would proceed to break his piece of bread with a loud crack, and then he would tell everyone to break their bread, and then he would say “that is Christ’s body breaking for your sin, you are responsible for Christ being broken on the cross, it is your fault.” As you might imagine this would indeed be very powerful for a young child with the loud breaking of the bread and then being told he was responsible for Christ’s death. Then the cups with juice would be passed out, and once again everyone would raise the cup up over their heads, and the minister would say, “This is Christ’s blood which was poured out. You caused him to bleed, it is because of your sins that he had to died, you put him up on the cross.” Now that is an emphasis on sin.
I know that some of you probably grew up in traditions that are like that, that were heavy on the sin, heavy on the fire and brimstone preaching, and maybe heavy on the confessing as well, although strangely those don’t always go together. Some of you have told me that one of the things you like about the Methodist church is that we don’t do that, and it’s certainly one of the things I like too. I would not be a good fire and brimstone preacher. But we also tend to ignore the idea of sin. It is not something we really want to talk about, to some degree this is because we want to be different from churches that place a heavy emphasis on sin, but also because we’re not quite sure what to do about it.
I once had someone tell me that he didn’t like praying the prayer of confession before communion because he didn’t feel that he had done any of those things, and therefore there were things being put into his mouth. The prayer of confession is pretty broad, if you don’t remember what it says, it can be found on page 12 in the hymnal, but we ask for forgiveness because we have not loved God with our whole heart, and we haven’t followed God in everything, and we have not loved our neighbors. Now this man was a good guy, but I can assure you he was not perfect as none of us are perfect. But sin had been so deemphasized that he couldn’t find areas of sin in his life. So then the questions becomes can we deal with sin and yet also deal with it and look at it differently than just fire and brimstone? The answer, as you can probably guess, is of course yes.
I’m sure that most of us can identify things as sins, or have been told not to do something because it’s a sin, but what exactly does that mean? For those who tend to be the ones who emphasize sin, it tends to be based on emphasizing right and wrong behavior based on a set of rules that we are supposed to obey. Do this, and you are a sinner. Do that and you are okay. The problem with this emphasis, for me at least, is that it can quickly turn into a pharisaic practice, pharisaic righteousness, in which we can say we are okay because we’re not explicitly doing the things that are forbidden.
But Jesus deals with this as well when he says that it’s not just enough to say you have not literally committed adultery, for example, but instead, he says, if you have looked at someone with lust then you have committed adultery. It takes the law and elevates it to a new level, which then makes it nearly impossible to live into, which to some degree is the point. There are two types of sin covered in scripture. The first is the one that most people think of, and the ones we were just talking about, which is individual sin. When we talk about repenting and receiving forgiveness it is almost always about individual sin.
In its most basic definition, to sin is to break relationship with God. To repent means to turn away or to turn around, to stop going down the path that we were taking and instead to take another path, to realign ourselves with God. I believe that sometimes we believe that repentance and asking for forgiveness are exactly the same thing, but they aren’t always the same. I used to have a teacher who whenever someone apologized for something would say, “are you sorry you did it, or are you sorry you got caught?” Repentance is not just about forgiveness it is also about restoration of relationship, in this case with God, and we have the perfect example of this in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son.
Some of you may remember the story. The younger son one day goes to his father and asks for his share of his inheritance, which the father requests, and then the son leaves the household and goes off and squanders his inheritance in profligate living. After everything is gone he finds himself destitute, doing work which requires him to work with pigs, something which is a sin, for Jews. Seeing how low he has fallen, he decides he is going to go back home, apologize to his father and offer to be a servant in his father’s household, and he even composes his speech of forgiveness, and so he heads home. But does he ever actually apologize to his father? No instead his father sees him coming down the road and he runs out to meet him and welcomes him home with a celebration.
