Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity 2016
Start Date 11th Sep 2016 11:15am

The Reverend David Stanton, Canon Treasurer and Almoner

The Gospel reading for today (Luke 15. 1-10) speaks to us of the primacy of repentance, yet in stark contrast, Western society today views repentance with great suspicion, on occasions seeing it as a sign of weak character. In reality, as many of us know well, repentance requires great strength.

Like faith, repentance has great intellectual and emotional, ramifications, and in many ways we should really see repentance and faith as two sides of the same coin.
Indeed repentance and faith are inseparably linked in the Book of Common Prayer. All the Absolutions in the prayer books of 1549 and 1552 express God’s forgiveness as a response to true repentance and faith.

Genuine repentance, offered and accepted, is one of the most profound characteristics of faithful and civilized people. It restores damaged relationships, and is closely aligned with forgiveness. Yet the problem is that teaching about repentance has virtually vanished, not just from our post-Christian secular world, but also from the lives of many church people.

Nowdays the word ‘repentance’, which we often hear in church services, carries little clear meaning for many people. Rarely if ever do we hear sermons about repentance; rarely if ever do we talk to each other about repentance; like sex in the Victorian era and death in the twentieth century, it has become a great unmentionable.

From a moral perspective, repentance implies that evil returns to good, a theme that interestingly pops up again and again within many of Shakespeare’s characters, when he uses repentance to shape them from their inside, making them so realistic and vivid. For example, Macbeth has a strong consciousness of repentance and original sin after killing King Duncan; and in Hamlet, Claudius is tortured by the sin of murdering his brother.

But if we pause for a moment to reflect upon divine repentance, we see its real power lies in the unity of two wills: God’s and ours. It is God who stirs up our hearts and encourages us to turn away from the things that we’ve done wrong. God loves us so much that he doesn’t want there to be any separation between us and him. Sin undermines that relationship, but it is repentance that brings us back to God.

As we hear in today’s Gospel reading: ‘There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance’. So what do we mean by repentance? In a nutshell, it means to turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ. In other words, regardless of what you've done, if you confess it with a truly contrite heart, and are willing to receive penance, you can receive mercy.

What’s intriguing about today’s Gospel is that neither the lost sheep not the lost coin repented. Rather repentance is the journey we make in response to being sought out. It depends on God’s grace and our willing response.

For many people, Luke Chapter 15, the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and the prodigal son, are collectively one of the high points of the entire Gospel narratives. In many ways this is the heart of the third Gospel. All three of these parables are invitations for us to hear of God’s great joy when we finally come to our senses, repent, and live lives that are pleasing to God.

And yet God doesn’t demand that we’re all perfect. Its far better to be a good painter than a bad writer, better to be a good gardener than a bad doctor, and the repentant thief who died with Jesus on Calvary was far more perfect than the holy ones who had him nailed to the cross.

As Thomas Merton says so movingly within his book ‘No man is an Island’, what’s more holy than the priesthood and less holy than the state of a criminal? The dying thief had, perhaps, disobeyed the will of God in many things: but in the most important event of his life he listened and obeyed.

If we go back to the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry we see that he like us was constantly faced with temptations. What the devil offered him in the wilderness wasn’t just freedom from hunger and admiration, or the power to influence people and events. The temptation was to put them in God’s place, to live as if they were the purpose of human life. His reply was to say that God must come first and that we must ‘serve only him’.

What’s perhaps most intriguing is that the parables we heard this morning, give us an insight into the nature of sin, the most obvious point being that the sinner is lost.
But what does it mean for God not to ‘know’ someone? Indeed, given that God is ‘all-knowing’, how can God lose anything? After all, God presumably knows the location of everything in the universe.

Well clearly, God doesn’t lose something in the sense of not being able to find it in space, but God does ‘lose’ his personal relationship with the one who sins. This is not because of a change in God, but because the one who sins rejects the divine likeness, the likeness which is called sanctifying grace and which was signified in medieval art by the halo.

The Dominican Timothy Radcliffe uses the example of someone suffering from a brain disease who loses the ability to recognize loved ones. It’s the cause of intense suffering that, although their relatives and friends continue to care for them, the personal relationship is damaged because the victim of the disease can no longer respond or recognize anyone.

In a sense, the victims of the disease are at least temporarily ‘lost’ to those who love them and, in a similar kind of way, God also ‘loses’ us when we sin because we reject his divine likeness. Of course, unlike a disease, sin is the outcome of a choice.
However, as in the case of the disease, it’s the healthy one, in this case God, who suffers the wound of loss the most.

In the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the man who goes after his lost sheep is God the Son, who came into the world to rescue sinners and who holds the weight of our sin on his own shoulders. In the Parable of the Missing Coin, the woman, as is customary in Scripture, is the Church searching for lost sinners in all the messiness and deception of sin.

So we come to see that it is with extravagant joy that God welcomes repentant sinners. This means that we can only be redeemed through the grace of God. That redemption is based on God’s love for us, and revealed to us in his wonderful grace.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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