This is the text of a talk I gave in Durham Cathedral on Monday 25th March 2013. It is much longer than my normal posts. So maybe make yourself a drink before you settle down to it.
Reading: Matthew 16.13-23
For some while I have been intrigued by the contrast between the way we talk in church and the way we talk the rest of the time. This is obvious point to someone who is not often at a religious service and then for some reason appears at one. They expect the talk to be of God, and spirit and for Jesus to be mentioned and for there to be hymns and other sorts of music together with a certain amount of standing up and sitting down, maybe even a bit of a kneel from time to time. What they probably do not expect is for people to talk about ‘sin’ and ‘sins’ without batting an eyelid, as if the words were commonly used and universally understood.
As you know, neither is the case. Francis Spufford in his book Unapologetic puts it like this:
Everybody knows.. that ‘sin’ basically means ‘indulgence’ or enjoyable naughtiness’. If you were worried, you’d us a different word or phrase. You’d talk about ‘eating disorders’ or ‘addictions’; you’d go to another vocabulary cloud altogether. The result is that when you come across someone trying to use ‘sin’ in its old sense, you may know perfectly well in theory that they must mean something which isn’t principally chocolatey, and yet the modern mood music of the word is so inconsistent that it’s hard to hear anything except and invocation of a trivially naughty pleasure. (Spufford Unapologetic p26)
‘A trivially naughty pleasure’: that’s more or less what people hear when we use the word ‘sin’.
One particularly sensitive arena of liturgical language is the baptism service. Because baptism defines a person as a Christian it follows that the words of the service add up to a kind of collective definition of the Christian faith – an expanded creed. This means that it serves something of a technical purpose for the church as a whole – the baptism service tells us who we are. And yet the baptism service is that which is placed most clearly not in the heart of the church’s life or self-consciousness – but rather at the threshold, on the edge. Most fonts are located, both conveniently and symbolically, near the church door.
When I was an incumbent we worked hard to develop the ministry of baptism to be meaningful for both the families who came and the regular members of the congregation. Once a month the Sunday morning service was ‘baptism’ and we took time to reflect on it at PCC meetings. One of my churchwardens had some interesting observations. ‘They can understand what you are on about when you are talking to them’ he said, but when you start reading the service they are completely lost. For instance, where it talks about ‘dying to sin’ they all think it means, ‘longing to go outside for a cigarette’.
I think he was probably right. I now wish that I had kept the PCC conversation on that subject – ‘what do you think it means to ‘die to sin’?’ I expect it would have been quite an interesting discussion, uncomplicated by New Testament scholarship. If we had pursued the subject it is likely that someone would have talked about ‘original sin’ and someone else would have said they did not know what that meant and another should have said that it meant that unbaptized babies went to hell but that they did not believe any such thing and then someone would have said, ‘it’s twenty to nine’ and that would have been an end of it.
I say that not by way of criticism, but as a description about the way people approach such issues on planet parish. Most people have neither the time nor the energy or the capacity for a big philosophical discussion as part of, never mind anterior to, their participation in a life of faith and spirituality.
So as I see it we have a real problem of communication. To understand and participate in the Christian faith you have to be reasonably confident that you know what people mean when they use the word ‘sin’ or when you describe yourself as ‘a sinner’. And yet the words don’t seem to have any kind of serious meaning in ordinary language today.
I am curious about all this. The word and concept of ‘sin’ are inescapable in Christianity, and yet the word is so far out of fashion as to be positively embarrassing. When talking with a priest about a situation I suggested that this was just the sort of consequence of sin that we should expect. He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t think any other sentence from you would have surprised me more’.
‘No,’ I protested, ‘sin is serious stuff. We need to get more accustomed to speaking of it in everyday life, because unless we have an eye open for sin and are prepared to get some sort of understanding of what it is, and how it tends to work, and what its consequences are, and how it can be remedied, we are in a very gloomy place indeed. There is nothing sin likes more than to slip under the radar and go undetected.’
I still hold that view, but I am not at all surprised at the priest’s response to my introducing sin into our conversation. It has become hard for us to imagine that the word will do any useful work. We expect it to be a conversation stopper rather than to be a stepping stone to a better future. And this is what will not so. If you take one thing from this series of talks, pick up the idea that the Christian faith means that sin is never the end of the story. What we mean by sin, at one level, is ‘that which can and will be redeemed by the God of love, mercy, grace, truth and peace’. Holy Week and Easter are about what sin does to God and what God does to sin. It’s a real battle and yet sin does not get the better of God. We can argue about what the enigmatic words of Jesus from the cross in John’s gospel mean: the words translated, ‘It is finished’ or ‘It is accomplished’, but you can be sure it does not mean that sin got the upper hand. The cross and resurrection mean that sin does not win.
If you are going to take a second thing from these talks please make it this idea. While Jesus triumphed over sin, he did not destroy the reality of sin. Sin is alive and well and working on all sorts of projects in and around us: mostly, I suspect, undermining of Christ’s ministry and God’s mission, which are the only reasons for the church to exist.
And it is for this reason that it is worth thinking and talking about sin. Sin is the source of misery of every conceivable kind. In particular, it is an engine of loneliness and a dynamo of destruction. Sin erodes community and fellowship; it attacks love and friendship and creates fantasies of fulfilment and happiness which are the direct of opposite of wholesome and contented living.