In this sense the prodigal son has actually repented, he has gone down a different path. The son could have sent a letter to his father seeking forgiveness and probably would have received it, but even though he was forgiven he would still be in a foreign land, separated from his father. Instead it is in changing his path, of going back home, that relationship is restored, which is what his father wanted all along. Does forgiveness play a role? Of course it does, but the son was forgiven as soon as he realized the errors of his ways, of how broken he was, and made the decision to change paths and to go home, and then the relationship was restored. That is what repentance entails; it is not only seeking forgiveness, but stopping whatever path we are going down and returning to God.
The most un-ethical person I have ever met was someone I worked with. Most of the people in the company earned their money on straight commissions, and she would do whatever she thought necessary to get a sale, including routinely stealing them from others. When I called her on this at one point, and said that I knew how important her faith was and didn’t she see any conflict there, she told me that she confessed her sins each night and asked for forgiveness so she had nothing to worry about. Of course the next day she was right back at it again. That’s not what forgiveness of sins is about because it had nothing to do with repentance, of changing the path we were on, changing what we were doing, or restoration of relationship with God.
So one type of sin is individual, but there is also corporate, systemic or societal sin, which we also ask forgiveness for at communion. In Micah, the sin of the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel is identified as Samaria and Jerusalem, the capital cities. Sin is identified as the city. Now we might talk about Las Vegas as being sin city, but that’s because of what takes place there, the sin does not necessarily rest in the city itself, but what Micah is pointing out is that the elites had created structures and systems that benefit them and hurt many others. So the system itself is sinful. Do the people who set up these structures need to repent and receive forgiveness, yes, but that is not enough, because the system also needs to be changed.
In his pastoral letter this month, Rev. Michael Brunk, from First UMC in Portales, wrote about growing up in segregated Virginia and he how and his family viewed Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights workers. He says that they just knew that they were better than blacks, just as they knew they were better than Jews and Catholics as well. Sure there was their maid Elizabeth, but she wasn’t like the others, she was, as he says a “good (insert appropriate word).” He continues, “I have to believe that the African-Americans that grew up in my neck of the woods understood that something was very wrong… but we didn’t… we really didn’t. And that is what truly disturbs me.” Systems had been established so that those who had one color of skin were given preference over those of another type. That is systemic sin.
What corporate sin also shows us is the inherent danger when we only emphasize the idea of sin in relation to Jesus Christ. African-Americans did not need to repent for the sins of society, because they were the victims of that sin, what they needed was liberation and healing, not forgiveness. Now this does not mean that they did not also need personal forgiveness, but to make that claim as the lead argument is to ignore the reality of their situation. In fact it would a sort of slap in the face that tries to apply some blame for their situation on them, as if to say, if only you were not a sinner then everything would be better, which of course often happened as well.
But that is not the witness we get in scripture. When people came to Jesus to be healed, he does not first say to them “Have you repented of your sins?” and if they had not refuse to heal them. Instead he provides them with what they need which is healing. It is the healing that begins the path to bringing them back into relationship with God. Sometimes, as with lepers and others who were considered unclean, they had been totally excluded from the community, and through their understanding of this their relationship with God, until Jesus heals them. When Jesus encounters a man who was born blind, the disciples ask Jesus if the blindness for the sins of the man or his parents, and Jesus says no and then heals him. Again, he does not say, what this man needs is forgiveness, or even that he needs to repent, what he needs is to be able to see. The issue of sin does play a part in this story, but it is people questioning Jesus and proclaiming him a sinner.
Sin is an important metaphor and issue in the bible, and it is one that we believe is important, but it is not the only or even the most important metaphor used. When the Israelites are enslaved in Egypt they do not need forgiveness, they need to be freed of their bondage. After the exile into Babylon, the people do not need forgiveness to save them, they need to be brought back home. When the blind man approaches Jesus, he does not need to be told he is a sinner, he needs healing, he needs his sight. When the prodigal son comes home he needs more than just forgiveness, he needs restoration of his relationship with his father. Those who are battling illness and disease, their brokenness is not sin, but health and they need healing to restore relationship.
