Sermon Sunday 30th August 2015: ‘On Sin’

sin_separates

Sermon preached at Conway Road Methodist Church on Sunday 30th August 2015:

The eyes of all look to you, O Lord, and you give them their food in due season, you stretch out your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing. So now, reach out to us, as we feast on your Holy Word that all that we think and say and do may be done to your praise and glory. In Jesus Name. Amen

 

I’m sure you’ve all heard the story about the Minister who arrived new in an appointment, and about a month after arriving his bicycle was missing, perhaps even stolen.

His colleague, Reverend John suggested that if the good preacher really thought that his bicycle was stolen, he should preach his next sermon on the ten commandments. And!

If he observed his flock closely enough during the discussion of Thou shalt not steal then thief would give himself away.

The Minister agreed enthusiastically and the very next Sunday, he preached eloquently and convincingly on the commandments.

Suddenly, about halfway through the sermon, he announced that the service was over. Afterwards, John sought out the preacher and asked why the sermon was ended suddenly. Didn’t we think that this would cause the thief to reveal himself?

“Yes we did” answered the good preacher, “but when we got to Thou shalt not commit adultery, I remembered where I had left my bicycle.”!

Something there, about following the letter of the law, but not the Spirit of the law….perhaps!

Well, now that I’ve got your attention…let’s listen to what our Gospel reading spoke to us this morning: We heard in Mark’s Gospel:

‘Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

“This people honours me with their lips,

   but their hearts are far from me;

in vain do they worship me,

   teaching human precepts as doctrines.”

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’

 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’ For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’

As we approach the beginning of the New Methodist Year, it might not be a bad thing to think about how we live and how sin affects our lives.

All around the Connexion, some Methodists will be renewing their covenants with God as they hold their covenant services, others will wait until January.

New Ministers – presbyter and deacons will be starting new appointments as we know, this evening our new Superintendent and Deacon will begin their ministries amongst us.

It’s a good time to reflect on the past year – on our successes and our failings…on those things which we feel we hadn’t given our all to, or perhaps gave too much of ourselves to.

That line from the covenant prayer – the opening sentence “I am no longer my own but yours” has wide reaching consequences for every part of our lives….”I am no longer my own, but yours”.

In everything, at all times, in all places – every day of my life. Your will be done, in all things.

That’s a tough prayer.

Well, I put out a plea yesterday on Facebook asking friends to define sin in their own terms…and here are the top ten that they came up with:

  1. An action which offends God, we know offends God, and we choose to do it?
  2. The discrepancy between possibility and reality, which may be very little but perceived as a gulf.
  3. Sin is our actions, beliefs and attitudes, which put up a wall between us and God. To us they look like an impenetrable fortress but to God they are less than a sand castle.
  4. Anything that separates us from God.
  5. The failure to love as God loves.
  6. Brokeness.
  7. Anything that we know will displeasure God.
  8. “Sin is treating other people like things.” (Pratchett)
  9. Acts that create negative karma.
  10. The human tendency to f*ck things up.

Now, I’m not sure which of those work best for you…there’s probably too many to remember, or you might even have your own definitions of sin.

But there’s one definition of sin, I want us to do away with once and for all this morning.

It is the idea that Sin separates us from God.

It’s nonsense! And you may call me a heretic but that is fine, I can live with that for a while.

The idea, that sin can create this stupid, imaginary wall between us and God is very troubling to me. It is a construct of

Didn’t St Paul say in his letter to the Romans: ‘If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?  Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us….Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

As it happens, I happen to think that St Paul is a pretty good authority on God’s word.

If God, is a being from which we can be separated, then that being is not God.

If God, is a being that can love me one moment, and do away with me the next, then that being is not God.

You see, St Paul understood…..that actually if this is a God that was willing to jump into the messiness of human life, in Christ Jesus….to be born as one of us, to live like one of us, to die like one of us and to rise again…there would be no limits to the bounds of God’s love.

It is a scandal to the sacrifice of the cross to say that sin separates us from God.

Actually, a better definition of Sin might be: “That which pushes back on God’s love and will for us”.

Sin is those things about which we make conscious choices to carry out.

