‘Do you repent of your sins?’
Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near!” – an eight word summary of his preaching! It seems the idea of repentance was at the heart of Jesus’ message. When we are baptised – when we first become Christians – one of the questions that is asked of us – or was asked of our parents and godparents – is ‘Do you repent of your sins?’ But what does it mean to repent? Also what is sin? We ask people at baptisms, ‘Do you repent of your sins?’ but most people struggle to understand what those words mean; so I’ll try to take them one by one.
First, what does repent mean? Literally it means, ‘turn around’ – particularly ‘turn your mind around’ – ‘change your mind’ – change the direction you are facing in life. The promises we make at baptism are all about turning from darkness to light. We turn away from sin and renounce evil (the promise we’re looking at next week) and turn to Christ. It’s about the direction you’re facing in life. Let me be an illustration … stand in the middle of the church and spin around and stop, facing any old direction Imagine to start with that in my life I’m facing any old direction I please, then imagine the cross on the altar is Jesus… how am I going to get closer to him? What’s the first thing I have to do? Of course the first thing I need to do is turn around to face the cross – then I can start putting one foot in front of the other to get closer to Christ. If I don’t turn first I’m not going to get there. The first thing we are asked to do as Christians is turn around. Turn away from sin, and turn to Christ. There will always be times, I guess, when we lose focus and find ourselves facing, and therefore moving, the wrong way again (do so!), which illustrates that repentance is not just a one off thing, but a lifelong journey. To repent is to turn around, away from sin and towards Christ.
But what is the sin we promise to turn away from and keep turning away from? Someone once said to me they thought sin was a wicked concept because it amounted to blaming people for all that had gone wrong in their lives. She was working with the homeless and addicts and people who had really gone off the rails, and she felt that for most of them that was because of the hand they had been dealt in life – terrible parenting, lack of love, grinding poverty, abuse and so forth and calling them ‘sinners’ was judging them for something they couldn’t help. I’d agree up to a point. Jesus warned us about judging, and we can never tell how we would have ended up, what mistakes we would have made, had we been dealt the same hand in life as people we are inclined to condemn as sinners.
The term ‘sinner’ was a term the Pharisees liked to use about those who didn’t live up to their standards and Jesus always seemed to welcome those who the so-called ‘righteous’ were inclined to judge and write off; but Jesus himself did use the term as well. He said, ‘I haven’t come to call the righteous (or those who think they are righteous) but I have come to call sinners to repentance.’ You might remember Jesus saying to the woman caught in adultery, after saving her from the mob who wanted to stone her, that he didn’t judge her, but he also said, ‘Go and sin no more.’
Actually I think sin as an idea gives us back our human dignity. Saying they can’t help it because of their upbringing or whatever actually writes them off – as if they had no choice – as if they were just ‘things’ or objects that have no choice but to pass on the badness passed on to them. To say they are ‘sinners’ actually says they are not objects that can’t help their behaviour, but human beings who have gone wrong, and they could go right again – they do have a choice – they could be so much more, and that is the tragedy of sin. When clergy are ordained, one of the things we are called to do is to try to save the lives that sin would sweep away, and it does sweep lives away.
But I do think we tend to misunderstand the concept of sin these days. If you say the word ‘sin’ in our wider society it’s usually thought to mean the pleasurable consumption of something that might be thought to be just a bit bad for you. Rachel’s mum was on a diet a few years back, that basically meant eating a lot of fairly dull stuff, but you were allowed a certain number of ‘sins’ a day – I think you were allowed 10, and she had a book that told you how many ‘sins’ were in various foodstuffs. I remember a pint of real ale weighed in at 9 sins (or was that just a half?). Basically I was a big sinner according to this diet!
Sin is usually thought to have something to do with chocolate – or of course something to do with sex. Anything pleasurable basically that might be spiced with a certain zing of naughtiness! Sin for most, then, is basically committing an offence against healthy nutrition or against some boring old idea of good taste that is considered too silly to worry about. It means indulgence or naughtiness. If you were really concerned about something you would talk of eating disorders or addictions, but you wouldn’t tend to talk of sin. Anyone talking of sin in the old biblical sense tends to be completely misunderstood, for what does more damage to human happiness – a box of Belgian chocolates or some killjoy religious fanatic denouncing them?! If I talk of sin most people out there would just write me off as bizarrely opposed to pleasure.
But when the Bible talks of sin it has very little to do with anything you might think of as yummy transgression. It is talking about the deep-rooted human tendency to muck up! The human tendency to muck things up. Not just by accident or clumsiness, but our active tendency to break stuff – including moods, promises, relationships we care about, our own well-being and other people’s well-being. And we do this mostly through self-centredness, and sometimes even through active malice and destructiveness of the happiness of others.
