Posts Tagged ‘sin’

Holding Fast

April 7, 2018

Easter 2 – 2018

John 20:19-31

Marian Free

In the name of God who sets us free and holds us fast. Amen.

On at least three occasions when I have celebrated a Eucharist I have managed to omit the Confession. While that tells me that on those days I must have been I was distracted I am not particularly worried about the omission. Confession is a relatively late-comer to the Christian liturgical tradition. In the first centuries after Jesus those who had sinned made a public admission of their fault before the community. If they were seen to have committed a particularly heinous sin they were excommunicated – that is they were excluded (not from the community) but from communion. At that time, those whose were not baptised were dismissed before the Eucharist and those who had been excommunicated were dismissed at the same time. They were then publicly restored to the community at Easter at the same time as those who were baptised were admitted to it. This practice made the inclusion of Confession in the liturgy unnecessary.

While penitence, often in the form of sack-cloth and ashes, is a part of the Old Testament tradition and practice, we hear very little of it in the New Testament except in relation to Baptism. In the Middle Ages the practice of Confession became a private and secret thing. At that time There was a strong emphasis on sin and unworthiness and an increasing belief that our relationship with God was sufficiently tenuous that it had to be continually restored. In the late medieval times confession was made mandatory before communion.

The Anglican Reformers missed an opportunity to reconsider the place of confession. While many of the Protestant traditions abandoned the practice altogether, Cranmer retained a general confession as a part of all our services. Cranmer in fact added lengthy exhortations to be read the Sundays before Communion was to be offered – urging people to consider their lives and to repent of their sins so that they might be in a fit state to receive the sacrament.

I suspect that in part the emphasis on sin and the need for confession of same is based in part on a belief that Jesus gave the church the power to determine what was and was not able to be forgiven. There are two verses in our scriptures that have created this impression. The first is Jesus’ commission to Peter (which is also given to the disciples) in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus says: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The second occurs in today’s gospel: “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any they are retained.”

While those texts have been taken to understand that we, in the form of the church, can determine whether or not a person is forgiven, it seems to me that it takes a certain amount of arrogance to assume that Jesus gave to human beings – even human beings who believe in him, a privilege that the New Testament itself tells us belongs only to God (Mark 2:7) and which is an indication that Jesus is God. If we take it upon ourselves to decide who can, and cannot be forgiven we are, in essence, claiming that we, like Jesus are God.

So how are we to understand these two scriptures that have for centuries been understood to mean that we, mere human beings, have the wisdom to determine what can and cannot be forgiven?

In regard to the quote from Matthew the answer lies in the cultural context of Jesus’ words. When Jesus gives Peter the keys of the kingdom and later empowers the disciples to bind and loose he was not giving them the authority to determine who would or would not be excluded from heaven. In the first century context he is simply giving to them the authority to decide which laws (not which sins) were binding for all time, and which laws (not which sins) could be dispensed with because they had reached their use-by date. The only relation between Jesus’ commission and sin, was that the disciples were empowered to decide that breaking a particular law was not a sin!

In John’s gospel, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says: “Receive the Holy Spirit”. Most English translations continue: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.” However, the Greek reads quite differently. In the second clause the word ‘sin’ is absent. Translators have simply assumed that sin as the subject of the first clause can be read into the second. Sandra Schneiders points out that a better translation of the sentence would be: “Of whomever you forgive the sins, they (the sins) are forgiven them; whomever you hold fast (or embrace) they are held fast”. She points out that “in the context of John’s Gospel it is hardly conceivable that Jesus, sent to take away the sin of the world, commissioned his disciples to perpetuate sin by the refusal of forgiveness or that the retention of sins in some people could reflect the universal reconciliation effected by Jesus. ”

Jesus does not empower us to determine what is unforgivable or suggest that we represent the mind of God on earth. Jesus is commissioning us to hold one another fast through thick and thin, to embrace one another with the sort of compassionate, understanding love that Jesus extends to us through all our doubts, our wilfulness and our failure to understand. Thomas’ questioning mind was not a cause for Jesus’ rejection, but an opportunity, an excuse for Jesus to reach out in love and to hold him fast. Jesus breathes the Spirit and commissions us – not to judge and exclude but to love and embrace.

Being aware – looking inwards

December 15, 2012

Advent 3

Luke 3:7-18

Marian Free

In the name of God whose unconditional love challenges us to accept ourselves for who we are so that we may seek to be made whole. Amen.

 You will have gathered by now that I am a great fan of the writings of C.S. Lewis. Unfortunately, while his ideas are sometimes quite simple, his writing is complex and it is not always easy to re-frame his thoughts in a way that accurately captures what he is trying to say. Lewis was a late comer to Christianity and he used his great intellect to write not only books on theology, but also children’s books, as in the Narnia series, science fiction and imaginative theology. One of my favourites in the latter category is a light-hearted but deadly serious look at sin. The book is called The Screwtape Letters[1] and it takes the form of a number of letters written by a senior devil to a much younger devil who is just starting out. The ultimate goal of these devils is to weaken a believer’s connection to God while at the same time convincing them that their faith and their practice of that faith is just as strong as it ever was.