Sin is that which we do which makes us think we are a little like God….deciding our own destinies and working towards them as though the whole universe worked under our dominion and not God’s.

But you see the reality is, that even if sin causes us to push back on God’s love and will for us, it doesn’t mean that the love and care of God has ceased to be there for us….it doesn’t mean that there is some huge void between us and God….we run from God, and hide from God, be angry at God and even doubt God, but God is still there….as our maker and our sustainer.

Sin is all those things that trouble our conscience and keep us awake at night.

In the Gospels, what we see is this radical Jesus, who goes around encountering people in the mess and chaos and sinfulness in which they find themselves.

And he doesn’t turn his nose up!

He doesn’t guilt trip!

He doesn’t separate himself from them….he walks alongside them, heals them, forgives them, he sets them free.

You know, recently some of the Jamaican sprinters have been running in tournaments in preparation for the next Olympics and I often imagine Jesus in the place of Usain Bolt…at the start line…eye on the prize with all those 8 rows hurdles infront of him.

All the things that separate people from each other.

All the things that we’ve done through our history to erect barriers and separate people.

And Jesus doesn’t even attempt to jump the hurdles, he runs right through them!

Knocking them down one by one….race, gender, age, disability, sexuality, social class….all of them. Because the greatest sin is those things which we human beings put in place to separate us from each other.

So that’s our Jesus – knocking down the barriers that we put up to keep people in their place – and they are as nothing when Jesus rushes through them, because in his eyes they count for nothing!

The Gospel is FULL of encounters where Jesus proves that that is so.

But you see, the thing about Jesus is he does exactly what he says.

Everytime!

You can’t put a razor blade between what he says!

And what he does!

He’s as good as his word – Jesus is God’s word made flesh!

And we live in an age where the gap between what people say and what they do gets bigger and bigger….and our politicians and world leaders are sadly a daily reminder of that.

Remember the encounter of Jesus and the Pharisees and the scribes which we heard earlier in the Gospel:

“So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

“This people honours me with their lips,

but their hearts are far from me;

in vain do they worship me,

teaching human precepts as doctrines.”

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’”

Let us be a people whose words match our actions.

Let us be a people whose love is as radical as Christs.

Let us be a people who worship God not just with our lips, but with our heart, mind, soul and strength.

Sin, is not that which separates us from God, for nothing in all creation can do that.

Sin is our own, willful rejection of all that God has offered for us, and if we truly knew what God was offering then we not consciously turn it down.

I’m going to close with the words of a famous Methodist preacher – Leslie Weatherhead, who was onetime a President of the Conference and Minister at City temple in London….he wrote many books and I’m going to read from his book ‘The Christian Agnostic’ published in 1965, so I apologise for some of the dated language, if I was writing like him today, I’d use very different words…but the heart of his message still rings true….!

It’s from his chapter on “Evil and Sin”

 

“All we can do is to rejoice in man’s slow victories over some of the things that have destroyed him. We can rejoice that man is not left to himself to grapple with sin but has a Saviour and Deliverer who will see him through, and who is committed to him as a faithful Husband to an erring Wife. We can try to clear our minds from the fogs of our earlier thinking which still linger and distort our vision….live one day at a time, follow all the light we can get, and realize that hope, and faith, and love, will never be repudiated and confounded.

 

Let us humbly admit that there are many questions we cannot answer, but let us hold tightly to the certainty that he who humbly walks with God, though he suffers and sins and fails and doubts, will win at last and find his way home, with hopes fulfilled which he never dared to formulate, and dreams realized that seemed too good to be true.”

Friends, whatever the state of our lives – the message of the triumph of the cross is still true. That isn’t to say that we become complacent with the state of our lives…but we must always remember that
Our God is a God who in Christ Jesus, met people again and again and again where they were….in their mess, in their darkness, in their confusion, despair and sin. We have this Jesus who journeys alongside us, whatever else, so let us journey then, together – in the hope of the Gospel, in the knowledge of the love of God, until that time when we gather around God’s throne and come to find that Christ is our all in all. Our hope, our truth and our eternal salvation. Amen.

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