Sermon: Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, 7 February 2016

St.Aidan’s West Epping,7th February 2016

 Rev. Paul Weaver

“GUILTY AS SIN?”

(Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11)

Many people have said that Christianity is hung up on sin and guilt; that Christians are obsessed with sin; that the Christian message is an attack on healthy human self-esteem.

And as I was thinking about the readings set for today, one thing which struck me was how the key characters were overwhelmed by their sense of sin. They are surely prime examples of this apparent Christian obsession, this fixation with sin and guilt. It seems to be that to be a Christian you need to regard yourself as hopeless and worthless. Why, whenever you come to church, one of the main things you have to do is to confess your sins! How healthy can that be for anyone?

Isaiah in the temple has an awesome vision of the Lord in all his glory. And what is his reaction? “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” He is devastated, terrified in the presence of the Lord because of his sin.

And then there is Paul the great apostle in 1 Corinthians. “I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” Surely after many years of sacrificial service, he could get over that!

Or Peter the fisherman. After a wasted night trying to catch at least some fish, Peter is directed by Jesus the carpenter to the wrong part of the Sea of Galilee, at the wrong time of day, and he gets what can only be called a miraculous haul of fish. Peter concludes that with Jesus he is surely in the presence of God. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Peter’s sense of sin makes him unfit to be in the presence of the holy God, even when it is revealed in the humanity of Jesus.

It’s pretty heavy, isn’t it? Sin makes us unworthy of God, unworthy to be in his presence, unworthy to be his servant. That seems to be the message of these readings.

Of course, that is only part of the picture. These people are intensely aware of their sinfulness and unworthiness.

What follows from this? Isaiah is assured of forgiveness and cleansing, and accepts God’s call to be his messenger. Paul has his dark past, but even so has been an extraordinarily effective witness to the Gospel and leader of the church, by the grace of God. And Peter is not only assured that he is accepted in Christ’s presence: he is also commissioned to be a fisher of men – and of course women as well!

None of these people were corrected for their sense of sinfulness, or told that they weren’t sinners, or that their sin didn’t matter.

What did happen was that they were assured of God’s forgiveness and acceptance, and as forgiven people they were called to serve God in their different but responsible ways.

And that is how it works for us too. If a sense of sin and failure dominates our life, and we believe that nothing can be done about it, then we really are in an unhealthy place. But if we realize that we are sinners, and that God’s has forgiven us at immense cost through Jesus Christ, and that he is calling us to serve him in a positive way, that is a very different thing. In fact, I would see it as a healthy outlook on life!

As a Christian, I believe that it is important for us to take sin seriously. We recognize it as a reality in our lives, and we accept the challenge to resist our sinful side and to turn away from the sin which is always lurking there. But we don’t need to become obsessed with it, because we know that we are forgiven through God’s grace in Jesus Christ, and we know that the Holy Spirit is with us as we seek to live lives that please the Lord.

Of course, sin takes many forms. There are what we might call active sins: sins of violence, dishonesty, criminal acts, and so on. There are sins of weakness: they might be linked to addictions, or the pressures of life, or the quick reactions we have in particular situations. There are sins of omission: when we fail to do that helpful thing that we should have done.

And there are sins of ignorance: we make what seems a reasonable decision, but in retrospect it is clear that the decision was morally wrong.

We have seen church leaders having to confess these real sins in recent times for their failures to respond adequately to clergy and others guilty of child abuse. And so it goes. The unkind words we say, the grudges we hold, the thoughtless way we treat people, the selfish things we do. Most of our sins are not gross, but they are real enough.

Of course we are not going to reach perfection in this world, but nevertheless we need not to accept our sins as normal: we are still to recognize temptation for what it is, and to resist the temptations that come to us.

So why is it so important to take sin seriously?

Because we are being real. Of course we are guilty of sin. In our liturgy, I don’t need to say that if you are perfect, you don’t need to take part in the confession. We mightn’t have committed a criminal act – indeed I hope none of us has! – but we know that our actions, our words, our attitudes, have not been all they could or should have been. We all fall short before God.

Of course that description of sin as “falling short of the glory of God” comes from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. I think it is a helpful image. One of the ideas I often point out to people is that we are not worthy before God. We fall short. We do not measure up to what we could be or should be.

But I point out that there is a big difference between being unworthy and being worthless. People do not always see the difference. Sadly these confused people often distort the message of Christianity. We are anything but worthless. We are created by God in his very image. Yes, the image is distorted. We might say that the mirror is cracked. But the image of God is still a reality. God still values us. He loves us utterly: the best of us and the worst of us. As sinners, we fall short, we are unworthy of God’s approval. But we are not worthless, and we must never treat any human being as worthless. Let us be real about sin, but be real in a healthy way.

Being serious about sin also helps us to be humble. Humble before God, so that we don’t take him for granted and don’t take his call lightly. But also humble in our attitudes and our relationships. We are often tempted to compare ourselves with others, to compete rather than to co-operate, and sometimes to become judgemental. That was the Pharisees’ problem.

By taking our sin seriously, we remind ourselves that all humans are essentially in the same boat. Perhaps some fall short by a bit less than others, but so what? We all need God’s grace and forgiveness. We have no grounds for seeing ourselves as superior to others whose sins might be different from ours. Recognizing our sin should keep us humble.

Being serious about sin should also open us up to forgiveness. Not only God’s forgiveness of us, but also our willingness to forgive others who hurt or offend us. So often I see people who are at loggerheads with each other, or family members who have cut themselves off from each other. Something has happened to cause hurt or offence. Perhaps nothing has been done to heal the hurt, perhaps neither side has said anything, and what might have been a molehill has been allowed to grow into a mountain. Each person now feels hurt, but neither side seems able to take that step to begin to sort out the problem.

Openness and forgiveness are so often what people need. Knowing that our sin is forgiven gives us reason to be ready to forgive others who have hurt us. Jesus teaches the importance of this, and the Lord’s Prayer itself makes clear how important it is to forgive others. Our sin is forgiven: let us be ready to forgive as we have been forgiven. And in a humble way, to encourage others to do so.

But a healthy attitude to sin also gives us a challenge. Firstly the challenge to recognize temptation, to seek the Spirit’s help, and to go God’s way and not the wrong way. But there is also the challenge to serve Christ and his people. Taking sin seriously doesn’t mean that we are disqualified from Christian service. Isaiah the sinner became Isaiah the powerful prophet. Paul the enemy of Christ’s people became Paul the apostle, the preacher of the Gospel and the great teacher of Christ’s church. Peter the sinful man became Peter the apostle, who would fail Christ again, but would still be central in God’s plan to gather his church.

Yes, all sins can be forgiven, but there are some sins which might disqualify people from particular kinds of service. That is what many church leaders have failed to acknowledge as they dealt inadequately with clergy who used their position to abuse the young and the vulnerable. A church leader who uses his position to abuse people should not continue in a position of trust, even though he may be forgiven. Let us take our failings seriously, but they are no excuse for failing to serve God’s people.

So let us be real about the sin which is still in our lives. Let us be thankful for God’s forgiveness and ready to forgive others as forgiven people. Let us be humble, seeking to understand rather than to condemn or put down others who like us are less than perfect.

We do not have to hang on to our guilt, but we are called to keep following Christ, serving him and his people, as we tread the path to the kingdom with its glory and perfection. Amen.                                         Paul Weaver