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Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at Sung Eucharist with the Imposition of Ashes: Wednesday 17 February 2010

17 February 2010 at 17:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Reading: John 8: 1-11

Jesus said, ‘Go on your way and … do not sin again.’

The Gospel reading we have just heard tells of an encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees over the question whether a woman caught in the act of adultery should be stoned to death. At issue between them lies the interpretation of the Law of Moses and the question who has the power to sit as judge over anyone else. The Pharisees have wanted to set a trap for Jesus. The woman is presented to us as clearly guilty of the charge. She was caught in the act of adultery. She has broken the Mosaic Law. Either Jesus must contradict the Law and allow her to go free thus offending the Jewish authorities and people, or he must condemn her to death, offending the Roman authorities who had denied the Jews the power of capital punishment. Jesus evades the double bind by allowing that someone should begin throwing the stones, but the person must himself be without sin. The oldest and wisest, who know themselves, catch on first and begin to drift away. Finally, Jesus asks the woman whether there is anyone who condemns her. Looking around, she sees no one. Jesus too refuses to condemn, but tells her to sin no more.

Jesus does not compromise. He criticises the Pharisees for seeking to destroy him and he instructs the woman to sin no more. In addition, he acts out his instruction from the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged’ [Matthew 7: 1], and himself lays claim to the power to condemn or forgive. He forgives. And he writes in the dust. This is the only time in the Gospels Jesus is seen to write. He writes with his finger, just as the tablets of stone with the Law of Moses had been written by the hand of God [Exodus 24: 12]. Thus he claims authority over the Law and its interpretation. As once more in Lent we are required to face up to our own sinfulness and to the judgement of God, this account is at once reassuring and alarming.

Sinfulness and the judgement of God: these are of course issues we would rather evade. Indeed you and I probably spend most of our lives and most of the year avoiding questions about our own sinfulness and the judgement of God. Both the woman caught in adultery and her would-be executioners seem to be conscious of their own sin: ‘they went away one by one, beginning with the elders’. Are we conscious of our own sin? Or are we really quite self-satisfied, feeling that we rub along quite well generally? Or do we perhaps make semi-conscious excuses for ourselves when we know we have behaved badly – I was feeling tired, run-down; I was particularly vulnerable that day; I had been under a lot of pressure? Perhaps we manage at least with half our minds to offload the blame on to someone else. Does that sound familiar? ‘But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’ Then the LORD God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I ate.’ [Genesis 3: 9-13]

When I was a teenager and preparing for confirmation I was given a book of prayers for regular use. It had daily prayers, prayers of praise and thanksgiving, devotions to use in preparation for the sacraments, suggested prayers for the Church and for the world, for families and friends, and for those in need or sorrow. It also contained a section on penitence, being sorry for sin. With it was a list of possible sins, a kind of check-list for daily self-examination. Of course, this check-list prompted all kinds of thoughts. Most of the sins I hadn’t committed nor had much opportunity to contemplate. Adultery was a distant prospect for a pious 13-year old in 1962. Nevertheless, the check-list was a fine means of producing scrupulousness; rather like a list of ailments on a health service website, it provoked certainty that you must be suffering from this and that. But in the end a check-list will produce little conviction of sin.

The New Testament word usually translated ‘sin’ has a slightly different meaning in classical Greek: to miss the mark; to fall short. We might think of an archer, pulling back the longbow and inserting an arrow. He aims at his target a hundred feet away and pulling back with his full strength and aiming high, he lets go the arrow. Rather than flying the full hundred feet, the arrow drops short no more than a cricket pitch length away and flops to the ground. It misses the mark, falls short. So do we, when we sin. We miss the mark; we fall short. And the mark we miss constantly, as the letter to the Ephesians makes clear, is nothing less than the full stature of Christ. Listen for a moment to this marvellous passage from Ephesians chapter four. ‘The gifts he gave were … for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to … the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children …. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.’ [Ephesians 4: 11 -15]

And Christ demands of us just as much as he demands of himself. ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ [Matthew 5: 48] And from elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. [Matthew 5: 27 – 28] And the ultimate perfection of the law is nothing less than the law of love. ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. [Matthew 5: 43 – 44] We see the same idea recorded in St John’s first Epistle, ‘God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.’ [I John 4: 9 – 11]

The mark is Christ. The test is love. We are to grow into maturity in Christ, reaching his stature. Nothing less can satisfy. And we must start afresh today, this Ash Wednesday. ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you must return’, we shall hear again in a few minutes. But in Christ and with Christ and through Christ is glory, if we can measure up to the stature of the fullness of Christ. That is our new task this Lent. Forget the check-lists; forget the excuses; nothing less than Christ will do. We are to be imitators of Christ.

The 15th century spiritual writer Thomas à Kempis begins his book On the Imitation of Christ like this: ‘The Lord said, “Whoever follows me does not walk in darkness.” These are the words of Christ. He warns us that, if we wish truly to be enlightened and freed from all blindness of heart, we must imitate his life and his habits. Therefore our most earnest endeavour must be: to concentrate on the life of Christ.’ That was Thomas à Kempis.

I say to you, and to myself: may our most earnest endeavour this Lent be to focus on the life of Christ and to imitate him: Christ in us the hope of glory.

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