There’s a very catchy children’s Song which goes : – S for sin a dreadful thing – you’ll not be surprised to hear that it’s not a part of our Cathedral Sunday School curriculum!
Sin is a dirty word. Many episcopal churches in the US simply leave out the confession in the Eucharist altogether so that their congregations don’t have to think about it. Nowadays we prefer to encourage people with original blessings rather than original guilt. We prefer to think positively about all the good things we can and do do, rather than think about the bad things we ought not and yet do do. We like to affirm people.
What’s more, I think people are really fed up with the hypocrisy of it all - The Church has abused, degraded and attempted to control and deny people throughout its history, and still does – if anyone needs to say the confession – it needs to start with the institution of the Church.
But all that means that sin is more real and worth preaching about not less. As I get older – sin seems to get worse. Not my personal sin actually – I just do the same old things - but Sin with a capital S – I hear about people doing terrible things to other people: murder, torture, mutilation – beheading teenagers – and you see I don’t feel compassionate or understanding about it all - I feel bewildered, powerless and very angry. How can people just walk into places and shoot people? How can people think they are serving God and blow themselves up and kill tens of innocent people. Where’s the original blessing in humanity in all that? Where’s the goodness of humanity? The older I get the more I think that left to our own devices humanity is selfish, violent, and sinful – intrinsically. You can call it what you like theologically – depending on whether you like Augustine, Luther or Calvin – but it’s very scary. You see, as I stand in this pulpit in sunny Montreal this morning I can no more imagine tying a bomb around myself and blowing myself up than I can imagine myself walking on the moon – but – and here’s the scary part - perhaps I would! Perhaps I could - Perhaps if I was born in Kandahar province or in Aleppo or I’d seen my entire family murdered I would do just that – perhaps I would see things differently – perhaps Sin really is crouching at the gates and none of us is ever completely safe. We’re just very very lucky – there but for the grace of God and all that.
And this is where today’s readings come in – because each reading, in its own way, challenges us with how to respond to sin. There are two sinners – King David and the anointing woman – and there are two stories about how to deal with it – Nathan and Jesus – I’ll get to St Paul’s take on it later.
King David has slept with Bathsheba whilst she is still Uriah’s wife. So – trying to cover his tracks and worried that Bathsheba might be pregnant - David arranges for Uriah to have some home leave from the army so that he can sleep with his wife as well – in that way no-one will suspect, and Bathsheba’s honour as well as King David’s will be protected.
Uriah refuses– how could he possibly leave his troops at the front line and go home to eat, drink and sleep with his wife – unthinkable for a noble general – so King David’s first plan failed, he arranges for Uriah to die in battle.
The prophet Nathan then tells the parable of the man and the lamb - and King David condemns himself – “the man who has done this deserves to die” and Nathan utters the terrifying words “You are the man” - the old testament equivalent of “Ecce Homo” “behold the man”.
And so, since King David has sinned he must now be punished – and the child which Bathsheba carries dies. This is a simple tale of sin – guilt – condemnation – punishment and restoration.
And this is exactly what we teach our children – if you do something wrong we will teach you to own up to it and then we will punish you in accordance with the crime and then we will forget it. When I was 11, I was caught carving something into my school desk – we had school desks back in the dark ages of Dickensian England – and when I was caught – I was forced to confess and then my punishment was to stay after school for an hour to sandpaper the top of my desk – to make the punishment fit the crime.
As we grow up the sins get bigger and worse, and so Society calls the offender to account, seeks confession or remorse, demands a fitting and appropriate punishment, protection for society and if possible restitution. It all makes a lot of sense .. It’s how society works.
And – in theological terms – it’s the repsonse we find in our first, Old Testament reading – it’s the response of Law.
And then there’s the New Testament and Jesus : A sinner comes to the party - over the years the church has turned her into a sexual sinner – but what if she’s a murderer? A child abuser? A child murderer? - If I were in England I would say what if she were Myra Hindley – a woman who took part in the most dreadful torture and murder of children back in the 1960’s. I for one would not let her anywhere near my feet.
She washes Jesus’s feet and anoints them and kisses them and dries them. Did Jesus feel any sense of violation of disgust even? Simon the Pharisee was outraged – I would be too. It is an extraordinary display of inappropriate behaviour.
