Sunday, 12 September 2010

Sin, hellfire and damnation?

Sermon at St Giles for Trinity 15 on Sunday 12 September 2010

Reading 1 Timothy 1.12-17 (EvE)

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Gospel Luke 15.1-10

The tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering round to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”


Sin. Hellfire and Damnation.

You can’t fail to notice both readings about Sin and sinners. Wrongdoing. Outcasts. The Lost.

Nowadays we don’t talk much about Sin in sermons. Deeply unfashionable, except in TV shows from USA. But isn’t that what church used to be all about? Making people feel guilty. Frightening them with ghastly paintings. Warning them to be good, or else?

Rather than sweep under carpet, is there some quite different message underlying all this talk of Sin? Can we strike a more positive note?

In first letter to Timothy after opening sentences, writer magnifies God’s grace. God, he says, extends forgiveness to himself – the worst of sinners. If this was Paul, he had indeed been a violent despiser of Jesus, and murderer of his followers. Yet despite all his wrongs, he was confident in his total forgiveness.

God’s mercy did not come in a general way. God did not just happen to forgive him all his terrible crimes. No, God’s mercy is bound up inextricably with the mission and person of Christ. That person showed gentleness, forbearance, self-giving – and so he was a model for our lives, as well as being the very means of salvation itself.

Why was the writer of this letter forgiven? Because he did not fully appreciate what he was doing? Like those who crucified Christ, who knew not what they did. Because of his metanoia – his complete about-face, turning from sin and towards God? Through the grace of God freely given and overflowing?

His was the worst sin anyone can be guilty of. Opposition to God. In his letter to Corinthians, Paul describes himself as the dregs, someone unfit to be an apostle. Yet after his metanoia, he became the greatest of the apostles, one through whose ministry the gospel spread throughout the Roman world.

Does that mean everyone can be forgiven? Or are some so bad that no redemption is possible. What is Adolf Hitler repented at the last minute in his bunker? Or Josef Stalin? Idi Amin, Pol Pot, or Ivan IV of Russia? What then? It’s not for us to say, but judging by this passage we can only state categorically that God’s love overflows with forgiveness and mercy.

According to Luke, sinners are the ‘lost.’ Lost sheep and lost coin – both are about sin and redemption. So was the Parable of the Banquet in previous chapter, where poor, blind, maimed and lame replace the so-called more worthy guest list.

Jesus is the companion of sinners. He talks, eats and hangs out with them. Does not forgive or show mercy from afar, but up close and personal. Passage starts with tax collectors and sinners surrounding Jesus, whilst Pharisees mutter.

You may be thinking, are we not all sinners? How come the 99 are safe and only one was lost? How come the 9 coins are OK and only one needed to be found? In Luke’s world, not all are sinners. Some need to be found because they are still in need of repentance. The rest – the righteous – have no need of repentance. They are already found.

Isn’t that a much better picture that the one which characterises us all as sinners all the time, with all the associated guilt?

The stories reveal God the Father going to any length to retrieve the lost sheep. To reach out to sinners in need of repentance. Leaving the 99 who are already safe. Going in search of the one that needs to be found. And the lost sheep needs to do nothing – it just has to allow itself to be found; to be picked up and carried home to safety.

The shepherd then rejoices. He spends more on a banquet for his friends and neighbours than the lost sheep was worth. His hospitality is overflowing. Grace abounds to the worst of sinners. God does not count the cost. God does not evaluate the need by human standards of measure.

God’s table provision is overwhelming, and in the Eucharist that is about for follow, we are on the receiving end of the self-giving love of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, the good shepherd who goes before the sheep, and would do anything to find the one that was lost, even to sacrifice himself that the lost one might be found. Amen

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