Now there are people who say that they don’t want to have anything to do with the church because it’s full of hypocrites, and I always want to say, “of course it’s full of hypocrites. We all want to be better than we are, but we are not there. No one in the church is perfect and so yes, we are all hypocrites.” Of course what they really mean is that the church is full of people who are self-righteous, and on that I would agree with them, because there are people who feel that because of baptism that they are washed of their sins and therefore they are sort of in the free and clear about their actions, and feel the right to look down their noses at others, to feel better than them, and who because of this sense of self-righteousness cannot stand up and say “Hi. My name is _____ and I’m a sinner.”
Who did Jesus eat with and spend all his time with? It wasn’t the righteous, and certainly not the self-righteous, it was with sinners, those who were broken, who knew they were broken, and longed for something more, something different, who longed for restoration. In the words of Marcus Borg, “Sin matters. But,” he says, “ when it and the need for forgiveness become the dominant issue in our life with God, it reduces and impoverishes the wisdom and passion of the Bible and the Christian tradition.”
Paul says “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Paul is making a claim, just as John Wesley also claimed, that sin is “an infirmity of our” nature. By saying that he wants to do something other than what he does, Paul is not making excuses. He is not making the famous claim now among fallen politicians and preachers that the devil made me do. Instead he is claiming that without Christ, without working on moving towards God, that we will always be lacking and it is not simply that all we need is a little more self-will. If that was all that sin was then we would just need to put a little more effort into things, or maybe get a good life coach to push us to do things. But that’s not what it’s like. Sin is a brokenness that is in us as humans, it is why we cannot rescue ourselves from sin but instead need God to do it for us. We need God’s amazing grace to do it for us.
In the Methodist church, following Wesley’s teachings, we believe that when you accept Christ into your life, when you accept God’s grace for yourself, that you are in Christian language justified, and that you begin the process of forgiveness and we begin to live each day more and more like Christ. But that does not mean that we are always on the right path, because one of the things that separates Methodism from others is that we believe that faith is sort of a sliding scale, we are not always saved, this is called the preservation of the saints, once saved always saved, we do not believe that. Today we might take two steps forward, but tomorrow we take one step back, and in fact might even take three steps back.
It is a process, a journey we are undertaking, some days are better than others. Forgiveness is not what does away with sin, instead it is centering ourselves in God, putting our allegiance in Jesus Christ, and living into the command that we love the lord our God with all our hearts and all our strength and all our soul and all our mind. When we do that then we are on the path to a time when our hearts might become so full of God’s love that we can no longer willfully sin, and we are perfected in Christ, we reach entire sanctification.
When I say that we are Methodists are moving on to perfection, this is what I am talking about. Being perfect does not mean that we therefore don’t make any mistakes, or we spell every word correctly, that is not what it means to be perfected in Christ. But instead that for a moment of time we are in complete alignment with God’s will for our lives, our brokenness is put aside and we are in harmony with God. But, it is only for a moment. It is not a permanent state of being because, again, sin, or brokenness is part of who we are. We are broken people who live in a broken world, and Christ did not come in spite of that, but he came because of that.
Our lives are often ones distorted from a proper relationship with God, but God is still there, extending God’s grace to us, God’s amazing grace, and waiting for us to come home, to seek relationship, to seek restoration. We are offered forgiveness, just as we are offered healing, and freedom, and salvation, and relationship. This passage from Paul does not end on a bleak note on sin, but instead ends with a reminder that it is through Jesus Christ that we are saved. It is through God’s grace and mercy that we were once blind but now see, were once lost but now are found. We live lives of brokenness, brokenness with each other and brokenness with God.
None of us live into who or what we want to be. But through Jesus Christ we are offered restoration, we are the prodigal child whose father is waiting for us to return, waiting by watching the road, waiting for us to come home with joy and celebration, waiting to be in relationship with us once again. We believe in sin, but it need not be the metaphor that dominates our relationship with God, because everything, forgiveness and healing, restoration and wholeness, leads us back home, back into relationship with God and away from brokenness. May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.