There is confession, remorse and sorrow,– but there seems to be no punishment, no protection for society, no restitution - her faith has saved her – Jesus says : “go in peace” And I am stuck – because I don’t think this would work as a model for our Quebec legal system.
Which is when we come to St Paul.
One of St Paul’s great themes throughout his letters is whether we are justified by law or by faith. The Common Sense approach, the approach of the Judaism he grew up in, is that we justified by works of the law – if we do good things we will be thought by others to be a good person – righteous – and we will be rewarded - and if we do bad things we will be thought by others to be a bad person – unrighteous – and we will be punished. – it made a lot of sense then, and it still makes a lot of sense now – I think this is still what most people believe.
But St Paul sees that Jesus has made a very big problem for this logic - if justification comes through the law then Christ died for nothing – which is a pretty strong thing to say – Christ died for nothing. If being a good sort of person is because we do good things – and being a bad person is because we have done or do bad things – then what do we need Jesus for? We’re just good or bad people because of the things we do – we are defined - justified by our own works or lack of them – what’s the point of the crucifixion?
How can the crucifixion of Jesus turn the repentant child murderer into a good person? - you can see the problem!
Over the years the Church has struggled with that question: In spite of more protestant churches believing that there is only one right answer to this question – no one answer has ever been accepted as the last word, and you will find all their theories in our liturgies and in our hymns.
Jesus is a sacrifice and we are washed clean in the blood of the lamb.
Jesus is like the scapegoat of old and all our sins are placed on him and he carries them away for us.
Only Jesus is good enough to pay the price of sin – he has paid the ransom and we are now free
Jesus has taken our punishement onto himself – he has been punished in our place.
But – and here’s the little bit I want to throw into the heady mix this morning - all these so called Christian atonement theories are essentially still about law and not about grace – they change the way the law is done – of course - but it’s still the law – they still use the idea of God as judge, the idea of due sentence and punishment given – they just change how and where the punishment is delivered. They tell us how God’s legal attitude towards us changes – How our status with God has changed – how God will now consider us to be free men and women or righteous or good even though – of course - we are none of those things
But they are not grace - none of them tell us how we will actually change and become free and righteous and good – how we will become the good humanity we long to be and which we are not yet. We don’t just want people or God to think that we are good – we want to be good!
In the first reading King David has done something wrong and Nathan stands in judgement and accuses him and administers justice – this is Law.
In the Gospel reading there is an intimate relationship exchange between a sinner and Jesus – this is not a law court this is something totally different – the language of the Law doesn’t work any more: Jesus goes way beyond normal vulnerability in allowing her to hold him and touch him, she goes way beyond repentance and remorse in kissing his feet – this is a window into grace.
I think we see something of grace in our human attempts to heal past wounds through Truth and Reconciliation – they’re not law courts, there’s no sentence or judgement any more, instead there’s vulnerability, perhaps even inappropriate vulnerability, exposing wounds, shedding tears, drying tears, anointing and the words “go in peace” - it’s a glimpse of something else – and when it works the two parties go away changed – not just pardoned
The crucifixion of Jesus is a mystery and I don’t claim to understand it – but I do believe that somehow it is at the very heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. When the sinful woman knelt and kissed Jesus feet isn’t that also in some sense a lesser crucifixion for Jesus – wasn’t Jesus here giving his body intimitely without reserve into the hands of one sinner who could destroy him? When we fight our own self-preservation and dignity and comfort and become vulnerable not just in the hands of our psychotherapists but in the hands of notorious sinners do we not also experience something of a little death in the steps of our master? A fear of getting it wrong – being rejected – making things worse – destroying our career – perhaps even a fear of being physcally attacked or killed?
Jesus put his whole body into the hands of our sinful human race – I’m sure he was frightened, I think he sometimes wondered if he had got it wrong – he was certainly rejected and we killed him. But he knew that the endless cycle of crime and punishment, of law-breaking and restitution would not transform people’s hearts – would not save our fallen race – only relational vulnerability – only by putting his broken body and his shed blood into our hands Sunday by Sunday, day by day, would God transform us – only grace bountiful and free can change our dna. Only death, only death – through grace - leads to resurrection.