Sermon for Second Sunday of Lent – High Mass Sunday 1 March 2015
‘Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?‘
That question from the baptismal ‘Commission’, our Lenten topic this evening, sounds a bit ‘mom and apple pie’: it is difficult to admit being against resisting evil. But it is a question worth asking and answering for each of us, because perseverance in resisting evil is not so much a quest, in the grand Wagnerian style, as a hard slog: its more in Alan Bennett’s ‘cream cracker under the settee’ territory. That’s what repenting and returning to the Lord is about.
There’s a good reason for this: evil is banal, not romantic, despite people thinking that the devil has all the best tunes. That thinking misses the real music of creation and the deep harmony of love. So it is a very good question for Lent, which is so much more about countering the banality of evil with small steps forward in goodness than it is about grand resolves: resolves which often we often fail to keep and which can be a subtle source of temptation in themselves. If we over-reach ourselves in our aspirations to be good, the failure, being inbuilt and inevitable, can sap our resolution and leave ‘our last state worse than our first’ (Mt 12.45).
So the most important part of the question is the bit about falling into sin, and repenting and returning to the Lord. But this begs a prior question, ‘what is sin?’. There are some comfortingly easy answers, in manuals that purport to help would-be penitents, but the collapse in the use of the confessional, especially among Roman Catholics (for whom it remains, technically compulsory), bears witness to a radical doubt even among devout Christians about sin and reconciliation. As Fr Gaskell once remarked to me, people no longer feel, or even think, themselves to be unreconciled. And if they do, they work it out in therapy, not the confessional.
This is an area where traditional Christian obsessions about sex have often got in the way of grace. I have rarely heard a confession that isn’t at least partly, if not wholly, about sex. Yet Jesus hardly talks about it, and you will struggle to construct a coherent Christian sexual ethic from the bible, despite what both protestants and Catholics have said for centuries. That is because the bible wasn’t written with this subject in view. When it does get sex in its sights, especially in the Old Testament, the context is usually faithfulness versus unfaithfulness; very often as a metaphor for the people’s relationship with God. So far, so helpful – faithfulness, rather than sex, is the proper context of what it means to be good, godly, holy.
I remember when preparing my first confession trying to get some help from the assistant priest (I find myself thinking about the assistant priests I’ve known rather too much these days). He said I should think about how I had fallen short of my own personal Christ. I didn’t understand what he meant, so I prepared a list from the options provided in the Centenary Prayerbook, which must have been tedious, if familiar, to the Rector. I think I now understand a little better what he was getting at, but the terminology didn’t help me. I wanted to know what I’d got wrong (sin), whereas he wanted me to look at a relationship and see how it could be right, and then to improve on my efforts so far.
It may be that the conscientious rebranding of confession as ‘reconciliation’, while theologically coherent, has muddied things a bit. It is absolutely right that we should think about this sacrament in terms of our relationship with God and and one another, hence ‘reconciliation’, indeed ‘truth and reconciliation’, is the aim. But talk of being ‘reconciled’ blurs very easily into modern ideas of the integrated personality; also into less sophisticated models of ‘self-help’ at the Norman Vincent Peale end of things. And the trouble with both of those is that the therapeutic model underlying them is essentially about the well-defended self as an end. The healthy psyche is conceived of as essentially secure and self-preserving, rather than focussed beyond itself, the outward focus which is crucial to a Christian understanding of our proper relationships, with God and our neighbour.
So sin is not about what damages the psyche per se. It is about what damages us as children of God, conceiving that as a dynamic relationship rather than a fixed state. It is about what damages both God, and the soul, the essential self, embodied (and we are not to forget the embodied bit). With this is mind I find ‘confession’ and ‘absolution’, or ‘forgiveness of sin’ a more effective terminology to communicate what Christ in the gospel, and therefore the Church, wants us to enact and receive.
But again, the issue is how do we identify sin? I have mentioned slightly disparagingly the sin-lists in the old Catholic manuals: they are often not the most useful implements for self-examination, any more than the sin-lists to which Paul defaults in his letters. So what else are we to use?
The key here, I think, is very similar to the key to reading scripture: look for the grand trajectory of grace rather than the minutiae of law, as both Our Lord and St Paul recommend. That’s how we can leaven the human flaws of scripture with the gospel, and that’s how we can leaven our lives with truth and love. It’s about establishing a gospel principle for reading and understanding the world, and acting within it.
Starting from the premise of the gospel as grace and invitation, we could see sin as whatever opposes those things: that which undermines ‘grace and invitation’. For it is very often about imbalances of power, or even coercion, behaviours and attitudes which serve acknowledged or unacknowledged grandiose ideas about one’s self. It will often be about the imposition of my unreflective self on another, solely to my advantage and to defend what I can get, without regard for the other’s needs or sensibilities. And of course you can expand that ‘other’ to include the church, society as a whole or even creation.
One last thing. The Jews mostly saw sin as something done, rather than something thought or intended. That helps me. Our Lord, in equating hatred with murder and requiring us to examine our darker desires, did not intend to make us neurotically over-scrupulous. He wanted us to avoid the sin of considering ourselves better than other people merely because we hadn’t acted on our bad impulse.
But the avoidance of sin, the resisting of evil, is often precisely the restraint of impulses for reasons of love, as shown by God in Christ. We might do well to recover that Jewish understanding, because it fits much better with the second aspiration of our question: ‘whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord’. That requires action, or restraint, as well as a change of heart.
Repentance has to be possible and achievable, or we’re stuck in that repeating pattern of unhelpfully grand resolutions followed by persistent and demoralising failure. Forgiveness rather than guilt is the goal of the gospel!