And, just to underline the point, sin is going nowhere. Christ has triumphed over sin and the church will not be vanquished, but we are all in for a struggle in our lives of faith and we may as well recognise that despite what we often think feel and say, the true struggle is not caused by those very difficult and unreasonable people who have different views and values to mine. Of course intra-church conflict, like inter-church conflict and inter-faith conflict, is painful and animated by sin. But it is so rare in a conflict that one side is absolutely right and the other 100% wrong that it is a sensible working hypotheses to assume that there are always at least two sides to a conflict; that one person’s story, however convincing of their innocence and someone else’s guilt or stupidity or aggression or sheer bloody-mindedness, is never the whole truth.
The real struggle is not between good and reasonable us and bad and crazy them. The true struggle is between grace and sin: and they are at war within us as much as around us.
I am not going to refer to many books in these talks but here is one. Simply called ‘Sin’ it is a series of lectures about the meanings that the word ‘sin’ took in the early church. The author, Paula Friedriksen, argues that ‘ancient ideas of sin… are, like all human products, culturally constructed’. (Sin P150). She certainly manages to show a wide variety of understanding in her study of Jesus, Paul, various Gnostics and then Origen and Augustine. I found her contrast between Jesus and Paul especially illuminating. This is how she characterises them.
Jesus, she says, is interested in Jewish sin – breaking the 10 Commandments – and he teaches people how not to and what to do when they have – repent. The coming kingdom is the home of repentant sinners, not those who have always kept the commandments.
Paul’s concern, on the other hand, is with what she calls ‘Gentile sin’: idol worship which leads on to theft, adultery, murder and fornication. The problem is not that people fail to obey the law of Moses, but that they run after false gods and this messes them up. But he also believes in universal redemption because in the end sin will be utterly defeated and its traces eroded.
We could spend the week examining these thumbnail sketches and exploring the territory they open up. Let us rather take a brief look at what Fredriksen suggests about sin today. Recognising that the word is not much used reflects on people talk about their wrongdoing – whether criminal or otherwise culpable.
‘I am struck by the ways that ostensible acknowledgements of culpability minimize or even efface personal agency, thus responsibility.’ P147
For Friedriksen, sin has simply become ‘error’. She suggests that people do not say that they are culpable but that they have made a blunder. As she observes, responsible figures who have done wrong and been caught out often adopt the passive voice ‘mistakes were made’, they say. If they are bolder might say ‘I made a mistake’ but what rarely hear anyone way, ‘I did something wrong’.
Friedriksen concludes her volume with the words, ‘at the end of the day, however defined, “sin” suits its times’. P150 If you have an abstract theological head on that might sound offensively relativistic ad you will want to say, ‘no, sin is sin is sin. It is that which separates us from God.’ But think for a moment, what exactly is it separates the ‘real me’ from the ‘real God’? That is the practical, pastoral urgent question of sin. And the way I have set it up is not in terms of how to overcome sin or even avoid it. It is rather the significantly cooler question of how to live with it.
By this I don’t mean that we have to learn how to come to terms with our own badness and wrongdoing as if it were not reprehensible or that we were not responsible. Rather, we have to learn precisely how to live with sin, to understand that while deeply negative and destructive, it is here in us today and it will be in us tomorrow and on the day we die. We have to acknowledge that it will also be in and among others, and that the dynamics of sin are part and parcel of every group, institution, corporation, church and charity we will ever come across. ‘Can Companies Sin?’ asked Justin Welby when studying for ordination here in Durham. I suspect that he knew the answer was going to be ‘yes’ before he write one word of his dissertation.
I have chosen for the readings these three evenings, short episodes from Matthew’s gospel where you could say that Peter encounters himself. This evening’s was at Caesarea Philippi where Peter revealed his independence of mind and the courage of his insight in saying that despite what everyone else was saying that Jesus was the Messiah. It’s a great moment from Peter but it doesn’t take long for him to slip away from the glory of the moment into a very dark, dismal and lonely place. Peter takes Jesus to one side to rebuke him for prophesying suffering that was to come. As we know, this doesn’t go down very well with Jesus who immediately rounds on him: ‘Get behind me Satan… you are a stumbling block’.
It’s quite a fall from grace: from rock to block in five verses.
There is so much to learn from this about our own sin and sinning. Here is a suggestion to reflect on.
You are never so vulnerable to sin as when you have just done well and been praised for it.
We don’t know what was going on in Peter’s mind, but for some reason he has overestimated himself; he seems to have let Jesus affirmation of his solidity, his judgement, his insight, his rock-like-ness go to his head. ‘That’s cool. I got the Messiah question right against all the odds, what’s next for me… bring it on!’ We might call this the Solomon complex – thinking that we are wiser than we are, fancying ourselves as the Solomon of our day. It’s a dangerous place to find yourself – indeed you never find yourself there until you put your foot in it. And yet, and this is part of the point of my title ‘living with sin’m the Solomon complex it is an inevitable danger if, for whatever reason, your wisdom and insight is praised. Someone has to occupy leadership positions and it as well if the people who do so have some confidence in their own judgement. One positive consequence of keeping the language of sin alive in everyday life is that it might warn those new into public office that they are very likely to have their all-too-Peter-like moments.
The Christian world is in the extraordinary position of having a brand new Pope and a brand new Archbishop of Canterbury. Who knows what’s going on in the minds and hearts of these two men these days, but you can be sure they are not beyond sin. No one is. Can archbishops sin? You don’t need to write a dissertation to know the answer to that one. What matters is that archbishops and others know that the answer is not only affirmative but definite – they can sin and they will sin.
And so will you. And the chances are it will happen not when you are feeling malevolent, naughty or chocolatey but when you are feeling so confident that you decide that you know best.