When I talk about sin in a school assembly – which I can’t say I’ve done very often, but I have – I ask, ‘What is the heart of sin? What is the middle letter of the word ‘sin’? It is ‘I’. It is putting myself, my own needs or desires, my own comfort or security, my own views on how things should be done, ahead of those of everybody else. It is seeing the world with myself at the centre and everyone else in orbit around me, and getting infuriated and lashing out when they don’t seem to behave as if I’m the be all and end all. Martin Luther – that great theologian of the Reformation – described the state of the sinful human being as ‘homo incurvatus se’ – Latin for ‘man turned in on himself.’ – the human heart and soul like an in-growing toenail – a condition of pain and distress for us and everyone around us.
I think where we often misunderstand sin is when we think of God being somehow furious with us all because of our sins. I think there is such a thing as the wrath of God, or judgement for sin, but that is more along the lines of the fact that bad actions have bad consequences, or sometimes that God disciplines us a bit like a parent disciplines their children. When my boys misbehave it doesn’t mean I hate them – sometimes it means I’m angry with them, but that’s often my weakness and temper rather than a good response. More often it’s just that I’m saddened by that behaviour, and I think God is saddened by our self-centredness and lack of love. In an attempt to bring my children up well I generally try to make sure there are consequences to bad behaviour that will hopefully help them to learn. In this way there are consequences when we sin.
But we should never lose sight of the fact that God loves us – though sinners we all are. There isn’t some class of righteous people and another class of sinful people. The Bible says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” But Jesus has dealt with sin – dealt it a mortal blow, so that it need no longer control our lives. He has broken the hold of our self-centredness and enabled us to turn to God and live life as God always intended it to be. We are forgiven – everything we have ever done is forgiven, though to make it real we need to receive that forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is offered so freely that when understand it, we can be tempted to ask questions like, “Does it actually matter if I sin. God loves me anyway!” St Paul addressed that question directly in our first Bible reading. “Shall we go on sinning that grace – that is God’s free love and forgiveness – may increase?” Of course the answer is no.
Before we turn to Christ the Bible describes us as slaves to sin – slaves to our own self-centredness – slaves to our tendency to muck things up. We don’t have any choice but to obey that tendency. It’s as if we had a disease called sin – or terminally in-growing self. Sin is the disease; sins – the individual things we do wrong – are the symptoms. Our sins may be our attitudes to others, spite, grumbling, moaning, making others’ lives miserable, greed that makes us abandon our families in pursuit of wealth, lustful thoughts or actions that make us less than faithful to those we love and destroy our relationships, they may be addictive behaviours, which could include over-eating or drinking to excess, they may be angry thoughts or actions, hateful attitudes to those who are different from us – you could go on and on and on. Sin can be almost anything that lessens our lives, or the lives of others, that damages love. Jesus said the commandments of God are summed up in ‘Love God and love your neighbour as yourself.’ So anything that is less than loving towards God, towards others or less than loving towards yourself, could be defined as sin.
But the heart of sin is ‘I’ – that self-centredness. That is the disease, and if we have the disease we can hardly help displaying the symptoms, any more than you can help coughing when you have bronchitis. But what Jesus does in our lives is break the power of sin. Break its hold on us. That doesn’t mean we become perfect overnight and never sin again, but we find we have a choice. Jesus gives us back our dignity in that we are no longer slaves to our self-centredness, but we find we have the ability to live differently. He enables us, by his Holy Spirit, to turn away from sin and turn to him. But we have to want it. He won’t force us. It’s still up to us to repent – to turn our minds around and start walking in a different direction – towards Christ.
I’ll finish with an image to hold in your minds. I don’t know if you have seen the Godfather mafia films? In one of them – I think it’s the second one – the mafia Godfather is being a godfather at the baptism of a baby. The priest asks him, “Do you renounce evil?” and he says, “I renounce evil.” Then the action flashes to another part of the city where somebody is being murdered at his behest. Then he is asked, “Do you repent of your sins?” He says, “I repent of my sins.” And the action flashes to elsewhere and somebody else is being killed. The promises carry on and a purge of his enemies is occurring. It’s a powerful image of how his baptismal promises meant nothing to him. Now I don’t expect that any of you are likely to be instigating a massacre in the near future, but do those promises mean anything to you, or are they just words? Have you repented of your sins? Do you want to? If you’d like to talk further about it, do have a word with myself or another minister after.
Turn to Christ. The way to God is open and all are welcome to follow it. We just have to turn around and start putting one foot in front of the other. That’s how any journey begins.