Among other things, one of the achievements of the book is to illustrate how difficult it can be for human beings to adequately identify sin. In particular it demonstrates how often and how easy it is for us to convince ourselves that what we are doing is selfless, humble and abstemious when in fact we are being selfish, proud and greedy. Screwtape (the senior devil) urges his nephew Wormwood to exploit these weaknesses – to encourage the believer to pursue those things that make him or her feel virtuous but which in fact increase the distance between themselves and God. He uses an example of a person who thinks that his or her modest diet is evidence of their economy and self-control when in reality their apparent virtue lapses easily into an obsession with food and into attention seeking behaviour. “No, no, I couldn’t eat all that, just bring me a dry biscuit.”

Screwtape also encourages Wormwood to make use of those supposed virtues which, if engaged in simply for the sake of being virtuous, tend to lead to bitterness and resentment – the exact opposite of their intention. For example, he suggests that Wormwood take advantage of what he calls the petty altruisms – the affected unselfishness which hides a person’s true needs and feelings and which creates, instead of satisfaction, feelings of resentment and a sense of being unappreciated.

In today’s gospel, those who come out to John the Baptist ask the direct question in response to his challenge that they repent. “What then shall we do?” they ask. His answer is very specific. True to the Lukan communitarian values John’s answer to the crowds is that they should share what they have with those who have nothing. Tax collectors and soldiers are singled out for even more specific advice which relates to their professions. That is well and good, but for twenty-first century listeners these suggestions are not entirely helpful and the very specific nature of the advice does not allow us to generalize it to our own situation. The advice only allows us to deal with a very narrow band of sinful actions and provides only a limited number of ideas as to how to behave well.

Jesus’ attacks on the Pharisees later in the gospel make it clear that simple, rule-bound behaviour is not sufficient for entry into the Kingdom of God. He is adamant that the state of a person’s heart is just as important – if not more so – than external behaviour. The behaviours and attitudes of the Pharisees as described by the Gospels demonstrate that it is relatively easy to deal with the surface sins, to paper over deeper issues such as insincerity and a need for recognition with an outward appearance of virtue, selflessness and goodness. An example of a conflict between external behaviour and internal insufficiency can be seen in the apparent selflessness of a parent or spouse which is in fact a way of feeding their own need to be needed. Instead of helping their partner or child, such a person may be fostering the other’s dependence on themselves and, as a result, making themselves feel useful and virtuous at the expense of the other. Their own low self-esteem and deeper need for affirmation is hidden beneath a veneer of self-sacrifice which in turn becomes a burden not a relief for the person whom they claim to be assisting. To quote C.S. Lewis: “She’s the sort of woman who lives for others – you can tell the others by their hunted expression.”

Again the Gospel description of the Pharisees is evidence that religion and its practice may be another way of hiding one’s inner faults and failings with a veneer of religiosity. Asceticism, fasting, and other spiritual practices may serve not to build holiness but to disguise a spiritual emptiness. Instead of modelling a deep and meaningful relationship with God, such people can seriously damage the vulnerable seekers who come to them for guidance.

Sometimes the obvious sin is not the real problem. The real sin is not what can be seen but an underlying condition which needs to be healed and addressed before the surface behaviour can properly go away. For example the outward sin of bullying may be driven by an inward urge to be recognized and valued by others. The outward sin of greed may cover up a feeling of emptiness and reveal a belief that possessions will fill the void. The outward sin of arrogance may compensate for a deep sense of unworthiness. A person who feels that they are of little value may go to a great deal of trouble to convince others and therefore themselves that they are of some importance. If only the outward expression of such sins is managed, then the inward issues may fester and grow and be expressed in some other equally damaging or unhealthy way.

All of this should go to show that sinning is a much more complex issue than simply breaking one of the Ten Commandments, or practicing any one of the seven deadly sins. The problem with simply following rules, is that it allows us to feel OK and doesn’t force us to examine our ulterior motives, to question whether or not our behaviour assists or damages others or to face our own inner demons, insecurities and needs.

During Advent we are challenged to be awake and alert, to prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus. In this time of reflection and preparation let us have the courage to be awake and alert to our inner selves, to have the nerve to examine not only our outward appearance but to look deep inside to see what drives us and our behaviour, to ask if our selflessness is really selfishness, if our abstemiousness covers up our greed and if our attempts to serve others lead to resentment rather than to satisfaction. To ask, in other words, what specific advice would John the Baptist offer us, were we to find ourselves in his presence.


[1] Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters.

(There are a number of internet sites which offer a free PDF version of the book.)


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