Jesus Saves Us from Sin
Sermon by Andy Wurm, Epiphany 5, February 10th 2019
A friend of mine used to have a fridge-magnet which depicted a school-teacher nun looking down on a little child telling him he was personally responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. That is both terrible, funny and true.
It’s terrible because telling a small child that will probably result in them feeling guilty for bringing about Jesus’ death. I guess in years gone past, that was part of the reason for telling children and adults that. Guilt drove people to church, so it was an effective way of filling pews: nurture a sense of guilt over sin, and give it an extra boost by telling people they would go to hell if they didn’t confess their sins and keep believing in Jesus. There is truth in the statement that even a child is responsible for Jesus’ death, but unless the child can fully grasp what that means, and especially, that it is actually a life-giving truth, then it remains nothing more than a spiritual burden, oppressing the child and keeping them at a distance from God. That is true for adults as well. What we have here is a situation which Jesus described as making people ‘twice as fit for hell’ than they were before. In other words, pushing people away from God, who, remember, is always offering us life, not condemnation.
The funny side of the fridge magnet is how wrong the church is when its teachings become burdens for people, rather than paths to liberation, healing and growth. People lament the demise of the church, but considering some of the things we’ve encouraged people to believe, it’s amazing the church is still going. We can either laugh or cry about that.
Now we come to the truth of the fridge-magnet. Yes, the child is responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, but only in the way each of us is too. In what way is that so? This morning we heard St Paul referring to the good news he proclaimed, which is that Christ died for our sins. One of the most common ways that’s understood goes like this: we are naughty, in that we’re constantly sinning. We break God’s laws, hurt other people, ruin the earth and so on. For this we should be punished. After all, God is just and so must punish the wicked. That means we all deserve to die, except maybe Mother Teresa who was very nice to the poor and Dr Doolittle, who was nice to animals. But God is loving, so in God’s great love for us, instead of punishing us, God sent his Son to earth to take our punishment. God sent Jesus to die on the cross in our place. Hence, Jesus died for our sins.
If you read the Bible, having already accepted that’s what it’s going to tell you, then you will find lots there to support that view. And there’s certainly a logic to it. It makes sense that we should have to pay for our sins in some way.
So this belief forms us into people who are grateful for what God has done for us. We are grateful for God’s love towards us, and therefore also grateful for God’s ongoing forgiveness of our sins. After all, we’re reminded each Sunday that God continues to forgive our sins, if we confess and repent of our ways.
I said before that it makes sense that we should have to pay for our sins in some way. But does it? Why does it make sense? It makes sense because we have been taught that. We have been raised to believe it, as has every other human being on earth, in every culture.
So what if this is just a human thing? What if this is just something we believe, because we’ve been taught to and everyone accepts it as true? What if it is so integral to our formation as human beings and
the way our societies are run, that we automatically assume it applies to God as well?
If this is just a human thing, then it means we are wrong to think that way about God. Let’s just leave God out of this sin and punishment thing for a moment. If we look at the gospels we find that there are plenty of stories about people wanting to punish others for sin. ‘The woman caught in adultery’ is a classic example. The fact that we give the story that name shows us that we tend to be more interested in blaming wrong-doers, than in noticing how much we enjoy blaming wrong-doers. Last week in church, we heard a story in which nice, respectable religious people wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff. And what happened at the end of his life? It was human beings who killed Jesus. Why? Because he sinned. They punished him for his sin, which involved challenging their oppressive power. There were all sorts of ways of dressing that up, such as from a legal perspective, Jesus broke the Sabbath laws, from a Roman perspective, Jesus broke the peace, from a social perspective, Jesus went against the customs of his society and so on. In other words, from various perspectives, Jesus was a sinner.
The important thing is to see the mechanism of violence at work here. Jesus died for sin, but what is sin? Socially, sin is what is destructive to society. For the ancient Jews, that included things such as murder, and stealing your neighbour’s ass, but also eating shellfish and mixing different fibres in clothing. That may seem ridiculous to us, but we have our own version 0f major and minor sins. The major ones are obvious, but the smaller ones are just as important. For example, bumping into someone in the street and not apologizing may not be considered a sin, but most people would consider it bad behavior and a negative mark against a person’s character. Trashy magazines make jokes about people, especially women, committing ‘crimes against fashion’ – such as combining items of clothing that don’t go together or are out of date, according to the ‘fashion experts’. Technically they’re talking about fashion sin. Something similar can be found in every aspect of life. Every group of people, every human collective, holds expectations about what is ‘right’, what people should do, what they should think, what they should value. To go against that is to sin. Even bikie gangs have a strong sense of who is righteous and who is a sinner, except that it’s more likely to be the more naughty you are, the greater your righteousness in the eyes of the gang. But they still have that same system of defining what’s acceptable and what’s not, and therefore who’s in and who’s out. That same mechanism was at work in bringing about the crucifixion of Jesus: those who sin must be punished.
Because we’re always in danger of breaking rules (whichever rules apply in the circles we move in), we’re always under threat of punishment, so the best counter to that is to point the finger at other rule-breakers. The more we do that, the less chance we have of being punished for our wrong-doing and the better we feel about ourselves because we are not like those rule-breakers. This means we’re always clambering to not be identified as rule-breakers, and so we love to scape-goat others. In other words, drawing attention to their sin. That’s why it feels so good to criticize Donald Trump, or the young generation, or the previous one, or the government, or the church, or people of a particular race, or racists. Did you read of the condemnation actor Liam Neeson received after confessing some past racism? The more we condemn him for saying that, the better we feel about our own racism.
The world punishes people for sin, hence it was human beings who punished Jesus for sin. Not for real sin though, but for what his people decided was sin. The real sin is our driving others out and punishing them. God didn’t punish Jesus for our sin. Jesus died to show us that and free us from it.